'Identity Conflict'

To build a future "founded on fairness," Israeli and Palestinian self-determination need to move hand in hand, according to Kemp Lecturer Tal Becker

No progress can be made in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict until both sides can move past a “victim-villain” mindset, according to Tal Becker, one of Israel’s top peace negotiators and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, who spoke in Choi Auditorium on April 24 as Oxy’s 2018 Jack Kemp ’57 Distinguished Lecturer.

Speaking on “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in Jewish Discourse: Identity, Justice, and Religion,” Becker admitted that he’s been involved “in every failed round of negotiations with the Palestinians. … There are too many variables that we don’t control. But I do feel that being serious about the stories each people tells themselves about who they are in order to create the space to legitimize dialogue is sort of the forgotten element. There are rights, dignity, and needs on both sides.”

The reason so many discussions have failed, Becker said, is that they seek pragmatic solutions rather than addressing the cultural identity issues underlying the conflict, with both sides feeling victimized and misunderstood. “The real challenge is not cerebral, where if we move the pieces around and come up with a creative solution, that will fix things,” he said.

“This is an identity conflict. The Jewish people and the Palestinian people feel that their identity is at stake,” he added. The Jewish state feels that its very legitimacy is constantly in question, while Palestinians feel that they have been dispossessed by Israel. 

“These are negotiations between two traumatized people, each people convinced that they are the victim in this conflict, and what their negotiators should achieve for them is justice—not peace,” Becker said. “The metric for whether the negotiator has succeeded is whether the negotiator has achieved validation for the sense of injustice that has been done”—a fruitless approach. 

The focus needs to be “building a future founded on fairness, not building a registry of every wrong done on both sides,” he said. “Israeli and Palestinian self-determination need to move hand in hand.”

Prior to Becker’s visit, 36 tenured faculty signed a letter to President Jonathan Veitch calling it “unfortunate and even a bit troubling that Occidental College has invited another non-scholar to give a public lecture on a topic where think-tank driven advocacy and propaganda too often takes the place of considered exchange and debate.” About 20 minutes into his talk, a handful of students stood and briefly held up signs with such slogans as “Oxy Jews Against the Occupation.” 

Becker’s appearance was made possible by the Jack Kemp ’57 Distinguished Lecture Series, created to engage with Oxy students and faculty in dialogue on important issues of public policy such as the political economy, economic growth in the context of a market system, communitarian values, and bipartisan relations.