A university seminar involving Palestinian, Israeli, and American
students showed us that even passionate disagreement can be
surmounted with a universal language of democratic moderation and
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a misnomer. The real
political chasm actually runs down the middle of both societies,
dividing them into separate camps of conflict and peace.
The camp of conflict, for instance - both in its Israeli and
Palestinian versions - is driven by a visionary messianism, the
rejection of liberal values, a politics of violence, and the cult of
death. This common zealotry has imposed a zero-sum reality of "all
or nothing" on everyone else, including those majorities in both
countries who would prefer to live together in peace.
A common language of peace
The Israeli and Palestinian peace camps also share a common
language, one of mutual recognition, shared values, and national co-
existence. As direct talks between Palestinians and Israelis get
under way today in Washington, it's vital that these peace camps
speak to one another in that common tongue. And amid widespread
cynicism over America's role in brokering these talks, it's also
essential for all parties to understand why the United States can
act as a sincere agent for peaceful change.
This is hard to do over the drumbeats of hate and enmity.
But it is possible to create conditions that promote dialogue
across the bitter divide. We know, because we witnessed it during a
university seminar on democratic culture that we simultaneously
offered to Palestinian, Israeli, and American students.
The content of the seminar is the history of American democracy,
discussed, debated, and interpreted by students in their respective
classrooms during the past spring semester at Al Quds University,
Tel Aviv University, and Oberlin College, through a common textbook,
video-conferences, and a shared website. In July, all three classes
then gathered at Oberlin where they continued to explore, face-to-
face, the foundations of moderation, civility, and tolerance.
Americans once again proved to be essential brokers in our
efforts to speak to one another, hosting the summer workshop and
raising the funds that made the project possible. But American
mediation went much deeper this time. It was now based on nearly 250
years of their own national experience, which provided Israelis and
Palestinians alike with historical lessons on how to grapple with
seemingly unbridgeable differences, create institutions that
encourage the peaceful resolution of conflict, and develop public
values based on mutual acceptance and respect. These were not just
matters for philosophical reflection, students learned, but
practical methods for building a decent public life.
The history of American democracy is not, of course, an
unqualified success story. Nor did anyone pretend it was.
Students began the course by learning that while "all men are
created equal," white male property-owners were far more so. They
saw how bigotry and arrogance resulted in a bloody civil war between
1861 and 1865. They read about the arrest and conviction in 1918 of
trade unionists peacefully protesting the government's support for
one side in the Russian civil war. They studied the Supreme Court's
decision of 1944 justifying the mass internment of citizens of
Japanese descent. And they read the "Southern Manifesto" issued in
1956 by southern members of Congress who opposed attempts to end the
Jim Crow system of racial segregation.
Learning from mistakes
But what most impressed us about the accumulated effect of these
American failures was how such mistakes were recognized, and how the
nation resolved not to repeat them.
Truthfully, it was difficult to know if Israelis and Palestinians
would be able to study such subjects together, and what they would
take from the experience. …