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The politics of tolerance - Israel and Palestine

By Sikni Hamka - posted Monday, 23 November 2009

The Israel Government is planning to build a Jewish museum on top of a Palestinian cemetery. It will be called the Museum of Tolerance.

This is the story that Professor Saree Makdisi told to a packed Seymour Centre late last month. "Morally speaking, the museum makes a mockery of the term tolerance" and that the museum is not about tolerance for the 'other' but rather tolerance of the 'self’,” he said.

The problem here is that governments who do promote “tolerance” towards minority groups are merely saying - we think you’re wrong but we will not persecute you for it. Unfortunately, in the case of the Palestinians, achieving mere tolerated status would be close to a miracle.


Professor Makdisi uses the museum story to highlight the contradictions that have occurred in the Israel and Palestinian conflict.

The Museum received the go ahead from the Israeli Supreme Court in October 2008, ending a three-year battle. It seems that this construction defies basic logic. This was a contentious issue for some Israelis, hence the three-year duration of the trial.

The Museum of Tolerance, Jerusalem - an educational arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre - has been described as a testament to human dignity and tolerance. It appears that the tolerances promoted here do not extend to the Palestinian cause.

"The linguistic logic of the term is being turned upside down" Professor Makdisi said.

Tolerance is not easy to define. And political tolerance is even harder.

Much of the literature on political tolerance is based on the work of Samuel Stouffer who describes the act of political tolerance "as extending civil liberties to individuals or a group with differing ideas". And that individuals show less tolerance towards groups they fear.


A Palestinian described the everyday reality of living in Israel - as an Arab in a Jewish state - as being very disheartening. "It sucks the life out of your existence, your opportunities are less and less and you are reminded daily that you are not only a minority, but one that has to be kept in check".

"Given that the notion of tolerance within Western countries is closely associated with a citizen's rights, within the state of Israel an inherent inequality exists due to the fact that Jewish citizens enjoy privileges and rights that are not given to non-Jewish citizens," he said.

Politics of fear is something we in Australia (and also the US) unfortunately know a bit about. Highly reminiscent of both the Howard and Bush regimes, fear campaigns were employed to accelerate their agenda. The “weapons of mass destruction” justification for invading Iraq is evidence that generating fear is one of the most powerful and dangerous weapons of modern politics. And former Prime Minister John Howard attempt to link refugees with terrorists by claiming that they were being concealed among asylum seekers.

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About the Author

Sikni Hamka is a freelance journalist and has just completed her Masters in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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