Saturday, October 10, 2009

Praying for Peace

Working for peace is a form of prayer

By Bradley Burston
Ha'aretz -- Tuesday - October 6, 2009

It's been a decade and a half that fanatics on both sides have ruined our lives. But there's a change coming. Whether the extremists like it or not. The sign came on the eve of the Sukkot festival, when Israel freed a group of Palestinian women prisoners in exchange for a video of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas for well over three years.

The exchange was a quiet tectonic shift. The families of the Palestinian women told Israel television that they hoped that the Shalit family would soon be as happy as they were. A natural response, to be sure, but shocking in contrast to the tone of years past.

The exchange came about not because Ismail Haniyeh and Benjamin Netanyahu wanted it, and certainly not Avigdor Lieberman and Mahmoud Zahar. It came about because Palestinians and Israelis wanted it. They want to see their loved ones come home. And the result may well be a tectonic shift in the peace process, deriving from an issue of crucial importance to huge numbers of Israelis and Palestinians, one overshadowed in most accounts of the Mideast impasse, which is often portrayed as confined largely to questions of borders, holy sites, refugee repatriation and settler repatriation.

A prisoner exchange, in the context of a wider deal encompassing the Israeli siege on Gaza, rocket fire against Israel, and accompanied by Fatah-Hamas rapprochement and close Quartet involvement, could spark powerful, publicly supported momentum toward the establishment of Palestinian statehood and an eventual solution of the conflict.

There was something propitious about the timing of the release of the prisoners and of proof that Gilad Shalit was alive. Another sign may well come later this month. An unapologetically pro-peace and pro-Israel political convention may prove to be a landmark event in American Jewish history, and a turning point in the relationship between Israel and the largest Jewish community in the Diaspora.

The national conference of J Street will see an unprecedented North American gathering of activists seeking a Mideast future anchored by the co-existence of a safely independent Israel and a justly independent Palestine.

Then there is the matter of Sukkot, a time of deep gladness and imminent judgment. It is a time for leaving the armor of the comfort zone, for going out and setting up a vulnerable shelter which allows neighbors to come not only as guests, but as equals.

May we take the opportunity to forget, for the moment, to hate. May we take our stomped expectations, our crumpled wish lists, our boiling blood and our lanced dreams, and still have the vision to seek a future in which two curiously similar, wholly incompatible peoples can be themselves, both secure, both self-governing, both truly independent. Two states.

Do people outside of the Holy Land have the right to push for changes in the Israeli-Palestinian equation? Absolutely. There are more Palestinians living outside of Palestine than within it, and more Jews living outside of the Jewish state than within it. For those who feel it, Palestine and Israel are certainly part of them, a core of their identity.

But in a region which needs healing much more than it needs hatred, it is more important than ever that activism be oriented toward a goal that can work. God knows, there are enough well-financed extremists working on both sides for a one-state solution that disenfranchises the other. As the real common enemy of both sides, fanatics don't need more help. They are more than capable of delaying peace on their own. They're praying as hard as they can that the two-state solution fails.

Yet prayer can also arouse new awareness, recover lost hope, and broaden compassion, and that is what the two-state solution requires. If it is to succeed, this is the time. If it is to succeed, the groups mentioned below are some of the people who could make it happen. They'll need all the help, and prayers, they can get.

It's only fitting. Working for peace is itself a form of prayer. Bearing the taunts, the frustration, the abuse from your own side and the distrust of the other, and yet retaining the faith and the power to keep on, is worship at its core. Working for peace is doing God's work.

Especially now. Now that extremism has corrupted two of the world's great religions. It has distorted them, taken them over, driven them as tools and engines of fanaticism. It has taken the two religions most zealous in their opposition to idolatry, and commanded them to hold certain collections of stones, certain parcels of soil, sacred beyond human life.

It has taken two peoples descended from one man, and turned them into mortal enemies. It has taken two peoples schooled and skilled as no others in the art of bargaining, negotiation, and reaching agreements, and has forbidden compromise, openness, creativity, compassion, accommodation, as forms of treason and mortal sin. It has taken one God, and taught Jews that Allah is not their Almighty, and Muslims that Elohim is not their All Merciful.

Working for peace is a form of reclaiming holiness lost. Like prayer, working for peace is a way of meeting, at long last, and often in surprise, our own hearts. The heart, that fist of muscle which appears from the outside to be in a continual fight with itself. Working for peace is a way to find out what that fight is really for.


[With thanks to Gershon Baskin, Kenneth Bob, Rabbi Miri Gold, and Ned Lazarus]

Among the many organizations working for a two-state solution are:

Brit Tzedek v'Shalom
Combatants for Peace
Gush Shalom
Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information
J Street
Meretz USA
Palestinian Peace Coalition
Peace Now
The Geneva Initiative
Israel Policy Forum