THE WHITE HOUSE ON A WEDNESDAY EVENING
As darkness descended on the home of our First Family, I began to pay more attention to the building and less to the crowd that had assembled on Pennsylvania Avenue. The house seemed smaller than I had remembered it. No longer an edifice of authority, it took on an aura of powerlessness, of vulnerability. This actually made it more endearing, more lovely, more approachable. I felt as if I could knock at the gate, escort myself inside, and walk right up to the five world leaders who were assembling for the latest chance at Middle East Peace. Then I could shake their hands and wish them luck, noting that each of them had the same ultimate goal in mind – not merely peace, but one with justice, security, trade, and friendship.
Why not? I thought to myself. If they want the same thing, if they were willing to work together to accomplish it, why couldn’t they? But then I found myself thinking that whether they could or not, they probably wouldn’t. Something would get in their way. Someone would get greedy in his demands. Some act of violence would derail the talks for weeks or even months. And gradually, as time lapsed without noticeable progress, a sense of pessimism would fill the void, and the parties would once again speak of each other as “enemies” and not as partners.
The smile on my face at the thought of the White House’s beauty in twilight began to fade. It was replaced by what is known in Washington, D.C. as “realism.” That’s the positive term for it. Cynicism is the negative term. But what is vital to understand is that these words are precisely identical in what they connote, at least inside the Beltway. Here, the more cynical one becomes, the more one is respected as realistic. Such is the situation at this point in American history, when the nation is still “great” by all the world’s standards but has begun the great decline that all the superpowers in history must inevitably experience. To be wise, or at least to be viewed as such, is to speak about the members of the American polity like they are virtually incapable of altruistic motives or genuine compassion. It entails viewing our leaders essentially as phonies, whose grandiose rhetoric is matched only by their ambition for self-advancement and their willingness to corrupt the high-minded principles on which they supposedly stand. And just as we attribute these characteristics to our own statesmen and women, it only stands to reason that we would attribute them to world leaders as well. Ultimately, argue the “realists,” Prime Ministers and Presidents are servants of the ruling classes of their societies, whose interests lie primarily in the status quo and would never abide the kind of radical change that is envisioned by the peaceniks of the world. As for the latter, they are regarded as anything but “realists,” but rather as idealistic dreamers – as soft in the head as in the heart. These peaceniks do not tend to be the movers and shakers that give official Washington its reputation. Far from it. They are flakes, and they are fools – or so goes the unspoken narrative of the city.
Wednesday evening, as the sun set on Washington, I found myself surrounded by these “flakes and fools.” Indeed, I was one of their number. We were all who were left from the larger group who had descended on the White House to mark the beginning of the latest round of Middle East peace talks. In the late afternoon, the scene was dominated by the Neturei Karta Hassidim, a group of Orthodox Jews who oppose any efforts to establish a Jewish State prior to the coming of the Messiah. These are the Jews who support President Ahmadinejad of Iran, whose Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic rants make him reviled throughout the other 99+% of the Jewish community. But to the Karta Hassidim he is an ally, a fellow enemy of the Zionist state.
The Karta Hassidim left the scene at roughly 6:30. With them gone, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue just north of the White House was filled with supporters of the peace process. One group seemed to be more orchestrated than the other. They held red signs, many of which were protesting the so-called “Occupation” of Israel. Another group, the one of which I was a part, carried signs that were more affirming and less contentious. Some people were affiliated with both groups. The message of my organization, Yes-MEP (which is short for “Yes We Can – Middle East Peace”), was very simple: we support a two-state solution based on compromise and mutual respect. It is a message that sounds almost platitudinous. And yet it calls for a goal that has proven to be as elusive as it is obvious.
As I stood on Pennsylvania Avenue, I had a yarmulke above my head and a peace flag above my yarmulke. While joyfully waving my flag in the air, I couldn’t help but reflect on the juxtaposition of those two symbols. Yarmulkes have become symbols of a non-universalistic Judaism, a Judaism of insularity, of circling the wagons. Peace flags, at least in the context of the Middle East, have become symbols of Palestinian rights, of sympathy with the oppressed, of frustration with the so-called “Zionist oppressors.” At one point, as I faced the home of Presidents, I could hear on my left the guitar and voices of my friends singing peace songs, and on my right, the voice of a veiled Syrian-American woman whom I had just met that evening. She was questioning why it is that Jews feel the need for their own state, when they could opt instead to live in peace, fraternity, and unity with their Arab cousins. From what I can tell, she was voicing the majority sentiment within the peace movement. Many in that movement will pay lip service to a “two state solution,” recognizing that it is the only formula for peace, but in their hearts, in their guts, they oppose any state that would provide special privileges for the Jews – or for any other ethnic and/or religious community. These voices of peace, you see, are really voices of universalism. By contrast, the wearers of yarmulkes, while not necessarily opposed to universalism, tend to emphasize their membership within a very specific community, one with a unique history, a unique set of needs, and a relationship with God.
I don’t wear my yarmulke 24/7, but I try to wear it to all religious events, and I view Middle East Peace events squarely within the realm of religion. This is ironic, given that the Zionism to which I relate was founded by secular Jews, even atheists. But my Judaism has become increasingly God-centered, even as my Zionism has not. If you ask me to whom “the Land” belongs, I will say God, not the Jews. But I will add that precisely because it belongs to God, and because for 2000 years Jews have been precluded from having their own piece of God’s earth and have pined to come back to the ancestral homeland that they never voluntarily left, the only sane solution is to allow the Jews to share that land. Moreover, given that dozens of other peoples have been able to control their own lands over the centuries, I see no reason why the Jews shouldn’t be given a piece of earth of their own. And that is what I told the veiled Syrian-American woman as we stood together on Pennsylvania Avenue. I didn’t want Israel to expand beyond its ’67 borders. But I did want it to have its own piece of earth, its own home, its own house. She could tell that I wasn’t just talking about peace, I was also talking about justice.
Ultimately, of course, it is the pursuit of “justice” that causes all the problems. Netanyahu’s supporters have one concept of justice. Abbas’ supporters have another. And sometimes, it appears that the twain shall never meet. What’s sad is that both of them also want peace and see peace in largely the same terms. So why, I ask myself, can’t we stop focusing so heavily on justice and focus a bit more on peace? In other words, why can’t we devote less time to the question of who has deprived whom of their rights or who has a greater historical “claim” to the available land, and more time to our vision of a harmonious future? That’s what we at Yes-MEP were talking about on Wednesday evening before the sun set, when a number of us were able to speak into a megaphone so as to be heard by the international reporters who were on the scene. Our messages were remarkably similar. What is so difficult about visualizing peace? And once visualized, once the need for compromise is acknowledged, what’s so impossible about making that happen?
The answer, if there is one, is revealed in the one most salient fact that I haven’t yet revealed: on the evening of Wednesday, September 1st, on the portion of Pennsylania Avenue just north of the White House, there were never more than 100 people assembled – at least once the Hasids had left. Inside the building, Mubarak of Egypt, Netanyahu of Israel, Abbas of Palestine, Abdullah of Jordan, and Obama of the United States were reconvening “direct” peace talks for the first time in years; outside of the building, in the so-called “most important city in the world,” Middle East peace was essentially an afterthought. The cynics -- I mean the “realists” -- have made their case, and most people have been convinced: peace is not going to happen. Not now. Not tomorrow. Not in our lifetimes. Those of us who work for peace are seen as quaint hobbyists, like stamp collectors or practitioners of falconry. If we choose to spend our time tilting at windmills, that’s our prerogative. But all we had to do is look around that momentous evening and glance at our numbers, and it was obvious that our goal would not be reached. So said my head to my heart.
But fortunately, I have more than my rationality, at least I did that evening. I also brought my humanity, and so did my fellow colleagues from Yes-MEP. Just like the folks from Neturei Karta, we were fused with the dreams of messianism – only in my case, the “messiah” was not a flesh and blood figure, but a symbol of a dream, a dream of unity and peace at some future time and place. As I looked up at the White House, amidst the strumming of the guitar and the sound of voices lifted together pursuing a common dream, I saw a very different building – another surprisingly small structure. It goes by the name of the Alamo. And when you see it, you are almost shocked at how tiny it is compared to the role that it is afforded in history.
The truth is that from a cosmic standpoint, the White House is tiny as well – larger than the Alamo, but still only a speck in relation to what it represents. Freedom. Justice. Diversity. Democracy. The rule of law. These are the very things that are at stake in the Middle East right now. But if I could have my way, we would put them all aside for a moment and contemplate only a single word. Peace.
We may in fact not achieve it in the Middle East in my lifetime. But here’s hoping that never again will we as a species undertake a concerted effort to reach this goal with fewer than 100 people in attendance to bear witness to the dream. That doesn’t reflect on our society’s realism. It merely reflects on our society’s apathy. As long we remain apathetic, peace will be the subject of songs and not of reality.