In the Israel-Palestine protests, we need peacemakers, not provocateurs

Peace is predicated on both sides putting themselves in the shoes of the other

US and Israeli rabbis and rabbinical students from the group 'Rabbis for Ceasefire' joined by peace activists, march toward the Erez crossing on the border with northern Gaza Strip symbolically carrying bags of rice and white flags, to call for a permanent ceasefire, on April 26. AFP
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There was uproar in Malaysia last week after an American academic, Bruce Gilley, told an audience at the University of Malaya that the country’s political leaders were advocating “a second Holocaust against the Jewish people”. Mr Gilley had been invited to deliver three lectures as a visiting professor in the university’s international studies department, but once his remarks became known he swiftly fled, announcing on X that he had departed from Malaysia, one step ahead of the mob apparently whipped up by the government there, adding: "This is not a safe country to travel to now.”

None of this was true. Malaysia has always been a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, but the charge Mr Gilley raised was just “absurd nonsense”, as another visiting professor put it to me a day after the news broke. There were plenty of angry people on social media, but no mobs. “We are not contemplating taking any form of action against him,” said the country’s Minister of Higher Education, Zambry Abdul Kadir. “Why did he run away and make another statement saying that the situation is not safe?” Even the US embassy confirmed that Malaysia was on the State Department’s lowest – that is, safest – travel advisory level.

No. Mr Gilley was a provocateur, just like Gideon Falter, the British anti-Semitism campaigner who tried to cause an incident at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in London nearly two weeks ago by refusing to let a police officer escort him safely past the march. As was the woman at one of the US campus protests who called the police, saying that as a Jewish person she needed rescuing, when footage showed a group of very polite young people telling her in a friendly manner that the exit was nearby and she was free to make her way to it. We’ve all seen incidents like this.

But I would also call provocateurs, or obstacles to peace, any American or European demonstrators chanting support for Hamas. In some cases this may be ignorance; young woke people cannot be aware of how grotesque it is for them in particular to express solidarity with a group not known for its enlightened stance on human rights. Nor is anyone calling for Israel to disappear helping the cause of the Palestinians – or of peace – one bit. (Naturally, I exempt those in favour of a “one-state solution”.)

I fully understand the anger of those protesting for Palestine over the wanton destruction and devastating death toll in Gaza; although let us not forget the anguish of the entire Israeli nation after October 7th either. But at this point, whether you measure this conflict in terms of months or of decades, going back to 1948, we don’t need purveyors of hate, we don’t need provocateurs – we need peacemakers.

This is not to disregard the efforts of all the negotiators from many states who have tried in good faith to bring about a permanent ceasefire. But we also need those who are focused laser-like on peace, first and foremost, and a peace that is predicated on both sides putting themselves in the shoes of the other. Two men who have done and continue to do so are Ami Dar and Ali Abu Awwad, whose remarkable TED talk “An Israeli and a Palestinian talk peace, dignity and safety” I would urge readers to watch.

Mr Dar – whom I have mentioned before – is an Israeli activist who, like the majority of his countrymen, has served in the Israeli military. Mr Abu Awwad is a Palestinian who founded Taghyeer, an organisation promoting non-violence, and who had previously been imprisoned twice by the Israeli authorities and suffered the death of his brother, a peaceful man shot in the head by an Israeli soldier.

Despite his history, Mr Abu Awwad is insistent that both sides must “see each other”. He is realistic about what that entails. “Listen,” he says in the talk, “we cannot hug each other for hummus and say ‘let’s pray for peace’.” He calls for three steps: firstly, an insistence on non-violence so both Palestinians and Israelis can have security and peace; secondly, a political agreement; and thirdly a reconciliation process.

Mr Dar argues that both sides have to handle their own extremists, and that “until enough people agree that the narrative of the other has some merit, we don’t get anywhere.” That doesn’t mean erasing all that has happened. “The past can be as important as you want,” he says. “But the future matters more.”

One of the main points for Mr Dar is that: “There are seven million Palestinians who live, as we say, between the river and sea. There are seven million Jews who live between the river and the sea. And it’s important to start by saying that all of them are staying.”

Mr Abu Awwad gently chides demonstrators on both sides: “If you are pro-those or pro-those, this is not going to help,” he says. “We need you to be pro-solution.” To third parties, he says, “if you cannot be part of the solution, don’t be part of the problem.”

Mr Dar has a proposal that he admits is “crazy-sounding”. Saying that “in many ways Europe ‘owes’ us both for all kinds of historical stuff”, he suggests the EU offer Israel and Palestine membership of the union if they make peace – because he thinks incentives are better than putting pressure on either side.

I’m not doing justice to the warmth and empathy both men show to each other, nor their abiding belief in non-violence as a way forward. A snapshot of the strength of this friendship between and an Israeli and a Palestinian comes at the end, when Mr Dar says: “There are people in Israel whose dream is to kick Ali out of his house and of where he is. And all I can say is, you’d have to go through me first – because the human piece here is more important than any kind of national slogan.”

Is their dream of a land in which all can live in harmony and security, whatever the number of states, possible? At least they offer hope – which is something the irresponsible provocateurs and unforgiving maximalists do not. We could instead be inspired by two dear friends, Ami and Ali, who have chosen to put peace and the future above all else.

Published: May 02, 2024, 4:00 AM