Tuesday, October 30, 2012

War, Peace and Flipping Coins

On Monday evening (Oct. 29), our IFPB delegation split up into small groups and spent the night with host families in the ancient walled city of Acco on the Mediterranean.  My travel roommate, Deklan, and I were staying with the family of Yosef a few blocks from the water.  We were joined by Laura and Art who were staying with Yosef’s brother, Ahmed, closer to the water.  The dinner conversation was lively, as we bantered back and forth about historical facts and comparative narratives of injustice and violence – present as well as historical – all around the world. 

After dinner, Deklan, Yosef and I went for a walk.  Deklan asked Yosef how he thinks things will unfold between the Palestinians and Israelis.  “War” was his calm, somewhat sad, answer.  For him it is clear that the only way to avoid war is to return to the 1967 borders but is not going to happen.  He was clear that he does not want war, but he just doesn’t see an alternative.   I reflected my own faith that where there are signs of hope, we can help lessen the violence.  Deklan’s stance was that the Israelis simply need to stop with the lows and policies that keep the Palestinians as second class (or worse) citizens.  It’s as easy as “flipping a coin”, he said. 

“War, Peace or a coin toss”, mused Yosef.  I am increasingly thinking that it is going to be some combination of all of these.  There is already violence – blatant as well as systemic – and to reverse these will take effort and certainly some luck. If, as Yosef said, there will be no peace until there is a return to the 1967 borders, there is no way there without the upheaval of at least 500,000 settlers, many of whom are not likely to go peacefully and will be backed by many Israelis.  At the same time, many Palestinians are not enamored with their own leadership, so even if the Palestinians were to gain autonomy, I would expect a battle for power from within as well.  And then, of course, there is the insidious systemic nature of violence, as evidenced y the US-supported military destruction followed by US-funded rebuilding.  It’s a great economic machine.  It’s a mess.

As I start to reflect on my time here, I don't see groups of people.  I see the faces of individual humans, many of whom are caught up in the daily challenge of human survival.  I am awed by the beauty and the passions in these individual struggles, while shuddering at our capacity to dehumanize each other to the point of annihilation in some cases.  There is Yosef, with his exasperation of  constant arrests and harassment for speaking out but also his friendly hospitality.  There is his wife, and her somewhat defensive and unnecessary statement that Palestinians just want to support life.  There is 23-year old Mahmoud’s spirit of hope for the future while including me in a Palestinian bachelor party with festive music and dancing.  There are the sincere desires and demonstrations of a commitment to find a peaceful way forward from the members of kibbutz communities.  There are Roi and Rwan, a Jew and a Palestinian (his grandparents came to Israel in the 1930's because of anti-semitism in one case and zionism in the other; her grandparents village was wiped out in 1948) working together to bring cross-cultural learning to Jewish and Arab schools as part of their work at the Arab-Jewish Community Center in Tel Aviv.  There are organizations creating new ways forward through theater and community outreach.  And then there are people who hate, fear, resent or wish to harm the neighbor they don’t know.   

I have hope that, if we stay connected and keep acting in ways that support the common humanity of each other through the upheavals, we can come back together as a stronger global community.  Just as I believe will happen in the US as we struggle with all our various prejudices and practices of injustice past and present, my hope is that our descendants can sit around the dinner table, sharing meals from all our faiths and cultures,  celebrate each other rather than try to lord over each other, and look to the past wondering "what the heck were they thinking?"  Yes, it’s ideal, but we can start practicing now so when the opportunity comes, we are ready.  As Whitney Young said “it’s better to prepare for the opportunity that may not come, then to have an opportunity emerge, and not be prepared.” 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Faith, Justice and Grace in Israel

The thankful heart sees the best part of every situation. It sees problems and weaknesses as opportunities, struggles as refining tools, and sinners as saints in progress (Francis Frangipane)

This is now my third day here in Jerusalem with Interfaith Peace Builders.  It has been an eye-opening experience to see and learn more about this amazing region of the world.  It has also not been an easy trip for me.  As so often seems to be the case, while I share the passions and concerns that the current state of things here is perpetuating immense harm on many Palestinians, I don't necessarily share in the sentiments expressed or the specifics of the calls to action.  There are stories of farmers being disconnected from their farms, and idle farms are then deemed vacated and taken by the government.  Because of limited movement, Palestinians cannot enter into parts of Jerusalem to argue their cases for land and home.  Institutionalized harrassment is pervasive.  On the other hand, I know that there must be more to the story. Good friends of mine talk about the importance of Israel in their lives, the bombings suffered by attacks.  I see people of deep faith - Muslims, Jews, and Christians - just going about their daily lives, some trying to co-exist, others just living.  The more I learn, here and see, the less certain I am about anything - sometimes by what is said, other times by what is not said.    I do know this: people are suffering from violence.  If things remain on the present course, there will be much more suffering. I know there is anger, hatred, hurt and mistrust of scary proportions.  From terms like "the Arabs want to eradicate Israel" to "my 10 year old nephew wants to kill all the Israeli soldiers", this goes deep.  I guess much of this is understandable, but a speaker we heard today spoke my mind when she said "All violence is unacceptable.  No buts".

So what is mine to do?  I don't know.  Will BDS (boycott/divestment/sanctions) promote peace and justice? Given that, as one person working against home-demolition stated, the Palestinians need to figure out what they want, I can't even venture an educated guess.  I hear too many opinions.  In my role as Clerk of a Quaker committee (where reaching consensus can be a black hole of time to little positive effect) and what I hear from folks, it's a tricky thing.   What I am seeing more clearly that mine is to stay committed to my belief (that has been backed up by experience) that there is God in all things, and mine is to joyfully keep seeking.  To be a bridge-builder.  I have a long way to go, but it seems to be what my leading.  I hope to return with some possible actions people can take that don't need consensus.  I hope to bring back a deeper appreciation of why Israel is so important to both secular and religious Jews.  Perhaps I can help to develop a Workcamp trip here to tour the holy sights, reflect on their meaning and role in lives and conflict, spend time on a kibbutz and at a Palestinian farm. Perhaps even help build a personal relationship or two across the divide, building on where some already exist.  Basically be in fellowship.  Nothing dramatic, but all with a clear vision of justice and harmony. 

I find it a challenge to give voice to this whilst among people who are clearly well-informed passionate activists, some of whom say "the facts are in, and the time for action is now", reflecting a sense of urgency that current trends are dooming much of the Palestinian community.  I don't disagree, although I am not sure that referring to doers of misdeeds as the "f#cking Israelis" helps.  I can't help but go back to where I place my bets: try to practice grace, dedicating myself to hearing what people have to say rather than demanding them to hear what I have to say.  Continually try to put my ego aside, soften the heart and not try to lord what I think needs done over other people, but still hardening my own resolve for a more just world.  I suspect many people think this is wishy-washy, but hopefully people who know me know that I am not shy about speaking my truth.  I wouldn't think a wishy-washy person can disagree as much as I do, but I try to do so in a way to really here another's truth, not deny theirs, seeking to understand rather than be understood.

The issues here are a mess.  There are signs of hope, such as the Palestinian farmer who responds to countless efforts to intimidate and take his farm with love and hospitality, or the woman at the kibbutz leading the Other Voice for Peace, but the hope is in their spirit, not their situation.  The least, and perhaps best, I can do is simply be that constant appreciative voice for hope, trusting that love may not prevent bad things, but can help make whatever happens do less harm.  It's a lot of work, much of it lonely, but seems to be my lot. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Seeking Unity, Facilitating Harmony and Harmonizing

Friends often talk about how we seek unity on issues.  When there is not unity, what do we tend to do?  We talk about "seasoning", laying the issue aside for a while, continue to discern.  In many cases this is totally the thing to do, but what if the issues have broader implications - such as a minute or statement about how we think the world should be or some kind of action regarding issues beyond our congregation?  It's one thing to consider a minute of whether or not to perform a same-gender marriage or to take something under the care of the Meeting; while it may be unpleasant for many, it is about a group action in an enclosed group.  But when the issue at hand has to do the broader world around us, often people have strong feelings about either the issue or the action and want the whole body to follow-suit, the whole body might not do so for a number of reasons.  The desire for unity can be painful, as often a lack of unity is perceived as a lack of action, and people may feel compelled to support the called-for action because they feel intimidated, at times sensing that because they are not in unity they are somehow deficient in understanding the problem or they are simply tired and want to move on to something else.  For others, myself included, there is a discomfort that unity among ourselves can come across as exclusive - that somehow, because we have reached unity, this is how the world should be, and it doesn't matter what others - neighbors, friends, family, other congregations - think.

This past year I saw in the Quaker cyber-world the observation that Peace - perhaps the thing Quakers are most known for these days - is a dynamic relationship between justice and harmony.  Peace is what we strive for, and we all recognize that justice is necessary to achieving that peace.  It is often a drive for justice that is behind our calls to action or public statements.

What if, during those frequent times when we do not have unity, we try practicing harmony?  Consider the analogy of an orchestra conductor.  His/her role is to bring together the leading and talents of very different people, each with a leaning to very different kinds of instruments, and have them learn to listen to each other and play off each other while practicing their own particular piece.  They bring a peaceful experience to what could be an incredibly unpleasant experience.

Now, we Friends are not in a position to be actual conductors in most cases.  Humility should help keep the ego in check.  With the Prayer of St. Francis as a guide, we should recognize that we are simply instruments of Peace, but the whole Peace ensemble is much greater than us.  It is not ours to make everyone an instrument like us.   But we can be better practitioners of listening for harmony and learning to harmonize with others, appreciating the other instruments.  In those times when we don't have unity, perhaps we can learn to harmonize with each other.  It takes potential chaos and brings it to a more synchronized flow, but it doesn't try to make the violin a tuba.  As we learn to do this with each other, then perhaps we can be better practitioners of it in the even larger world where there are even less chances of unity.  It is a way to take our voices out and rather than feeling we need to shout down our neighbors, family and friends who do not agree with us, or feel we can't talk about things, we can learn to harmonize with them.  It's really about seeing the common humanity.  Isn't that really what we mean by "there is that of God in all" anyway?