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Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater Headshot

Isaiah Calling: A Fresh Take on Israeli-Palestinian Peacemaking

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Something is not working. The impasse that faces us in trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs a fresh approach. After being involved with Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts for the past 18 years, and after four months of living in Jerusalem seeing the current situation up close, I am feeling called to return to the text.

Not the text of any previous unimplemented agreement or accord; not the text of our collective trauma, where both sides claim the full truth of the experience, alienating the other's story as anathema to reality; and not the text of either sides' schoolbook. No, the text I am returning to is older than any of these.

I am returning to the text of the prophet Isaiah, specifically chapter 11, where the famous prophecy of "the wolf laying down with the lamb" is found. Having recently studied this piece in a Bible class, I found some insight that peace, long sought after and rarely achieved, is possible if only we change our mainframe on how to approach it. We say we want peace, we crave peace, we pray for peace. During my time here, I have heard individuals on both sides of the conflict say this, Israelis and Arabs. And I have heard leaders on both sides say it is desirable but impossible right now. Something is not working. Breaking this logjam, moving through the morass of hopelessness, that is what Isaiah is trying to teach us about.

Isaiah speaks of time when a new kind of leader will emerge on the scene. This new kind of leader will have "the spirit of God, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, advice and strength, the spirit of knowledge and fear/awe of the Divine" (Isaiah 11:2). While we can debate what is the "spirit of God," I understand this as someone who can think and analyze beyond the realm of the common, beyond the realm of the subjective, someone who can rise above the din of the "he said, she said," world of normal human discourse and see things from a larger perspective. One of the great roadblocks in trying to make peace is not seeing the "other" as human, as created in the image of God, as worthy of peace. Humans create walls between friend and foe, walls that can be quite difficult to breach. The Isaiah vision of peace requires us to imbue our leaders with the capacity to see and act beyond the fragile human constructs in which most of us live. Great leaders have this capacity. It is not easy, to be sure, which is why many of the great leaders for peace in our history from Gandhi to King to Sadat to Rabin have been killed, others shunned. Isaiah's vision calls us to support and believe in their courageous leadership.

"And he will perceive with the awe of God; not by what his eyes see will he judge and not by what his ears hear will he rebuke" (Isaiah 11:3). It was this verse in particular that struck me as the core of the vision. In order to bring about peace -- true and lasting peace -- we are called to delve beyond the base senses of our eyes and ears, which can often deceive us, and see the world from the perspective of the Divine, from the lens of holiness. A fundamental change in how we see the world is necessary in order for "the wolf to lie down with the lamb." We have such a corrosion of trust between Israelis and Palestinians, a corrosion that is not without merit in many cases I acknowledge, but when there are positive steps taken by either side, we are unable to "see" them, unable to "hear" what the other is saying. Fill in the blank with your own side's truth. In order to see and hear the world with Isaiah's vision, we need to take risks, we need to see through tired rhetoric to a bigger picture, we need to listen beyond the words to the larger chords of the peacemaking melody. There is a fundamental and often invisible courage needed to defy our senses and trust in something larger than ourselves.

I have sat with Palestinians and Israelis in these months who possess this uncommon courage, who are doing the hard work that their leaders refuse to do: see one another as humans, sit across the table, listen to painful truths without denying those truths, acknowledging wrongs done and showing willingness to compromise and apologize for the sake of a better future for their children. Both sides feel like the lamb and see the other as the wolf. The fear is real. Yet, conversations like these breakdown barriers, lay the groundwork for the wolf and lamb to lie together without fearing each other. Why can't Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas start having these conversations?

The animals paired together are precisely the very predator and prey that nature has brought into the world, especially at the time of Isaiah. Scholars have shown that not only was Isaiah a prophetic voice, but he was knowledgeable of the animal kingdom. The wolf's ultimate prey is the lamb; the lamb's greatest fear is the wolf. The leopard and the kid; the calf and beast of prey, with a little boy to herd them; the cow and the bear grazing together; a baby playing in and around a viper's den. The natural instincts of the animals, to hunt and to allude the hunter, are defied in this vision. So too, our base human instincts, to suspect the one different from us, to fear the "other," to disavow the possibility of peace and tikkun, correction, in human character, all of these must be overcome in order for peace to have a chance. Some call it childlike, others naive. I say it is prophetic.

That is the brilliance of Isaiah: When we use our Divinely inspired gifts, seeing and hearing the world from a perspective of peace, then amazing, even impossible, outcomes are possible.

Clearly, listening to the endless loop of Israeli and Palestinian leaders saying they are ready for talks if only the other party was, we know something is not working. We know the outcome of war: a false sense of temporary security until the next war. Entering into this new round of peace negotiations in the Middle East, after decades of failure, requires a new lens, a new vision.

I call on the leaders of all nations engaged in making peace in the region to read Isaiah and begin again with this framework. After thousands of years of reading this text and dreaming of its fulfillment, it is time to try and live it in real time.

The worst thing that can happen is that we don't succeed, again. And the best thing?

"In all of my sacred mountain nothing evil or vile shall be done; for the land shall be filled with wisdom of the Divine as the water covers the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).