Comment: Marcia Riklis

Comments are in response to the book “Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East” by Abdel Monem Said Aly, Shai Feldman and Khalil Shikaki.

I am a student of literature. Not history. Not political science. In my world, stories have endings. Whether happy or sad, when you come to the last page of a novel, everything is tied up in a neat bow, characters and events are accounted for, futures are known, and there is, in the perhaps flawed language of psychology, closure. Not so in the real world. And certainly not so in the world of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“There is much to be learned from this, and it is more than the facts and figures contained in this mammoth and groundbreaking work. History is not a novel, but rather a series of narratives that different peoples can see from different perspectives.”

Without even knowing it, this conflict has defined my life. As a child, I thought little about it. I was steeped in the Israeli narrative. Visits to Ein Gedi and Dgania reinforced the image of beautiful idealistic pioneers bringing life and vitality to an empty country. In our frequent trips to Israel, we stayed in my family's hometown of Tel-Aviv, and on the rare visit to Jerusalem, I looked at the barbed wire fence that divided the city with little understanding of what it was and what it meant.

When I went to live in Jerusalem in 1970, Israel was still in the heady euphoria of the aftermath of the quick victory of the war of June 1967. I joyfully and unabashedly wandered the streets of the Old City with my friends: enjoying the unique smells, the fine food, and the messy jumble of life and garb which made me feel as though I had entered a time capsule I had no appreciation for the people I saw and for what might be their perspective on the arrogant youth who bargained in their bazaars, enjoyed Humous in their restaurants, and contentedly sipped their milky and delicious sahlab in their coffee shops. And then came the war of 1973.

My group of friends, typical of our generation, were torn in different directions as each fought the war on different fronts. I myself became deeply engaged in helping to provide basic services like mail and transportation to the women, children and old people who remained behind in the cities. Eventually, I watched the wounded and the crippled return. I saw death and destruction close up. Most of my friends returned from the war, but some had lost limbs, and some lost younger siblings.

“I do not believe that a textbook can change the world, but perhaps it can change a mind.”

We began to ask questions. We wanted to better understand the nature of the wars that had always seemed inevitable. More importantly, we began to want to understand and to know “the other”. The Old City was no longer a place to buy fresh bread at 2:00 in the morning, but a place filled with people who had a different story. The ground shifted beneath me, and I began to shift with it. The questions remained. Life became complicated. I longed to return to that time of youthful ignorance.

But life is not a novel. And even in novels, heroes have to grow and change.

Six years ago, I visited Shai Feldman in Boston, and spent the afternoon observing a class that he and Khalil Shikaki were teaching at Brandeis on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This purely academic approach to something that felt so personal, actually touched me in a very personal way. That evening, Shai and I sat in an Italian restaurant in Boston, discussing the possibilities of turning this very successful course into a textbook. It seemed to me like a no brainer. After all, they had succeeded in working together to imagine and teach the course. They had similarly facilitated high level meetings of Track II negotiations. What would be the difficulty of translating those experiences into a textbook? It would be completely new, there was nothing like it. To teach their class, they had been forced to draw from a number of texts and xeroxed pages. How wonderful would it be to have the history of the conflict, and the differing narratives, all in one simple textbook?

I use the word simple, and now realize that perhaps I did retain my youthful innocence after all. As the project unfolded, it was my great privilege to sit together with these three brilliant and very different personalities as they took on the daunting task of defining history. Each word needed discussion, and even negotiation. How do you present facts that all can agree on? Where do facts end and narrative begin? How to present an unbiased analysis? The difficulty of the work was augmented by the fact that they all had day jobs, and in different countries no less!

But I also had the privilege of watching a great friendship flourish. As they worked together, as they struggled to birth something totally new, they gained greater and greater insight. The immense professional respect they had for one another became immense personal respect as well. Their wives became friends too, and often grueling work sessions ended with exuberant and cheerful dinners. I even had the fabulous surprise of welcoming them all, with their wives, at the surprise 60th birthday party my children and Michael gave me. It was a long six years to write this book, but it was also a wonderful six years.

Last week, I was in Israel, and as I rode from the airport to Jerusalem, I could not help but be struck by the large and looming wall that divides the two peoples. Like Robert Frost, I cannot help but wonder do “Good fences make good neighbors” — or do they block the sunlight from both sides and ultimately lay waste to both gardens?

Many years ago, a rabbi told me and my husband-to-be the story of a tennis ball that was painted black on one side and white on the other. He explained that if we stood on different sides, and he held up the ball and asked us each what color it was, one would say “black” and one would say “white” — and we would both be right.

There is much to be learned from this, and it is more than the facts and figures contained in this mammoth and groundbreaking work. History is not a novel, but rather a series of narratives that different peoples can see from different perspectives.

I am proud to have supported this project. I am not naïve. I do not believe that a textbook can change the world, but perhaps it can change a mind. Perhaps if a generation of young people can read about the centuries old Arab-Israeli conflict, they can learn to see the different narratives that make history. Perhaps in a graduate level college course, taken by Arab and Jew alike, they can learn to break down walls, even if only in the classroom, as they come to understand that two peoples can look at the same tennis ball and one can see black and one can see white. A textbook can not make peace, but perhaps it can help to grow a generation of young people who will be willing at last to put some of that past aside and move forward into a brave new world.

Delivered at Brandeis House New York and at the Royal United Services Institute in London.