The cease fire between the Palestinians and Israelis has ended again. Who could be surprised? This war is not about some simple grievance. This war involves two groups that are making an historic claim on the exact same land, and neither side is as of yet prepared to live side-by-side with the other. As John B. Judis points out in his book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, this issue stretches back at least 100 years. It began when the need of Jewish people for a homeland resulted in immigration to the land that had long been occupied by the Palestinians. Every rocket fired by Hamas, and every air strike launched by Israel, is rooted in that history. Every tunnel dug by Hamas and every hour of border restrictions and economic sanctions by Israel simply pour more fuel on this fire of hatred and suspicion. Until both sides are willing to live side-by-side as neighbors without threatening the safety and security of either nation there will not likely be any peace in that troubled land. As Dr. King said in the title of his final book, Where Do We Go From Here?
Three important contextual notes are necessary:
+ First, when European Jews began to leave their homes in Russia and other anti-Semitic Eastern European nations, their departure was inspired by a new wave of violent pogroms. To be sure, the birth of a Zionist movement soon followed, but the origins of modern Israel begins with the pain, violence and despair of long-suffering Jewish people who were searching for a new and peaceful future. Many found new lives in the United States, Canada and other lands of hope and promise. That some Jews chose to explore possibilities in what was once their ancestral homeland strikes me as natural.
+ Second, what should also be remembered in the return of some Jews to what was then part of the Ottoman Empire at the start of the 20th century (and later a British protectorate after WWI), is that much of the land they settled on was vacant. Not all of it, but a great deal. Further, a great deal of this land was owned by absentee landlords from the Ottoman Empire and Egypt. These Muslim entrepreneurs willingly sold their property to Jews without first communicating their intention to their existing Palestinian tenants. This, in my impression, makes the context ever more complicated.
+ Third, as President Obama noted in today's NY Times interview with Tom Freidman, the consequences of both European and Arab manipulation of this region - including Northern Africa - that dates back to WWI "is starting to buckle." This, of course, includes Syria, Iran and Iraq as well as Libya and Egypt. (check it out @ http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/09/opinion/president-obama-thomas-l-friedman-iraq-and-world-affairs.html?_r=0)
With nuance and a wisdom born of sober experience (along with a healthy dose of Niebuhrian Christian realism) the President went on to observe:
It is amazing to see what Israel has become over the last several decades,” he answered. “To have scratched out of rock this incredibly vibrant, incredibly successful, wealthy and powerful country is a testament to the ingenuity, energy and vision of the Jewish people. And because Israel is so capable militarily, I don’t worry about Israel’s survival. ... I think the question really is how does Israel survive. And how can you create a State of Israel that maintains its democratic and civic traditions. How can you preserve a Jewish state that is also reflective of the best values of those who founded Israel. And, in order to do that, it has consistently been my belief that you have to find a way to live side by side in peace with Palestinians. ... You have to recognize that they have legitimate claims, and this is their land and neighborhood as well...
Asked whether he should be more vigorous in pressing Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to reach a land-for-peace deal, the president said, it has to start with them. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “poll numbers are a lot higher than mine” and “were greatly boosted by the war in Gaza,” Obama said. “And so if he doesn’t feel some internal pressure, then it’s hard to see him being able to make some very difficult compromises, including taking on the settler movement. That’s a tough thing to do. With respect to Abu Mazen, it’s a slightly different problem. In some ways, Bibi is too strong [and] in some ways Abu Mazen is too weak to bring them together and make the kinds of bold decisions that Sadat or Begin or Rabin were willing to make. It’s going to require leadership among both the Palestinians and the Israelis to look beyond tomorrow. ... And that’s the hardest thing for politicians to do is to take the long view on things.
The absence of a long view, the political advantage violence brings to both Israel and Palestine, the uninhibited expansion of Jewish settlements throughout what was once to be an independent Palestinian homeland,the relative collapse of effective political leadership in the Palestinian Authority as well as the chillingly intolerance in contemporary Israel for authentic political debate means... more children will die, hatred will fester and explode, the cease fires will come and go, the current discussions in Egypt will grind to a halt and nothing will get better for the foreseeable future.
On Thursday night, after the rabbi, imam and minister presentations at the Inter-Faith Youth Summit at Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, MA two Israeli women spoke out. One was a recently married Muslim woman from the Negev who said: In my world, Muslims and Jews get along. We cooperate and live side by side. And this isn't the only place coexistence happens. It used to happen in Jerusalem and could happen again. She soberly asked us all to pray for peace AND do our part in promoting trust and hope between Jews and Muslims.
The other Israeli was a Jew - very active in her synagogue back in Jerusalem - and she told us: I am angry. And sad. Back in Israel I can't talk about hard things like I can in America. It is like we're living in a bubble where only fear and hatred are discussed... but not cooperation and peace. When I return I need to help break that bubble but it won't be easy.
One of the organization's Israeli leaders openly wept. Afterwards she said, "I work and live among Muslims in the Negev - and none of them have affirmed my trip here - the won't even respond to my emails given the death and fear born of Israel's invasion. I don't know how I am going to go back and look at them in face let alone continue my work of building briedges and trust?"
As is so often the case after such an intensely beautiful and tragic time, I wept on my ride home to Pittsfield. Sometimes that is all a person can do - weep - and I am not afraid or ashamed of my tears. In fact, if more of us would weep it might help to break open the shame and fear so many feel at this moment in history. Jesus wept. Sometimes tears are the only prayers we have and in the heart-breaking intransigence of this time weeping is one of the ways to unlock the compassion deep within. Fr. Richard Rohr once said that if our hearts aren't broken from time to time, we become unable to live and move with love.
My old colleague's opening quote is the hard truth - as is the full title of Dr. King's last book - Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? The tears from my new friends from Israel pray for community. If you can, come out to the concert at the Guthrie Center on Sunday. It will be one small act for hope and community rather than the chaos.