Commentary Magazine


Everything You Need to Know About Jewish-Arab Dialogue in America

It is a staple of well-meaning community-relations work as well as journalism: the tale of two people from clashing groups who are rising above their differences to forge a friendship on behalf of a common goal. The New York Times provides a classic example in today’s sports section, which tells the story of two members of Princeton University’s women’s basketball team: “Princeton Duo, Palestinian-American and Jewish, Puts Aside Politics.” It’s a feel-good feature about Niveen Rasheed and Lauren Polansky, who are close friends and teammates on a good Tiger hoops squad.

But while the friendship seems genuine, the premise of the piece, that the two have “put aside politics,” isn’t even close to being true. While Rasheed is a fervent supporter of Palestinian nationalism and a critic of the “Israeli government,” Polansky has no such commitment to the other side of that argument. She is merely the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. She was, we are told, “raised Jewish.” But whatever that means, it didn’t include any strong feelings about the State of Israel or Zionism. “None of that political stuff that is going on the other side of the world is that important to me,” Polansky says. That’s all well and good. Rasheed has the right to enthusiastically support her relatives’ political cause; and Lauren Polansky has the right not to give a hoot about the right of the Jewish people to their own state in their historic homeland or their right of self-defense against Palestinians who wish to destroy that state for the sake of their own conception of a just solution to the conflict.  Just don’t tell us this is a tale of two people who have risen above a conflict to make friends — because there is clearly no conflict between the two on this issue. Rasheed cares about her cause, and Polansky is indifferent to it.  The piece is clearly imbalanced — the Palestinian mother is allowed to pose as tolerant because she claims to “love” Polansky despite the fact that she is Jewish — but that is almost unimportant, as there is really no dialogue about the conflict going on here to rise above.

This is, of course, all too familiar to observers of more formal attempts at Jewish-Arab dialogue in this country. Inevitably, they consist of Arabs who are passionately opposed to Israel alongside Jews who either completely agree with the Arabs or, as is the case with Lauren Polansky, have no strong convictions about the issues. Such exchanges do nothing to enhance the cause of community relations or peace because they merely reinforce the Arabs’ conviction that they are in the right without causing them to question any of their own premises. That so many American Jews play this game to enhance their own sense of themselves as broad-minded and pro-peace is absurd and another testament to the truth of Edward Alexander’s dictum that “universalism is the parochialism of the Jews.”

A better example of a story of Jews and Arabs rising above their differences was printed in the Times last week. In it, Times Israel correspondent Ethan Bronner wrote about two families whose children were wounded in the fighting around Gaza who have bonded while spending time alongside each other in the hospital. Its virtue lies not only in its recounting of two tragedies — a little Israeli boy critically wounded by a Hamas rocket fired from Gaza and a Palestinian girl paralyzed by a missile fired at the Hamas terrorists — but also in that it mercifully eschews the sort of political cant and smarmy writing that was on display in the story about the Princeton students.

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