New Rules for Middle East Engagement

By Eboo Patel 01-06-2009

I spent much of the weekend communicating with Muslim and Jewish leaders on the recent crisis in Gaza. Here was my basic question: "Have you reached out to leaders in the other community to find a solution to the conflict?"

Here was the most common answer: "I'd love to talk to people in the other community. Can you give me the phone numbers of folks who agree with our position? If they'll appear with us at a media event, or put their name on our press release, that's even better."

That's a perfectly understandable instinct, but it doesn't lead to a solution. It's just a continuation of the logic that has led us ... here.

As I stated in my previous post, the rules of rhetorical engagement for Muslim and Jewish organizations regarding the Middle East were set long ago. I'm starting to think of these as the Status Quo Rules for Middle East Engagement. If you like the status quo, these rules are for you.

Rule Number One: Use the current crisis to advance your narrative. If you're Jewish, that story involves words like "security," "terrorism," and "right to exist." If you're Muslim, it includes terms like "humanitarian crisis," "occupation," and "disproportionate violence."

Rule Number Two: Talk about how bad it is where your people live. If you're Jewish, that means highlighting the number of Hamas rockets fired into Israel and the number of lives lost and disrupted in cities like Sderot. If you're Muslim, it involves talking about the prison that is Gaza and the disaster that is the West Bank.

Rule Number Three: Blame it on the other side. If you're Jewish, that means pointing at the violent and belligerent defiance of Hamas. If you're Muslim, it means talking about the suffocation of the blockade in Gaza and the occupation in the West Bank.

Following these rules makes perfect sense for the parties involved because just about every one of their talking points is true. Hamas is violent and belligerent. The blockade and occupation is suffocating. Life in Sderot is rife with fear. Life in Gaza does feel like a prison.

Here's the only problem: the Status Quo Rules have not, and never will, lead anywhere but the status quo.

If we are going to move from Status Quo to Solution, we're going to need a whole lot of courage and a different set of rules. People are going to have to come up with the courage on their own, but let me offer a set of "Solution Rules" for Muslim and Jewish organizations regarding the Middle East.

Rule Number One: Make your first phone calls to the people who disagree with you on the current situation, but who agree with you on the basic outlines of a long-term solution - two states, with security and dignity for all. That's a Coalition for a Solution, creative and courageous enough to get people's attention. This means, difficult as it might be, resist the instinct to use the current crisis to find more people who will wave signs for your side, show up at your rallies, or sign on to your petitions. That logic serves mostly to further prolong the conflict. Instead, use the spotlight on the Middle East to reach out to those on the other side who have the courage to play for a long-term solution and say, "Look, the status quo is untenable for everybody. It's time for a different set of rules."

Rule Number Two: Acknowledge the real issues on the other side. Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim in Congress, models this in his recent press release when he says that he has been in Sderot and has "seen firsthand both the physical and emotional destruction caused by the rocket attacks." That acknowledgment doesn't take away from something else that Ellison says

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"New Rules for Middle East Engagement"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines

Must Reads