Side-stepping the Issues

An encounter between people who are `walking for peace' and settlers and their supporters allowed both sides to avoid painful confrontations with reality.

While the settlers were making their way to Kibbutz Barkai to meet with the participants in the "Wadi Ara Walk," the walkers themselves were eating dinner in a grove near the kibbutz soccer field. Two of the walkers had finished their rice and warmed yogurt, and were milling around the other diners, holding a jingling cardboard box. "The more I give, the more I have to give," they sang in English, wearing broad smiles across their faces. "Deep in my heart, I have endless love."

When the hoped-for mass sing-along failed to materialize, they chose to change their tune, literally: "Ani v'ata neshaneh et haolam" ("You and I will change the world" - a classic Israeli folk song), they implored, until the gong sounded, signaling that the briefing was about to begin.

The crowd, which had been marching since the morning in the third in a series of Walks for Peace that are being held by the Shvil Zahav (The Middle Way) non-profit association, sat in a large circle and listened silently to Dr. Stephen Fulder, a 56-year-old British Jew who lives in Klil, a community in the Galilee. Fulder is the unofficial spiritual father of the walkers and a facilitator of Vipassana workshops. "This evening there will be a reception," he says, speaking Hebrew with a heavy Anglo-Saxon accent, peppered with English words. "There will be an atmosphere of `friendliness.' We have to be welcoming to our guests. `Smile.' We have to be calm, and listen. A process of dialogue is a learning process. We don't want to convince the other. The object is tikkun [repair], healing, understanding the positions of the other."

Now a man called Elhanan, whom Fulder describes as "a good friend who has been working for peace for 30 years," begins to speak, and tells the group that he himself wasn't sure he would be able to meet with settlers after hearing about his wife's experiences in the olive harvest in the West Bank. "My wife came back from there yesterday, and told me about how the settlers are behaving. How they are beating people up and how an entire village fled because of them. But I realized that a meeting with them can be a lesson for us - an opportunity to look at ourselves, at the moment when the anger is sparked within us," he says.

"Why would they do such a thing? I'm in shock!" one woman whispers to her neighbor. "I'm astounded!"

Two hours before the briefing, they had walked in a long, slow line, silently traversing paths and fields, sporting white ribbons. It was the third day of the week-long walk, which aims to create "a popular, apolitical peace movement that follows in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King and calls for non-violent protest." The march was initiated by Fulder to show those - both Arabs and Jews - who feel there is nothing that can be done, that, after all, something can be done. The first walk was held in April; a hundred or so people marched from Jaffa to Jerusalem. In August, a march was held between villages in the Galilee, with double the number of marchers. They are now hoping to have "at least 500 people. Let there be a really long column of people that will be impossible to ignore."

Let's do it

Step by step, the meditative walk is intended to shake up the residents of a blood-soaked country so that they can reach an inner peace, from which an outer peace will be generated. "I see it as `peacemaking,'" says the slightly built, bearded Fulder. "The walk and the activities and the encounters with the Jews and Arabs along the way is an internal and external process. We want to strive for peace, but in a different way. For 50 years we've been living with fears; we don't know how to look each other in the face; we think that peace comes from a political arrangement or a line on a map.

"We can't bring peace only by being silent, but we can break down obstacles. We don't need to be prisoners of the concepts of the state; we can be reconciled and transmit the message that peace is possible: Look, we're doing it."

Residents of the Wadi Ara villages see it. They don't always understand the meaning of the long human convoy trailing along the road, but are unquestionably happy to be on the receiving end of smiles, flyers and positive energy through the windows of their cars. On the other hand, the walkers say that the reception they get in the Jewish communities is not always warm. Alongside expressions of support, they report being subjected to shouts and curses in Pardes Hanna and other places, although in such instances they continue walking, without responding.

The walkers include younger and older people, some of whom are in the midst of wandering the world, others taking out time from more practical pursuits. One of the new walkers is Itai Goldin, 26, from Mitzpe Aviv, who lost his brother Omri in the terrorist attack at the Meron intersection three months ago. He heard about the walkers, who visited his parents' home shortly after the shiva period ended, and then began walking with them, in silence. "I can identify with this idea, because it's the most authentic thing. The other modes of action that exist today are all based on power. Politicians of all sorts are power-driven. But this way is pure. Its supreme values are tolerance and compassion," says Goldin.

Despite the air of tolerance, Goldin is skeptical about the imminent encounter with a group of settlers from Elkana. "I am very curious about how it will turn out," he says. "Mainly I have negative thoughts. I am willing to listen to what they have to say, but I don't think that a basis of understanding or trust will be formed tonight."

Sterile discussion

Neither understanding nor trust were formed that evening. Primarily, there was the bewilderment of strangers who were supposed to talk about personal feelings, but avoided, at any price, accusing the "other," or even asking the other about his or her difficulties in light of the frightening reality. Throughout the encounter, the immersion in "I" prevented nearly any discussion of the real, everyday subjects that comprise the conflict, or the legitimate boundaries of the discourse of each of the sides and its willingness to compromise, in concrete terms.

The walkers and their guests, 12 young people from the settlements of Elkana and Sha'arei Tikva and the city of Petah Tikva, divided into groups and began talking about their feelings. But time after time, just as the discussion touched on the more acute, painful aspects - the 1967 border, for instance - the group facilitators made sure to chart an immediate withdrawal to more amorphous concepts such as introspection, leaving the discussion shallow and sterile.

"I came from a planet of love, I walk around - living without work, for the good of humanity," is how Lihi, a young woman and self-described "graduate of the rainbow" introduces herself to the others in her group. Her friends are seated around her, wrapped in ethnic blankets, munching dried fruits and massaging their friends' feet. "I don't watch television or listen to radio; most of the time I don't know about terrorist attacks. That works for me," Lihi says.

Many others identify with this detachment and when Shilo, one of the visitors, says that he is more disturbed by the fact that people are dying in a cycle of violence that he feels has no end, and less so by the "dulling of senses" to which some of those in the group refer, Lihi turns on him: "It's for love." A few minutes later, she falls asleep.

An older man, a member of the kibbutz that is hosting the encounter, stops near one of the circles in the dining hall plaza, sits down and tries to enter the conversation. After a few minutes, the man's disquiet is perceptible. Introspection - the key to the process of transformation - is a value that many of the walkers are, in his opinion, assimilating too deeply. At times it seems they are looking inside themselves so much that they are having a hard time leaving the world of foggy concepts, in which they avoid taking any stand, even on the most burning issues on the agenda, or even identify those to blame for the situation. One of those present even explains the phenomenon of the suicide terrorists as "every person has their role."

The kibbutznik breaks into the conversation: "This afternoon, I saw a group of people building a tent camp, so I said to myself, `We'll listen. We'll see what they are talking about,'" he says, explaining what piqued his curiosity. "But then I got angry. I don't want to be angry or hate either. For years I've been fighting this. I get up in the morning and think about whether I should take my gun with me or not, and I hate the fact that I have to think about it. I envy people who believe they are bringing redemption to the world."