Ripping down the Palestinian flag that hung from my wall was my first reaction to hearing the sirens in Jerusalem one day last summer. It was not out of hostility for Palestine or even for Hamas, for that matter, but for hearing the fireworks and cheers in the neighboring Palestinian Arab village of Isawiya, next door to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I was studying on the Mount Scopus Campus. As I watched the Iron Dome of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) intercepting rockets fired at the Holy City, many of these residents flocked to the streets in celebration.
Who's to blame in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? The Israelis? The Palestinians? The governments? The religions? Or people like me who irrationally react to uneducated feelings and uninformed beliefs. The Middle East is stricken with motivated violence, but who really is to blame? Where's this motivation coming from?
I'll tell you this much: after living as a student in Israel and Palestine for the past year, I've realized that people on the ground do not want peace; they want their own states. Westerners (myself included) want coexistence for the people living in that land, but people living there are already coexisting out of necessity. When will we "out-of-group" members even acknowledge the wants of the people living in this region?
I'm in no position, nor am I in any way warranted, to pass judgment on this issue. I'm neither Israeli nor Palestinian, let alone Jewish or Arab. Then why comment?
Throughout my time attempting to promote plurality and inclusive relations between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East and while interning with the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), I have found that both sides want different things, but also the same things.
They both want chaos, suffering, and turmoil to end and to wake up each morning not fearing the day. They both want to go through their normal routines, just as we all do and take for granted each and every day.
Yes, this is too simple; it is not enough.
Of course, government policies need to be created and amended, fair borders drawn, and extremists silenced, but this is not the purpose of my writing. The ICCI, along with other interreligious and peace organizations in Israel and Palestine, believe that religion could be used as a weapon (yes, pun-intended) for peace and not destruction. Just as Desmond Tutu discusses, religion is a simple tool, like a knife: when it is used to cut bread, it is good; when it is used to cut someone's throat, it is bad.
I suggest this:
Let us take a step-back and think about intercultural dialogue and forming interconnected webs of mutual recognition before focusing on religion. And we first need to target the places where many Israelis and Palestinians inhabit: community centers. There are over 30 community centers in Jerusalem and virtually none of them rely on intercultural work. Colin Hames, Director of the Jerusalem Suburbs Community Center, believes that it's more useful to work on intercultural dialogue and from there slowly move into interreligious dialogue.
The simplest way to go about this is to get people together to become aware and learn about the other! Once you know the person, from an I-Thou Relationship and not merely an I-It Relationship (to use the words of Martin Buber), you begin to dialogue about intercultural relations. It is only when you look into the eyes of the other and acknowledge them for being from the same source that can interreligious dialogue become valuable. Creating intercultural programs in community centers can counter the prevailing attitudes of both Israelis and Palestinians against celebrating at the peril of the other. It is only by long-term intensive religious and cultural humanistic education that we can address the issues in the Middle East; the true way of doing this is to build infrastructure on the ground that will allow such to happen and not rely on Westerners coming into their land to find solutions for 'peace."
The mission of the ICCI is "to harness the teachings and values of the three Abrahamic faiths to transform religion's role from a force of division and extremism into a source of reconciliation, coexistence, and understanding." Quite simply, the ICCI aims to act as a support system for both Israelis and Palestinians, and all that seek their council. In 2011, my friend and mentor, Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish, Founder and Director of the ICCI, helped create a collation of more than 40 different organizations to express tolerance and unity against Tag Mechir ("price-tag") with Tag Meir ("spreading the light").
There has been much incitement due to Operation Protective Edge, and many houses, cars, mosques, synagogues, etc. have become vandalized. Common reflections from personal experiences have included the response (or lack thereof) of the local police, the role the Knesset must place to diminish such attacks, and how Tag Meir is indeed, "lighting" the way. Dr. Kronish states, "Fighting against price-tags brings people of good will together to combat xenophobia and insensitivity to fellow human beings. It reminds us that all human beings are created in the Divine Image."
Maybe we should stop playing the blame game. Maybe we should stop posting hateful, bigoted, and ignorant comments on Facebook and Twitter. Maybe my religion isn't better than your religion, my God isn't better than your God...or maybe we are all to blame: especially people like me who reacted so unresponsively Pavlovian for something I barely understood and continue to barely understand.
Rather than blaming each other, we ought to accept responsibility for each other's fate. All of us as human beings are inextricably intertwined. Instead of blame, let's try a new game: act for peace, and encourage those on the ground in both Israel and Palestine who are doing so.