The agreement between Israel and Lebanon demarcating their maritime border is a historic achievement between two countries at war, one that could usher in additional agreements on other issues; a potent strategy that could dispel centuries of distrust.
I grew up in San Miguel de Tucumán, a city in northern Argentina. At the beginning of the 1900s, Tucumán received numerous immigrants from Arab countries, among them my father who emigrated from Lebanon. Tucumán was also home to a robust Jewish population that had fled persecution during WWII. It was in Tucumán where I witnessed, as an adolescent, a microcosm of peaceful co-existence and collaboration between Arabs and Jews. Dozens of businesses owned by Arabs and Jews lined the main street of the city’s business center. Many of these businesses continue to co-exist today.
In many cases, Arab and Jewish business-owners collaborated with each other because of shared commercial interests. Hugo Japaze, an Argentinian physician whose father had a well-known store on that street, recently told me, “Both Arabs and Jews were immigrants in a new land, and they realized that they had much more to gain by working together on a friendly atmosphere than by reviving old animosities.”
In the 1950s, my father, together with two friends, founded what they called the “Cultural Atheneum Gibran Khalil Gibran,” named after the famous Lebanese poet and writer. Its main purpose was to organize lectures by noted speakers: Nobel Prize in Literature winner Miguel Angel Asturias, Claudio Sánchez Albornoz, Prime Minister of the Spanish Republican government in exile during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, and famous Argentinean writers such as Ernesto Sábato and Ezequiel Martínez Estrada.
These events were popular and attended by students, professors, and the general public. The lectures took place at the Sociedad Sirio Libanesa (Syrian and Lebanese Society). At the time, there was considerable unease among the Society’s directors about whether or not to include Jewish intellectuals. Because of my father’s untiring efforts, Jewish students and teachers were allowed to participate in the Society, something that had never happened before. In both those cases, common commercial and cultural interests promoted the collaboration between Arabs and Jews leading to a peaceful relationship between both communities.
A narrative is a group of stories that helps people make sense of their experiences and create a meaningful view of the world. 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 as human beings with the same need for safety and sovereignty.
Uri Avnery, the late leading peace activist in Israel, argued that this lack of a common narrative was the main obstacle to peace in the Middle East. “Reconciliation is impossible if either side is totally oblivious to the narrative of the other, their history, beliefs, perceptions, myths,” he said. And added, “Only if the American intermediaries, neutral or otherwise, understand both can they contribute to furthering peace.”
However, American diplomats and Arab and Israeli officials have so far proven to be ineffective and one sided in their approach to solving the long conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians, in particular have suffered from not having their rights and freedoms honored, while also suffering under corrupt and ineffective Arab leadership.
I believe that if in my hometown, thousands of miles from the Middle East, a common narrative could be found based on shared commercial and cultural interests, the same could occur now to promote peace between Arabs and Jews. Several private initiatives (in the health, human rights and commercial areas) have proven to be of value in establishing bridges of communication between Palestinians and Israelis. Much more needs to be done, however, to make peace not only possible but inevitable.