OJPCR 1.1: Seeking Arab-Israeli Peacemaking and Reconciliation through Culture


by Ada A. Aharoni
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger that announces peace!” (Bible – Isaiah 52)
“He who walks with peace – walk with him!” (Koran)
Literature about peace has been written from the days of the Bible: prose and poems announcing peace, as with the Biblical and Koran messengers quoted above, writings celebrating peace that give us the inner feelings and immediate texture of what being at peace, or at war, actually is and means; and also powerful creative works describing, exposing and condemning the absurdity of war. These various aspects of the theme of peace in the various ethnic cultures, have through the ages been important stepping stones towards abating passions between conflicting parties, and conveying and creating an atmosphere conducive to peace.

The cultural climate of peace is crucial to the Middle East at this historic moment, after half a century of strife, when the conflicting parties are at last involved in a peace process that can bring stability and security to the region. The despairing feeling in Israel and in its neighboring Arab countries, that there was nobody to talk to on the other side, was alleviated when the Egyptian leader, the late President Anwar Sadat, made his historic move, and was received in Jerusalem with renewed hope and joy. The tragic letdown felt by the people of both sides, after the murders of the two peace leaders Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin, only strengthened the will of the people on both sides to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.


The Use of Culture as Peace Conveyor

During the past forty five years, the political and diplomatic approaches towards the Arab-Israeli conflict have proved to be insufficient. All efforts should be exerted today to research, explore and utilize other various possible approaches. One of the main approaches which should certainly be considered and fully explored, is the culural approach and the artistic media. The system of international peacemaking, including conflict resolution and the media, would benefit from using the cultural approach in areas of deep-rooted conflict, such as that in the Middle East. To reach those deep levels of hurt and mistrust accumulated over the years, a vehicle appropriated to reach feelings should be used, and what could be more appropriate than literature, which is at the heart of ethnic culture. Prose, poetry and art have through the ages proved themselves to be eloquent mirrors and ambassadors for the cause of peace, and for forming bridges among nations, even conflicting ones.

In the interesting exhibition recently exhibited at Haifa University, there was a painting which caught my eye as specially relevant to our subject: the painting of the Chessmen and the mutilated Chessboard, by the artist, Samuel Bak. The guide explained the painting in the following manner: “The chessmen protest against the absurdity of war, and the failure of the political approach to prevent war and poverty.” The messsage was rendered in a moving, eloquent, vivid and immediate way. Thus art can help the individual in various ways: as a mirror of his own feelings, thoughts and desires, as well as those of his society, as a catalyst in self-clarification and renewed points of view, and in realizing past and present limitations to peaceful coexistence.

Many people lack an overall picture of what peace might mean despite their great yearning for peace; culture and the arts can help in the process of increasing their awareness as to its potentialities. It can build up ideological, emotional and psychological motivation and knowledge that can help towards a foreseeable future of reconciliation. It can also convey the horrors of war and the atmosphere of fear, in a most immediate, profound and crucial way. The conflict in the Middle East is not only a question of policies, it is also one of deep emotion and feeling. Art and literature can convey what no political speech can convey. As a vehicle of feelings, it is particularly suited for reflecting, creating and spreading the atmosphere of peace, which we all yearn for.

Refreshing New Outlooks

I arrived at this conclusion during my sabbatical at the University of Pennsylvanis in 1990, when I was invited to read poetry at various forums. I read poems dealing with various subjects: philosophical, love and peace; and to my surprise, the poems dealing with peace generated the greatest interest and had the strongest impact. Was it a fashion for topical poetry, I asked myself, or is there a special interest in the Middle East conflict? Later, I realized that the aesthetic approach generated a genuine interest and refreshing new outlooks based on effective processes of comprehension and identification. I was also invited to join the Middle-East Reconciliation Panel, together with a Palestinian, Lutfiah Milhelm, who claimed she represented the silent peaceful majority of the Palestinian people, and Hussein El Gohary an Egyptian intellectual. This mixed panel created widespread interest, and we appeared on several platforms, including TV, radio, universities, churches, synagogues and debating forums. I noticed that when I talked about the “Chances of Peace in the Middle-East,” heads nodded, but when I read peace poetry, eyes lit up and lips twitched; and I realised that the potential and impact of culture and literature as a vehicle for attitudes and responses related to peace, was tremendous.

The Crucial Role of Literature and Television

Following the positive feedback I received, I arrived at the conclusion that culture and literature are indeed media that can provide the reflection and dissemination of the feelings and ideas necessary for the development of the peace climate. A poem is, according to A.C. Bradley, the British literary critic, “the succession of experience, sounds, images, thoughts, emotions through which we pass when we are reading.” Today we can also add “when we are viewing’, as the best we have on television, in drama, or films or interviews, comes from literature, as for instance, the recent Jane Austen series, or the moving film presentation of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

This imaginative experience is most successful when it involves desires, motives and purposes, through the identifying process. The desire for peace in the hearts of the people of the Middle East is a real and basic one. Literature can indeed fulfil a crucial role in reflecting this keen desire, and in helping it to develop, by building up attitudes and responses conducive to a consensus for peace between Israelis and the Arabs. If we succeed in this, it may be an example for other conflict regions, such as Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The possibilities of culture as a medium in our endeavours to build a bridge to peace, are as yet untackled. Research and promotion of Peace Literature, can constitute a highly comprehensive and important contribution in peace studies, and peacemaking and reconciliation at the national level. Culture and literature are powerful tools for overcoming borders of nationalism and conflicts.

Objectives of Peace Literature Research

In interdisciplinary departments of Peace Studies, the investigation of peace literature is a necessary integral ingredient, and it should be based on serious scholarly work and training. Literature, which mirrors individual relationships and various aspects of our society, can, with a high measure of realism, impart the idealogical, political and psychological realities that we would like to reflect or change. The Israeli population yearns for peace. Israeli children vigorously waved welcoming flags to President Anwar Sadat during his visit in Jerusalem. But having gone through five wars, and known forty five years of insecurity, they are afraid lest giving up what they esteem crucial for their security, they might again be faced with the horrors of war. Their fears, hopes and genuine yearning for an end of the conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbors, have been described and conveyed in numerous valuable literary works of poetry and prose. These should be researched and utilized as first-hand documents for understanding the people’s mentality, psychology and predicament. The same kind of research should be conducted in the Arab countries. Through literary research, a great contribution can be made towards abating conflicts, fears, softening passions, and reinforcing hopes for peace.

Powerful Voices for Peace

Hence, the research of the various levels and possibilities of the themes of peace in poetry, novels and drama and bringing them to the attention of the wide public, can constitute an effort of unique value. Though we do not have as yet in Israel a Tolstoy, who has contributed a monumental ‘War and Peace’ masterpiece to this field, or a Wilfred Owen, the First World War British peace poet – fresh, inspiring and powerful voices for peace have been heard in literature such as those of Yehuda Amichai, Dahlia Rabikovitch, Leah Goldberg and Amir Gilboa in poetry; and Sammy Michael, S. Izhar, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua in fiction and drama.

In the Arab Israeli sector, the late Emile Habibi was awarded the “Israel Prize for Literature,” and promising writers and dramatists such as Muhammad Watad and Mahmoud Abassi wrote works in which the Israeli Arabs are portrayed as a possible bridge to peace and understanding with the Arab countries. The important works of these writers and poets should be widely researched and published, and they should be brought to the attention of the people on both sides of the Arab-Israel conflict, and to the world.

A Concrete Partnership

In a framework of Peace Research, there can develop a concrete partnership between Arab and Israeli creative writers, literary scholars and scholarship. This can benefit the cause of the advancement of peace in various ways: Israeli and Arab scholars, writers and poets, will be able to discover each other intellectually and emotionally and may come to the realization that the same ideas, feelings, hesitations and fears, are shared by both sides. Furthermore, literary research can also highlight not only identical feelings and predicaments shared by both sides, but also mutual and separate links and heritages, as well as mutual prejudices and mistakes. The results of these investigations should be brought to the knowledge of the wide public that would benefit from the fruits of the research through increased awareness and the diffusion of a harmonious peace climate. This new productive atmosphere would in its turn enhance exciting and prolific creative works of value. Efforts should also be made to cooperate with writers, poets and scholars on the West Bank; and there should also be collaborative efforts with literature scholars in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Arabian Gulf. This regional effort could in time generate and mobilize worldwide literary support for the global pursuit of peace.

Naguib Mahfouz and Tewfik El-Hakim

The most prominent amongst the Egyptian writers, the well-known Nobel Prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz, and Tewfik El-Hakim, for years incessantly admonished through literary works, the necessity for Egypt to end the conflict with Israel. An interesting fact which El-Hakim reminded us of in an article he published in the French weekly Nouvel Observateur (December, 1977), before the signing of the Peace Treaty, is that it is the former Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abba Eban, who translated his famous book, Diary of a Village Complainant, from Arabic into English in 1947. In Israel, Naguib Mahfouz’s books are very popular; and the play, The Tree Climber, written by Tewfik El-Hakim (1962) was performed and highly acclaimed. The showing of an Egyptian play on the Israeli stage (“Tzavta” Theater), is not only an important artistic accomplishment, but also a turnpoint of significant symbolic value Ð it can be considered a promising beginning of ties between Israel and contemporary Egyptian literature.

Peace Literature

Peace literature could be made part and parcel of curriculum plans and materials in the educational systems of both Israel and the Arab countries from kindergarden through university. This could open the eyes of the new generation about the realities of peace development, and the possibility of its attainability. Investment in mobilizing existing peace literary resources for education, and generating and encouraging new ones through providing grants, information and technical support, could have an extremely advantageous and high payoff. Thus, the research, enhancement and dissemination of peace literature in education, could fulfil an extremely important and overdue need in both Israel and the Arab countries, benefiting the whole of the Middle East and the whole world.

Engage and Disengaged Art

These new departments and sections of literary Peace Studies, could promote the publication of periodical journals of peace literature research, and original creative works. The journals would foster and disseminate the developments made in literary peace studies and publish new creative works of importance in the field. It could also award prizes and grants to engaged and conscious writers of excellence, who have made major contributions. Unfortunately, there is still sometimes a certain irrational fear and reticence of what is termed in stereotyped, literary jargon, “engage art,” even when this art is expressed in a vividly moving and personal manner. Following the theories of Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Schiller and Goethe, art for art’s sake is still often the major mode and fashion. There is in some sectors a refusal to admit that the experience of war and the strong yearning for peace in Israel and the whole world, is so much an integral part of our lives, that they have also become basic themes in our best literature. Writers are often termed the consciousness of a nation and that onsciousness and deep awareness of that which affects them most in their daily lives is necessarily expressed through their art. It is illogical to think that the contemporary Isreali poet or writer should restrict himself to write about the beauty of Lake Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, without remembering and registering his awesome fears of the bombs and shells suddenly whizzing around him, when he last bathed there with his children. Or to write about love, without expressing his haunting fears for his beloved in an insecure land and world constantly threatened by the evils of nuclear demons and war. He would be untrue to himself, his emotions and his psychological predicament, if he did. If, under these circumstances, he forces himself according to the fashionable and dictatorial dictates of the so-called ‘avant-garde’ to write only for art’s sake, and not for his own sake and the sake of his society, as well as for whole of humankind and our global village, his art ceases to be true art.

The General Reader and Post-Modernism

The general reader, however, has not been influenced by this misapprehension concerning “engaged” literature. He has in general, retained his good taste, common sense, reason and sensibility as to what constitutes involving and stimulating literature that reflects him and his life in a land and world of strife. He or she is often outraged by the disengaged, irresponsible response to literature by some of the poets and writers. Lurking behind the reticence before so-called engaged literature, is sometimes a fear of didacticism or mawkishness. There are indeed such dangers when expressing engaged causes, but this kind of writing ceases to be literature at all, and it is not the kind of writing we are interested in. Fortunately, in our post-modern era, such prejudices against engaged literature are tending to disappear, especially in the USA, Asia and parts of Europe. Several literary works of value concerning the conflict in the Middle East, and in other parts of the world, reflecting, as in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a deep yearning for peace, have been widely published and recognized throughout the whole world. These masterpieces of engaged literature are prominent in post-World War II Japan, after going through its atrocious Hiroshima and Nagasaki Atomic Bomb experience. Serious scholarly magazines of peace literature, established and spread throughout the world, would rapidly gain the respectability, prestige and status they rightly deserve. They would also generate an impetus in promoting new peace research, literature, poetry and prose, through the establishment and publicizing of awards, prizes and grants for literary research, creative work, and the translation of significant peace literature from other languages.


If we indeed succeed in establishing and promoting cultural, literary and poetic peace studies, shared and indulged in by both the Arabs and Israelis, we might indeed accomplish an important step forward towards building a Middle East and a world beyond war. It would enable us to step into an exciting and dazzling new world of creativity, where each will sit with her baby (poetas) under her fig tree and none will make them afraid (Micah, 4, IV).

Read Ada A. Arahoni’s poetry collection, Not in Your War Anymore.

Read Tolstoy’s War and Peace courtesy of Virgina Tech.  [2013 note: this was a gopher: link.  You can now find the text at Project Gutenberg]

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