Israeli Scholar in Malaysia

Working for Peace

Specialising in intercivilisational conflict resolution, Dr Ben Mollov says the heightened understanding that comes through cultural and religious dialogue has always been overlooked in the Middle East peace process

ERIKA FRY, Bangkok Post, Jan. 20, 2008

Back in the ’70s, when he was a teenager in Queens, New York, Dr Ben Mollov founded his high school’s Middle Eastern cultures club.

Since then, Mollov has aged several decades, earned several advanced degrees, and moved to Israel – yet his efforts and interest in currying cultural exchange, albeit now on a much grander, more global and grown-up scale, have remained more or less the same.

A professor of social sciences at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, Mollov has made the study of managing and mediating conflict through cultural and religious dialogue the basis of his life’s work.

A prolific writer and lecturer on the subject, Mollov was in Bangkok last week en route to a conference in Malaysia, where despite the lack of Israel-Malaysian diplomatic relations (Malaysian passports read “valid in every country but Israel”), he was invited to speak about moderating intercivilisational conflict. He also spoke there in 2005, when, in his first visit to the country, he was pleasantly surprised to be received by audience applause, a prominently displayed Israeli flag and inter-faith bonding with Muslim conference participants over the troubles in finding Halal and Kosher food when travelling.

Growing up, Mollov was imbued with a strong sense of Jewish identity. His parents were Zionists – his father, an American G.I. in World War II, had fought in the Battle of the Bulge and liberated a concentration camp; his mother, a celebrated personality in the field of Jewish dance. In college, he was involved with Israel and exposed to a handful of professor mentors that had survived the Holocaust and inspired him in their strength, spirit and commitment to public service.

He would later write his dissertation on Hans J. Morgenthau, a Jewish political scientist that Mollov admired for similar qualities, which to him, embody the optimism of the German-Jewish experience in its ability to transcend great tragedy.

Mollov: “You need cultural means to moderate cultural conflict.”

“These men survived the darkest of times and created exceptional lives. They give great hope in surviving great adversity.”

Upon completing his master’s degree, he moved to Israel to live in the tradition of Aliya – the Jewish “ascension to the spiritual ideal”.

A religious Jew living in Israel, much of Mollov’s work has focused on, and grown out of, his personal connection to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which he characterises as being deeply rooted in culture and religion, but which leaders have tried to treat politically.

“Many want to leave religion and culture out of the process, believing it will lead to disaster, but in many ways you can’t. Without taking into account the narrative of culture, you ignore an important part. You need cultural means to moderate cultural conflict.”

Mollov, who has lived in Israel – and for some of that time, in a settlement – for 18 years, describes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of “parallel awakenings”, in which two cultures have collided because they “share strong cultural connection to the same land”.

Mollov sees the situation in plain terms: “The Jewish civilisation was there before Islam, and Islam was there when Jews were not active in the region. There needs to be understanding that both cultures have an attachment to the region and there has to be symmetry and space for both.”

In achieving this symmetry, he says, “You don’t give up your own truth. You have to listen more, and listen in a real way. It’s not about surrendering your own interests, but about finding common ground to share.”

For example, in the case of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he says both cultures share an “animating vision of Holy Land”, and could unite through this symbol and in a sense of spirituality. “Religion doesn’t have to be cause of strife, it can be worked with in a positive way”.

Right now, though, he acknowledges that Holy Land – Jerusalem – is “symbolic of the difficulty” in the process. While Palestinians have pushed for control of the city, Mollov says that because of the cultural and religious significance of Jerusalem to Jewish identity it is impossible to “give it up without giving up existence.”

For this reason, Mollov advocates involving respected religious leaders in the conflict resolution process, believing that such figures “speak a common language” and will have a more profound impact in shaping public understanding and the will to reconcile than any politicians and political dealings would.

Israeli border policemen arrest an Israeli settler after he attempted to establish an outpost on the West Bank.

Change through contact

In addition to resolving conflict through cultural and religious exchange, Mollov emphasises the effectiveness of a “people-to-people” approach – or one which creates understanding and dialogue by getting people together and getting them talking.

“Deeper elements of identity are very real forces. The best way to change attitudes is through contact.”

He witnessed the power of the “contact” technique himself, when, during the late ’90s, he led regular dialogue sessions with Israeli and Palestinian students. Though the process was slow, over time he saw conversations become less strained and students grow more comfortable with each other and the opposite perspective.

Despite the success and heightened understanding he has seen through cultural and religious dialogue, he says it has always been overlooked in the Middle East peace process, and is particularly lacking now – when all mediation is directed at elites and politicians.

For this reason, as well as the ongoing division and violence within Palestine, and the general sense of “tiredness”, disillusionment and distrust that followed from the failed Middle East peace talks of the ’90s, Mollov is skeptical about the renewed push for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and US President George Bush’s recent pledge to have a peace agreement by 2008.

“A comprehensive peace agreement by the end of year is ambitious. I’d say principles rather than agreement might be a possibility.

“I’m not saying it’s not worth trying, but conditions are less favourable than they were under the Oslo period – when there was an atmosphere of hope on both sides and an existing mechanism of trust.”

Mollov believes that in the past there were two great setbacks in the peace process: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, who “had power and prestige on both sides,” and the rejection of the peace agreement by Yassar Arafat.

These developments still bother Mollov. “Not every Israeli action has been wise or most optimum, but we need to hear some Palestinian accountability. They reject a peace offer, they must accept some responsibility.”

That said, he acknowledges that Palestinians have their own criticisms, and both sides need to be willing to compromise and abandon the traditional attitude, that, “what’s ours is ours and what’s yours is negotiable. Israel is not used to that kind of bargaining.” He expects that, whenever a solution is reached, it will involve a two-state framework and a compromise on Jerusalem.

To get there he hopes to see more of the sort of cultural and religious dialogue that can promote understanding within society. “The two publics are going to have to be able to hope again. We need to develop a transaction that can empower both sides. When that is done, and both sides empowered, you will discover the best of both sides.”

In the meantime, Mollov expects his countrymen will continue to deal with the instability with the same strength of spirit that he admired in his mentors.

“Israelis have developed a very particular mechanism of coping. They focus on the day to day, seeming to ignore tensions around them.”

Mollov, who once survived a terrorist attack himself, and initially reacted militantly, has changed his own tactics, “I do feel that succumbing to hatred is to give them victory because you are no longer yourself.”

BIO DATA

Dr Bejamin Mollov was born in New York City on Sept 28, 1953. He studied political science at Queens College, and received a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International Affairs. He earned his PhD in Political Studies from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, where he now lectures on conflict resolution and international relations. Prior to his life in academia, he was a journalist. Dr Mollov is divorced and has one son.

Source: Bangkok Post

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