To Jerusalem and Back: Part III

To Jerusalem and Back: Part III

It’s been more than two years since I first announced that I would be traveling to Jerusalem and touring Israel & Palestine as part of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s MLI program. During this time I’ve gone there twice and written about my experiences on my blog:

I’ve learned a lot. This experience has taught me more about human behavior, the nature of conflict, community dynamics and the purpose of peacemaking than anything else I’ve ever done.

And now, as I reflect back at the end of 2016, I want to share some of the insights I’ve gained during this process:

  1. “Facts” are utterly useless when discussing conflict. Everyone has their own facts.
  2. There are more than two sides to any conflict. In fact, there are as many sides to a conflict as there are people living in conflict zones.
  3. The only people who benefit from making us believe there are only 2 sides to any conflict are people that have found a way to benefit from the conflict–financially, politically or otherwise.
  4. Peacemaking requires empathy. But pain is selfish. It is impossible to make peace when consumed with your own pain. The only thing that can spark true peacemaking is helping people out of their pain enough to see others’ suffering.
  5. The only thing that can help people out of their pain long enough to see others’ suffering is having them spend time together. In person. Face-to-face.
  6. Most activism around conflict is far more concerned with controlling the narrative than it is seeking resolution.
  7. In conflict, religion is just as easily adopted as it is dismissed depending on how useful it is to those building the narrative.
  8. The more privilege someone has, the less likely they are to want to compromise.
  9. The vast majority of people just want to live a good life, make a decent living, and not have to worry about being killed when they step out of their front door.
  10. Victimhood is leveraged by some of the worst people on earth to provide moral authority for their actions. It’s easy to recognize and point this behavior out when others do it, but very few can (or will) identify and challenge it within their own community.
  11. Those entrenched in conflict would often rather inflict harm on the other party than help their own side out.
  12. The more power someone has, the less likely they are to be threatened by engagement. Conversely, you can tell how little power an individual or group has by how tightly they want to control who is allowed to engage around the conflict and when.
  13. Talk is cheap. Social media is free. Neither are worth much when it comes to getting things done on the ground.
  14. It’s surprising how rare it is to hear from the very people who are living every day in conflict zones. Most conversation take place in the lofty circles of activism and academia between intellectuals and activists who are relatively insulated from the effects of the conflict.
  15. There is no substitute for going to a conflict zone in person and bearing witness to the reality with your own eyes.
  16. Some of the best people on earth live in hellish places.
  17. Objectivity is considered a lethal threat by people who are invested in activist narratives around conflict.
  18. It’s really easy to manipulate people that are in a lot of pain.
  19. Getting people angry about injustice is easy. Getting people to try to make even the smallest incremental move toward practical justice is a monumental task. Hence, most politicians, activists and academics devote the majority of their time to the former.
  20. The best thing you can do when you meet people living in conflict is just listen. They are literally dying to be heard.

Over the last two years my position on Israel-Palestine hasn’t changed. In fact, I’m even more committed to the liberation of the Palestinian people than I was before I began the MLI program. The difference is that my position is now informed by real knowledge and experience.

Furthermore, while I still find myself disagreeing vehemently with many of the policies of the government of Israel, I found hope in the Israelis and American Jews I’ve met who are truly determined to see peace through Palestinian liberation. There are partners for peace in Israel. Many of these partners do consider themselves loyal to the concept of zionism, but their definition of zionism includes a peaceful, respectful relationship with a neighboring Palestinian state.

This would be good news except that in the last few months of 2016, my hope has rapidly begun to dwindle again.

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and his subsequent administrative appointments has made me realize that the scales may have tipped in the direction opposite where my hopes lie. Trump has made it clear that he will support the far right political agenda in Israel during his time as president. This is an agenda that uses twisted religious justification for the appropriation of all lands where Palestinians have lived for centuries. It is rooted in a lusty, derisive conquest narrative about Israeli winners about Palestinian losers. Israeli leadership will no longer be required to maintain even a pretense of wanting peace. There will be no repercussions from the U.S. government for whatever happens to Palestinians in the years ahead. Those who have been praying for a peaceful resolution in Israel and Palestine are rightly worried.

The fringe elements that have taken over in our governments have made no secret about their ambitions. The repercussions of their choices in coming years will, as always, be visited first upon the most vulnerable in both Israel and Palestine. Even those of us in the U.S. will not be immune.

In recent days I’ve been speaking with Muslim and Jewish leadership in the U.S. about how we can work together to combat the onslaught of illiberal extremism that is coming on the horizon. This new regime will use Israel-Palestine as a wedge issue to separate even the most well-meaning Muslims and Jews who are dedicated to working for peace, here and abroad. As such, it is essential that we divorce ourselves from any zero-sum narratives, reject litmus tests and make good faith efforts not to demonize one another. We must be resolved to place humanity, shared interests, and mutual respect at the center of our work even while having productive disagreements.

The road ahead is narrow and rocky. Our chances are slim. A government which defines peace in terms of crushing the opposition is on it’s way. Whether we are able to keep our hope and humanity alive depends on our ability to overcome pride, seek the common good, and share a vision where every human has value.

For my part, I can’t live any other way.