There Can't Be Peace Until Israelis and Palestinians Start Seeing Each Other as Humans

07/30/2014 12:18 pm ET | Updated Sep 29, 2014

At the heart of every conflict lies a misunderstanding, often influenced by cultural biases and preconceived notions of acceptable behavior. When left uncorrected, misunderstandings can quickly escalate into false narratives that promote prejudice and segregation.

Cultural diplomacy can help challenge misconceptions and reconcile differences that underlie conflicts. Although its potential has thus far been ignored in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the time is ripe to experiment with additional diplomatic tools.

Diplomacy comes in two tracks. "Track-one" diplomacy is the government-mediated activity seeking cooperation and communication with another nation. "Track-two" diplomacy is typically non-governmental and includes initiatives such as cultural diplomacy. The current military conflict between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel is an unfortunate example of "track one" diplomacy failing to produce long-term solutions. Truces and ceasefires are welcome but are mere interludes in an ongoing war that is deeply intertwined with cultural and religious dimensions.

Dating back to the Bronze Age, cultural diplomacy has been used by both governments and civil society to preserve intergroup relations. It has been credited with playing a significant role in Soviet-American rapprochement during the Cold War. This included cultural exchange programs where American and Soviet writers, artists and musicians met to discuss and promote their work. The exchange of U.S. and Chinese table tennis players in the early 1970s - informally known as "ping-pong diplomacy" - also demonstrated the utility of cultural interaction between the East and the West, eventually leading to President Nixon's first visit to Beijing and the thawing of Sino-U.S. relations.

"Art can challenge taboos and engage audiences in non-violent dialogue."

Similarly, art can challenge taboos and engage audiences in non-violent dialogue. In Dancing in Jaffa, a documentary about pairing Israeli and Palestinian children as dance partners, the ballroom dancer and instructor Pierre Dulaine demonstrated how dance can help children overcome prejudice and build ties with one another.

Heartbeat, an Israeli-Palestinian ensemble of youth musicians based in Israel, offers mentoring programs, workshops and retreats for Israeli and Palestinian musicians to "build critical understanding and transform conflict through the power of music." In April 2008, Dutch composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven sought to challenge Israeli and Palestinian experiences of division by bringing together musicians from Ramallah and Bethlehem, as well as children from the West Bank, to perform on rooftops and balconies across the Separation Wall in Bethlehem.

Similarly, the West-Eastern Divan, an orchestra based in Seville, Spain, brings together young Israeli and Arab musicians to promote cultural understanding and dialogue through their music. As a Divan musician put it, "The orchestra is a human laboratory that can express to the whole world how to cope with the other." Founded in 1999 by an Israeli-Argentine conductor and a Palestinian-American scholar, the orchestra has played all over the world, including in Ramallah in the Occupied Territories.

Cultural diplomacy can also help tackle what Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung called "structural violence", that is, the existence of social structures, such as institutionalized racism. Educational exchanges, such as the Fulbright program in the U.S. or the Erasmus program in Europe, can help participants develop first-hand appreciation for a host's culture and thus challenge social structures at home. Similar programs could be developed where young Israeli and Palestinian students spend a period of time studying across their respective borders under the auspices of international organizations to encourage mutual understanding of each other's culture, society and religion.

"As long-term investments, these programs have the potential to shape the hearts and minds of future Israeli-Palestinian generations so as to promote tolerance and peaceful co-existence."