A Lost Chance for Arab-Jewish Dialogue

10/02/2010 04:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • David Harris AJC Executive Director, Edward and Sandra Meyer Office of the Executive Director; Senior Associate, St. Antony's College, Oxford (2009-11)

The request came from the State Department. A group of young political leaders from Lebanon would be visiting the United States as guests of our government. They were eager "to have a dialogue," we were told. Would AJC be amenable to receiving them?

We agreed immediately. We have often hosted groups brought to America by the State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program and always find these encounters valuable.

Moreover, as an organization that for years has been active in the Arab world, we attach special importance to such meetings, whether public or private, held in New York, North Africa, the Gulf, or elsewhere.

We're always on the lookout for ways to expand points of contact and contribute to the search for peaceful coexistence. Getting together face-to-face has the potential to break down barriers and open minds. It may not be a sure-fire formula, but it certainly beats the absence of contact.

And that's precisely what those eleven Lebanese, all university graduates and all in their twenties, hadn't had to date -- any contact with American Jews, or, as likely, Jews anywhere. Only one had ever visited this country before. Indeed, the whole point of the journey was to introduce them to relevant "current social, political, and economic issues" in the United States.

The day of the meeting came. We prepared the breakfast table and awaited their arrival. The State Department official suddenly appeared, visibly shaken. En route to AJC, he had received a call from the group notifying him that they weren't coming. No further explanation was offered. No apology given. That was that.

Had all the parties come to the same decision? Given the diversity of the group's affiliations -- representing the range, absent Hezbollah, of Lebanon's Balkanized political world -- it's not certain the vote would have been totally lopsided.

In that case, why didn't some come, instead of a total boycott? Given the last-minute nature of the decision, there was no time to replace our meeting with another, so the time allocated was suddenly free. Could it have been intimidation by those strongly opposed to the encounter?

Or was it a decision taken, say, by the Lebanese government, which, having heard of the planned meeting, sent instructions to skip it?

Whatever the case, did the State Department express its displeasure to the eleven participants for their decision? At the very least, the group's behavior was discourteous. Far more, a precious chance had been squandered to advance American interests by fostering dialogue between up-and-coming Lebanese leaders and a relevant American constituency.

In the end, we lost a chance, but, if I may say so, the Lebanese lost a bigger one. After all, we travel to the Arab world (though, regrettably, not Lebanon) and have opportunities to meet with Arab leaders.

On the other hand, these young political activists have no chance to travel to Israel and see a neighboring country with their own eyes.

They have no possibility to meet with Jews in Lebanon, as the community there, like Jewish communities throughout the Arab world, save Morocco and Tunisia, no longer exists.

They have no opportunity to attend a lecture in Beirut offering a Jewish perspective on anything, unless it's by a Holocaust-denying, anti-Israel spokesman. Nor can they buy a book in any store that offers a non-polemical view of Jewish history or Zionism. Nor can they go to a theater and watch a film, even "Fiddler on the Roof" or "Schindler's List," that deals sympathetically with Jewish themes, however remote from the current Arab-Israeli conflict.

And they have no ability to fully understand America's view of the Middle East if they refuse to talk to one of the longest-standing participants in the national -- and indeed, global -- discussion.

Instead, they're fed a daily diet of demonized, distorted, and delusional portrayals of Jews and Israelis back home.

And, of course, it's not unique to Lebanon.

As one telling example, someone I'm close to recently spent several months on a work assignment in a Gulf country. He went with an open mind. He came back shocked. Just about every conversation, he said, whether it was professional or social, included some anti-Semitic reference by his local interlocutors. It almost didn't matter what the topic was, but hatred of Jews somehow always surfaced. Jews, he was told, were seen as responsible for just about every calamity under the sun. Yet, when asked, none of these individuals had ever met a Jew. So, where had they gotten their information? Well, they said, from the local mosque, media, school, and the like.

I have no illusion that one meeting in New York between eleven Lebanese and a handful of American Jews would have changed the world. But I also know that, without such meetings, the chances of any change are virtually nil.

It's so reassuringly easy to harbor deeply-rooted negative views of another group when there's no contact. Let the stereotypes fly. Let the biases reign. Let the hatred flow.

But if we're going to turn conflict in the Middle East into cooperation, as we must, then it begins with dialogue, at least among those who profess commitment to a new era. Dialogue that challenges preconceived assumptions. Dialogue that broadens perspectives. Dialogue that, ultimately, builds links.

Our door at AJC remains wide open. Let's hope the next visiting group chooses to walk through it.

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