Fes Forum 2014, Day Four: What Would Mandela Counsel Today to Achieve Peace in the Middle East?

By: Katherine Marshall

June 17, 2014

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Speakers: Katherine Marshall (moderator), Leila Chahid, Simone Bitton, Amira Hass, Nabil Ayouch

Challenger: Zair Kedadouche
Tuesday's intense discussions took us to the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Ambassador Leila Chahid set the tone: frank, demanding a tough and fresh look at where things stand, assigning responsibilities squarely, and conveying a sense of pessimism, at least as far as there is real scope for Palestinian action to resolve the conflict. Other speakers echoed this spirit, adding a note of urgency: time is running out, and the clock is ticking, both for Palestine and Israel. Some lonely optimistic voices saw more hope for a positive solution now than a decade ago, but the general sense was of a frozen, deteriorating situation; the main question was whether the negative momentum affected Israel or Palestine more deeply. The reason this conflict is so all-consuming is that it epitomizes the core issues that are the ideals and objectives the forum seeks to address: to explore the challenges of living together, of sharing land and resources, and of seeking social justice in a tangible, practical way. An especially large audience was eager to engage. It was a discussion that could have continued at least through the day.

The day began with reflections about whether and how Mandela was relevant for today's Middle East crisis. Could the miracle of a peaceful solution to a seemingly impossible stalemate be achieved with the inspiration of Mandela’s example? There was some tussling over the differing French and English framing of the question posed for the discussion. The French title suggested the need for a powerful leader like Mandela, to which the speakers took exception. There are plenty of strong leaders. It is the will of the people that counts, as well as following international norms. And the circumstances of Palestine today are very different from South Africa, even as the times are not the same. Comparisons are fine as a tool for learning but can lead us astray. The English title, centered on Mandela’s possible counsel, sparked a discussion about the nature of resistance (more than the reconciliation for which Mandela is so renowned). Mandela is magnificent and inspirational and there is much to be learned from his values and his personal leadership. But the answers to the Middle East conflict lie neither in seeking a new Mandela nor in specific efforts to mimic his actions. Nor should we allow a cult of personality to take over. Mandela himself warned against the dangers of putting too much weight on any individual, himself included.

But nonetheless Mandela's example did infuse the discussion. Mandela was, it was argued, willing to change his positions, to learn from experience, and that lesson is important today. He came to reject violence though he had begun with a conviction that violence alone could right injustice. He realized that he needed to work with all races and that building alliances was the only way to live together. These lessons are indeed relevant, but the main point being made was the need to be open and willing to learn.

International politics around the Israel-Palestine conflict tended to dominate the discussion and there were some sharp exchanges. Countries and international institutions need to fulfill their responsibilities, to live their values in their actions. Both Europe and the United States have the power and the responsibility to do far more. The BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) is both a path that could change Israeli positions, and a test of the international community’s moral fiber. Sanctions and international pressures played large roles in changing South Africa’s situation and prospects and similar actions might do so today. Israel, Leila Chahid argued and many echoed, lives as if international law did not exist. That must change.

The "A" word, apartheid, came up repeatedly. There are similarities and differences between South Africa and Palestine some blatant, some subtle. The discussion returned again and again to the history of events around the Oslo accords. Palestine’s generosity was emphasized: Palestine acknowledged well before Oslo that notwithstanding occupation and violence Israel’s situation is different from a pure colonial phenomenon. The Holocaust and persecution of Jews in Europe must be seen as part of the history: the world bears the guilt for what happened and that is acknowledged. But the dangers of separation, both physical and moral, are large and growing. There is the physical but also the moral wall. Simone Bitton described vividly her fears ten years ago as she saw the wall of separation go up; her fears are realized by the realities of the real separation it imposes. The greatest danger is the reinforcement of physical separation that becomes greater with time.

Amira Hass, who lives as an Israeli journalist in Palestine, attested to the insidious nature of the different, "separate" development that is ever more pronounced in Israel. Two groups live under the same government, with different rules, laws, and assumptions. The situation is untenable and it is clearly built on a racist philosophy. The only place where this separation is absent is in hospitals, where the barriers dissolve and a common humanity prevails. Israeli Jews have had to develop a philosophy to justify the situation, to justify the undoubted privileges that allow them to live the way they do. This philosophy is often unconscious but permeates relationships everywhere. In the Fes context, where religion and spirituality are so central, questions were naturally raised about religious dimensions of the situation. Is there a new spirituality that could change hearts and minds in Israel or Palestine? Could religious leaders do more? The panel firmly put those ideas aside: the conflict is political and not in any way religious, they insisted, and it is best to leave religion out of it. That said, the dangers of religious extremism are real. Leila Chahid observed that Islam has no Pope, so it is more difficult to address actions carried out in the name of Islam. Even so, more could be done to condemn what is clearly wrong.

Nabil Ayouch brought a practical current to the discussion. He shared the unease in evoking Mandela’s example because it smacks of symbolism. What the Middle East needs is not symbols: there are plenty of those. And symbols can reinforce an obsession with tracing belonging and identity to objects and place. Further, even peace is a fuzzy concept. Practical issues demand practical attention and solutions: the crisis of water, schools, health. But above all, he argued, drawing on his own experience filming people in the region, people must engage and be willing to listen to others with whom they disagree. It is vital to get away from unilateral thinking. To build Palestine it does not help to demonize Israel.

This focus on practical challenges came back especially through four vivid examples. The first is prisons. A society can be judged by the state of its prisons. Much extremism is nurtured in prisons, in the Middle East but also in Europe. The second, an elephant in the room, is the invisible separation walls of class; these walls are what is most important and powerful today and they divide peoples not only in the Middle East but also in Europe. Elites live far removed from realities. The third challenge is education. What is taught, what is in textbooks, shapes ideas in ways that have deep practical repercussions. And fourth, women need to be far more part of thinking about and action toward solutions.

Bringing tangible, practical matters into the debate offers some hope for the Israel-Palestine situation, suggesting a way out of the pessimist analogy of the ticking clock or time bomb. But highlighting practical issues was a reminder that the problems described for Israel and Palestine go well beyond those boundaries. Increasing, raw conflict in the region is deeply worrying and makes solutions ever more complex. Poverty, it was said, is an ideal breeding ground for extremism. Inequality, a theme running through forum debates, has strong political effects.

What can Morocco and Fes contribute? The "spirit of Fes" and the Baatha oak were evoked. One lesson or counsel is the vital importance of speaking hard truths and listening to others. Morocco could help move discussions forward diplomatically, it was suggested. Morocco can live by the example of its openness and hospitality, for example making it clear that Jews, including those who left Morocco for Israel, are welcome.

The current of pessimism echoed in the discussion with a haunting question: do Israelis think about their grandchildren? Where do they think the current situation is heading? But another deep worry emerged: the cacophony of anger, bile, and bitterness that one can see in the social media and in many discussions especially where Israel and Palestine are concerned. The dangers of these mindsets and increasingly entrenched beliefs are large. It is vital, and this comment came again and again, to separate anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism: they are not at all the same. But the reality is that they spill over and have effects. It is vital for everyone to get ahold of ourselves, each one from the position where they are. We must hang on to our common sense, to reason, sanity, humanity, and a sense of solidarity.

If there was a bottom line in this passionate discussion, it was a common call to trust in the popular will and to seek solutions by working with people. What Mandela represents, Faouzi Skali intervened to insist, is a collective intelligence. The point is not to seek salvation from an individual but to see and foster a progression of ideas and thought. That is what the "spirit of Fes" might offer.