“Deeply rooted in our Mennonite psyche is this idea that peacemaking is as simple as sitting across the table from someone and hearing their story,” says Joanna Hiebert Bergen, chair of the Mennonite Church Manitoba Palestine-Israel Network. But Hiebert Bergen, along with a significant number of Palestinian academics and other former civil society workers in the region, say dialogue can further entrench systems of oppression through a phenomenon often called normalization.
Hiebert Bergen observed this while living in Palestine and Israel from 2012 to 2015, where she and her husband Dan led Mennonite Central Committee’s work in the region. She recalls how the Oslo Accords of 1993 brought a new sense of hope for Palestinian communities. There was a general feeling that things could change for the better if it was possible to connect across dividing lines, she says.
Many people around the world were buoyed by the historic moment when the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yassir Arafat, and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met in Washington, D.C. to sign the 1993 peace agreement.
In the wake of that optimism, millions of dollars poured in from the United States, Canada and Europe to fund various dialogue programs to bring Palestinian and Israeli youth together.
The initiatives failed to produce a lasting peace.
“It didn’t matter how many conversations people were having over tea and hummus,” says Hiebert Bergen. Israel’s vision was never to end the occupation, she adds.
Within the next five years, Israel succeeded in expanding its control of the occupied West Bank. In 1995, an Israeli right-wing extremist assassinated Rabin for his decision to sign the Oslo Accords. Benjamin Netanyahu would become prime minister for the first time in 1996.
“I am not saying that (dialogue) doesn’t work in some contexts,” says Bergen. “I think it does. But in this context, it really is about the imbalance of power.”
Tarek Al-Zoughbi knows how this imbalance of power can look and feel. He is a Christian Palestinian-American who grew up in Bethlehem. He has worked for many years as a conflict mediator, including as project and youth coordinator at Wi’am: The Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center.
Currently, he is completing a master’s degree at George Mason University in Virginia.
In 2007, at age 14, he was part of a dialogue program. He will always remember the first words a Jewish Israeli youth spoke to him.
“‘I can’t believe we’ve lived together for three days, and you still haven’t tried killing me,’” Al-Zoughbi says the youth told him.
The boys would spend the next three weeks getting to know one another. They became friends and connected on Facebook to stay in touch.
Years later, Al-Zoughbi was in the West Bank heading to Jerusalem to visit his aunt. He had a valid permit to cross the checkpoint.
When his turn at the checkpoint window came, he and the soldier on duty immediately recognized one another. It was his old friend from the dialogue program, now armed, on the other side of the window. He asked how Al-Zoughbi had been.
Although Al-Zoughbi had come prepared with the required travel permit, his friend denied him entry on grounds of “security,” before asking again how he’d been.
In that moment, Al-Zoughbi says he wanted to get out any way he could and cover his face.
“The programming was ineffective in its ability to incentivize this person to fight against the system or to question the system,” he says.
Al-Zoughbi notes that the dialogue programs function within a context of very strong inherited narratives. Palestinians live the ongoing reality of the Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948, while Israelis have many holidays commemorating events from the Exodus to the Holocaust to the War of Independence.
Al-Zoughbi says an Israeli kid can easily walk away from a dialogue program with Palestinian kids believing that the one friend they made is an exception and not representative of Palestinians generally.
Al-Zoughbi says there is a place for dialogue programs, but that would be after the end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
These programs could help build trust and confidence in the future, he says.
In the meantime, he says, people should remember that terms like terrorist, settler, or Israeli vs. Palestinians arise from an oppressive system.
Al-Zoughbi upholds the idea that all people are made in the image of God. This image is still present, regardless of how people frame the situation.
“I think the Mennonites are usually pretty good at standing up against war,” he says.
However, he adds, it’s important for them to ensure they are not contributing to a negative peace.