Peacemaking, Karma-stopping

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Peacemaking, Karma-stopping

By Arthur Waskow*

During the ALEPH Kallah, we had an extraordinary — intense — respectful — I hope fruitful — -evening dialogue from four different perspectives on the issues of Israel & Palestine. I have continued mulling over the questions we addressed, searching for new light on how to address them.

Some comments by Shai Har-El and Naomi Mara Hyman, both students in ALEPH's smikha program (and deeply world-experienced people besides) have drawn me toward some new ways of thinking about it.

As they pointed out, both peoples are deeply traumatized. (This is not especially new in itself, but focusing on it may lead us toward some new sense of what to do about it, and what not to do.)

Israeli culture has taken the Holocaust and the centuries of anti-Semitism as one of the most central elements of Israeli culture and identity. For a great part of the Israeli Jewish public, Israel is seen as the only bulwark against renewed victimization of the Jewish people, and Israel itself is seen as fragile, in constant danger of victimization, needing to be extremely tough in order to survive.

The Palestinians, from their own standpoint and regardless of the need felt by and the historic claims put forward by the Jewish people for self-government in the Land of Israel, in fact did lose altogether the ability to shape their own lives in the land between the Jordan and the Sea where they had lived. And a very large proportion of their community was reduced to refugee status.

(Even in the period from 1948 to 1967, when Jordan controlled the West Bank and Egypt controlled Gaza, the Palestinians did not shape their own lives. They felt so dispossessed that there were in fact demonstrations and riots against Jordanian suzerainty during those years.)

(The fact that before 1948 the Palestinians did not have what Westerners define as political sovereignty there did not change the fact that they had a direct relationship with the land and had worked out a culture of their own there. This was shattered in 1948 and again in 1967.)

So both peoples, deeply traumatized, tend to reenact the trauma. It is not only abused individuals who have a higher likelihood of becoming abusers, it is abused cultures as well — if they get the power to do so.

And these two are doing this reenactment on the bodies of each other. It is bad enough when one traumatized person begins to abuse others who must protect themselves while trying to heal him. But when TWO traumatized peoples are living in the same house, EACH acting out its trauma on the other, the abuse is repeated and repeated and repeated — for both. For each, the experience of abuse is reconfirmed and reconfirmed. A nightmare.

Our own Torah makes visible (at least to the observant eye) the path from being abused to being abuser by saying over and over and over that BECAUSE we were enslaved as foreigners in Egypt, we must treat foreigners with love and justice.

Why the hyper-repetition of this teaching? I think because the first gut response to having been enslaved is to protect one's self, militarily and psychologically, against everyone who might pose any threat at all, and to become so intent on breaking any power these others might have to make trouble, that quickly the effort to protect one's self becomes in practice a process of enslaving the others. This is what the Torah speaks against.

Indeed, Michael Lerner has suggested that one crucial way to think about God is as that force in the universe that makes it unneccessary for us to keep living through the "repetition-compulsion."

If so, how do we invoke this sense of God in this moment when Abraham's families are compulsively repeating and reliving their traumas? What to do about this double traumatization in our own generation?

Long ago, without reference to the Middle East, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi introduced into my thinking the notion of "karma-stoppers."

Karma-stoppers are what make it possible for us not to reenact the traumas we have been exposed to, as well as not to suffer the "just" consequences of our actions. For Abraham at the Binding of Isaac, the ram was a karma-stopper: Abraham was reenacting his own trauma and the behavior of the world around him in preparing to sacrifice Isaac — and only the ram made it possible to stop.

As we say every Yom Kippur, "Eyn banu ma'asim" — We CAN'T do enough good deeds to cancel out the hurt we have caused — we need an outpouring of unreasonable love to release us from the repetition of our cruelty.

And so Yom Kippur becomes the karma-stopper, because through it God, the Breath of Life, the whole community around us and our own selves within us, extend their love and their forgiveness.

Now — what is the karma-stopper for both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples?

What can help both of them release themselves from acting out their traumas again and again?

Here is where it gets hard.
1) I have urged that each people, and/ or both together, grieve for the dead of both peoples. When either people mourns only "our own" dead, "we" are very likely to whip up still more fear, rage, and hatred inside ourselves. If we could mourn together, weep together, see the other people as human beings — this might be a karma-stopper.

That is what Isaac & Ishmael did when Abraham died, mourning and burying even the one most threatening person in each of their lives — he almost killed them both. Then they were able to face each other and live alongside each other.

In Israel & Palestine today, there is a Committee of Bereaved Parents — Israelis & Palestinians both — whose children have actually been killed by "the other side." Imagine how hard it would be to look your "enemy" in the eye if your child had been killed by "him." Yet these parents are working together — for peace.

2. Nonviolence, even when it seems to be "choosing sides" by vigorously protesting against injustice, might become a karma-stopper. It tries to absorb violence and injustice inside itself — often literally inside the protester who may be arrested, attacked, beaten, even killed — and to respond with compassion.

It rejects as false logic the assertion that "If you are behaving unjustly, you must be a disgusting person — worthy of violence, of being violated."

Instead it stands against the unjust act, while bearing compassion for the person who is acting unjustly.

Rabbis for Human Rights, Bat Shalom, the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions, AS WELL AS SOME PALESTINIAN GROUPS — have espoused this kind of nonviolence when they have sat in the road to prevent bulldozers from destroying Palestinian homes, when they replant destroyed olive groves, etc.

. It is simply not true --as you may have heard some folk say — that no Palestinians have espoused nonviolence. The Palestine Center for Rapprochement in Beit Sahour, the Palestinian women's groups who have worked in absolute tandem with Bat Shalom and other Israeli women's groups, the Israel-Palestine Center for Research & Information (a bicultural center for research and planning for peace), and grass-roots groups in a number of Palestinian towns and villages, have all done so.

3. Compassionate Listening, both the process and the actual group, is an attempt at karma-stopping. It has been used in this conflict to make possible sitting together with the whole spectrum of actors from Gush Emunim settlers to Hamas, to hear the stories and get to understand the lives of all of them. For the "listeners" and even for the speakers, it may stop previous karma and open up new possibilities.

4. Living together in everyday life, either permanently as in the bicultural village of Neve Shalom/ Wahat al Salaam or in temporary arrangements like "Seeds of Peace" where young Palestinians and Israelis spend a summer together — might become a karma-stopper.

5. Arthur Green suggests, in the essay we are publishing, that one crucial wounding in this conflict has been the denial of Kavod — honor, respect — from Israelis to Palestinians, as individuals and a s a people. He has suggested some creative alternatives by which such kavod could be extended — perhaps stopping the negative karma between the peoples.

6. Focusing on the traumas of the Land itself, and seeing these as requiring the cooperation of both peoples — might redirect energies from national hatred to environmental healing. (But so far, fears of eco-disaster have fueled more effort to control more of the land and its elements — rather than more effort for both peoples to let it be in concert with each other.)

These ideas are only a beginning. I welcome — I plead for — others.

What I have said so far treats the two peoples as if they were or may be equal in power, equal in fear, equal in rage, equal in hatred. But one of the most intense feelings in the conflict is the assertion that there is no moral equivalence between the parties — that one is extremely powerful and the other much less so, one extremely unjust and the other much less so, one educaated to hate and the other much less so, etc.

How do we deal with this question? Is it possible to live BOTH with the kind of approach I have sketched above, and with an approach that does not see the two sides as symmetrical? Or are the two approaches mutually exclusive?

*Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the editor of New Menorah and the director of The Shalom Center