/ 1 February 2024

The value of learning the language of listening

Israeli Attacks Continue In Gaza
Palestinians migrate to safer areas due to Israeli attacks that continue in Khan Yunis, Gaza on January 30, 2024. (Photo by Ahmed Zaqout/Anadolu via Getty Images)

My article, “Israel in Gaza: Who are the Amalek?”, has hit some nerves. I have had hate mail, which I do not address here, as well as a response from Daniel Beider, containing a number of accusations.

The most difficult issue in the Palestine-Israel conflict is communication. Neither side truly listens to the other, except to pick out points that support their narrative. Ironically, Beider’s response does exactly that. He misses my point entirely. But perhaps the fault is my own for not being clear enough, so I will try again.

Unless you can speak both Hebrew and Arabic, as well as hear both private and public conversations, you really do not know what is going on. I do not claim to have access to all the necessary information but what I aimed to do was break through the barrier of that lack of listening.

There have been accusations that Hamas, in its public pronouncements, differs very much from what it says internally and to its own followers. That the same happens on the Israeli side has been exposed, particularly in evidence to the International Court of Justice. 

The most extreme members of the government have made fiery speeches that the court has rightly interpreted as incitement to genocide, including invoking the Amalek and insisting that Gaza be cleared of Palestinians. But when speaking English, Netanyahu denies any such intent. 

One of the criticisms of the Biden administration is that they heed what Netanyahu says in public in English — especially to the US leadership — but not what he says at home in Hebrew.

My article highlighted the use of the Amalek as a call to genocide and disputed that this can ever be a moral message. Instead, I attempted to use the Amalek story as a call to eliminate the potential for evil that exists in anyone. That is not a call to harm anyone but a call to eliminate our own potential for doing harm.

If you look at the case I make in my article, it is sourced from an Israeli historian and there is a growing New Historians movement in Israel that is looking critically at the past.

Some might argue that my article is biased, and does not include adequate reference to atrocities against Jews, but it is a call for a review of the narrative that the Zionists were blameless and purely acting in self-defence. 

That case, when made in full, also has to consider provocations but the current official narrative includes no wrongdoing at all by the Zionist side when at least some of that wrongdoing is common knowledge. The New Historians acknowledge that there is more wrong on the Zionist side than the official narrative accepts.

On the Palestinian side, the Nakba — the Catastrophe — is about the violent forced displacement of the Palestinian people in the formation of Israel. The official narrative, that they voluntarily fled, is implausible and, in any case, a population fleeing a war zone are by definition refugees and are entitled to return. 

How would 700 000 people in hundreds of villages know to leave in short order, even if they had coherent leadership who had the authority to order such a thing? This was in the days before the cellphone and the internet.

All of this is however irrelevant if those involved in the conflict are not engaging with each other, or even listening to each other, except to extract meaning that serves their own case.

On the one side, Israelis need to understand what the Nakba means to Palestinians. They lost their homes and became permanent refugees.

On the other side, Palestinians would be more effective in making their case if they drew on Jewish history. The two great “Nakba” events that Jews suffered were the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans, leading to the Jewish diaspora. The other is the Holocaust — if on a completely different scale.

If Palestinians seriously want to engage with Israel, they need to understand how Israeli psychology is shaped by this past. And it is no easy task. Israel is a deeply divided society. There are some who mythologise Masada, where the defenders chose death over surrender to the Romans. 

A thing that surprised me is discovering that some Zionists revile Holocaust survivors because they should have been willing to die rather than submit to dehumanising tyranny. Israeli society itself is not unified in believing that the current deadly onslaught on Gaza is justifiable and there are Orthodox Jews who completely disagree with the founding of Israel.

I do not want to make too many comparisons with South Africa, as there are crucial differences, so I stop at examining two critical personalities we had here: Madiba and FW de Klerk. Nelson Mandela understood the need to get inside Afrikaners’ heads and use language that would win them over to supporting democracy. De Klerk was no great hero, but as a person steeped in apartheid, he came to the conclusion that he should end it before it led to a great disaster.

I am not sure if there is a Madiba personality in the Middle East, but there is for sure no De Klerk, and there won’t be until the Israelis get rid of their disastrous government. In a highly fractured society, there is one unifying desire — get rid of Netanyahu. Unlike De Klerk, he is prepared to lead his nation to disaster to save his own skin.

The biggest difference between the Israel-Palestine conflict and South Africa’s is that there are enough cultural and historical similarities between the groups to find common ground. In South Africa, we have vastly different cultures with very different histories. 

The Palestinians have had no event comparable to the Holocaust, thankfully, and it should stay that way. What they are suffering now, and have since the 1940s, is more comparable to the post-Roman Jewish diaspora. If Jews are entitled to be angry about an event that happened 2 000 years ago, how can they not see that Palestinians are outraged about a similar event 75 years ago?

As an outsider, I can see this starting point but that is absolutely no use if no insiders do. Yet there is evidence that some do. The incomparable Christiane Amanpour on her CNN show has several times brought in Israelis and Palestinians who have exactly been doing what I hope for — finding each other.

Finally, to those who read my article as a message of hate — read it again without that presumption. I am arguing for both sides to find each other and the starting point for that is listening to each other, not selectively, but with intent to understand.

If the Israeli side cannot understand the place of the Nakba in Palestinian minds, they do not understand their own past.

Philip Machanick is an emeritus associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University.