Why Muslims Need to Stay Engaged in Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue… Even When They Don’t Want To

It always strikes me as odd when advocates for change reject talking to those with whom they disagree.

Bilal Ansari, in his recent blog, An Invitation to Decline, characterizes the opportunity he had to participate in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI) as “a free trip to Israel…and a free trip to visit Al Aqsa in the good company of fellow colleagues.”

He spends the next 3,500 words denigrating a program he never attended; disparaging MLI co-founder, Imam Abdullah Antepli; and criticizing the dozens of North American Muslim leaders who have so far participated in the program. Then Mr Ansari asserts that the only viable option remaining to him once he’d said “no” to the MLI program was to say “’yes’ to join[ing] the BDS movement.”

What a bunch of baloney. Here’s the side of the coin that gets lost in Mr Ansari’s rhetoric and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) supporters:

First, according to its website, the MLI program “…seeks to expand participants’ critical understanding of the complex religious, political, and socioeconomic issues facing people in Israel and Palestine…through a rigorous academic curriculum and exposure to diverse narratives.”

It’s understandable that Mr Ansari would reject the opportunity to leave his simplistic black/white view of the Middle East. If Mr Ansari had accepted the invitation he so sanctimoniously refused, he’d have come into contact with a more nuanced picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He’d have had to deal with the realities of Palestinians AND Israelis. And, of course, at MLI he’d have come into contact with ideas that challenged his. It’s understandable, indeed, why he wouldn’t want that. And regrettable.

Next after turning down the MLI invitation, Mr Ansari decided his only option was to embrace the BDS movement. To Mr Ansari, it’s either MLI or BDS. Black or white.

As to BDS: no amount of Mr Ansari writing about, “the successes of the BDS movement” will make success a reality.

What are the successes he refers to? Is the situation better today for Palestinians than it was pre-BDS? Is the establishment of a Palestinian state closer now than before BDS?

BDS isn’t working.

Not only do Palestinians continue to suffer, the more BDS grows the more precarious the Palestinian situation becomes. Each organization that jumps on the BDS bandwagon reinforces the hardline Jewish view that any Israeli compromise or endorsement of a Palestinian state is too risky. If Mr Ansari had attended MLI, he would have learned that the security of Israel will never be traded against economic sanctions. Each BDS movement “success” emboldens the hand of the right-wing Israeli government. While BDS supporters continue to claim victories, the Palestinian suffering continues.

Here’s another problem with BDS: mainstream Jewish organizations in North America that are deeply sympathetic to the Palestinian cause will not join the BDS movement, which results in splintered, ineffective help for Palestinians. Rather than create a coalition of Jews, Muslims, Christians and others who could work hand-in-hand to relieve injustices experienced by Palestinians, BDS-ers divide and undermine peacebuilding efforts. There are many grassroots organizations in Israel, Palestine and the U.S. that would benefit from our combined energies, yet they are are denied the patronage, visibility and assistance wasted on the BDS campaign.

Had Mr Ansari attended MLI, he would have discovered still another reason BDS doesn’t work. It’s one-sided, and the situation in the Middle East is anything but. Rather than backing BDS, Mr Ansari could have experienced, first-hand, the necessity for an Israeli and Palestinian recognition of each other’s complicated, painful histories and for the mutual need for security and self-determination.

The Palestinians are experiencing tremendous injustices; that’s a fact. And Israel is an imperfect place; that’s also a fact. I don’t write this blog with any delusion that my observations are the totality or even a significant representation of the entirety of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. But I’m deeply troubled when individuals or groups condemn the good-faith efforts of others working to foster coexistence.

I don’t know Mr Ansari, so it’s hard for me to fathom his motives. But his denunciation of a program created to promote Muslim-Jewish understanding coupled with his dedication to a movement whose very nature is divisive and counter-productive, begs the question: What are his objectives?

My challenge to Mr Ansari is for him to engage those people with whom he disagrees rather than separate himself from the conversation. If he feels so strongly about his point of view, I urge him to accept the MLI invitation and state his case. If he used his brain and listened to his heart, as he writes, why would he back away from a chance to share his position with others? Could it be that it’s easier for him to demonize those participating in MLI, those who have followed their own hearts and brains—rather than standing together with them on behalf of Palestinians and a just peace in the Middle East?

You don’t have a monopoly on wisdom regarding the Middle East, Mr Ansari. No one does. The challenge is to stay engaged. When we step outside the conversation, when we resort to simplistic, one-dimensional reactions to complicated situations, everyone loses. And that includes the Palestinians.

My Brother From Another Mother, is an interfaith journey of Muslims and Jews.  We’re a 501(c)3, too!

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