WHY WE WORK FOR PEACE DESPITE THE LONG ODDS
Last Sunday, I attended a program sponsored by a group called the New Story Leadership (NSL). Every year, NSL brings to Washington, D.C., a small number of young-adult students from Israel, Gaza or the West Bank. Half of the students are Jewish, the other half are Palestinian. The idea is that each student would become an intern in a different Washington organization, and the students would periodically assemble and tell their own personal narratives to the public. The students appear to have been hand-picked for their intelligence, articulateness, wisdom beyond their years and sensitivity to a variety of perspectives. Most importantly, they also seemed to be proud representatives of their respective peoples, rather than the types who are always criticizing their own countrymen while dealing sympathetically with others. (Trust me, my “self-hating-Jew” radar is strong, and I saw none of that on the stage last Sunday.)
The idea is that these students will become the leaders of tomorrow. After hearing the Class of 2012 deftly handle an audience that was mixed both in ideology and ethnicity, I can only say that if they were to become the leaders of tomorrow, we all would be extremely fortunate, and so would the cause of peace.
When it comes to talking about Israel and Palestine, rarely do we use the words “fortunate” and “peace” in the same sentence. Lately, things have seemed even more hopeless than ever. This was drummed in to me near the end of last Sunday’s session, when the students had stopped telling their personal stories, and it was time for them to respond to questions and comments from the audience. The first audience member who spoke didn’t ask a question at all. She just wanted to tell the students how incredibly inspiring they were and how she would never forget them. We next heard from another woman, who offered a question that retained the affirming theme of the session.
But then, my gender took over. The comments became provocative, political and partisan. Soon, the students heard themselves being criticized for not addressing squarely enough political questions like “what do you think of the Settlements.” They were also asked to identify whether they were advocates of the “two state solution” or “one state solution,” and some of the old activists in the audience would applaud lustfully if the student happened to give the answer they liked. Talk about sucking the aura of peace right out of the room.
At the end of the Q&A session, we were all treated to the audience comment I found most memorable. It came from an older man who I believe would consider himself a “progressive Christian.” He seemed so sure of himself, as if what he had to say was common knowledge and no rational observer could possibly question it. Here’s his statement: “the two-state solution died ten years ago.”
Even after the session was over and I glowed with excitement about having met such an impressive group of young men and women, I couldn’t jar that old man’s comments from my head. What if he’s right? I wondered. What if the expansion of the Settlements, combined with the high birth rate within the settler community, has made it impossible for Israel ever to cede enough prime West Bank land to make room for two viable states in the region?
I have my own idea of self-evident truths. And one of them is that there will never be a “one-state solution,” or at least not one that preserves peace and dignity. The Israeli Jews have the military power in the region, and I don’t see that changing. Either they will kick the Palestinians out of the area they control (much like Andrew Jackson kicked the Indians out of most of America). Or the Jews and Palestinians will divide up the land and live in peace. But I don’t see the Israeli Jews simply giving up the one thing that they have pined for over nearly two full millennia – a stable, majority Jewish state. So for me, if there is to be a peaceful solution, it must be a “two state solution.”
And yet, isn’t the increasingly right-wing nature of the Israeli population reducing the likelihood of such a solution? Haven’t most Israelis essentially given up on the idea that the Palestinians could ever be trusted to accept the idea of a Jewish state? To be blunt, isn’t it possible that the region might have to experience hell on earth before it would ever know peace?
Sure, that’s possible. And yet still, we must work for peace. In fact, even if I were to stipulate to having looked into a crystal ball and convinced myself that the Jews and Arabs will wage a vicious war that will destroy much of the region, even so, I would still advocate working for peace. Why? Because just as it is good to love learning for its own sake, so it is with working for peace. Learning is sacred. Peace work is holier still.
Perhaps those words ring poetic, but fall flat intellectually. We think of peace work as being useful only if it gets the job done. By contrast, when it comes to learning, we accept that it bears all sorts of hidden fruit – and that is why our academies celebrate both “theoretical” knowledge and its “practical” applications. Intellectuals don’t worry about “getting the job done;” they have faith that the mere exercise of learning is fruitful.
In Western culture, our philosophers have continuously announced their bias in favor of knowledge above all else. My own beloved Spinoza is no different. He would speak about how the higher forms of knowledge are eternal – and this is coming from a man who thought that when our bodies die, our thoughts go with them. Spinoza, you see, reasoned that (a) the whole world is IN God, (b) true knowledge (e.g., the knowledge of mathematical principles) is knowledge about God, and (c) God is eternal. Therefore, knowledge must be eternal as well.
Working for peace, most would say, is different. Peace work isn’t about learning the great truths; it is simply about fostering love. And love, as any Hollywood scriptwriter can tell you, is ephemeral. One day, you’ve got a crush on the girl with the curl; the next day, you hate her. Where’s the eternality in that? Spinoza defined “love” as “pleasure, accompanied by the idea of an external cause.” But doesn’t that suggest just how short-lived love can be? We are always falling in and out of love – or at least, in and out of “like.” Think about all those so-called friendships on which we have worked so hard only to have realized that at the end of the day, we could never stay friends. Tell me, was that time well spent? Perhaps not.
But peace work is different. It isn’t just working on developing “love.” It involves developing a particular kind of love – one that combines love and understanding. In other words, it combines love with knowledge. And it is that combination that makes it so holy. When we do peace work in earnest, we open the eyes, minds and hearts of one another. We teach ourselves, one heart and one mind at a time, that the paranoia that has consumed us and the resentment that we have been harboring are truly our demons. We teach ourselves, one heart and one mind at a time, that we are all members of the same family, commonly known as the universal brotherhood of man. And that neighboring peoples of similar ethnicity – the ones who tend to wage the bloodiest and most intransigent wars – are in fact first cousins. We teach ourselves, one heart and one mind at a time, that there is nothing more spiritual than turning enmity into friendship, embracing our differences, and at the same time, recognizing our similarities. We teach ourselves, one heart and one mind at a time, that just as we can come to love our parents, spouse and children unconditionally, so too can we pine unconditionally for an era of peace and universal dignity.
One cannot truly be wise, unless one loves. And one cannot truly love, unless one loves peace. But peace isn’t something you can truly love from afar. You must work for it.
So, if you are a Jew or a Palestinian, your decision on whether to work for peace hardly rests on whether you believe that the two-state solution is dead, or that the one-state solution was always an illusion. You are still faced with the opportunity to love, learn and teach all at the same time. Every heart you unlock, every cross-cultural friendship you make, and every pearl of wisdom that you learn from your cousins is eternal. This, my friend, is the Promised Land. It’s not about a place. Or a time. It’s about an activity. Peace work.
Note: Representatives of the New Story Leadership Class of 2012 will tell their stories and respond to questions/comments Sunday, July 15th at 10:00 a.m. at the Islamic Society of the Washington Area, 2701 Briggs Chaney Road, Silver Spring, MD. The session will be sponsored by the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS) (www.jids.org).