In the 18th and early 19th century, British parliamentarian William Wilberforce led the movement to abolish the slave trade in England. Wilberforce’s story encourages all who want peace between Palestinians and Israelis by showing the power of perseverance and importance of grassroots work. His motivation came from a deep Christian commitment. His close friend John Newton, the ex-slave trader, Anglican clergyman, and author of the song “Amazing Grace,” convinced him to practice his faith as a Christian in politics and not enter the ministry as he initially intended.
When he was elected to the British parliament (in 1780 at the age of 22) he set upon abolishing the slave trade. Almost every member of Parliament was getting money from the slave trade companies, as was the King, and the English public had little interest in the issue. Many thought the cause hopeless, just as many today see the cause of Middle East peace as hopeless.
Wilberforce persevered nonetheless, and the campaign was a model of Christian activism. His movement built public awareness of the evils of the slave trade. They led tours of slave ships to demonstrate the inhuman conditions the slaves faced. They produced posters and books and held rallies. They created a national abolition organization and a powerful grassroots movement.
In 1789 Wilberforce put forth the first legislation for the abolition of the slave trade, but it was 18 years (in 1807) before the legislation passed and the slave trade was abolished. It took another 26 years of campaigning to have the existing slaves released. In 1834, one year after his death, 800,000 slaves were freed and the institution of slavery ceased to exist in the British territories. Wilberforce dedicated his entire life to this important cause and his story is a source of inspiration to this day.
This story offers some important lessons for Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. First is that change requires commitment and perseverance. Second is that both grassroots and political efforts are essential. At the grassroots level over 100 peacemaking organizations bring Israelis and Palestinians together for person-to-person contact. Over 100,000 Palestinians peacefully enter Israel each day for work and 30,000 work in West Bank Industrial parks. Palestinian-Israeli contact and economic cooperation must be encouraged, not discouraged by boycotts and other hostile actions.
There must also be a strong political will for peace on both sides of the conflict, and they feed off of each other. Here we face two very different situations. Israel is a liberal democracy. Israeli citizens freely elect their leaders with a free press and freedom of political expression.
For Palestinians the political situation is much more challenging. At present there are no freely elected leaders at the national level and no immediate prospects for change. Palestinian President Abbas’ term of office ended 8 years ago. The Palestinian Authority governs the West Bank but Hamas, which remains committed to the violent destruction of Israel, has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2006. There is little freedom of political expression. Palestinians criticizing the Palestinian Authority risk arrest, and Palestinians opposing Hamas in the Gaza Strip risk death.
The situation puts Palestinians in a position of weakness. Nothing would strengthen their position more, and advance the cause of peace, than a freely elected Palestinian government committed to the rule of law and peaceful coexistence with Israel, yet too many in the West see the Palestinian political situation as immutable and hopeless.
Such a sentiment reveals a deep condescension and bias toward Arabs and Palestinians. Are they simply incapable of building a multi-ethnic state as other nations have done? Are they incapable of building a liberal democracy based on rule of law? The answer is a resounding “no”, and such aspirations should not be given up on.
Much has been said of the Israeli “right” and the West Bank settler movement gaining strength in Israel. Palestinian political instability feeds this, and even incrementally positive Palestinian political progress would give Israel’s peace movement and political moderates a strong argument for peacemaking with the Palestinians. There is no quick solution but there is a path forward, starting with Palestinians having genuine freedom of expression, followed by broadened participation in the Palestinian political process, and ultimately genuinely free elections.
Some will read this and think we are wasting our time on a hopeless cause, as many thought William Wilberforce was. They may be right. Wilberforce, however, benefitted from a unique form of ignorance: he didn’t understand what he couldn’t do. Such ignorance is often the essential element for meaningful change.