The Many Promised Land

The Many Promised Land
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Panel on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
University of Pennsylvania, October 18, 2000

I am not an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the announcement that Shelley Novoseller sent out for this forum, I was identified as one of “Penn’s most respected authorities on the subject.”  Let me assure that I am not.  I am merely a visiting lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies teaching occasional courses on science and religion and certainly not an authority on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.  I am not published in this field and have rarely spoken publicly about it.

Nor am I of Jewish or Palestinian ancestry.  Six weeks ago when I agreed to be part of this panel, the recent wave of violence hadn’t broken out.  It was with serious reservations that I agreed at that time to participate.  Now I’m feeling only serious trepidation.

Perhaps there is some value in having a sincere and friendly outsider reflect on these weighty matters, though mostly I am here to listen and learn.  I want to offer a Quaker position, which is to say one Quaker’s position.  I don’t represent the American Friends Service Committee or any other Quaker organizations. I would, however, invite us to think outside of the box and borders of the current crisis.

Let me start on a personal note: Over twenty years ago as a junior in college, I spent a year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  For most of that year, I live off campus in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Katamon Tet, where I worked in a Beit Ha Bohnim student service project with Sephardic youth.  Through contacts with Quaker service projects, New Outlook, and the nascent Shalom Acshav movement, I was also able to travel extensively in Israel-Palestine, meeting with all kinds of people from all kinds of perspectives, including many people on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  In that year, 1977, we were all blessed with the inspired leadership of Anwar Sadat, who came to Jerusalem to make peace with the Israelis.

This was a very formative year for me as a young man.  In that year I lived and dreamt and loved in Hebrew.  My Arabic was not as good, but I tried.  For two years, prior and during my stay in Jerusalem, I took every college course I possibly could and attended numerous conferences about the history and politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Sadly I have not had an opportunity to return to Israel-Palestine in the ensuing years, but a big piece of my heart remains there.

What I want to emphasize first in my own experience is that Palestinians and Israelis are wonderful people, worthy of respect, able to teach us a lot about life.  I have never encountered such incredible hospitality and kindness in my world travels.  These peoples on both sides of the conflict are worthy of concern and love.  As an outsider and especially as an insider, it is easy to feel exacerbated with many of the parties to this conflict, but there really is nothing immutable in the cultures and ethnicity of these opponents in this conflict.  Peace is possible, the alternative is simply mutual assured destruction.

Secondly, there has been a lot of progress made in the last twenty years on reaching a political solution.  Essentially all of the pieces for an agreement are in place, except the question of the status of Jerusalem.  Here I would modestly propose that we recognize God, by whatever name, as sovereign over the Holy Sites.   The Israelis and Palestinians must figure out a practical way to share this uniquely symbolic city.  In the end, this is exactly what will happen, it is only a matter of when.

Third, this is a situation where surely non-violent struggle would be more effective.  Israelis have the power to enforce a disagreeable status quo on the Palestinians.  The Palestinians would be well advised to study Gandhi, King, the Danish resistance to the Nazis, the revolutions in Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.  Their goals would be much better served by such an approach, than the current wave of violence and counter-violence.  Nonviolence seeks to create win-win situations in which the opponent is ultimately converted to an ally.  Nonviolence is the tool of the weak, a method of waging conflict in search of justice and truth.  Let us recall the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.  Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.  Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate.  In fact, violence merely increases hate…  Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.”

Fourth, there is no way to right the injustices of the past.  There is no calculus of restitution that will replace the life of a single person’s death.  The creation of the State of Israel could never be adequate restitution to those who died in the Shoah.  Nor would the destruction of the State of Israel ever repay the lives and property of Palestinians displaced by the creation of the State of Israel.  Every soldier and civilian killed on either side is an immeasurable tragedy.  I can’t even pretend to empathize with those who have experienced such personal tragedy, but I do know that the only way forward is through the path of forgiveness.  I don’t know of any way to easily manufacture forgiveness, which is certainly not about forgetting the past, but I do know it is possible and that forgiveness can unleash powerful magic to transform an impasse into new possibilities.  If God is merciful and compassionate, righteous and forgiving, understanding and loving, than surely Jews, Christians, and Muslims can find a way to also practice forgiveness themselves and move forward towards Shalom, Salaam, and Peace, which God intends for us all.

My fifth point is to focus on long term possibilities and not the immediate crises.  We could easily imagine lots of terrible future scenarios, all of them realistic and all of them ultimately leading to mutual assured destruction for both Israelis and Palestinians.  Let us rather think of what good might be accomplished in a twenty-year horizon.  Here I would suggest that we need a political solution now in order to get down to the real problem of creating economic solutions for the terrible class disparities between Israelis and the Palestinians.  In a sense, nationalism is a 19th century approach to what is really a 21st century challenge of globalization.  There are tremendous economic disparities between Palestinians and Israelis.  Without economic integration between the future Israel and the future Palestine, Palestinians may have a nation state, but no economy to sustain it.  I can imagine a future for Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and the other countries of the Middle East which would rival the economic, scientific, and technological prowess and wealth of the United States and the European Union.  Muslims intellectuals are often nostalgic for the past glories of Islamic civilization.  Much like Moorish Spain, such greatness can only be achieved again in cooperation with the Jewish minority in Israel and with the Jewish and Palestinian Diaspora throughout the world.

My sixth point is that we need to pay more attention to the propaganda of hatred.  As a Quaker and a Christian, I am extremely ambivalent about warfare and the logic of war.  I confess that it may be necessary to kill the other in self-defense, but it must never be ok to demonize of the other for this becomes self-delusion.  This is the lesson that I learned from my work with Aktion Sühnezeichen in Berlin in 1983, teaching young Germans the lessons of the Holocaust.  In the course of our training seminars, I spent two weeks at Auschwitz.  One can’t help but be overwhelmed at a visit to Auschwitz Stamlager and Auschwitz-Birkenau and the unspeakable horrors that transpired there.  Most pilgrimages come for a day, grieve terribly, pray feebly, and leave stunned.  We stayed there for two weeks, living, eating, and sleeping there, working to maintain the museums and memorials, and studying in the archives.  It was horrifying to see how quickly I could adjust to what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.”  Out of no virtue of my own, but by sheer circumstance and grace am I not myself a mass murder or one of the murdered… (not yet at least depending on what happens with the U.S. nuclear arsenals in the future).  Children in any case aren’t born to oppress and murder.  It takes a lot of trauma or training to turn a human into an inhuman.  When one reads Alice Miller’s account of child-rearing practices in Germany, one realizes that the Nazis were a generation of abused children who grew up to be abusers.  We must make sure that the next generation of Palestinians and Israelis are not raised with such hatred, with such trauma, and with such training.  Here I think the peace negotiations should focus more on creating a culture of peace and cooperation, than on settlements, borders, and “security” arrangements.

My seventh and final point is that we actually need more religion and not less in Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East.  God, by whatever name, certainly loves every human being and desires the good for all of us.  God doesn’t want his name used in vane to exhort people to hatred and violence.  Any religion that propagates itself through dogmatism and coercion cannot be fully authentic.  This would be to commit the sin of idolatry, which for good reason is the most serious religious offense in the three Abrahamic faiths.  Israel needs more options than just Jewish Orthodoxy and Jewish Secularism.  Palestine and the Middle East in general similarly need more options than reactionary Islam.  Religions have nothing to fear and everything to gain by a free market place of dialogue and exchange within and between traditions.  We should have a little more faith in what God, by whatever name, is trying to accomplish in us and through us in both our precious particularisms and our glorious universalism.

We live at an extraordinary moment in the natural history of this planet and the cultural evolution of our species.  We are recycled stardust come into consciousness in a vast universe of emergent creativity.  In this larger view, we might better be united in the study and celebration of this generative mystery, than divided in transient territorial strife.  Peace, real peace, is not only possible in the Middle East, it is essential.

Todah Raba, Shukran, Thank you.