Friday, February 6, 2015


Last night we concluded a joint study group - a local synagogue and my congregation - in a
shared teaching project called: Two People, One Land. There were a number of blessings that grew from our weekly conversation and study, not the least being the mutual trust and respect between our faith communities. We wrestled with the intricacies of both peoples' histories, explored the complexities of the various treaties and cease fire documents, too. And tried to carefully discern how these two very different cultures and contexts can move towards a peace that is just, fair and possible. To say that we were all challenged and sadly perplexed - Jews and Christians - would not be too strong.

Two insights emerged from last night's conversation about the Oslo Accords and its demise that warrant further exploration:  1) the lofty albeit ambiguous goals of this agreement between two people with very different expectations and needs; 2) the absence of a history of people-to-people engagement. If the hope and expectation of Oslo was based on the anticipated shared economic prosperity born of a cooperative trade zone spanning the territory between Jaffa and Amman - which is a noble and practical goal - the accords needed to account for the profound cultural, economic and political disparities between Israel and Palestine. It did not. The Oslo Accords were perhaps naive in this regard - not intentionally flawed - but unrealistic. Israel had been building a democratic political culture - to say nothing of infrastructure - since the 1890's. Palestine, which had no autonomous political identity until 1964, had been a territory and people under the authority of the Ottomans, the Egyptians, the Jordanians and the Arab League - none of whom fostered or nurtured an indigenous political class. This disparity alone may have been enough to cripple the cooperation desired under the Oslo Accords, but there were additional liabilities, too.

The most onerous, to my mind, involves terrorism. I have a theoretical understanding of why oppressed peoples use acts of despicable violence and chaos to destabilize and induce fear throughout a nation: by wounding, murdering and panicking a populace, instability becomes the norm and civil authority unhinged. It is a strategy built upon shaming the powerful, turning innocent fear against authority and creating clout for the disposed. Frantz Fanon was right in The Wretched of the Earth when he wrote:  “For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.” The emerging nation of Israel used terror against the British in their quest for autonomy. It was not their only strategy for creating statehood, but it was vigorous.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Arafat's Fatah would draw inspiration and strategies from the anti-colonial uprisings of the region - specifically the doctrines and practices developed in the
anti-colonial war in Algeria - in their initial quest for land. Incrementally, however, Fatah not only renounced terrorism, but recognized the legitimacy of the state of Israel. Like Anwar Sadat of Egypt came to confess: The only way to get back my land involved peace. I had tried everything until I had to give in to the logic of peaceSuch gradualism and political utilitarian thinking was absent in Hamas in the 1990's - and remains so in 2015. Hamas neither rejects it's historical antisemitism, it's commitment to terror as a tactic against Israel nor it's political allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood. So, while Arafat attempted to manage a complicated coalition between Fatah and Hamas - the Palestinian Authority - he was only modestly successful in accomplishing this goal. Sadly, this remains true today even after the recently agreed upon commitment for cooperation within the PA.

On the ground this meant that during a time of porous borders between Israel and the occupied territories, acts of terror should have decreased. The goal of Oslo was cooperation and trust. (Another goal was the creation of clearly defined and mutually respected borders - something that was never accomplished.) When restaurants were still bombed and the Palestinian response was tepid, Israel at first was confused - and then reactive. It closed off the borders between to the two people as punishment, weakening an already unstable the Palestinian economy and reinforcing the power differential. The PA treated acts of terror as the status quo - mostly I would argue because they could not control their own operatives in Gaza (Hamas) - and then became offended when Israel reacted with force that was not proportionate. As both sides became more cynical about the real prospects for cooperation, Israel moved forward with the building of "the wall" which made life in Palestine more oppressive. 

The collapse of the Camp David talks and the later Taba Talks of 2001, however, made it clear that the spirit and promise of Oslo was over. The election of Ariel Sharon solidified that reality in Israel as he declared a policy of taking back land in the West Bank. (for more information, please see: The Palestinian response was the uprising of the second Intifada.

So much was at stake during the season of Oslo: so many possibilities have been forsaken because of hatred, fear and violence; so many lives have been wasted, too. And while it makes no moral or ethical sense to me, perhaps the best that can be expected at this moment in history is a "cold peace" not unlike that between Egypt and Jordan and Israel. And that highlights the other take away insight for me: the importance of people-to-people advocacy and presence in this region. One of the reasons for the success of the Good Friday Accords between Northern Ireland and England was the decades long work of on the ground, people-to-people peace efforts. It was not the only factor, of course. Unlike Israel and Palestine, who also wrestled with the challenge of differing religious backgrounds, the educational, economic and cultural disparity between Ireland and the UK was not insurmountable. These two peoples shared a common language and a long history of similar political cultures. Still, the weekly efforts to bring differing people together made a huge difference in settling this ugly conflict. Think of the Peace and Reconciliation Group in the UK (check out more information for them at or the Community of Peace People created by Betty Williams and

Mairead Corrigan (please go to:

What people-to-people efforts create is contact.  Trust and cultural shifts are not born of ideas and ideology alone, they require proximity. Relationship. Conversation. In time, a critical mass can be created that is both ready for a change and able to implement it, too. I learned of this while in conversation with peace activists in the former GDR (East Germany.) They said that prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, they had been engaged in a quiet but consistent effort to learn about radical social change. As they met first among themselves - something the German Communists worked hard to discourage - and later with other people people from around the world, they built networks of trust and respect. Time and again, it seems, such cultural and politically "soft" campaigns cultivate the soil for peace-making over the long haul. In fact, I am convinced that without such efforts, we remain locked into our fears and the limitations of traditional parochial habits.

Who knows what our two congregations might do in the future? I am hoping we can do a pulpit exchange (or sorts) sometime soon. There has been talk of a cooperative trip to the region to meet with people working on co-existence projects, too. One of the reasons I hope to strengthen my musical chops on sabbatical is so that we can create a new people-to-people group that uses music to build bridges. Perhaps we can link up with Music in Common, a group already at work on the ground in Israel. Rather than despair over the tragic stalemate of the status quo, I want to channel my concerns into acts of creativity and beauty. 

For the next two months, we'll be working on our upcoming concert: Missa Gaia - Paul Winter's Earth Mass. We will bring together a small cadre of top-notch local musicians to work with our own band - and choir - and others who are able to bring something to the table artistically. This creation strikes me as the best way to use my skills, time and energy for peace. I will keep you posted.


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