As the blazes subside after the furious wave of “Pyro-terrorism,” as Minister of Education Naftali Bennett referred to it, we gauge the damage and count our blessings that no one was seriously hurt. And so we should because we were spared again.
But blessings aside, now that the flames are dying out, we should begin to do some serious thinking about the root causes of the fiery fury. And by “root causes,” I am not referring to the stagnation in the “peace process” (Has there ever been a more cynical description of continuous warfare than as a “peace process”?). By “root causes,” I am referring to the root of the hatred between Israelis and Palestinians, because in truth, there hasn’t always been hatred, and the common ancestry we share used to play a greater role in our relations.
If we view the Arab-Israeli conflict from a different angle, we might just find a loophole out of the abyss of perpetual hostilities.
A Time of Change
Throughout the short history of modern Israel, we have been striving for peace. And throughout this time, the only paradigm we’ve had has been the “land for peace” formula. Different variations of it have been tried over the years—from peace treaties such as with Egypt, to the A, B, and C zones in the West Bank following the Oslo II Accord, to a unilateral withdrawal, such as in Gaza. All have yielded poor results, at best. Shimon Peres’ dream of a “new Middle East” has come true, but it is nothing like the late prime minister envisioned. Instead of peace, we have terror all over the country, perpetrated by untrained, sometimes juvenile Palestinians motivated by nothing but hate.
Clearly, the “land for peace” formula has failed and we must look for a new paradigm. In order to achieve peace and not merely talk about it, we must think beyond the land issue and start looking at the people who are actually the ones who have to make peace—the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Without Politics, People Get Along
Initially, Muhammad did not perceive Jews and Muslims as enemies. “When Muhammad arrived in Medina,” writes historian Zachary Karabell, he signed an agreement, “which became known as the ‘Constitution of Medina.’ It was a model of ecumenism.” The agreement created a community and Muhammad declared that “as for the Jews, they belong to the community and are to retain their own religion; they and the Muslims are to render help to one another when it is needed” (Karabell, Peace Be Upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Conflict and Cooperation).
The genial coexistence did not last long in Arabia, and Muhammad eventually subdued or destroyed the Jewish tribes that lived there and resisted his teachings. However, unlike Christian anti-Semitism, Muslims did not perceive Jews as the source of all evil. The famous Turkish author, Harun Yahya, writes that until “the Nazi-inspired Vichy regime [which governed in Morocco] began its anti-Semitic practices … the 250,000 Moroccan Jews were an inseparable part of Morocco, its culture, history and civilization, and helped build and shape it to make it what it is today.” Moreover, Yahya continues, “For centuries, these two communities existed side by side in harmony and friendship.” Even in Jerusalem, Jews and Arabs lived peacefully side-by-side for centuries, until politics got in the way there, too.
Apparently, when you focus on people instead of on territories, you can put politics (and politicians) aside and instate a completely different atmosphere.
Putting the Emphasis Back on People
Before the establishment of the State of Israel, the leaders of the Jewish settlement in Israel strove for peace and believed it was achievable. Moreover, they emphasized the human aspect rather than the political one. Rav Kook, the spiritual leader of religious Zionism, wrote, “I know for certain that the Arab nation as a whole, including the majority of the Arabs in Israel, are full of sorrow and shame at the bad deeds that a small minority of them carry out because of their inciters” (Treasures of the Raiah).
Similarly, the celebrated thinker, Martin Buber, wrote, “Our return to the land of Israel does not come to deny the rights of others. We wish to establish our common residence with the Arab nation as a just covenant and a thriving community—economically and culturally—whose development will allow each of the nations to develop individually without interruption” (“Hopes of Jewish-Arab Solidarity”).
And finally, David Ben Gurion, who would later become the first Prime Minister of Israel, said at the Histadrut convention in March, 1944: “One more comment about the meaning of a Jewish state: It is not a state governed solely by Jews. In the land of Israel, there are Arabs and others who are not Jewish. It is inconceivable that there will not be complete and absolute political, civil, and national equality in a Jewish state. Not only personal equality, but denominational equality, as well: complete autonomy on all matters of language, religion, and culture. In a Jewish state, it is possible that an Arab will be elected as Prime Minister or as the President, if he so deserves.”
Regrettably, once we abandoned the idea of educating ourselves toward coexistence, we also lost the ability to achieve peace. As people’s hearts filled with hatred and incitement, a life of harmony in Israel turned from a dream into a mirage.
Uniting from the Bottom Up
Now that politicians have given up on warming the relations between Israelis and Palestinians, and we have given up on trusting the government (any government) to achieve peace, it is time to start building it from the bottom up. When members of the Arvut (mutual responsibility) Movement—which derives its ideas from the concept of human bonding as described in the wisdom of Kabbalah—decided to test the principle of unity above differences in practice, they discovered a simple method of deliberation called Connection Circles. Basically, a Connection Circle is a discussion circle in which every participant is equal and speaks only in turn, does not interrupt other speakers, and adds to the conversation but does not refute other participants’ ideas.
The results of the Connection Circles far exceeded anyone’s expectations. As these links demonstrate, time and time again, people proved that when they sit in a circle as equals, differences, hostilities, cultural barriers, and even language barriers all disappear.
Additionally, this video clip (in Hebrew; so make sure the Subtitles option is switched on) that was shot in the resort town, Eilat, on the border of Israel and Egypt, is possibly the best proof of the power of human connection made through the Connection Circle. The video, titled, “The Place Where Peace Begins,” brings some of the many testimonials of Arabs who experienced Connection Circles with Jews.[*] One woman said about Arabs and Israelis after the session: “We are like a family, not Jews or Arabs, no racism.” Another man said, “We can be an example to the whole world that we [Arabs and Jews] truly want unity, that we want to live with one another.” Yet another man referred to our common history: “It is our duty to live together because we come from the same father [Abraham]. There is no escape from this,” he said, looking directly at the interviewer. Finally, a young man was asked how he thought there could be peace between Arabs and Jews. He replied, “It begins with such a circle, where I listen, and raise my children from infancy on love, understanding of the other, and we will have generations of very happy and optimistic people.
Today’s circle contained seven chairs, but I would be very happy if it contained 80 million, where we all sit together, fulfilling our wishes.” Finally, a middle-aged man concluded, “If this circle spreads properly, not just in Eilat, this is what will bring us peace, not the politicians, neither ours [Arab politicians] nor theirs [Jewish politicians]. Only if this circle spreads, it will bring the peace and will bring people’s hearts together. Otherwise, forget it; there will be no peace.” Again, all of these quotes came from Arabs who experienced just one Connection Circle.
The theory behind this simple technique is even simpler than the technique itself, and relies on the principle that had made us into a people to begin with: “Hate stirs strife, and love covers all crimes” (Prov 10:12). This means that we do not suppress the differences between us. We do not use any euphemism or political correctness but rather bring our hatred into the circle, allegorically pile them up in the middle and unite above them.
Moses scaled Mt. Sinai, from the word, sina’a [hatred], and brought us the Torah—the law of loving others as ourselves—only when we agreed to unite “as one man with one heart,” so RASHI tells us. Likewise, when we come together in a circle, it becomes a profound experience of unity, as is evident through the lit up eyes of the interviewees as they spoke about their feelings and conclusions.
Watering Our Common Roots
When Baal HaSulam writes in The Writings of the Last Generation, “Judaism must present something new to the nations; this is what they expect from the return of Israel to the land,” he is referring to unity. We are the people who introduced unity as a basis for the founding of a nation, or as Baal HaSulam put it in the book just mentioned, “the wisdom of bestowal.” We will be “a light unto nations” only when we bestow unity upon the entire world. In one of his letters, the Rav Kook wrote, “The brotherly love of Esau and Jacob, and Isaac and Ishmael, will rise above all those commotions that wickedness has induced, and will turn them into everlasting light and mercy” (Letters of the Raiah). This light of unity is what lit up the eyes of the Arabs who participated in the circle, and it is what lights up the eyes of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and every person, religious, secular, and everything in between when they experience Connection Circles the world over.
Unity is the one ingredient that the world needs, but has no idea how to produce. In Israel, we—Israelis and Arabs—can produce it, and thereby immediately become a role model that the world will happily embrace. We share a common father, whose nature was mercy and generosity. This is how he united so many different people under him. Today, we can and should tap into Abraham’s legacy and establish unity among us. If we want peace and coexistence, this is the way to go.
[*] All participants were picked randomly from among visitors strolling on the Eilat boardwalk on a summer evening.
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