Israel & Gaza: Some thoughts on how we learn to talk

Compass staff and board members have been struggling to know whether or how to respond to the horrific recent and ongoing events in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. While Compass holds a deeply internationalist and interdependency mindset, we are not experts in foreign affairs and international diplomacy, and we do not directly represent the interests of Israelis or Palestinians. While we of course want peace and mutual security as fully and as fast as possible, taking a firm policy view from our limited perspective just does not feel right. Where Compass may have something legitimate to say is on the issues of how we might deal with seemingly intractable problems such as this, not least at a time when both anti-semitism and Islamophobia are on the rise.

So, instead of a position, we start with a series of questions: why is this conflict so hard for us to talk about? How has the issue of mutual security become so polarised, even factionalised? Where do issues of race, racism and unconscious bias fit in? How can we find the space and the tone to discuss complex and heartfelt issues in a way that builds solutions, not entrenches divisions?

The culture of British politics doesn’t help. It is adversarial, tribal and focused on the short-term, when it should be consensual, plural and focused on the long-term. The Labour Party itself has become a factional hot-house, with little goodwill and lots of enmity between its different wings. Its stumbles over the last few weeks on this issue are partly down to the narrowness of its leadership team and the lack of pluralism in the party in general. This factionalism undermines the party’s ability to address complex questions in good faith and to hold the space for difficult conversations. Over the past few years, both Jewish and Muslim communities have been badly let down by the party’s factional infighting. On the tests of pluralism and compassion, Labour has been falling short for years.

Compass starts all its analysis from the premise that we hold our values of love, tolerance and respect close and that our goal is a good society, which we define as being much more equal, sustainable and democratic. But there is much we don’t know, some things that we get wrong and always at least a grain of truth in our opponent’s argument. Understanding all three, and therefore your own limitations and contradictions, is the foundation for a meaningful and enduring political project.

All too often people on either side of debates, such as this terrible conflict, simply talk past and over each other, refusing to believe that those who want a different outcome have genuine and authentic reasons for their stance. The horrifying events in Israel and Gaza take this binary and tribal attitude to the level of human tragedy. Instead of ‘Othering’ those we find ourselves in conflict with, we should look at our shared values and interdependent needs, and do our best to understand the assumptions that drive people with seemingly different views. People need the time and space, the culture and the structures to build meaningful relationships, and through them, trust. 

It can be done. Peace is never eternal and justice is never complete. But while hugely different in terms of context and history, places like Northern Ireland and South Africa show that when the best leadership meets the best of the population, meaningful progress can be made. Right now, that looks a long way off in Israel and Gaza, but through the patient and systematic building of connections, relationships and eventually trust, peace does have a chance. Likewise, the prospect of a Two State Solution feels equally remote right now – but it will only come from a politics of courage, patience, kindness and generosity.

A future worth having is always negotiated and never imposed, in the UK and everywhere. We want to see a democratic and participatory politics build the much more equal and sustainable world we all dream of. We want peace and security for all as soon as possible. This all starts with the right questions and the best possible conversations, the ability to listen and to be expanded by the different views and experiences we encounter. We need to get beyond polarising narratives that pit us against one another in some endless zero sum game. We need a politics of pluralism, which calls for more sophisticated ways of conducting dialogue, ways that connect us across our differences.

Some articles and podcasts we feel get close to the level of nuance needed for this moment include:

We are Westminster MPs of Palestinian and Israeli descent – this is our call for peace | Layla Moran and Alex Sobel | The Guardian

Mired in trivia, British political discourse is utterly unfit for times of war | Rafael Behr | The Guardian

The tragedy of the Israel-Palestine conflict is this: underneath all the horror is a clash of two just causes | Jonathan Freedland | The Guardian

Violence rages in Gaza, but a meeting of Jewish and Muslim women has given me hope | Remona Aly | The Guardian

The Road Back from Hell | Daniel Levy | The New York Times

Ezra Klein’s recent series of episodes: The Ezra Klein Show on Apple Podcasts

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