On the Danger of Peace Work

06/23/2015 04:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

The process of making peace is not always peaceful. Peace activists often focus on changing the status quo of the conflicts we face. And yet, no matter how bad the status quo may be, blindly fighting against it only sometimes reduces violence. It can also create more violence.

Most of the peace activists in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are identified with a secular worldview. And yet, their language about "the future peace" is similar to that of messianic religious groups, who believe that they can create a peaceful future. The "Peace Camp" in Israel, for example, preaches a better future, while ignoring the potentially violent dimension of its own work. This, in my opinion, is why the majority of the Israeli public has chosen Netanyahu's government and not Israel's "Peace Camp."

Authentic peace work requires real efforts to ensure that the new reality will actually improve life on both sides of the conflict. We must listen to people who are afraid of taking the risk for peace, and take responsibility even for those who work against our own peace efforts.

As my appreciation for Gandhi's teachings grows, the following question persists: If Gandhi had known that, after his death and the end of British colonial rule, a terrible civil war causing millions of deaths and forcing millions into exile, would erupt, how would he have acted politically? I also think about the Dalai Lama's difficult decision to change his political policy from the liberation of Tibet to the preservation of the spiritual and cultural life of his people.

I am definitely not implying that we should demand less change to the status quo of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - quite the contrary! Still, I must demand of myself an honest assessment of the past and present damage I have caused in my peace work.

In the Bible, the Jewish God controls "The Truth" and demands the people of Israel to follow divine commands. In contrast, I grew up in the tradition of the Talmud, which creates more space for doubt and actually encourages self-reflection and existential questioning. Such "not knowing" opens the gate for new and challenging emotions, ideas and questions.

The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Yohanan ben-Zakkai, a prominent leader of the Jewish community during the Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire in the first century C.E. During the Roman siege of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yohanan refused to be passive. He risked his life by surrendering to the Romans. He became complicit in the destruction of Jerusalem and of the dream for Jewish political sovereignty. In return, he was granted the ability to create a new Jewish community, in which Jewish life could continue, but under foreign and idolatrous rule. In the last hours of his life, his disciples asked: 'Rabbi, what do you see? To their astonishment he replied: 'There are two roads open to me, one to heaven and one to hell, and I still do not know which way I will be led.'

Rabbi Yohanan's attempt to save Jewish lives, even in his last hours, was characterized by a profound "unknowing" regarding the right way to walk in the conflict. Even the enormous criticism from his friends did not prevent him from acting and making painful decisions, possibly even incorrect ones. The Talmud's description indicates, in my opinion, that Rabbi Yohanan's peace work did not enable him to speak in absolute terms of true and false or right and wrong. He acted with self-awareness, with tears in his eyes, knowing the road to hell was open to him at every moment.

My work in addressing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in the North American sphere clearly demonstrated to me the relevance of Talmudic teaching. In this sphere, the language used by pro-Israel and pro-Palestine activists is the language of true and false. Both sides claim to know what is right for both Israelis and Palestinians. For more than a decade I have worked on a daily basis with this conflict in Jerusalem, and one thing is clear: both sides, even if they want peace, are wallowing in the mud of inaction because of their fear that any change might result in a much more difficult reality.

At the end of the Gaza War of the terrible summer of 2014, I volunteered to help a group of student leaders at one of America's elite universities. These students were embroiled in arguments over the well-known Birthright Journeys. We discussed the idea of moving beyond criticism, to create an actual alternative journey to Israel/Palestine, based on a more mutual and open-minded sharing of narratives. We developed a vision of students - both supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestine - sharing a sensitive and honest journey into the land they both love.

But, after weeks of work, one side decided to quit working with the other side, claiming that after the Gaza War of that summer, emotions were running so high that they could not engage in dialogue or consider traveling together.

I could not help thinking of the Kids4Peace youth movement, in which I have served as a leader for many years. Even during that same difficult summer of war, there in Jerusalem, the Palestinian and Israeli Kids4Peace participants kept acting for change, with tears of rage and grief in their eyes. By contrast, the American students' decision to withdraw from the dialogue did not cause them to re-examine their activism, or pause their political activities on campus to reflect on what they had learned. Rather, they forged on, each side loudly denouncing the other side, still speaking the language of right and wrong, talking of justice and truth but rejecting any common dialogue or shared activism, even if it might fulfill their demands.

I look on these American students with love, and I respect their desire to help both nations to end the ongoing violence. At the same time, I wonder why anyone who is really engaged in the conflict in Israel/Palestine on a daily basis should take them seriously. Why should I or my Palestinian and Israeli colleagues take the existential risks that these American students say are required of us? Why should I sit every day in Jerusalem, in the midst of violence, with those who really hurt me (on both sides), when those students are not able to meet with those who support the other side in their safe American academic environment?

I am not trying to discourage those of you who are involved in peace efforts from working to resolve the conflict, whether you want more military support for the State of Israel or more effective BDS on behalf of the Palestinian people. What I am asking is that you do your work with some feeling of "unknowing," a recognition of your own imperfection and uncertainty, and express this in honest dialogue with the other side. Only when the "Other" believes that you see them, too, by risking some of your self-confidence, can you begin to gain credibility in dialogue.

Bearing the responsibility of leadership in a peace organization, I have learned that credibility is not earned by being "right," but by becoming more humble and more open. Every day two roads are open to me, one to hell and one to heaven. And no, I still do not know by which I will be led. This is the starting point of all those with whom I work, night and day, with sensitivity and responsibility, demanding of ourselves that we not rest until we have brought true and healthy change for those we love.