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The Politics of Tolerance – Israel and Palestine

Submitted by on February 23, 2010 – 11:09 pmNo Comment

The Israeli Government is building a Jewish museum on top of a Palestinian cemetery. It will be called the Museum of Tolerance.

This is the story that Professor Saree Makdisi, professor of English literature at the University of California in Los Angeles, told a packed Seymour Centre audience recently.

“Morally speaking, the museum makes a mockery of the term tolerance” he said, arguing that the museum is not about tolerance for the ‘other’ but rather tolerance of the ‘self’.

“The linguistic logic of the term is being turned upside down,” Professor Makdisi said.

The Museum of Tolerance, Jerusalem – an educational arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre – has been described as a testament to human dignity and tolerance. Yet it received the go ahead from the Israeli Supreme Court in October 2008, only after a three-year legal battle over Muslim claims about the historical relevance of the site.

Professor Makdisi uses the museum story to highlight the contradictions that have occurred in the Israel and Palestinian conflict.

As he indicates the problem here is that governments who promote ‘tolerance’ towards minority groups are merely saying ‘we think you’re wrong but we will not persecute you for it’. However in the case of the Palestinians, achieving tolerated status would be close to a miracle.

Tolerance is not easy to define. And political tolerance is even harder.

Much of the literature on political tolerance is based on the work of Samuel Stouffer who describes the act of political tolerance “as extending civil liberties to individuals or a group with differing ideas”. Yet individuals show less tolerance towards groups they fear.

A Palestinian I spoke to described the everyday reality of living in Israel – as an Arab in a Jewish state – as being very disheartening. “It sucks the life out of your existence, your opportunities are less and less and you are reminded daily that you are not only a minority, but one that has to be kept in check.”

“Given that the notion of tolerance within Western countries is closely associated with a citizen’s rights, within the state of Israel an inherent inequality exists due to the fact that Jewish citizens enjoy privileges and rights that are not given to non-Jewish citizens,” he said.

Politics of fear is something we in Australia (and also the US) unfortunately know a bit about. During both the Howard and Bush regimes, fear campaigns were employed to accelerate their agenda.

The ‘weapons of mass destruction’ justification for invading Iraq is evidence that generating fear is one of the most powerful and dangerous weapons of modern politics. And former Prime Minister Howard attempt to link refugees with terrorists by claiming that they were being concealed amongst asylum seekers.

Palestinians, a minority, are not tolerated in Israel. The Israeli West Bank barrier is a testimony to this.  Also known as an “anti-sniper wall”, it separates Palestinians in such a way that many have drawn parallels with the apartheid in South Africa.  But Professor Makdisi suggests that this apartheid is much more sinister. “The Israeli apartheid is about the irrelevance, the removal and the erasure of the Palestinians”.

If Palestinians in the West Bank want to visit the museum, once construction is complete, they would have to pass through numerous checkpoints and obtain permits to enter Israel.  Even then, it would be a formidable venture.

The museum’s claim that it is a centre of human dignity is undermined by this process, which involves a compromise of self-esteem and self-respect.

So it is safe to assume that visiting the tolerance museum would not be high on Palestinians’ bucket list.

Antony Loewenstein, Sydney based journalist and author of My Israeli Question said that the issue of tolerance and understanding was central to resolution of the Israel and Palestine conflict, but it isn’t enough.

“There are two fundamentally unequal sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, and one, the Palestinians, are under occupation,” he said. “There can be little real change on the ground, where it matters, until Israel ends its illegal occupation of Palestinian land. Maybe then, tolerance (or more ideally, acceptance) could lead to reconciliation”.

Lowenstein said tolerance was not the ideal outcome and that acceptance was a more sincere approach to reconciliation.

To tolerate someone is to grant them freedom to do what you disapprove of. In more general terms, tolerance is used to describe an onerous task of having to put up with something or someone.

Therefore, toleration is not a step closer to reconciliation. Nor does it promote understanding of diversity and/or acceptance.

Singing from the same song sheet as Loewenstein, Laurie Ferguson, Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services, agrees that ‘acceptance’ is the way to go.

“Acceptance is a better outcome to pursue than tolerance,” said Ferguson.  “Acceptance implies mutual respect and recognition between people and their causes. It affords the generosity needed to understand and draw on the strengths of different interests and perspectives.”

He also suggested “tolerance is subject to interpretation and can be seen as enduring or suffering through difference”.

Endurance and suffering is a prevalent feature in Australian historical narratives.  Typically, fear of the unknown is another common theme of these narratives.

Recent questions about racism in Australia seem all too miniscule in the face of what is happening globally. Although the residual effects of the Howard Government reveal a different story, Australia is, to a viable extent, a politically tolerant country.

And we don’t have to compare ourselves to the Israel and Palestine conflict to know this.

However the term tolerance is pernicious meme because it insinuates that tolerance is an achievement rather than a bare minimum requirement in a global society.  Ferguson offers hope in his view that “Australia’s diversity is a significant asset to be embraced and celebrated, not simply tolerated”.

Often, tolerance requires a certain amount of sacrifice and change with the will to achieve it. The Jewish narrative in Israel leaves no room for competing stories.

The Palestinian narrative is being eclipsed by its lack of power and resources, thus diminishing Palestinians’ capacity to express themselves.

In this situation tolerance gets in the way of personal interest. And this is predominantly why acceptance of others is such a difficult task.

Original Publication date 30 July 2009.

Sikni Hamka

Image credits:

The lost sunset – A view to peace image by Oddsock on Flickr. Used in accordance with a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

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