Imagine a land where bombs explode almost daily and children are killed by terrorists without conscience. On one side we find a people who suffered through the horror of slave-labor death camps; on the other side a people who suffered through a terrible war -- which they began when what they felt was their property was seized from them -- a terrible defeat and (for them) a terrible occupation. Now imagine those same peoples 15 years later, living side by side, peacefully.
This sounds like a pipe dream: The Middle East could never be this way, we think. But we do not need to imagine this land.
We are living in it.
One century after America's Civil War, the descendants of slaves daily faced the twin terrors of homicide and arson. Yet only 15 years after the rise of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the back of segregation and neo-Confederate violence had been broken.
Can Palestinians likewise mount a successful, nonviolent movement toward peaceful co-existence with their former adversaries? In short, can history repeat itself?
How expensive would it be for us if it did not? America spends an estimated $3 billion a year in support of Israel. This support is justified because Israel is a democracy and our main ally in the region. Yet we also spend $2 billion supporting Israel's nondemocratic neighbor, Egypt. Billions more have been spent maintaining bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and now Iraq. We justify these expenditures by surrendering to the serpentine excuses of realpolitik: We need the support of key figures and families in the region, we say, and so we have to work with them. Just as we once said of the Dixiecrats and other segregationist politicians in the American South.
We can transform this paradigm, as we did then, and at little cost to ourselves. We can utilize the experience of the civil rights movement -- which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice knows all too well (her childhood friend was killed by an improvised explosive device in segregated Birmingham) -- to assist Palestinians in their stride toward peace. What we need is a Muslim Martin Luther King.
Many believe that leaders are born, not made, but programs to cultivate leadership and promote good will among men have been used successfully for generations. Oxford's Rhodes Scholarship is one such example. Its idea is to bring the best and brightest from the British Commonwealth (and beyond) to build strong ties among English-speaking peoples, and stronger ties to England. Founder Cecil Rhodes, pirate though he was, wished for there to be "an understanding between the three great powers" -- America, Britain and Germany -- that "will render war impossible."
What we recommend is a sister program for the Middle East. One could hold a competition for the 30 best young orators in the Palestinian diaspora. (King first gained prominence at age 26, and the Rhodes Scholarship is only for men and women under that age.) Send them to an American institution such as Stanford University, where they could study for the doctorate under Professor Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project and historian of the civil rights movement and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Then, after they have spent several years studying the African American experience with special courses and lecturers, focusing especially on the efficacy of nonviolent direct action, send them back to their native lands.
This is no program of indoctrination. Indeed, it would be detrimental if American spy organizations were to infiltrate or interfere with the King scholars in any way: the scholars would lose all credibility at home. Just as King spoke out against Southern injustice (and American injustice in Vietnam), the King scholars must be free to criticize America and, it is to be expected, the occupation. They would not be able to lead the Arab street otherwise.
By bringing young leaders from the region, we would avoid disasters like the U.S. Army's flirtation with mathematician Ahmed Chalabi, a man who had no real roots in Iraq, but whom America still wished to enthrone as a new shah. The Chalabi experiment blew up in America's face like a roadside bomb.
The King scholarship program might cost only $2 million per year -- an endowment of perhaps $20 million could put it on its feet indefinitely. And, coupled with the application of "soft power," the export of American culture -- notably, hip-hop music, which serves both as a mechanism for promoting intercultural understanding and as a nonviolent channel for youthful aggression -- one could reasonably expect to see the flower of peace bloom in the desert of despair.
Two specific aspects of the civil rights movement would be most effective in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: first, the proper utilization of legal instruments as a way to wage a nonviolent campaign; second, the utilization of mosques to mobilize a nonviolent grassroots struggle. Mosques in the West Bank and Gaza can be used to promote peace over violence and terrorism, and the African American experience can teach Palestinians how to do this.
In "The Trial" by Franz Kafka, at one point two men stand outside a gate. One seeks to enter; the other seeks to prevent him from entering. Both men wait there for their entire lives. Though one is guard and the other the one guarded, both men are prisoners.
In game theory, the branch of mathematics made famous by "A Beautiful Mind," there is a paradox called the Prisoners' Dilemma. Each of two prisoners may believe it is in his best interests to harm the other, but one can mathematically prove that both men would be better off if they cooperated. A King scholars program might help us resolve the prisoners' dilemma that is the Middle East.
This is a utopian dream, perhaps. But another man dreamed, once, and we all know what became of that man's dream.
We are living it.