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The grace to take offensive questions

At a Georgetown conference last week, I heard some interesting remarks from Aziz Abu Sarah, [1] 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.

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5 Comments To "The grace to take offensive questions"

#1 Comment By Scott Lahti On September 14, 2011 @ 8:14 pm

Hey, speaking of people named Sarah, the sons and daughters of Zion, and an inability to listen when engaging their Chosen issues of historic victimhood, cf., via The Atlantic, the episode below:

[2]

The young woman in unselfquestioning question reminded me of a Valentine’s cherub firing his arrow, in that in the annals of “Cupid stunts”, shall we say, they would appear to be wholly at one.

She also reminded me of a passage from Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, in which Albert Jay Nock recalled that “the fact that few literate persons can read is easily determinable by experiment. What first put me on track of it was a remark by one of my old professors. He said that there were people so incompetent, so given to reading with their eyes and their emotions instead of with their brains, that they would accuse the Psalmist of atheism because he had written, ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.'”

#2 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On September 14, 2011 @ 8:45 pm

I’d be more impressed by an Israeli Jew, coming from the group that has more guns and more privilege, actually trying to understand the Palestinians.

Yes, I know there are some, but my impression is they are few and far between, and becoming rarer.

#3 Comment By Dmitri Aleksandrovich On September 15, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

I think we should all see our enemies as human beings and try to understand them, but it’s all about timing. Understanding can be accomplished during a ceasefire but when your worried about the lives of your father, mother, brothers, sisters, wife, children, etc….then cross sectarian/cultural understanding has to take a back seat and protecting your blood becomes the most important thing. The Palestinians like the Irish Catholics of the 6 occupied counties have suffered greatly at the hands of their occupation forces and when those living under occupation find themselves under siege and their families under attack then I do not fault them for picking up a petrol bomb or a rifle to rid themselves of the occupation. Some would say Chechnya is occupied territory but I would disagree. It is historically Russian territory that was once occupied and converted to Islam by the Ottoman Turks. Russia gave back all of the territories that it occupied and even some that have been historically part of the Russian empire such as the Ukraine and Belarus.

#4 Comment By ossicle On September 15, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

Rod, this is a pretty sophisticated group. You don’t have to say “Shocking? Sure – to us.” when a non-Jewish Middle Easterner has incomplete/uncertain information about the Holocaust.

#5 Pingback By BrainStorms & ThoughtBolts #6: CoEXS 100th POST, Marriage, Chaz, Offensive Questions, Groupthink and Prophecy – Confessions Of An Ex-Gay Superstar On September 23, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

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