December 30, 2003
and Middle East Peace
by Alan Bock
delivered by Alan Bock December 19, 2003 at the Middle East Peace
Initiative symposium of the Interreligious and International Peace
Council, Sheraton Plaza Hotel, Jerusalem.
in this city at this time, at a conference devoted to the great
subject of peace and eventual reconciliation between two great peoples,
cannot help but induce a deep sense of humility. What can I, an
outsider to this place, however benign and constructive my intentions,
bring to a conflict so steeped in history and tragedy, so suffused
with mutual pain and recrimination, so charged with meaning for
believers in at least three of the world's great religious traditions?
come from a sunny and – despite our recent political upheavals –
largely untroubled place, Southern California, which is not quite
the land of lotus eaters and devotees of the relentlessly superficial
that it may seem in the popular imagination, but which is still
a place where it is possible to live without paying too much attention
to the cares and travails of the rest of the world. I have lived
most of my life, apart from an eight-year sojourn in our country's
capital, in that hardly perfect but nonetheless generally pleasant
place. What have I to offer to peoples locked in mortal struggle?
deeply I may have read, however widely I may have conversed, however
many people I may have interviewed, there are things I don't understand,
and things I will never understand, about what motivates those who
live in this place – rather similar in climate and topography to
where I live, but with a history so different, so much more fraught
with implications for the rest of the world.
is an old, only partially whimsical job description of an editorial
writer. His job is to stand on the mountainside and watch the course
of the great battle occurring in the valley below him. Then, when
the battle is over, his task is to walk down, mingle with those
who are suffering and dying – and shoot the wounded.
hope I can do better than that, but it is prudent to remember that
you can't always predict the outcomes and consequences of your actions
and recommendations. If actions by political leaders almost always
have unintended and unpredicted consequences – and I strongly believe
that they do – then how much more unpredictable can be the consequences
of those whose function is to offer advice and then move on to the
next topic (or unaccountable fashion or trend) in the news of the
that deeply felt caveat, let me move on to some suggestions
for journalists and participants alike.
should start by acknowledging that I begin with some preconceptions,
perhaps even biases – which I prefer to view, of course, as deeply
and intelligently held beliefs and principles.
newspaper, which has just been through a corporate upheaval whose
end result was to confirm that commitment (even while spreading
responsibility and ownership in ways that may well turn out to be
unexpected) takes an editorial stance in favor of human liberty
and personal responsibility that is roughly consistent with what
Europeans understand as the classical liberal tradition.
stated, then, we favor free minds and free markets, a market regulated
more by open access and competition than by direct government regulation.
We think freedom is the birthright of humankind and the condition
in which genuine civilization has the best chance to emerge and
prosper. Among the implications are smaller government with more
modest ambitions. Establishing conditions in which freedom can flourish
is challenging enough for any government, and, based on my reading
of history, well beyond the capacities (or desires) of most governments
at most times and in most cultures.
consequence for this region, the Middle East, is that we urge our
own government – which was founded in freedom but whose presidents,
at least in my lifetime, are subject to the conceit or delusion
that they can design and enforce justice well beyond our borders
– to approach the conflicts here with the kind of modesty and humility
that just a few hours in this great city have reinforced in my own
soul. In short, the notion that those who don't live here can design
plans and patterns for those who do live here strikes me as deeply
United States, and others who weep at the bloodshed and hatred,
and share deep frustration at apparent intractability, can offer
advice, offer good will, and be available at key junctures, to help
to facilitate agreements and institutions that will give shape and
form to any emerging reconciliation. But a peace that does not grow
from a deep desire on the part of a significant portion of those
who live here to find a way toward peace – whether based on idealism,
hope for a brighter future, or simple frustration and war-weariness
– whatever it takes – will have little chance of lasting long.
those who live and work here, I offer the view that peace is the
handmaiden of freedom and commerce. That may seem counterintuitive
to those steeped in this age's dismissal of commerce as a lower
form of human endeavor than intellectualizing or warmaking – or
intellectualizing about warmaking. But it is a deeper truth that
it would behoove humankind to recover.
producer or merchant gains little or nothing from war or conflict
(unless he is one whose wealth arises from political connections
rather than honest trade); indeed, most dealers in commerce are
hurt by the destruction and uncertainty of war. Prosperity, commerce
and peace are natural partners. So the more governments in the region
respect their people enough to honor their natural freedom, the
more channels are opened to commerce and mutually beneficial trade,
the better the prospects for peace – although nobody can predict
how quickly or comprehensively it will emerge.
for what journalists can contribute, the most constructive thing
they can do is to be good journalists who report without fear or
favor – with the caveat that this is neither automatic nor
easy. What good journalism consists of might not be as simple or
as obvious as it might seem at first glance.
first job of a journalist is to find and report the facts, but determining
what the facts are is more challenging than many will – or can –
acknowledge. Facts, at least in part, are a function of deeply held,
sometimes almost unconsciously held, opinions or predilections.
Beyond searching for facts (beyond the relatively simple ones involving
dates and spellings) lies the necessity of challenging one's own
is the prerogative and the glory of a journalist of the best type
to be skeptical – to start with the assumption that official spokespeople
are not giving you the whole picture, that they are concealing or
spinning salient aspects of developments. That's a healthy way to
start, but it should be applied impartially to spokespeople from
all sides – and with a certain judiciousness that is ready to acknowledge
that against all your expectations and experience somebody might
actually be telling you the truth – or at least a reasonable facsimile
short, it is virtually impossible for a writer or presenter to be
completely free of bias or predilection. But the obligation to your
readers or viewers, who should be seen as the real constituencies
of any journalistic endeavor, the people to whom you owe your best
efforts, is not to be a cheerleader for one side or the other. There
are several ways to check this.
you present only one side, or do you present only the weakest arguments
or contact mainly the most inept, clumsy or extreme spokespeople
of the side with which you feel the least sympathy? Do you create,
by reporting in a certain way, conflicts and obstacles to agreement
that may not be as deep or intractable as you lead people to believe?
might as well be honest enough to admit that conflict and problems
are bread and meat for journalists. Conflict often produces the
best stories, the most dramatic opportunities – and to be honest
again, the best prospects for recognition and promotion – for journalists.
If there were no conflict, if peace were magically to break out
throughout the world, some of us might be stymied or frustrated.
Some few of us might actually have to seek honest work as the opportunities
to be observer and chronicler (who is yet able to avoid responsibility
for the results of inaccurate or dishonest chronicling) declined.
so, we don't have to act as fight promoters. I suspect we can be
confident that even without our efforts to deepen hostilities, to
describe minor disagreements as major stumbling-blocks, the world
will provide us with a plenitude of real conflicts. We don't need
to blow them up into something larger than they really are.
is not a plea to ignore real conflicts and disagreements, simply
to approach them with a sense of proportion. In the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict both sides currently embrace demands that are known deal-breakers
for the other side, and both sides know how to push the other side's
buttons. Reporting this fact honestly still doesn't obviate the
possibility (remote as it might seem under current conditions) of
least in theory, stories about people who manage to get along reasonably
well despite the handicaps of history and ethnic, religious or tribal
loyalties could be as informative, as instructive, and as of much
genuine service to readers and viewers as stories of conflict. We
don't have to paint a utopian picture, determine that all stories
will be happy-face stories, or abandon reporting on conflict. But
it is part of the larger picture to recognize, even to seek out,
stories about how people have resolved their conflicts or muted
their hostilities, then try to understand and explain how they have
come to a tolerable modus vivendi.
is certainly possible to view this part of the world with deep resignation
and the conviction that peace is an impossible dream. But it is
also important to remember that while historically rooted resentments
and conflicts over necessarily scarce land and resources are unavoidably
part of the picture, attitudes and opinions about those issues are
also important, and they are not necessarily inevitably ethnically
ideas about the problems may be more important than the problems
themselves. What we think can be more important than the circumstances
in which we find ourselves. Mind over matter is not a conjurer's
trick or an illusion. Mind can triumph over matter – indeed, in
a deeper sense the triumph of mind over matter is the story of humanity,
the only way the species has made real progress.
his recent book, At
the End of an Age, historian (and, I would add, philosopher)
John Lukacs made a telling observation on a slightly different but
still relevant subject:
central portion of the Marxian structure – indeed, of the Marxian
philosophy of history – was his idea of the Accumulation of Capital,
whereby the big fish would eat up the little fish, especially in
the last critical phase of the capitalist phase of history. Had
Marx only considered something more evident (and more insidious):
the Accumulation of Opinions – which is, again, a matter of mind
and not of matter, involving not manipulation of masses of monies
but of masses of minds, part and parcel of the age of popular sovereignty.
It was an accumulation of opinions that made Hitler the chancellor
of Germany, and soon the most popular and powerful leader in the
history of the German people, just as it is the accumulation of
opinions that governs, if not decides, every election – indeed,
the history of most democracies."
can change, and when they change the circumstances will change,
Peace will come to the Middle East, if it ever comes, one mind at
a time, as people understand, desire and find ways to make its benefits
real in the here and now.
people in the media, our job is to work with, to express and explain,
to tease out the implications of ideas and opinions, as well as
working with and explaining concrete facts and circumstances. Without
getting too grandiose about our possible influence or puffed up
with our own importance – and with the understanding that our best
opportunities will come not by worrying so much about how our work
will affect events, but by just doing our jobs as fairly, as conscientiously,
as diligently and as much in concordance with the highest standards
of our craft – we can take some comfort in the possibility that
we can change perceptions. And changing perceptions just might be
the most hopeful way of promoting peace.
and opinions are not inevitable or necessarily the only outcome
of certain material circumstances. Rich people and poor people alike
will have different opinions about market economies and socialism.
Israelis and Palestinians alike will have different perceptions
about the inevitability or the desirability of continuing conflict.
is possible, then, to view this region in all its complexity, with
all the hostilities and hypocrisies we can identify on all sides,
and not only to predict that war is the only outcome, but to understand
those who say that preparing for war is the only responsible course.
But it is also possible to look at the same circumstances and perceive
that peace is the only real hope.
us work as conscientiously, as patiently, as persistently and as
tirelessly as is in our human capacity toward the day when perceptions
and opinions change enough that peace is more hope than illusion.
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