/

The need for a peace narrative in the Middle East

by Cesar Chelala

Special To The Japan Times

Growing up in Tucuman, a city in northern Argentina, I had the opportunity to see peaceful coexistence and collaboration between Arabs and Jews. I was reminded of that experience after reading an article by Uri Avnery, one of the leading peace activists in Israel, on the need for a peace narrative in the Middle East.

Tucuman received numerous immigrants (among them my father) who came to that city at the beginning of the last century.

Notable among them were citizens from Arab countries. The city also had a substantial Jewish population.

In the downtown area, there was a stretch of several blocks called La Maipú after the name of its main street. What made this part of the city so unusual was the dozens of shops owned by both the Arabs and Jews who lived there. I don’t recall a single incident of violence between the communities. In some cases, shop owners from both communities collaborated with each other because of shared commercial interests.

In the 1950s, my father, together with two friends, founded what they called the Cultural Atheneum Gibran Khalil Gibran, named after the famous Lebanese writer. Its main purpose was to organize lectures by noted speakers, such as the Nobel Prize winner in literature Miguel Angel Asturias and famous Argentine writers like Ernesto Sábato and Ezequiel Martínez Estrada.

Because of the high intellectual caliber of the lecturers, these events were very well attended — despite a relatively high entrance fee — by students, professors and a cultured general public.

Many of the lectures were presented at the Sociedad Sirio Libanesa (Syrian and Lebanese Society), long before the painful schism between the two countries.

There had been considerable unease among the society’s directors about permitting Jewish intellectuals to attend the lectures; however, because of my father’s untiring efforts, Jewish students and teachers were allowed to participate in those events, something that had never happened before.

Commercial and cultural common interests allowed both Arabs and Jews to collaborate, overcoming traditional distrust. A common-interest narrative had been developed, one leading to a totally peaceful relationship between both communities.

If a common narrative could be created then, can one be created now in the Middle East, based on the common need for peace?

I believe it can, but only if each side of the conflict is able to see the other in real terms, not in the usual demonizing terms created by decades of antagonism.

Uri Avnery, a leading peace activist in Israel, argues that the lack of a common focus is the main block to peace now in the Middle East.

“Reconciliation is impossible if either side is oblivious to the narrative of the other, their history, beliefs, perceptions, myths,” argues Avnery. “Only if the American intermediaries, neutral or otherwise, understand both can they contribute to furthering peace.”

Avnery’s thoughts are particularly valid now as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tries to keep peace negotiations alive between Israelis and Palestinians.

I still wonder: If, in my hometown, thousands of kilometers away from the Middle East, a common narrative was found based on shared commercial and cultural interests, why can’t the same occur now, based on the more important goal of peace between both peoples?

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is a contributing editor for The Globalist and a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.