A Better Way to Make Peace

By Rabbi Philip J. Bentley

There is an old story of how the sun and the wind made a bet as to which was stronger. They saw a man wearing a cloak walking across a field. “Whichever of us can take off that man’s cloak is stronger,” said the wind. “Alright,” said the sun, “you may go first.” The wind began to blow and the man wrapped his cloak around him more tightly. The harder the wind blew the tighter the man held his cloak against him. “Alright, “said the wind, “you give it a try.” The wind died down sun began to shine down on the field. The man began to sweat and removed his cloak.

In trying to get results we are usually tempted to try harder and harder until we get results or until we admit to failure. Often the way to success is through another kind of effort, a different way.

Many people who work for peace say, “If you want peace, work for justice.” While it is true that there can be no peace until there is justice, sometimes fighting for justice only makes the conflict worse and does not bring peace. This often happens when there is a conflict between unequal sides. The natural impulse of many that want peace is to side with the weaker party to the conflict. However, those who have sympathy for only one side in a conflict become part of the conflict. To be a part of the conflict is to decide to bring peace by means of victory. For a party to the conflict there is no other way to bring peace. It is possible to do good – to redress wrongs, to give a voice to the downtrodden and to raise the spirits of the oppressed – by siding with the underdog. It is difficult, if not impossible, to bring peace this way. The result is the stronger side becomes more and more defensive and less and less ready to make peace or to be just.

We can see this problem in many peace efforts being made in Israel/Palestine. There are many people and groups there working on behalf of Palestinian rights. They work with Palestinians, advocate for them, and condemn Israel. The work they do is important, beautiful and worthwhile, but it does not bring peace. Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron is an excellent example. It brings volunteers to Hebron to live among Palestinians and to help them to deal with the suffering brought on them by Israeli Settlers and by the Israeli military. Without doubt they provide significant help for the Palestinians in and around Hebron. I know of many specific examples of the good they do and I respect their courage and patience.

On the other hand the Settlers in the area regard them as a hostile, even anti-Semitic, presence. I have been told that they do not see trying to work with the Settlers or the Israeli authorities as a part of their work. The Israelis there do not understand them and therefore they are suspicious of them and their motives. This is reminiscent of a famous incident concerning an American diplomat assigned to work on the armistice between Israel and her Arab neighbors after the Israel Independence War in 1948. He sat down at the head of a table at which Arabs sat on one side and Israelis on the other. He began by saying, “Now letÕs work this out in good Christian fellowship.” Perhaps the only reason an armistice could have been reached then was because it was clear that American and European negotiators did not care really about either side. Last January I took part in a Compassionate Listening Project in Israel/Palestine. We were a group of American Jews working under the auspices of the Earthstewards Network, a nonreligious activist group based in Washington State. Some of us, like myself, had been active for many years in these issues. I am well known in the American Jewish community as an outspoken critic of Israeli policies vis a vis the Palestinians and an advocate of Palestinian statehood since the early seventies.

We received training in Compassionate Listening, an approach based on the idea that the first step toward peace is giving those in conflict the opportunity to voice their feelings and to know they have been heard. We were there to listen and not to argue. We were to ask questions of those we met with but only the kind of questions that said we had heard what was said and wanted to hear more. For someone like me this was painfully difficult. My instinct, when I hear something with which I disagree, is to argue my point of view. Once during our project I started to argue with a right-wing Settler and was rightly “stifled” by my fellow listeners. There is quite enough argumentation going on among Israelis and among Palestinians as well as between them. We were not there to add to the hostilities.

It was terribly painful for me as a Jew who knows and loves Israel to hear the accounts of injustices committed by Israelis. We heard such account both from Palestinians and from Israeli human rights activists. It was frustrating to listen to the spiritual leader of Hamas justify his orders of terrorist bombings of public places in Israel.

In order to be effective we had to listen to words that hurt. In order to do that we had to see beyond the categories we might want to place our speakers into Ñ Settler, Arab, terrorist, Israeli, government official, or victim. We had to see the human being behind any and all categories. We soon learned how much all of them had in common. Almost everyone saw his or her people as the victim in the conflict. Almost all saw the other people as the cause of their suffering. Almost all were disappointed in their governmentÕs progress towards peace. Almost everyone had a vision of peace as a reality sometime in the future. Everyone wanted peace.

One aspect of Middle-east peacemaking that is not known to most outsiders is that both Jews and Arabs have traditions of redress of grievances and peacemaking through mediation, arbitration and negotiation. I have never heard of Americans or Europeans referring to or utilizing these traditions. Jews and Arabs have been talking to and working with each other all through the past century of conflict without the involvement of any outsiders. These efforts have been very local and often, perhaps usually, conducted by women. I have spoken with very few peace activists from this country, including Jews and Moslems, who have any knowledge of such efforts. American and European peacemaking projects come to Israel-Palestine and act as though no one there has done anything toward reconciliation. If there is any connection to local individuals or groups it is usually with those that are on the outmost fringes of political life there.

The approach of virtually every group from outside of the region – whether, Christian, Jewish, Moslem, or secular – is to assign white or black hats to one side or the other. This approach means that one side is painted as innocent victims and the other is demonized. This writer has heard people who ought to know better condoning and excusing acts of terrorism, human rights violation and political and religious rhetoric that is both extreme and violent. The role of victim means that any act against the oppressor is justified. Except for those actively engaged in dialogue and co-operative projects every Palestinian and Israeli we spoke with painted his or her group as the victim and other people as the oppressor. Few of them trusted their government to bring peace although all of them said they had visions of peace.

Our encounters brought us many surprises. We met Settlers who were engaged in dialogue and co-operative efforts with their Arab neighbors. We met PLO members who understood very well that their hopes for a future Palestinian state were tied up with the future of Israel. The Governor of Gaza, a cousin of Yasir Arafat, met with us for two hours in his conference room and wept as he talked of his faith in the future. An Orthodox rabbi who is the religious leader of a West Bank settlement told us of his meetings with Hamas leaders. The father of a young man murdered by Hamas operatives told us of his dialogues with Arab neighbors including the father of one of the men who killed his son. A Palestinian psychologist spoke of how both Israelis and Palestinians have personality dysfunctions because of their histories and because of the conflict between them. He said that the cure for the Israeli is the Palestinian and the cure for the Palestinian is the Israeli.

Over the past year I have maintained many of the contacts I made there. Every day I receive news from peace groups, dialogue projects, Settlers and Arabs of what is happening to them. The home of a Palestinian family some of us stayed with was demolished in August and the family, which has lived on and worked their land for five hundred years, is now forced to live in an apartment in Hebron. Issues that I have cared about for decades have become personal. That is part of the effect of Listening. Encountering people as people rather than as symbols or as actors in a conflict makes the search for peace and justice no less urgent, but it forces those who Listen to set aside stereotypes and to reject easy accusation and solutions.

Another Compassionate Listening Project has been to Israel/Palestine and they did things we could not do. They met with Hebron Settlers and with an important representative of the Netanyahu government. A documentary that was being taped during our project is almost ready for release. Hundreds of projects and groups, both Israeli and Palestinian, continue their work for reconciliation, justice and peace.

The government of Benjamin Netanyahu has collapsed largely because of its failure to carry forward the Peace Process. The political center, which supports the Peace Process, is a major factor in this election. Hamas terrorism has decreased. Yasir Arafat, who is growing old, is anxious to establish his Palestinian state before he passes from the scene. It is impossible to know what the future holds, even the immediate future. What is certain is that the people with the greatest stake in finding a way to peace, the Palestinians and Israelis who live there, are the people who must find that way and follow it. . The rest of us can support those efforts and the people engaged in them, but only if we avoid the temptation to take sides. That way will not be one of accusation and the vilification of others, but from listening, compassion, cooperation, and mutual respect. As A. J. Muste put it, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

First published in Fellowship Magazine, October, 1999

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