Intercultural Dialogue and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Lessons of a Student Dialogue


By Ben Mollov


A critical question concerning international relations and conflict resolution relates to the issue. Is peace made by nations or people? Is peace simply a function of the effective balancing of interests between states and political entities or is there a critical human interaction which operates in parallel to, formal national or security interests?

The posing of such a question parallels an important theoretical debate within the discipline of international relations with possible consequences for different approaches in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be navigated toward greater accommodation or stability.

In his classic, Politics Among Nations, Morgenthau emphasizes the central element of national interest as both the key to formulating successful policies and the basis of responsible diplomacy as nations ideally seek to balance their respective interests particularly in non- critical or secondary areas [Morgenthau, 543]. Morgenthau however does not discuss the variable of the quality of individual interactions between leaders as elements which can contribute to, or retard the possibilities for conflict resolution. Thus according to Morgenthau peace is made by nations and the statesmen representing them, who pursue either wise or unwise polices.

Raymond Cohen however has emphasized the importance of the individual interaction between leaders, particularly as they are affected by cultural background and communication typologies; [i.e. high context, low context]. According to Cohen this dynamic is highly relevant when nations face each other in situations in which there is neither a complete conflict of interests nor similarity or identicality of interests. He argues that the quality of communication between leaders is critical to the diplomatic process, as it can allow for actual or potential areas of agreement to be identified or created, or obscured entirely if communication barriers are not handled effectively. [Cohen, 1990].

Within the framework of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Cohen has argued that the emergence of possible understandings between Israel and Egypt, long before the Sadat initiative, were inhibited by the intercultural communication factor and the inability of Israeli and Egyptian leaders to read each other better [Cohen, 1990].

Cohen’s pathbreaking work, implies that the intercultural factor very much affects the quality of interpersonal political and psychological interactions between elites. Such an assumption finds additional support in current literature. In a recent issue of Political Psychology, devoted to elucidating the interrelationship between culture and political psychology, one of the contributors Lucian Pye, made the point that “the concept of culture is ‘elusive but indispensible’ in the social sciences.”[Pye, 244]. Furthermore much significant work concerning the dynamics of threat perception, developed most notably by Jervis grew out of cross-cultural political analysis “rooted in distinctive cultural frames and historical experiences.” [Renshon and Duckitt, 224]. Other authors argue that “culture has consequences” for the political realm [Renshon and Duckitt, 229].

Further in support of the idea that human contacts are essential for peaceful relationships to develop, is the work of the eminent social scientist Karl Deutsch. In analyzing the process by which amalgamated and pluralistic security communities are created and maintained, he has cited the importance of intellectual support of peace building efforts, including links of social communication, and mobility of persons [Deutsch, pp. 52-4.]

Borrowing from social psychology, it is important to cite the work of Yehuda Amir. He has argued that improved intergroup contacts can develop from a number of important preconditions, including: “equal status contacts”; “intimate” as opposed to merely “casual” encounters; “cooperative” as opposed to “competitive” relationships; and “institutional” support for such efforts.


The Israeli-Palestinian Student Dialogue



With these remarks in mind I would like to turn to a description and evaluation of a student dialogue. It is admittedly a large conceptual and methodological jump to apply the theoretical framework just outlined, which was formulated in conjunction with elite politics to a student dialogue. However I believe, that certain dynamics observed involving both culture and interpersonal psychology on the micro level, can indeed reflect larger dynamics at work on the macro stage.

The dialogue to be described has involved Israeli and Jewish students affiliated with Bar-Ilan University and Palestinian students, mostly from the area between Jerusalem and Hebron. This three and a half year old effort, which began in November of 1994, can be considered unique in that it has primarily involved religiously committed members of both communities. These are the sectors that have lacked over time the most opportunities for constructive interactions with each other, and indeed are considered to be the greatest obstacles to a peaceful settlement.


Indicators of Success

In describing the dialogue I would like to start from the end and cite a number of the accomplishments of the dialogue. We have currently begun an effort to quantitatively document perception changes between participants (and non-participants) coming as a result of participation or non-participation in our dialogue. However there have been clearly a number of objective accomplishments achieved by the dialogue members which I would like to refer to.

    1. Durability over time: I was invited to a meeting with seven Palestinian students in November 1994, and subsequent to that first encounter invited members of my one-year program course at Bar-Ilan University to attend a meeting with the Palestinian students. Despite the vissicititudes of the peace process including suicide bombings and subsequent closures, contacts, meetings, and joint efforts have continued to this very day.
    2. Emergence of a core working group and partnership: Despite the barriers of hostility and suspicion between the two peoples, approximately 80 students on each side have participated in meetings at one time or another. Equally important is the fact that a core group has emerged to guide, organize and maintain the activities and contacts. Dr. Musa Barhoum, professor of educational psychology and educational technology at the Al-Quds Open University has been my colleague in these efforts for three years. I am exceedingly pleased that he is present today and acting as respondent to this presentation. Musa and I have co-authored an article entitled “Building Cultural/Religious Bridges between Israeli and Palestinian Students” which has appeared on two respected internet sites—MERIA and ARIGA.

Mr. Ayman Ismail, graduate of the University of Hebron in English literature has emerged over time as a key leader on the Palestinian student side whom I have been working closely with. A close colleague of his in the dialogue, has in the past few days been accepted to the Notre Dame University Masters’ Program in Peace Studies. His application which I supported, came as a direct outgrowth of our efforts at cooperation.

A number of students of mine from Bar-Ilan who have participated in these activities, continue to serve as my assistants, and students in my classes are extremely enthusiastic about such encounters. My project is currently under the auspices of the Program for Conflict Resolution under the direction of Professor Steinberg, and has enjoyed the support of the Department of Political Science and my colleagues in the Interdisciplinary Department of the Social Sciences.

c) Spin-off results; development of informal ties;

and mutual sensitization: Probably the most significant concrete spin-off result of our meetings and efforts has been the participation of a Palestinian student from the village of Beit Ommar, (midway between Gush Etzion and Hebron) in the International Program in Business Administration at Bar-Ilan University. Mr. Muhammed Awad’s applicationwas made possible by his acquaintance with Mr. Ismail, who was able to recommend him, when the School of Businees Administration sought a Palestinian candidate for its international program. Mr Awad has integrated well into the Bar-Ilan program, was interviewed on an Israeli Arabic TV program, and has served as another link in the chain of mutual understanding that we have been constructing.

Family ties and mutual visitations have occurred during the process between the principle organizers, and we have responded to each other during illness and joy and have expressed condemnation and condolences to each other in the wake of violent events on either side.


Factors Contributing to Success

The main factors contributing to the success of our meetings appear to lie both in the area of content and format of the meetings.

As mentioned earlier in this presentation, religion became a central focal point of the discussions. The decision to concentrate on this element occurred almost by accident. At the first meeting which my students attended with the Palestinian students, which was held at a Christian educational institute in Bethlehem, one of my woman students asked an Arab female student if the head covering she was wearing was for the same reason that observant Jewish married females cover their hair. She indicated that it was not, as the custom of Arab women is to cover their hair from the time of puberty.

This brief exchange however sparked other questions. One of the Palestinian students mentioned the fast of Ramadan which they were then observing. This motivated one of the Jewish students to ask if the strictures of Ramadan were similar or different from those of Yom Kippur.

At that first student to student meeting, digressions occurred into the areas of controversial political issues. In the course of one of these exchanges, the Jewish students were astounded to hear of the Arab interpretation of the symbolism of the Israeli flag— according to them, the two blue stripes flanking the Star of David were meant to represent the Rivers Nile and Euphrates. The Jewish students responded that the configuration of the two blue stripes is based on the color design of the Jewish prayer shawl. It was clear from that first encounter that the gulf of misunderstanding between the two sides was immense, however the beginings of mutual interest which both sides displayed into the others’ religion, offered the first glimmer of possibility that religious culture might provide a potential bridge of understanding.

Another meeting was arranged, also in Bethlehem. This time a larger complement of participants on both sides attended and it was agreed beforehand that one student from each side would present the content of either a Muslim or a Jewish prayer as an expression of that religion’s core values and faith. A Jewish student presented an explanation of the first paragraph of the “Shema Yisrael” or “Hear O Israel the Lord is Our God the Lord is One” prayer. His explanation led to animated discussion in which the process by which both Halacha (Jewish religious law) and Sharia (Moslem religious law) were briefly and explored and then compared. The participants found it satisfying to identify the great similarity in the structure of the two great religions.

In considering the presentation which one of the Moslem students offered of a prayer from Islam, Allah’s name as “Rachum” (merciful) was identified as identical to one of the Jewish name’s of God.

In general both presentations generated an awareness among both groups of students of the similarity of many Arabic and Hebraic religious terms.

The content of this same meeting was further enriched by the participation of an Israeli Jewish resident of the area, a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University in the emerging field of bio-ethics. Dr. Yerucham Levitt offered an introduction into the area of medical ethics and in response to a student question briefly presented an explanation of the Jewish position on abortion, which it was discovered was essentially the same in both Judaism and Islam.

With enthusiasm growing for this effort a third student meeting was arranged. This time it was agreed that the respective versions of creation in both Islam and Judaism would be discussed. At that meeting several of the Arab students gave a short presentation on the Koranic version of creation. This led to an interchange concerning the structure and narrative of the Koran in contrast to the Torah. It became apparent to the participants that while the Torah in the book of Genesis offers a clear chronological presentation of the creation sequence, the Koran is structured very differently, with the creation process described or derived implicitly, in the context of Koranic exhortations on various moral and religious themes.

One Jewish participant, so moved by the thoughtfulness and seriousness of the encounter offered a vision of an expanded dialogue in many Arab and Jewish homes, “first in the living rooms, then he the gardens, and finally on the side walks.” He declared that Jews and Arabs passing by should overhear discussions concerning Koran and Torah and see a new interaction being created.

Of course our discussions could not be divorced from pressing political realities. In addition to the formal part of the program, the principle organizers, being primarily Dr. Barhoum, Mr. Ismail and myself agreed that the coffee period following should be utilized by the participants to discuss any issue or question on the student’s minds, including the most urgent and controversial political questions at issue in the peace process or Middle East politics. We did not skirt the potency of pressing political questions, but believed that once commonalities between the two cultures were uncovered that a new atmosphere could develop in which the more divisive issues could be discussed in a different and more positive atmosphere.

In the course of time other religious issues were discussed such as the structure and practice of prayer in both religious cultures including the place of Jerusalem in the prayer experience of both peoples. Dietary laws Kashrut and Hallal were also intified as common elements between the religious culture.

Our discussions were further enhanced by the participation on several occasions of a faculty-student delegation from Japan and India, in the field of bioethics. Bioethics is an emerging field focusing on the array of moral, scientific and social ecological questions affecting the quality of human life at the end of the twentieth century.

This group has remained in contact with us, and on their visits exposed us to a wider perception of religious approaches from east Asia, connected to human survival issues. Discussions sparked by our visitors on issues such as ecology and poverty helped us, the Arab and Jewish participants, see our own situation in a larger context.

On one occasion our meetings were also joined by a senior professor from the University of Notre Dame, who is a director of that University’s peace studies program. Indeed the association created at that meeting and the on-going ties with him facilitated the application and acceptance of one of the Palestinian student to the Master’s program in peace studies for the coming academic year, referred to earlier.

In the preceding remarks I have offered a capsule description of a portion of the content discussed by the participants to this Arab-Jewish student dialogue, with the intent of illustrating the potential of religious culture for serving as a basis for perception modification to occur between Israelis and Palestinians. Indeed the opportunity for Arabs and Jews to discover similarities in their respective heritages, as a basis for perception change, seems to parallel findings in the literature of conflict resolution. For theoretical literature in that field suggests that individuals will change their negative attitudes towards another group when they discover that others hold attitudes or beliefs similar to their own (Byrne, 1969; Newcomb, 1961; Rokeach, 1960).

This process as signified in our dialogue, as well as the more geneprocesses of identifying similarities between groups seems to confirm something of my own personal odyssey in these encounters. On several occasions I shared my own evolving impression of Arab culture and Islam which came as a result of the meetings, with my Arab partners and colleagues. Referring to my own background as a Jew from the United States, I related my impression, that most American Christians had a great deal of difficulty in understanding the structure of traditional Judaism with its complex framework of written and oral law, and ungoing legal interpretation. In contrast though, it was a source of satisfaction to see how Arab students and faculty immediately understood this multi-faceted framework as it is very similar to their own Muslim religion. As a result of this discovery, my impressions of Arabs in general began to change. And instead of perceiving Arabs as a faceless group of people locked in mortal conflict with the Jews, I began to perceive the Arabs as a group of people with great similarities to my own people.

The manner in which the meetings were planned and conducted also seemed to parallel important themes emphasized in the literature of conflict resolution. As noted, the late Prof. Yehuda Amir, professor of social psychology at Bar-Ilan University and Israel Prize laureate, emphasized the importance of equal status contacts as a precondition for successful contact between ethnic groups in conflict [Amir, 1969].

Our meetings were planned and run jointly and began with round-robin introduction in a formal circle. The focus on religion seemed to offer a framework in which equal status contacts could take place, given the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians around issues such as final status arrangements concerning issues such as territory and statehood. Thus Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs could meet as equals in the context of each representing their respective religious and cultural traditions.

Other aspects of the meeting format also followed important elements of Amir’s formula for effective intergroup contacts. Our informal coffee period, following the more formal circle discussion centering on a religious/cultural topic, offered the opportunity for participants to meet each other as equals, in an entirely different setting, when in the past Palestinians or Israelis might have perceived each other only as perpetrators of violence or threatening behavior.

These informal opportunities for interactions, often held in either Arab or Jewish homes, also created a sense of what Amir termed “intimate” as opposed to merely “casual” contact among different ethnic group members. Amir determined from his research and analysis that encounters which engendered this “intimate” contact had the greatest chance of influencing attitudes of each group towards the other.

However our dialogue has not yet benefitted from all the ingredients of success which Amir and others maintain are necessary for effective intergroup contacts. Two Irish researchers, writing in the Journal of Peace Research, reported recently on the effectiveness of Community Relations programs in Northern Ireland. Citing and expanding upon Amir’s research, they asserted that institutional support for these types of people to people efforts is a highly necessary factor for their success [Knox & Hughes, 1996].

One of the biggest impediments that we have experienced so far is the reluctance of the Palestinian Authority to fully endorse this activity, which is necessary for it to develop to its full potential.

On the other hand, a frequent difficulty that we have faced is the lengthy process frequently involved in securing permits from the Israeli authorities for the participation of the Palestinian students in the dialogue, which over the past two years have been held mainly in Jerusalem. We hope that this process will be streamline in the future.

We have benefited however from endorsement and some assistance from the Tel Aviv based, and EU sponsored International Center for Peace.

Core Questions

But returning to the core questions posed at the outset of this paper, is peace made by people or states? And can the religious/cultural dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians be expanded as a basis for more successful peace building?

Morgenthau actually expressed deep skepticism concerning the efficacy of what he termed the “UNESCO approach” to solving international disputes. He maintained that conflicts among nations do not occur because peoples are unaware of another’s culture, even a similar one, or are unaware of a different actor’s policy objectives [Morgenthau, 1967, pp.501-504].

However the case against believing that furthering cultural and religious understanding can contribute to conflict resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian case is perhaps not so closed and shut, even according to Morgenthau’s own understanding of the dynamics of international relations. Morgenthau asserted the importance of a creating a viable balance of power between states and encouraged the practice of responsible diplomacy as the best basis for promoting international stability.

In the course of the dialogue I think that it has become clear to the two sides of the depth of the commitment which both peoples have to being on this land which is based in large part by what they experience, know, and cherish from their religious heritages. Thus in a sense, an “ideological balance of power” emerged out of the clash and balancing of religious and culturally based convictions.

Faced with a situation in which both sides recognize that both sides are here, and neither expect to leave, rational and responsible human beings ought to seek the creation of a viable structure of peace and stability. While perhaps neither Islamic or Judaic justice can be realized in each one’s fullest and most abstract sense, if the other side was not present, we can however, based on our experience seek the creation of new relationships that would benefit each other to a greater extent than could be achieved if the other party was not present.

In this context it is relevant to recall Samuel Huntington’s analysis concerning the clash of civilizations in which he defines a civilization as a “cultural entity.” [Huntington, 23]. He concludes his well known thesis with the suggestion that the West will have “to develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations… [this process] will require an effort to identify elements of commonality between Western and other civilizations.” [Huntington, 49].

And again returning to some research on efforts at conflict resolution in Northern Ireland, Knox and Hughes, the two researchers referred to earlier, (the former being a political scientist, the latter a social anthropologist) reported on the favorable impact of intercultural activities and dialogue, connected to religion, upon Protestant and Catholic participants [Knox and Hughes, 1996, pp.93-94].

Finally, Robert C. Angell in his work Peace on the March, in tracing transnational trends of people to people contact, pointed to the generally favorable impact upon academics as a result of academic exchange programs, in fostering “accomodative attitudes among both hosts and guests” [Angell, 1969, p.56]. I believe that our student activity developed and maintained with much care, effort, and dedication on both sides, can in a sense qualify as a nascent Israeli-Palestinian academic exchange. Angell concludes his evaluation of these academic contacts and exchanges with the expectation that many of these academics, being in a position to eventually become or at least affect elites, will one day be able to guide policy towards greater international accomodation and understanding [Angell, 1969, p.57].

It is that expectation and hope that the participants, Arabs and Jews, have sought to further in their efforts which have been presented here.












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