To Jerusalem and Back: Part I

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Last summer I watched Operation Protective Edge unfold from behind my computer screen with a growing sense of desperation. Over a few weeks a small, enclosed strip of land with no possible route of escape and no formal military protection was bombarded by one of the strongest armies in the world. More than two-thousand Palestinians were killed, many of whom were women and children.

I also paid close attention to the way people I knew reacted to it online. I was particularly surprised by the way I saw my American Jewish friends & colleagues respond to the stories coming out of the region. Most were silent, or at least, not engaging on the subject anywhere I could see it. A handful of them were willing to speak out about the excessive force being used; but many of them were outright defensive, and at times offensive, about the right of Israel to use such heavy-handed force. Many justified the loss of civilian casualties with an ease that I found staggering. Attempts to criticize Israel’s extreme military response were sometimes met with accusations of anti-semitism, or at the very least, deflection that insisted on equal guilt for the militants who provoked it and an insistence on framing the assault as a war between two equal sides.

These responses were not from random people posting anonymously in comment sections on news sites. These are people I count as personal friends, who I have worked with for years in various capacities. We align socially and politically on most issues. I know them to be good people, with large hearts and a deep passion for human rights. The fact that they seemed to be drawing a line at the border of Gaza, when the inequity of force was so clear to me, was confusing. I watched online exchanges between people I cared about become increasingly heated, and wondered how years of hard work we’ve done to build bridges across faith communities in my city could be undone so easily.

I’ve heard some explanations from various anti-zionist activists about why my Jewish friends would defend Israel even when it’s government does things I consider an affront to human rights. I find those answers simplistic and unsatisfactory. Many of these arguments are clearly rooted in anti-semitism; and many even indict American Jews as complicit in genocide and war crimes because of their support for Israel as a nation-state. I am deeply uncomfortable when I see an entire subset of humans (whether religious, national or cultural) lumped into a monolithic group working to further a single-minded nefarious plot. My relationship with the American Jewish community isn’t hypothetical. I cannot dismiss people that I have grown to love as simply being ‘evil’, ‘brainwashed’, or ‘crazy’ when they don’t agree with me. Rather, my own inclination is to find out exactly why they don’t agree.

So, last year while the assault was in full swing, some of my Muslim colleagues spoke out about their participation in a program called MLI at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Zionist and Jewish organization with facilities in the US and Israel. Although they were being lambasted within the Muslim community for participating in the MLI program, I agreed to be a participant myself. The promise of the program was that I would have an opportunity to talk to zionist Jews in Israel and America, and hear directly from them what their ideology and political aspirations are based upon. I specifically wanted to speak to Israeli-based zionists who have found a marriage between their religion and their politics, because regardless of my own personal feelings on the matter I have seen that this is framework in which most of the Jews I’ve met here in America view Israel. The program also provided structured and unstructured opportunities to meet with Palestinians, both inside Israeli borders and in the West Bank, and to hear how zionist policies affect them on a very personal level.

In fact, the Shalom Hartman Institute is responsible for educating a huge percentage of American Rabbis, and we were offered the same curriculum, giving us an unprecedented look at contemporary Jewish thought on the subject of Israel as it is being shared with Jewish leaders across the U.S. The curriculum was incredibly enriching and the faculty at Shalom Hartman were intellectually honest, willing to be self-critical and open to all questions. In proper academic fashion, they invited us to push back when we heard things we disagreed with, and to challenge them often–which we did. It was refreshing to be able to challenge these ideas in a safe environment, without being afraid of destroying friendships or undoing years of interfaith work here at home. It occurred to me during one of these sessions that if the only thing I am able to bring back from the experience is the ability to model and facilitate similar productive disagreements around Israel & Palestine in our respective communities it will have been worth it.

To the credit of SHI, there was little attempt to control our movement outside the curriculum while we were there. We had an opportunity to meet and speak to a broad spectrum of people in formal and informal settings about life in Israel and Palestine. Everyone I talked to on my trip (regardless of religion or nationality) had a story of personal and collective pain, loss and conflict. But at the same time, I was able to witness some of the very best of humanity in the individuals I came to know there. Shalom Hartman faculty, Palestinian leadership, and even strangers on the street were willing to voice their hope for peace. I also experienced a soulful hospitality from both Israelis and Palestinians that deeply touched my American heart. This phenomenon of great goodness found within a system of injustice was another quandary that I hoped that spending time in Israel would help me resolve…about my own country.

From its inception, the U.S. was built on a series of injustices from which I disproportionately benefit because I share specific genetic qualities with the men who wrote the Constitution; and there are plenty of people in my own country who flat out refuse to acknowledge injustices (past or present) and actively work against those who want to rectify them. I came home with fresh eyes, and began to examine domestic issues using the same critical lens with which I viewed Israel’s policies. It’s given me much to consider as I evaluate how I want to use this experience, including ways to facilitate a productive, mutually beneficial relationship between America’s Jewish & Muslim communities.

How is it that good people, when part of a power structure that benefits them, become unable to recognize, acknowledge and take action to correct deep injustices done in their name? Especially in democratic societies where, ostensibly, the people have control over their own government?

Furthermore, how is it that people fighting so hard for justice or freedom can easily dismiss the injustices done by their violent responses? If you ask someone from Al-Qaeda or Daesh about America, they’re not going to differentiate between us in their condemnation. This, of course, is it’s own type of injustice. Even those of us who do acknowledge the flaws in our system, or who vehemently disagree with things our own government is doing (Iraq invasion, Guantanamo Bay, etc.) share the collective guilt. When terrorists from other societies visit their acts of violence on us in the west, they don’t differentiate between policy makers/military personnel and average citizens who may or may not agree with their government’s positions. I am committed to rooting my own activism in justice, and regularly find myself at odds in my own community with others who would rationalize violence toward innocents as acceptable, even laudable, for the sake of a cause they believe in.

The world has become increasingly complex but the “solutions” that are being offered by most leaders are still simplistic – based entirely on cause-and-effect responses. This is easily illustrated by U.S. attempts to combat terrorism. By punishing terrorists without taking into consideration the systems that gave rise to the terrorism, we solve nothing.

While there are some great common tools employed by activists, there is simply no cookie-cutter method for addressing injustice or conflict. I’ve gained an enormous amount of respect for people who have been successful in formal conflict resolution. My trip to Jerusalem in January was personally challenging in every way; I regularly felt the urge to retreat back to my cozy corner of activist pals who would praise me for posting rhetorical memes and cursing a monolithic Israel on Facebook. But problem-solving in today’s world isn’t going to come from emotional rhetoric and mob justice; and with all due respect to my fellow activists, talk is cheap and social media is even cheaper.

Systems thinking is required to understand how and why conflict occurs (socially, politically, economically, racially) before any kind of solution can be developed. It is essential to study and reflect on all contributing factors, and to do so critically. I also strongly believe that the best kind of learning happens when one goes straight to the source, and experiences the subject in an immersive environment.

While I have never labored under the illusion that my participation in MLI would have an effect on the ground in Israel or Palestine, I have brought home a deeper understanding of conflict (in general), and of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays out in that part of the world. Even more importantly, I’ve gained a better understanding of how it plays out in my own country; along with valuable insight into the reasons that my Jewish friends react the way they do when conflict arises around Israel.

I believe, now more than ever, that this kind of moderated, structured face-to-face engagement between people who have drastically different views is essential to solving conflict both here in America around the world. The problems facing humanity, even at high levels, are human problems. Much of what I witnessed in Israel & Palestine can’t be fixed with policies. Distrust, fear, and pain aren’t going to be solved with anything less than full intellectual, spiritual and emotional engagement among a critical mass of people who really care and value the shared humanity in that place. I believe that the same holds true here in America, and anywhere else there is a need for peaceful resolutions.

I understand that this kind of work doesn’t win popularity contests. Critical thinking and honest discussion makes people feel less secure with the kind of rhetoric that protects them from pain. Nevertheless, I have what many might consider an unreasonable amount of faith in the human race. My faith in our potential isn’t based on naiveté. It’s based on my experience with an increasingly large number of intelligent, creative, dedicated and faithful people who are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices. These people–the ones who give me hope–are rarely full of answers. Instead there is a humility to their work that acknowledges their limitations; and a willingness to put their egos aside for the sake of critical thinking and creative problem solving.

Each passing year I’m introduced to more of these dedicated souls, toiling in their corner of the planet to overcome the obstacles to peace and justice. I met some of them in Israel, and some in Palestine. I know some of them here in America. I’m sure they exist everywhere, in every society. They are more interested in finding solutions than in feeling right about their positions. These are the people I’m seeking to work with right here, right now, in my own city.

In Part 2 of my reflection, I’ll share descriptions of my experience in Jerusalem.