It's a sign of how the peace movement has fizzled out in Israel that even the peace process itself rarely cites peace as the goal -- it's now the "two-state solution" that is the mantra. It's as if everyone realizes that after decades of mutual hostility and mistrust, real peace between the Jews and Palestinians is simply too much to ask for without being laughed at.
Being in the city of messianic dreams -- i.e., Jerusalem -- it didn't surprise me yesterday to meet a man who dreams of changing all that. His dream is to revitalize the peace movement in Israel by making it deeper, richer and more inclusive. He wants peace to be a hot topic not just among liberal peaceniks but also radical settlers; not just among poets and artists but also hard-nosed and cynical right-wingers.
Alick Isaacs is a teacher and philosopher who, for the past 12 months, has been matchmaker-in-chief for ideological opposites. With the help of expert staff, like Sharon Leshem-Zinger and Avinoam Rosenak, he has brought together 14 influential Israeli personalities from all walks of life and, about once a month, gathered them in the same room to talk about peace.
Not peace platitudes, but intimate, personal, even raw expressions of what peace means to each of them.
The program's core idea is to validate -- and value -- these individual visions of peace. But getting everyone to the table wasn't easy. Settler rabbis, for example, dismissed the project at first. Isaacs appealed to them by talking their language. In one marathon session, he recruited a leading settler rabbi by studying the texts of his hero, Rav Kook, and pulling peace quotes such as these:
"The Lord will bless his people with peace. And the blessing of peace, which comes with the [blessing of] strength, is the peace that unites all opposites. But we must have opposites so that ... something might be united, and the blessing is evident in the power of these, and these are words of the living God."
Isaacs and his group are trying to inject vitality and freshness into an idea that has been beaten to death by the corrupting world of politics. Politics' virtue is that it creates systems and structure to try to effect change. Isaacs'challenge has been to take a theoretical idea and give it structure.
So he has made his Talking Peace initiative a pilot program for a much bigger venture called the Center for the Advancement of Peace in Israel, which will be hosted by Mishkenot Sha'ananim, an international cultural and conference center located in Yemin Moshe in Jerusalem.
All group meetings have taken place at Mishkenot Sha'ananim, which also houses an art gallery, a restaurant and guesthouses (where I am staying, and where I met Isaacs). A major player in the venture is Uri Dromi, who is director of Mishkenot Sha'ananim and is helping put the whole project together. (Dromi, incidentally, is also a blogger for The Journal.)
Isaacs, who wears a kippah and has a doctorate in Jewish history and anthropology from Hebrew University, was careful not to put down the Israeli government's failed efforts to make peace with the Palestinians. But it was hard for me not to draw a contrast between the emptiness of the political peace process and the seriousness of Isaacs' initiative.
This seriousness was evident in the wrenching moments that have occurred among the 14 participants during their many encounter sessions. Animosities flared. Mistrust was common. They were strangers stuck in a room with people with completely different worldviews. It helped to have a professional group facilitator who ensured that meetings wouldn't unravel into nasty political arguments. As the months went by, and more and more participants got to "speak their peace," raw emotions gave way to empathy for differing viewpoints.
The real value of the program will come when Talking Peace goes on the road. As one example, Isaacs plans to team up a well-known leftist columnist from Haaretz, Akiva Eldar, with a prominent settler leader, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed. As a result, followers of Melamed will learn about Eldar's vision of peace, and Eldar's readers will learn about Melamed's.
The idea is not to change people's minds, but to open them; not to push for compromise but to push for authentic expressions of peace. Compromise is more likely to occur when these expressions of peace are ingrained in people across the ideological spectrum.
Isaacs hopes to leverage the success of Talking Peace to raise the funds that will make the Center for the Advancement of Peace in Israel a full-time reality.
Ultimately, Isaacs knows that a similar process will need to happen on the Palestinian side for real peace to catch on. At least he's not starting with illusions. He knows that it's useless to charge full speed ahead with a peace train that is empty. For peace with the Palestinians to have any chance, it will need a multitude of peace riders from both sides to hop aboard, even if that takes a generation or two.
Until then, the Center for the Advancement of Peace in Israel will be advancing an idea that also deserves its share of attention: the peace process among the Jews.