The grace to take offensive questions
At a Georgetown conference last week, I heard some interesting remarks from Aziz Abu Sarah, a young Jerusalem-born Palestinian Muslim who works now for peace and reconciliation among Jews, Muslims, and Christians (but especially between Israelis and Palestinians). He spoke for a bit about the importance of allowing one’s opponents to ask questions that strike us as insensitive or offensive. Often interfaith meetings result in opposing parties doing delicate dances around each other to avoid offending. But this works against true understanding and reconciliation, because the most sensitive questions stay suppressed for the sake of diplomacy.
Abu Sarah used to be militantly anti-Israeli. His brother, he said, died after being tortured in Israeli detention — an event that radicalized him. From his website:
Necessity brought him into a Hebrew class for Jewish newcomers to Israel. “I was the only Palestinian in the class,” he recalls. “These were the first Jewish people I had ever met besides soldiers with guns at checkpoints. Suddenly I was being welcomed, developing friendships, and hearing stories from people I had called enemies all my life. When I saw they were ordinary human beings just like me I realized I had a choice. I could remain a victim, controlled by the person who killed my brother, or I could take a different, harder path and overcome my rage. It’s a decision I have to make again every day, do I want to keep transforming—or not?”
Abu Sarah told a story about his father attending an interfaith meeting, and asking the Israeli Jews present if the Holocaust had really happened. Shocking? Sure — to us. Abu Sarah said you have to understand that if you’re a Palestinian, you live in a cultural environment where Holocaust denial is a common thing, for various reasons. His father wasn’t trying to be provocative; he really wanted to know. The fact that he felt secure enough to ask that question of Jews was a good sign that the group might make real progress, instead of achieving the mere appearance of progress.
Abu Sarah said that he himself had to find out what had happened in the Holocaust. So he went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, to learn about the Jewish experience. And it changed his perspective. “For Palestinians to sympathize with the Israelis is very hard,” he said. “To take that step was one of the hardest.”
But he said he had to do it if he really wanted to achieve peace with the Israelis — this, because he had to understand Jewish history, and how Israelis saw their own story.
I was really impressed by his candor and his openness, and by the wisdom of his approach. This man, Aziz Abu Sarah, is not a goo-goo, kum-ba-yah peace activist. His brother died at the hands of the Israelis. He became a Fatah activist, and filled his heart with hate for the Israelis. He’s been there — but he walked away from it because he came to see his enemies as human beings. It’s not that he adopted the Israeli point of view, but that he opened himself up to it, because he decided that it was the only way to progress toward peaceable relations.
I left Georgetown on Friday thinking about what Abu Sarah had to say, and wondering how different things would be in our own culture if people would give their opponents the grace and the freedom to ask hard but genuine questions, however politically incorrect or risky, without tearing into them for being History’s Greatest Monsters. As an Israeli rabbi at the conference said, we are often so focused on being victims that we forget we can also be victimizers. Every one of us. Victimhood does not eradicate original sin.