In January of 1994, I participated in a week-long “trialogue” of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Jerusalem. One afternoon, rather unexpectedly (at least to me), our small group — there were, I think, twenty-seven of us, nine from each religious tradition — was invited to the official residence of the president of Israel.
At the time, Ezer Weizman (d. 2005), a military hero, one-time commander of the Israeli Air Force, and former Minister of Defense, was serving as president.
We had a fascinating and very informal visit with him. It’s been nearly two decades now, and the details are a bit fuzzy in my mind, but I remember what most struck me about what he had to say to us:
Unlike many in the Israeli leadership even then, Weizman was a Sabra — that is, he had been born and raised in Palestine. More to my point, he had been born and raised alongside Palestinian Arabs.
Further, he had enlisted in the British Army in 1942, in order to fight the Nazis, and had then joined the Royal Air Force in 1943, where he trained as a combat pilot. In those days, before the establishment of Israel, many Arabs also served in the British military, and, thus trained, several of his companions in the barracks later went on to leadership positions in the armies and air forces of their respective Arab states.
Weizman told us that, despite appearances, some of the relationships that he had formed in British military service had persisted through the various Middle East wars and the continuing political hostilities. He reported, for example, that he still received Hanukkah and Passover greetings from high-ranking military officers and defense ministry officials in Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, and that, even after wars, they would inquire to find out whether his kids were alright.
It worried him, though, that his generation was passing, and that younger officers, both on the Arab side and on his own, no longer had any human relationships across borders.
Later in his life, he became especially devoted to trying to create peace between Israel and its neighbors. I’m certain that his inability to dehumanize his Arab “enemies” played a role in that.
There is an important lesson to be learned from Ezer Weizman and his Arab counterparts, and not just regarding international politics.