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Ben-Gurion University
[BGU, Education] Prof' Haim Gordon (father of Neve Gordon): "Few Jews in Israel are willing to confront the evil we are responsible for"

 (Editor's note: This article is from 2001 and newly added on the Internet. The word evil appears twenty times and only refers to Israel.)


GLOBAL DIALOGUE Volume 3 ● Number 1 ● Winter 2001—The Dialogue of Civilisations

Lessons in Dialogue: The Israeli–Palestinian Experience




Haim Gordon is professor in the Department of Education, Ben Gurion University, Israel. He is co-editor with Rivca Gordon of Israel/Palestine: The Quest for Dialogue (Orbis Books, 1991).




n general terms, it is evident that dialogue between civilisations can be inspiring and enhancing for all those who are involved. But once this sweeping statement is made, a hornet’s nest of conceptual and practical problems emerges. For instance, dialogue does not occur between civilisations, but rather between persons. Furthermore, if we accept Martin Buber’s description of interpersonal dialogue, a sad conclusion arises: many if not most people flee from the possibility of relating dialogically to those who are members of their own social group, nation, or civilisation. Hence, one can safely assume that many people will find it extremely difficult to relate dialogically to those from different or “alien” civilisations.


Yet, what is dialogue? Over the years, I have found some very significant, yet not complete, answers to this question in the writings of Buber and other thinkers. Some insights that add to these significant answers arose from my personal experiences, as a Jew and an Israeli who has been working for more than two decades to further dialogue in the Middle East.


According to Buber, dialogue can be described as an interpersonal relationship and conversation in which neither partner attempts to manipulate the conversation or his or her partner in it. Rather, each partner strives to relate with his or her whole being to that of the person who is a partner in the conversation. In the course of this essay, some depth will be added to this initial description of dialogue.


A much more difficult question is: What constitutes a civilisation? I do not know. Moreover, I am not even sure how one would approach the question to find a full or satisfying answer.


Perhaps my difficulty in defining or describing what constitutes a civilisation, and in recognising what is meant by this term, is that in my ongoing work for dialogue I always have preferred to discuss spiritual heritages. Let me, therefore, leave the question of what constitutes a civilisation unanswered. In what follows, I shall relate to dialogue between civilisations by primarily considering the possibility of dialogue between people from different spiritual heritages.


The relationship between interpersonal dialogue and a person’s spiritual heritage has concerned me for more than two decades. I should add that, on the everyday level of educating for dialogue, Buber had little to say about this subject. My concern with this topic began in 1979 when, together with other Israelis and Palestinians who believe in dialogue in this troubled area of the world, I began working actively for dialogue between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. As already indicated, my approach was based primarily on Buber’s writings, which repeatedly suggested that for genuine dialogue to come into being the whole person should engage in dialogue. Emphasising and relating to the whole person meant, I have since then believed, that each participant in a dialogical encounter must learn from the spiritual heritage of his or her partner in dialogue.


I soon learned that Buberian dialogue required much more than achieving an intimate or open conversation between the partners. In the context of my interaction with Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians, Buberian dialogue required that Jews and Arabs attempt to engage in dialogue while relating to their own spiritual heritage and to that of the “other” who is their partner in dialogue. Such seemed quite clear. But Buberian dialogue was very difficult to realise in the specific context of conflict and mistrust that has characterised relations in the Middle East. What is more, while working daily to educate people to relate dialogically, I exhausted Buber’s insights before I exhausted educational problems.


Dialogue in Practice


One of my first dialogical projects was the attempt to educate Jews and Palestinians, who were citizens of Israel, in how to live Buberian dialogue in their daily encounters with each other.1 The project was conducted for three years, between 1979 and 1982, at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, where I teach. Most of the participants were students at my university.


One of the enhancing aspects of this educational project was a trip each year to Egypt with all the students. Among the many reasons for this trip was the wish to have Jews and Palestinians, who were Israeli citizens, encounter the Arab–Muslim spiritual heritage in the only Arab country that was at peace with Israel, and that had a large educated population.


During these trips to Egypt, I quite often met the celebrated author, Naguib Mahfouz, who later became the first Egyptian writer to win Nobel Prize for literature. Mahfouz preferred meeting with small groups; hence I was always accompanied by three or four Jews and Palestinians. At our first meeting, in the winter of 1980, we discovered that Mahfouz is a warm, dialogical person, with a delightful sense of humour, a captivating smile and a hearty laugh. In many candid meetings in the years that followed, I endeavoured to learn from his wisdom. One way in which I chose to do so was to engage in dialogue with him on his writings and on the differences in our spiritual heritages.


One evening, Mahfouz made a statement concerning the views that he expressed at our meetings. He was responding to my question whether he wished to convey a message in his books, and if so, what the message was. Mahfouz replied: “No, my views are not what I wish to convey in my books. Still, if you ever find that the views that I express in our meetings contradict what emerges in my books, don’t believe me, believe my books.”2


At the very least, Mahfouz’s reply suggests that a conversation, which may even include poignant questions and sincere answers, cannot take the place of a good work of literature. Yet his reply also points to the significance of basing any dialogue between members of different spiritual heritages on knowledge. Such knowledge must include a deep understanding of and relation to one’s own spiritual heritage, and much more than a passing acquaintance with that of the other. Obtaining this knowledge requires, at a minimum, reading and learning what great artists, authors and thinkers have created within both heritages, and also some awareness of the history of the civilisations that gave birth to those heritages.


Confronting Evil


While not abandoning the wish to incorporate a person’s spiritual heritage into interpersonal dialogue, I slowly discovered some harsh truths. Prominent among them is that frequently, we workers and educators for dialogue will be hit in the face by a reality in which evil deeds are salient and accepted. My first encounter with this sad truth was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. That invasion was a result of the evil decisions of the members of the Israeli government. I also learned that such evil deeds as the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, in which thousands of people were killed and devastation was wreaked upon tens of thousands, are often sanctioned by political leaders, by journalists, by respected authors and by the princes of corporate capitalism. In such an atmosphere, working for dialogue between people from different civilisations and spiritual heritages often resembles spitting into the wind.


No less terrible, and evil, was Israel’s harsh official response to the first Palestinian intifada in the occupied territories, which began in December 1987. Few Israelis dared to view this intifada as a legitimate uprising of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in territories unjustly occupied by Israel and unjustly ruled by the Israeli army. The uprising was legitimate because the Palestinians wanted one simple thing to which all human beings are entitled: personal and political freedom. Here is one area where Buber’s insights on dialogue are sorely lacking. Buber never linked dialogue directly and concretely to the struggle for personal and political freedom, or to the fight against political evils.


A decision to struggle against the political evil occurring fifty kilometres from my home in Beer Sheva led to additional learning about dialogue between people from different spiritual heritages, especially in a conflict situation. In the spring of 1988, together with other Israelis residing in Beer Sheva, I helped to found a small group, the Gaza Team, whose members decided to struggle for the human and political rights of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. We travelled frequently, usually once a fortnight, for a full day to the Gaza Strip and documented human rights abuses by Israeli soldiers against Palestinians. We then sent these documented abuses to the Israeli army commanders whose soldiers had committed the abuses and demanded that they investigate our complaints. We also sent copies to political leaders and requested a response. One of my initial conclusions from this often enraging and heart-rending experience was that dialogue between people from different spiritual heritages requires a joint understanding of what constitutes justice and a commitment to fight political evil.


This conclusion required going beyond the writings of Buber, who very rarely discussed justice in the political realm, or confronted political evil. My experiences while working for Palestinian human rights in the Gaza Strip taught me that Buber was sadly mistaken when he evaded seeing and discussing what occurs in the political realm. Consequently, Buber also refused to see that genuine dialogue between peoples of different spiritual heritages frequently requires facing and condemning evil.


One outcome of my discerning Buber’s mistake was that I decided to publish my views, and thus to show the path we need to follow if we wish to promote dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. In 1991, in a short book which I co-edited with Rivca Gordon, and which was dedicated to the quest for dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, I wrote an essay entitled, “Confronting Evil: A Prerequisite for Dialogue”. My essay opens with the following paragraph, which rings true today when, again owing to the evils of Israeli political leaders, we are experiencing the second Palestinian intifada and fight for freedom:


Today, in the midst of the forceful and often brutal Israeli oppression of the Palestinian uprising, I believe that genuine dialogue between Jews and Palestinians can be established only on the basis of a willingness to confront evil and to struggle against it. I also believe that is the reason why dialogue is so scarce, because few Jews in Israel are willing to confront the evil that we are directly responsible for.3


The upshot of my personal development while working for Jewish–Arab dialogue, which I have very briefly overviewed, is, I believe, an immediate and rather simple conclusion. This conclusion has much relevance for genuine dialogue between people of different civilisations. I recognise that this conclusion may be viewed as a slap in the face for many adherents of the relativist approaches promoted by the prophets of postmodernism. But I firmly believe that, because of their superficiality, their indolence and their refusal to see the complexity of human existence, many of these adherents of postmodernism deserve such a slap. It might awaken them from their metaphysically unfounded fantasies.


The conclusion is that genuine dialogue between people from different civilisations or spiritual heritages frequently requires a joint quest for justice. And when I use the term “justice” I do not mean relative justice, or the justice of various narrators who express what they believe to be the values of certain cultures. I mean an idea of justice that is based on ontology and epistemology, and hence an idea of justice that relates to all human beings, regardless of their background and culture. Plato and many other great Western thinkers envision such justice, as did some great Eastern thinkers. In the twentieth century one such Eastern thinker, who also struggled for justice, was Mahatma Gandhi. Thus, going beyond Buber, I hold that a quest for dialogue—in my case between Jews and Palestinians—that ignores the question of what constitutes justice, is bound to fail.


Dialectical complexities exist. Dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis can help the participants to search for a just political solution to their differences. The opposite is also true: the search for a just political solution can lead to genuine dialogue between Palestinians and Jews. Let me pause here, however. Because all I have said has been something of an overture to a major question that can now be raised: What may be the spiritual value of genuine dialogue between people of different civilisations, that is, of different spiritual heritages?


A Lesson from Japan


In order to answer the above question, let me commence with a seemingly remote learning experience which I underwent during a two-day seminar on Soren Kierkegaard in Mexico City in the summer of 1995. At that seminar, Kinya Masugata, a professor from Japan’s Osaka Kyoika University, presented a paper which suggested a significant reason why it was so hard to discuss many of Kierkegaard’s thoughts and ideas in Japan.4 His paper revealed an aspect of Japanese being and language which has been quite overlooked.


According to Masugata, the Japanese have difficulty relating to Kierkegaard’s ideas because of the link between language and ontology. Masugata indicated that the Japanese language lacks the richness of vocabulary and the implicit and explicit ideas for the many kinds of love discussed in depth in several of Kierkegaard’s writings, for instance, in Either/Or and Works of Love. Masugata also pointed out that matters changed slightly during the Meiji period (1868–1911), when the government permitted Japanese scholars, scientists and lay people to begin learning from the ideas of Western thinkers and writers. But Masugata said the problem still exists: love, as described and discussed by Kierkegaard, is difficult to conceptualise in Japanese.


Consequently, he explained, even today Japanese readers of Kierkegaard are faced with a difficult choice: (1) they can ignore Kierkegaard’s illuminating insights about love, or try to water them down so as to fit the Japanese language; or (2) they can attempt to change drastically their “being-in-the-world” so as to endeavour to live some of the insights and ideas encountered in Kierkegaard’s writings. This last choice is extremely difficult, as Masugata indicated, because our understanding of the daily reality in which we live is limited by our language. As a result, the average Japanese person, who has not read Kierkegaard, will probably never even faintly imagine the many insights about love that Kierkegaard discusses.


Need I add that Kierkegaard’s writings repeatedly convince his readers that a life lived with a superficial understanding of love is banal and ruinous?


A simple conclusion emerges: dialogue with people of other civilisations or spiritual heritages may help the Japanese to enhance and enrich their lives. For instance, they can learn from persons who understand and relate to Kierkegaard’s ideas about true love and about how to live with love. This may occur if the Japanese engaging in dialogue act as Masugata did and are willing to learn from the spiritual heritage of Western civilisation. Such a process can teach them how to enhance their own being-in-the-world and perhaps how to improve their society’s way of life.




The opposite is also true: Westerners may learn and enrich their being-in-the-world from the profound thought encountered in the Japanese language and in some of the ideas expressed, yet concealed, in that language. An intriguing example of such learning is a philosophical dialogue by Heidegger entitled, “A Dialogue on Language: Between a Japanese and an Inquirer”.5


It is evident from the content of this lengthy dialogue that the “inquirer” is Heidegger himself, and that there occurred a genuine philosophical dialogical encounter between Heidegger and a living Japanese scholar and thinker. During their dialogue, they also engage with the thoughts of deceased Japanese thinkers who participated in dialogue with Heidegger early in his career.


In this dialogue, Heidegger shows himself learning much from his Japanese partner about the mysterious link between language and being. Heidegger himself wrote that language is the “house of being”. But he also emphasised that clarifying the thought underlying this statement is not a simple task. In the dialogue, Heidegger is assisted in this process of clarification by learning from his partner about how the Japanese language relates to the being of beings. The dialogue clearly indicates that the Japanese language expresses ideas about the being of beings that are not found in Western concepts, language and thinking. Learning from these Japanese ideas, and from the Japanese language, Heidegger believes, can enhance and enrich our Western being-in-the-world. It can contribute substantially to our wisdom.


These brief examples suggest that genuine dialogue between persons from different spiritual heritages can add substantially to the breadth and depth of the mode of existence of those involved in dialogue. Such a dialogue can become a sharing of the wisdom of spiritual heritages. In brief, dialogue can make the lives of its participants much more worthwhile. As Buber stated, any person who relates to other persons dialogically will discover, emerging in his or her life, a more profound and enhanced relationship to things that are valuable in themselves, such as justice, beauty, love, wisdom and knowledge.


The Tragedy of Jerusalem


Jerusalem is a beautiful city. As is well known, it is also holy to the three monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As such, Jerusalem is a daily meeting place of adherents of the three great spiritual heritages which are intimately linked to these faiths. In Jerusalem, many elements of the spiritual heritages of these faiths can be found in the mosques, synagogues, churches and other buildings and sites which are central to the being of each of the three monotheistic religions.


Thus, Jerusalem could be a city where dialogue between peoples of different spiritual heritages emerged quite naturally. Such instances of dialogue could be a boon and a blessing for all those involved and for many others. I firmly believe that Buberian dialogue between adherents of the three monotheistic faiths would enhance and enlighten the lives of all those who engaged in it, and of many others who came into contact with them. Thus, dialogue between spiritual heritages could contribute to peace and to justice. It would also be a sharing of wisdom.


Unfortunately, however, very little dialogue between Muslims and Christians, between Christians and Jews, or between Jews and Muslims, is currently occurring in Jerusalem. Many would say that so-called political reasons are to blame for this lack of dialogue. A closer look reveals that most of these “political reasons” are an outcome of Israel’s continual unjust oppression and cruel exploitation of the Palestinians living in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. These evil policies are based on daily evil decisions made by Israeli politicians and their supporters. To make matters worse, Israel’s evil decisions have also helped transform the city of Jerusalem into an area of conflict and bloodshed.


The results are terrible. Jerusalem is now a beautiful city in which religious fanaticism thrives and, like a hydra, repeatedly raises its ugly head. Need I add that fanaticism is the enemy of genuine dialogue, of wisdom and of justice? Is it not also evident that fanaticism is particularly the enemy of genuine dialogue between people from different civilisations?


Fighting Fanaticism


How can we counter fanaticism and promote dialogue? Attempting to engage in dialogue with fervid fanatics is usually an exercise in futility. They do not listen. They hear only those facts or statements that fit their own dogmatic beliefs and manner of relating to the world. By staunchly adopting such a narrow mode of existence, fanatics continually destroy their relationships with others and with the reality they encounter.


One of the blessings of life is that other people have freedom and hence can surprise us. The person whom I encounter can surprise me and enter into dialogue with me and relate to me as a “thou”. Fanatics ignore this element of surprise in human relations, and also the wonderful possibility of dialogue. Thus, they narrow and ruin their own being-in-the-world and endeavour to ruin the being-in-the-world of others.


This persistent self-ruining of fundamental relationships with others is probably the only way by which fanatics may become aware that something is amiss in their lives. Buber suggests that only by pointing to an area of deep personal pain in their existence may you be able, perhaps, to cause fanatics to question their dogmatism and extreme beliefs. But from my limited experience, such an approach requires much patience and personal courage. Hence, struggling against fanatics and their ruinous deeds and thoughts is an ongoing challenge for anyone who wishes to further dialogue.


In closing this short essay we can return to the question that opened it: What can be learned from the Israeli–Palestinian case concerning dialogue between different spiritual heritages?


It is evident that in this troubled section of the world people from different spiritual heritages, or different civilisations, live together in the same geographical area. Yet very little spiritually enhancing dialogue occurs, or has occurred, between Jews, Christians and Muslims. Quite often the lay people and representatives of these different heritages have related to each other only as sworn enemies.


The reasons for this enmity, I believe, are evil deeds by members of the different spiritual heritages and civilisations. Many of these evil deeds are based on the unwillingness to respect and promote the freedom of others. If we Israelis had valued the freedom of Palestinians, as we do our own freedom, certainly we would have created a far more congenial atmosphere for dialogue, for justice, for peace and for learning from our spiritual heritages.


From the evils of the Israeli occupation over the Palestinians, I have learned that respect for freedom of the other should serve as the basis for a mutual understanding of justice. When such a basis exists, it is possible for persons from different civilisations and spiritual heritages to engage in Buberian dialogue. This dialogue, in turn, will lead to a more profound respect for the freedom of the other.


This essay should end, however, on a more hopeful note. My experience of more than two decades of struggling for dialogue in the Middle East, and especially for dialogue with Palestinians, also has some joyful and positive lessons. I have learned that dialogue between people from different spiritual heritages can at times be a glorious opportunity for those involved in it. A person engaged in such dialogue can share the beauty and wisdom of his or her spiritual heritage with a partner, and learn from the beauty and wisdom of the spiritual heritage of that partner in dialogue.


Thus, despite the many difficulties encountered in relation to the value of dialogue, I have learned the truth of the following short Hasidic saying of Martin Buber:





When a man is singing and cannot lift his voice, and another comes and sings with him, another who can lift his voice, the first will be able to lift his voice too. That is the secret of the bond between spirits.6






1. See Haim Gordon, Dance, Dialogue and Despair: Existentialist Philosophy and Education for Peace in Israel (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama, 1986).


2. For more on my meetings with Mahfouz, see Haim Gordon, Naguib Mahfouz’s Egypt: Existential Themes in His Writings (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990).


3. Haim Gordon and Rivca Gordon, eds., Israel/Palestine: The Quest for Dialogue (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), p. 116.


4. Kinya Masugata, “Love in Japan and Kierkegaard” (paper presented at the XVII International Conference on the History of Religions, Mexico City, 1995).


5. Martin Heidegger, “A Dialogue on Language: Between a Japanese and an Inquirer”, in On the Way to Language, trans. Peter D. Hertz (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 1–54.


6. Martin Buber, Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings, trans. Olga Marx (New York: Schocken Books, 1947), p. 84.






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