Back from the Brink-or Beyond It?: The Joint Survival of Conjoined Twin Nations

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Palestinians and Israelis are not two separate peoples, yet we are not one family. We are like conjoined twins, like Chang and Eng. We share a vital organ, the Land; we cannot be cut apart.

So each must seek the health of the other, not the defeat of the other. For either to beat and bloody, let alone kill, the other is self-destructive. We must help each other achieve what we need, not try to prevent each other from getting it.

But this is not the normal model for governmental negotiations. Our leaderships have instead sought to give each other the minimum each could get away with, rather than the maximum each could give without suffering its own disaster.

Given the way these "best" of normal governmental efforts have turned brittle and snapped in these last few weeks, it may well take years of new contacts at the grass roots before the leaderships are ready to try again.

But the best time to begin is now, and such efforts may have the additional payoff of helping leaders step back from the brink now.

We are conjoined, but not identical twins. What we need is asymmetrical. The Palestinians are consumed by rage rooted in humiliation; the Israelis are haunted by fear, yet possessed of so much greater power they turn compulsively to using that overwhelming power in an overwhelming way, in order to exorcise those fears by doing whatever they please.

Every rage-filled action the Palestinians have taken has stimulated the Israelis' underlying fears. Every power-full action the Israelis have take to exorcise their fear, has stimulated the Palestinians' rage.

Though the Israelis DO have overwhelming power in the short run, their use of that power in the short run will bring on disaster in the long run—disaster for Israel.

The disaster in store is not only the possibility of inflicting & suffering many deaths now, not only the possibility of shattering the peace with Jordan and Egypt as well as the Palestinians, the possible reengagement of Syria in active hostilities, and the possible poisoning of opinion among Muslims throughout the world (like Indonesia) who were not enemeies of Israel before — but also an irreparable wound within Israel itself, between the Jewish and Arab communities.

What does that mean—a return to military government of the Israeli Arab community? A permanent Northern Ireland? Expulsion of the Israeli Arabs? How will other states react to such choices?

What to do?

For Jews, it is necessary first to understand the grounds of Palestinian humiliation, in order to know how to cool Palestinian rage. This is not only important for the sake of Jewish and humanistic values, but for the sake of protecting Israel. If Chang does not help heal Eng's disease, Chang will suffer too.

Many Jews are deeply convinced that "We offered everything, they offered nothing." Why does this not accord with the Palestinians' sense of reality?

First, it does not take into account what the Palestinians were experiencing on the ground, at the grass roots.

During all the seven years of the Oslo process, Palestinian homes were still being demolished—not because they harbored terrorists but because they had no permits to add a room or two as their families grew. But almost all Israeli applications for such permits were granted, while almost all Palestinian applications were denied.

And Palestinian farmland was being destroyed by "bypass roads" being built across them to provide easy access to the Israeli settlements. And the number of settlers was growing. And water was being siphoned off from urgent Palestinian uses like cooking to fill the settlers' swimming pools.

And all this was continuing even under the Barak government. At the uppermost visible reaches of public policy, the Camp David & post-Camp David talks, Barak looked willing to compromise. But on the ground, the bulldozers were still coming.

And he was not willing to say clearly, and campaign for it —

"The Palestinians need sovereignty where they are the heavy majority of the residents of neighborhoods in what we have now defined as Jerusalem, and they need sovereignty over Haram al Sharif (the Dome of the Rock). Now let us negotiate details of management so that everyone feels safe under this arrangement.

"We are prepared to do this, painful though it be, because two thousand years of creative Jewish life have taught us that human lives are more important than what used to be a sacred place for us, but is no longer. Our own crucial sacred places certainly include the western wall — which we have learned is precisely the place that teaches us about not geographical exile but the deepest exile, the exile of human beings who choose to see each other as aliens. And our sacred places include the farms, the cities, the villages, the streams, in which we renew our lives. Not ancient ruins beneath the Temple Mount, which give new life to no one."

Most Jews have failed to understand why a humiliated people, still under attack in its homes and farms, might need the grandeur and beauty of the Haram al Sharif as a mark of vigor and life.

Or why the Muslim world, which is also still living under the humiliations of three centuries of outright colonization and neo-colonialism by the Christian west, could not possibly give it up. (Every Muslim leader said exactly that; Barak and Clinton just shrugged.) Precisely because Jerusalem's holiness is shared by Christianity & Judaism, Muslims could not abandon their deep stake in it, writing it off as a marginal concern, leaving EVEN their own shrine there under someone else's dominion.

It would be possible to write an explanation just as long of how the Palestinians have failed to understand Israeli fears, because they seemed so irrelevant in the presence of the Israelis' enormous power.

The most important Palestinian failure has been their use of violence—even stones are violence—instead of mobilizing a disciplined nonviolent movement. And this is in a generation where resistance struggles not only in India and Black America, but those in Poland, the Philippines, Argentina, Yugoslavia, even to some extent in South Africa, showed how much could be won through nonviolence.

What now?

It may simply not be possible for the two official leaderships to step back from the brink at this point. In a mess like this where both sides have put so much prestige at stake, and where politicians hate to "back down" far more than they fear death, war, disaster — it may have to be outsiders who act, even to achieve the limited goal of keeping Israel and Palestine from jumping off the brink.

It may well be that another new peace process will have to begin at the grass roots, and may take years to build enough strength to make official political change workable. And that will undoubtedly have to prominently involve people who are now "outsiders," in a different sense — not geographically, but in a socio-political sense.

In the short range, only geographic outsiders—the great powers—can bring Israel and Palestine back from the brink. The US, Europe, and Egypt have been trying to play that role.

On the longer-range level, those who have little up-front power today could signal a new current and begin creating a new reality.

First, women in both communities are outsiders because they are denied access to power on both sides. They therefore have far less face to lose and might be able to get both leaderships to stop—if they could act quickly enough. And if not all at once, by working together across the national barricades, they can in the long run build a new source of power based in different values. Already some Israeli and Palestinian women have been doing this ; others need to emulate them.

Second, the possibility of a joint Jewish-Muslim religiously rooted network, responding not with tribal rage to the violation of each others' sacred places and the killing of each others' people, but with willingness to affirm the sacredness of shrines of both peoples, and the sacred use of nonviolence rather than violence.

Given the structures of Islam and of Judaism in Palestine and Israel, and the relation of both to intense nationalist emotions, this will be hard for the devout there to accomplish. (Yet groups like Rabbis for Human Rights and Netivot Shalom on the Jewish side, and some Sufi sheikhs among the Palestinians, have given us glimmers of the possibilities.)

But Jews and Muslims, as well as Jews and Arabs, live in a different milieu in the United States — where the link between religion and nationalism does not need to be so tight. From here, it may be somewhat more possible to paint a new religious vision of peace between the children of Abraham.

How can we help make this happen?

1. Urge, in private letters to the White House, State Department, and Members of Congress, and/or in calls to the Israeli Embassy and official Jewish institutions in the US where we may have some clout, and/or in public statements, that the parties continue to meet and negotiate.

Such negotiation evidently needs international oversight, and that needs to be seen by both Israelis and Palestinians as fair. The Palestinians see the US as one-sided, leaning against them. The Israelis see the UN as one-sided, leaning against them. It might makes sense to have a tripartite body — perhaps the US, France, and Egypt — sponsor fuirther peace talks.

2. Arrange for public Jewish-Muslim and Jewish-Arab joint discussions and dialogues: for example, "teach-ins" on Jerusalem from several perspectives: political, Jewish-religious, Muslim-religious.

3. Include, as often as possible, shared mourning for the dead of recent days. Jews could especially draw on the Genesis 25: 7-11 story, in which mourning leads to reconciliation: the joint mourning of Ishmael and Isaac for Abraham leads to Isaac's blessing, and his going to live at the well that saved Hagar & Ishmael, Be'er Lachai Ro'i, The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.

4. Wherever possible, issue joint Jewish-Muslim and/or joint Jewish-Arab statements and sign joint petitions for peace.

5. When and where possible, produce joint statements by American Jewish and Arab-American and Muslim American leaders urging both sides to step back from the brink. This might have an immediate useful effect, and in the longer run might help build the networks we need if there is to be a grass-roots movement for peace.

Such a statement:

  • should honor both sides for their love of and commitment to the Land,
  • should rebuke both sides for assaults and provocations on religious shrines,
  • should invoke the religious imperatives that saving life and preventing war are paramount,
  • should encourage both sides' efforts to work out an equitable sharing of Jerusalem while urging them to address the issue further, and
  • should ask both sides to accept some version of international participation in brokering further peace talks, and in developing new measures to prevent explosions — while addressing the grievances that produce them.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center , a nation-wide network of Jews committed to draw on Jewish wisdom and spirituality to help seek peace, pursue justice, heal the earth, and build community. He is also the author of Godwrestling — Round 2 (Jewish Lights, Woodstock VT) among many other works of Jewish renewal.