As an American Jew working for Catholic Relief Services, I did not expect to be talking about peace in the Middle East with Palestinian Christians during my first month on the job. But there I was, on a C.R.S.-sponsored regional workshop in Beirut, Lebanon, recently, when I first met two Palestinian colleagues based in the C.R.S. Jerusalem office. I remember how hopeful I felt then about the possibility of achieving peace in the Middle East, in contrast to how I feel now as I reflect on the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, which left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead in Gaza, at least half of them civilians. Thirteen Israelis also lost their lives.
In Beirut, after meeting my two new friends Khalil and Vivian, both Palestinian Christians, we decided to go to dinner together. Khalil already knew about my religious background, but Vivian did not. I thought it was important for the sake of openness to let her know, so I managed to find a way of introducing the fact that I am Jewish. After a brief pause, they both shared with me their own experiences and hopes about building peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
By the end of our conversation, a number of things became clear to me. For example, Khalil and Vivian were both committed to living their own lives according to the same principles they espouse and apply in their professional lives, working for Catholic Relief Services as peace-building advisers. They are following Gandhi’s quiet, powerful exhortation: “Be the change you want to see.”
Icould see that there was no hint of animosity, anger or resentment toward me or any Jew—American or Israeli—as a result of the U.S.-backed Israeli policies that have caused undue suffering for many Palestinians. Most of them are innocent victims who have no interest in participating in acts of terror against Israel and just want to go about living their lives.
I realized that if my two colleagues, who are living with this conflict daily and experiencing the damage and trauma it wreaks on them and their loved ones, can renounce hatred, why can’t I? What was I holding on to that made me want to “win” the debate with them in our discussions of these admittedly thorny issues? Why must there be a winner and a loser?
I no longer had any interest in participating in any discussion in which we, as individuals, would be identified as being on opposite sides of such a “debate.” I realized the futility of trying to outdo each other either in justifying who was more right or who had been more wronged. Maybe there is some way of objectively determining which group—Israelis or Palestinians—has suffered the most at the hands of the other, but that debate has kept both groups spinning around endlessly in an escalating cycle of violence. I realized that this debate also enables opponents of peace on both sides to claim the mantle of victimhood while demonizing the other as the perpetrator. This approach allows them to avoid accountability for their actions and to continue to incite and perpetuate violence with relative impunity. Instead of supporting peace-building efforts, both sides wrap themselves in a cloak of bigoted righteousness so that they can shout down (and sometimes shoot down, as we have seen) proponents of peace as being sellouts—naïve, self-hating sympathizers—to the “other.”
Finally, this experience reinforced my commitment to peace-building and conflict transformation, which in my more cynical moments I, like opponents of a peaceful solution, have dismissed as naïve and futile. Now, after dinner with my two colleagues, I am even more determined to try to figure out how we can help create a platform where we can catalyze more of these small personal connections for an even greater number of people, building on them and aggregating them to create a more inclusive network for peace and justice. It is in these relationships, interacting with each other in meaningful ways, that people will recognize for themselves that violent conflict of any kind is not only politically inconceivable but also personally unacceptable.