By Joanna Goodwin Friedman
Those of us who invest in Israel’s survival and the quest for Middle East peace endured many disappointments and setbacks this past year. A surge of hope and optimism collapsed with the failure of the bilateral negotiations last spring. During the summer, the war in Gaza deepened our despair. The recent Israeli election outcome seemed won by last minute racist and inflammatory campaign rhetoric. The anti-two state, anti-democratic, racist language unapologetically spouted by many of Netanyahu’s new ministers contradicts the sincerity of the coalition’s guideline referencing an effort to advance the diplomatic process and strive for peace with the Palestinians and all neighbors.
Political leaders on both sides have failed millions of decent people who support compromise as the specter of continuous conflict, Occupation and war overshadow their lives and dim future prospects for their children.
Donor fatigue is an understandable response to the magnitude of these failures.
I have been asked many times how our family continues to fund civil society organizations in a region where radicals from both sides preach hatred and destruction. Skeptics ask why should we invest in peace and coexistence when we can achieve greater impact by investing in health care, empowering women and girls, education, environmental causes, or youth services.
My reply? “That’s exactly what we do!”
Today’s coexistence programs work across all societal sectors to improve relations between Jews, Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians. I contend that now, more than ever, we must double down on support for the courageous people who are willing to acknowledge, interact with and respect the “other.” They have the potential to develop a more nuanced understanding of their commonalities and can challenge attitudes of racism and prejudice. One day they might support, perhaps even lead, political transformation.
Yet, due to the Occupation, a significant imbalance of power exists between Israelis and Palestinians making it more challenging to bring the two sides together. The Palestinian Anti-normalization Movement opposes interactions with Israelis that do not reflect BDS principles that include extinguishing a Jewish state.
But Palestinians and Israelis both call this land home. Their futures are inextricably entwined. Ultimately, anti-normalization is a self-defeating strategy. Avoiding interaction so as not to “normalize” the Occupation deprives Palestinians of the opportunity to challenge the status quo and change hearts and minds.
Anti-normalization must be countered by expanding access to organizations and programs that address common interests and shared aspirations of each side. Increasing face-to-face interactions can change people’s daily lives and, in time, their worldview. If we pull back now because negotiations are at a standstill, we risk diminishing organizational outreach and influence, the consequences of which will take years to repair. With increased investment, we can scale up programming to reach the tipping point needed to create a new generation of peace builders.
Here are some suggestions to overcome donor fatigue. Reignite your commitment to the people in the region who cope with this conflict daily. Believe that every dollar you invest has transformative power. Focus without distraction on your ultimate goal while minimizing the influence of naysayers. Imagine the wealth of unrealized potential within the children and future generations of the region. Dig deep into your personal reservoir of grit to fortify your focus.
There are millions of responsible people seeking accommodation and compromise for the sake of their children and future generations. They deserve our attention. Strengthening those on both sides who seek a just and sustainable peace can eventually neutralize fear-mongers and extremists demanding maximal solutions.
Children have the most to gain from steadfast investment. Repeated positive exposure to the “other” from an early age, in spite of a segregated society, will help them learn about other mores and cultural norms uncontaminated by fear, disdain, and distrust.
Finally, we must plumb that reservoir of strength we’ve cultivated to field the hard balls life has thrown us. We’ve all coped with health, relationship, professional, family and financial challenges. We’ve emerged stronger and more resilient. Just as the pioneers of the Yishuv willed roads from rocks through fierce determination and hard work, we too can reinforce our commitments with a great big dollop of grit.
Here’s a final thought: on good days, it is easier to trust in the power of individuals to become the change they wish to see in the world. But on tough days, when bad news bombards us and media coverage exploits our darkest fears, draw strength from Pirkei Avot, the Ethical Teachings of our Fathers, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”
Joanna Goodwin Friedman is president of the Middle East Peace Dialogue Network, Inc. (MEPDN) and the Goodwin Foundation, and serves on the boards of the Alliance of Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) and J Street.