Racial Reconciliation and Prosperity   


Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 8, 2015

                  



 
 
 
 

Much of my professional life involves applying democratic, participatory decision-making methods in order to catalyze and bring to fruition human development initiatives.  We are fortunate that these enjoy a high success rate, leading to shared socioeconomic and environmental benefits.  Interestingly, when we come to study such experiences, a fairly consistent common factor emerges – that of conflict.
 
In the case of Morocco, for example, where, particularly in rural areas, we facilitate community dialogue to implement development projects, disagreement typically stems from a clash of ideas as to what constitutes the necessary social development and which initiatives should take priority. 
 
In respect of similar situations worldwide – where causes of social discord are non-racial – proven, well-established participatory methods exist to help local groups identify goals, work through differences and meet an array of practical human needs. 
 
However, across the globe there are also communities that cannot embark on such a path of joint development planning because they experience a type of conflict rooted in ethnicity or race that prevents parties even from entering the same room and engaging in discussion concerning their relationships.
 
In these cases too, participatory methodology can be employed to break down hurtful, deeply entrenched barriers and assist in reconciliation by enabling parties to share their stories, give recognition and express regret.  This process, once achieved, can lead to a previously undreamt of situation whereby the new, productive relationships are not only embodied in treaties and agreements but acted upon through collaborative planning and implementation for growth.
 
Opening an inclusive conversation is the essential first step towards what can methodically lead to multi-racial collaboration for prosperity and peace.  A brave example of the application of this methodology of reconciliation is The ‘Race Together’ initiative launched by Starbucks in 2014 to promote community dialogue on matters of interethnic relations in the United States.  Appropriately returning social and political discourse to the modern-day coffee house – traditionally a center of debate – this voluntary participatory exercise involves expressing and listening to people’s life experiences as they are shaped by aspects of racial identity.  The ensuing social media negativity expressed against Starbucks, simply for inviting American communities to discuss issues relating to race relations, brought into sharp focus the barriers to progress that exist in this area.   
 
For such a project to make a real social impact – to enable the building of a substantial base of emotional knowledge encompassing, for example, an understanding of the depth of feeling experienced by African Americans at tragedies such as Ferguson – individual conversations need to be catalyzed millions of times.
 
Advancing to greater scale requires two further factors – the large-scale training of facilitators and economic stimulus measures.  The former could involve, for example, the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships in funding training programs for individuals from religious communities to be facilitators of community-based racial dialogue.  The latter might include investment in town hall discussions on race relations in order to bridge divides so that new local growth projects can together be assessed and achieved.
 
Were the process to occur on a national scale, the outcome – reconciliation dialogue leading to joint development planning – could muster bottom-up pressure on national leaders to pursue with sincerity equal opportunity policies among diverse groups. 
 
In the run-up to the March 2015 elections, the Israeli electorate was disenfranchised when their prime minister played musical chairs with kindred far-right parties to the tune of primal and delusionary political and racial obscenities.  Is it not an irony that some of those Jewish extremists of European origin, recipients of “white privilege” in Israeli society, in addition do not especially appreciate fellow Jewish citizens who originate from Arab countries and who themselves experience institutional racism?  The situation in Israel exemplifies an inherent aspect of white supremacist systems; they determine the power relationships between members of the same ethnic or racial group as well as external relationships with other groups.
 
At this high level where the healing of racial divides needs to take place, the third-party role would be performed by NGOs, education centers and individuals who coordinate community meetings, ensuring all parties are present and heard.  This is necessary in order for local reconciliation movements to become a cohesive, wide scale and rising social force enabling ever larger groups to gain greater control over events that shape their lives. 
 
Practically speaking, willing members of groups in conflict need to meet and directly discuss in places – within communities themselves – where they can recognize each others’ hardship and build improved cross-relationships. The U.S. as well as European and Asian nations should seek, therefore, to fund every opportunity for Israeli-Palestinian community-based dialogue and remove restrictive criteria (including that for joint technological development) that hinder funding being received for projects involving both parties' collaboration.
 
The same may be said in respect of healing the Sunni-Shia divide that convulses much of the Middle East. Direct, local dialogue between ethnic and religious parties whose intense animosity threatens the fabric of entire societies, remains the one option that is both immediately applicable and ultimately sustainable.   
 
Catalyzing and maintaining localized talks and reconciliation processes in a creative, strategic and broad manner could promote a bottom-up surge in societies and increase tendencies toward federalist or decentralized public administrative systems. Sub-national levels would be empowered, gaining strengthened managerial capacities.  Further, through coalitions and advocacy they would be in a position to pressure and shape national levels in their diverse and more inclusive image.  Currently we are witnessing this phenomenon within the U.S. Republican Party as pressure grows from states and young members around the country to create a national platform cognizant of the human interests of GLBT Americans.       
 
Implementing processes of reconciliation leading to human development and economic growth and prosperity need not wait for enlightened national (and international) leadership – indeed it cannot, considering the global urgency.  In truth the fulfillment of this task lies in the hands of each and every one of us at the present moment.
 
Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir is an American sociologist with a particular interest in the MENA region.  He lives and works in Marrakesh, Morocco. 
E-mail: yossef@highatlasfoundation.org


Sylvester Moses
This piece is a thoughtful take on reconciliation, and a prescription for polarization in Liberia too. We wonder, however, whether the analysis of the difference between the attitudes of Arabian and European Jews in Israel on the Palestinian question isn’t too simplistic.

Seemingly, the name “Israel” for the typical European Jew connoted an ancestral shrine, and the allure to “repossess” it was a cosmic pull. On top of that longing was the restlessness of not “belonging”, and the continual pogroms in Europe which culminated into a fulsome fiery final solution the evil of man devised, and inflicted on his kind. On the other hand, the Arab Jews didn’t get it any easy, but they accepted their lot as long as they were left alone to go about their business, worship their God, and live according to Judaic customs. And it was through this acceptance of a second class role that they found accommodation, and some sort of solace amongst a sea of Arabs, some friendly, some indifferent, some disdainful, and some hostile.

It was under that status quo of a Palestinian and Jewish uneasy concord Benjamin Disraeli, a European Jew, who would later become a powerful British Prime Minister, visited Palestine (then under the Ottoman Empire), present day Israel. From that visit of a lone European Jew to the concept of Zionism within the Jewish Diaspora, to Jewish agitation against British rule in Palestine, and to the 1948 Balfour declaration, the centuries of yearning of European Jewry was at hand. And they were resolved to not be denied.

That’s the backdrop for the apprehension of Israelis from Europe when they’re confronted with threats of the extinction of that real estate they’ve a shared right to. It doesn’t excuse accusations of their tribalism, or reversed racism against Palestinians, yet it frames their paranoia. Fear, Dr. Youssef Ben - Meir, is that temptress with the power to incite “our baser nature”. Peace in that region is harmony within an oasis of endless woes. We can’t give up on it, not now; Jews and Arabs need it to start breathing freely with giddy abandon like normal human beings.
Sylvester Moses at 01:15PM, 2015/04/08.
Paul Jeebah Albert
Thanks Mr. Sylvester Moses for sharing your thoughts on this very insightful essay written by Dr. Ben-Meir. You mentioned in your commentary that you were wondering whether Dr. Ben-Meir is not “over- simplistic” in looking at the Arab-European Jewish differences particularly when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli question.

Notwithstanding I do not think that Dr. Ben-Meir is overly simplistic. He is Jewish and judging from his writings, who else can better articulate the history and the dimensions of the Arab-Israeli problems better than he?

The focus of his essay is mainly on how true, constructive dialogue among hostile groups can lead to genuine reconciliation and conflict resolution.

Perhaps what we as Liberians need to learn from these kinds of writings are the examples of the approaches that the author cited being a conflict resolution expert by profession, to diffuse regional tensions and adopt his experiences to the hard-to-go-away issues that divide us as Liberians.

Paul Jeebah Albert at 10:06AM, 2015/04/10.
Sylvester Moses
Thanks, Paul, but I know Dr. Ben Meir is Jewish, and accepts his formula for “reconciliation” that’s why it should be a “prescription” for our efforts. Nonetheless, his analysis of the differing worldviews of Arabian and European Jews on the Palestinian question could be indicative of his background, philosophical outlook, leanings vis - a - vis Israeli domestic politics, and its international implications, especially in the west.

Of course, granted that he understands the Israeli dilemma better than I, yet his status doesn’t make his opinions infallible. If it were so, most Liberians would concur with those academics whose intention in Gbarnga was to nail Christianity on Liberia by fiat. But, Paul, “simplistic” isn’t the right word - for which I apologize to Youssef - “biased” would’ve been apt. Once again thanks; it is such give and take that makes “the perspective. Org” one of the many templates for dialogue in search of peace.
Sylvester Moses at 10:50PM, 2015/04/10.
Sylvester Moses
To close on our contrasting views on the position of Dr. Youssef Ben - Moir relative to the Palestinian question, Paul, I think his very kinship to the issue, and expert knowledge on reconciliation made it impossible to be a detached, unbiased observer.
Sylvester Moses at 10:39AM, 2015/04/11.
Paul Jeebah Albert
Thanks Mr. Sylvester Moses: I strongly believe you too. His years of dealing with such intractable issues and seen the rights and wrongs emanating from both sides, have helped in weaving his world views.

Keep up the good work. I do read many of your views on our national issues. Stay above the fray and strive for objectivity always. You've got what it takes! You do not have to attack people.

Personality attacks is only a sign of intellectual laziness!



Paul Jeebah Albert at 01:02PM, 2015/04/17.

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