The Echoes of the Dual Narrative: the Search for Understanding the Arab/Israeli Conflict
On November 9th, Rabbi Michael Cohen came to Bolton 281 to speak to students about the history of the Arab/Israeli conflict. Using two documents that greatly influenced the current conflict—The Balfour Declaration and Resolution 242—he described the background of the Jews in Israel and the Arabs in Palestine. Cohen, a Professor at Bennington University and father of Shirah Hill-Cohen ’16, used his study of the history of the tension between the Jewish Zionists and the Palestinians to convey to his audience that the understanding of the past is imperative for the future.
The majority of the desks in Bolton 281 were filled as Cohen took a seat in front of the students and looked over his notes. He prefaced his lecture by encouraging questions and comments from the audience. He explained that in the past he had given talks on this topic that resulted in a wide range of reactions from his audience, and he seemed quite excited to respond to anything that Skidmore students had to say.
Taking his audience back to the time of Rome, Cohen told the story of a land conquered, a people exiled, the creation of Palestine, and the formation of the Zionist movement. The Romans exiled the Jews from Jerusalem around 130 CE and renamed the land Palestine. However, the Jewish Religion became a Nationalistic remembrance of their home, their holidays and prayers celebrating the land that they were forced out of. This Religious, nationalistic group persisted for 2,000 years. In the beginning of the 19th century, European nationalism as well as the anti-Jewish sentiments at the time resulted in the formation of the Jewish Zionist movement. The Jewish Zionists never forgot their homeland, and saw their return to Israel as a homecoming that they had never given up on.
Cohen continued by calling for a student to read The Balfour Declaration in his or her best British accent. The Balfour Declaration, named for Arthur James Balfour who composed it, was addressed to a wealthy Jewish man, Lord Rothschild, proclaimed that, “His Majesty’s Government…will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.” “This object” refers to the recreation of the Jewish state and returning the Jews to their land. Cohen recalled that his uncle, who was living in Europe at the time, told stories of the joy the Jews felt when this declaration was published; there was dancing in the streets and many felt that they were going home. However, this land was not empty, and—as Cohen enjoyed repeating—the British had the least claim to the land they promised since it wasn’t British soil, and they hadn’t even been there yet. The Palestinians are not mentioned by name in this declaration, but as the “non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Such a description depicts them as annoying trespassers instead of a people who had more rights to the land than the British did. Tensions were running high in Europe when this declaration was composed, so many promises were made to gain support in the Great War that Europe was in the midst of fighting. The Zionists saw this declaration as the beginning of their homecoming, while the Palestinians saw it as an imperialistic invasion.
Cohen then turned to Resolution 242, written fifty years after the declaration and a couple of months after the six-day war in June 1967. Resolution 242 demonstrates the United Nations attempt to end the conflict, but there are certain ambiguities within the text that create more problems than they resolve. The Resolution did not name the specific territories from which Israel is to remove their troops, and also created confusion in regard to which command should be followed first—the removal of troops or the creation of boundaries between these states. Therefore Resolution 242 did not help to resolve conflicts. Cohen noted that once again, the Palestinians are not referred to by name as a people with rights and claims, but as problematic refugees. This Resolution seemed to create more frustrations than it alleviated, and peace remained ever elusive.
All of this history, though fascinating, was not a news report on the current conflict. The more recent of the two documents, Resolution 242, was written in 1967, nearly fifty years ago. This poses the question, how can learning this past be beneficial for current audiences, or for those currently involved in the conflict? The only way that there can even be hope for peace, Cohen argued, is if both sides understand, and acknowledge, the narrative of the other. There may not be consensus, and at this point total agreement may be impossible, but both sides need to learn the motives of the other, accept their neighbors, and live with their differences.
However, Jews and Arabs alike see themselves as the weaker competitor in the battle against the world. Because of this conflict, peripheral countries have also stepped in, and both Palestine and Israel feel threatened. Cohen acknowledged that this fear and vulnerability leaves less room for magnanimity, or generosity, from either Israel or Palestine. But with his lecture, Rabbi Cohen enlightened a room full of students who may share this information beyond the walls of Bolton 281. Perhaps there is hope for peace if others listen to the echoes of Cohen’s lesson on the dual narrative.