Fr. Bob Maat is an American Jesuit and trained physician’s assistant who went to Cambodia upon finishing seminary, thinking to serve there for 3 months and then return. He never left Cambodia. He learned the Khmer language and proceeded to make that country his home, working for years with refugees and survivors of landmines, living among impoverished villagers for whom violence and suffering had been a way of life as long as they could remember. Often he joined the pilgrimages of the Cambodian Buddhist saint, Mahaghosananda, who would walk with monks and lay people into the very heart of conflicts, at risk to their lives.
Twenty years ago Bob Maat undertook a new project. He began to walk from village to village, educating Cambodians about peace. After being at war for generations, he said, men and women forgot what the word meant. It hadn’t disappeared from the language, it was just empty of relevant meaning, like the word unicorn, describing a creature that probably never existed. The people he talked to assumed that instability, violence, and fear were a regular way of life and couldn’t imagine anything else. Bob Maat realized that unless they rediscovered peace as pertinent, meaningful, and important, it would become a concept like the unicorn, a thing of myth rather than reality, and no one would do anything about it.
Peace in the Holy Land is getting to be seen more and more like the unicorn. Honored in the sacred texts of all three Abrahamic religions, the word evokes distrust and cynicism in day-to-day life. If you use it in adult conversation you’re labeled either a leftist or a normalizer, or at least someone who’s not serious. Government leaders seem to use the word for the purpose of invalidating each other, e.g., there’s no partner for peace on the other side. And if you call yourself a peacemaker in Ben Gurion Airport they will look you up in their computer system to see if you’re a troublemaker.
When things go unnamed or their names lose relevance, they become unseen. Peace still finds its way into song and poetry, but when the rest of us become self-conscious about using it, sooner or later the yearning behind it disappears, too. And when that’s gone, what’s left? Will we even remember that there’s a different way of living? Unless we restore peace to its natural place as both birthright and goal, unless we infuse the word with value and significance once again, we risk raising future generations that will not know what the word really means. Unless we reintroduce it to the language of practical designs and strategic plans, we risk an entire country acclimating itself to constant fear and insecurity as a way of life, with no sense that an alternative is possible and worth working for.
Many say that we must avoid a big vision at all cost, that such a thing is doomed to failure, and instead concentrate on making slow, piecemeal progress. But creating a vision of peace has nothing to do with success or failure, for its function is simply to show us where to go. Without it, roadmaps and borders have little use. “Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward,” Nelson Mandela said. Realists know that, as a practical measure, we need to always keep our direction in mind, especially on a journey like this one, which suffers frequent, violent disruptions that cause us to lose our way.
Political approaches have been tried and faltered. After each breakdown there is more distrust, disappointment, and cynicism, causing political leaders to be even more timid and cautious than before. They have their role, but it takes all of us, doing our different work, speaking our different languages, and using our different traditions and stories to create and implement a vision of peace on every level: individual, local, national, and global.
1. Almost everyone living in the Holy Land has been subject to fear and trauma, whether derived from memories of the Holocaust in Europe or from more recent wars, expulsions, bombings, occupations, and acts of terror. Who doesn’t know the difference between living with safety and feeling overwhelmed by fear and insecurity? Between confidence and optimism, which energize one’s life, and cynicism and denial, which drain it? Inner peace requires that an individual take full responsibility for his/her emotional state and the actions that spring from it. He recognizes that harmful action arises not just from negative emotions but also from apathy and self-abnegation. Inner peace and stability permit a person to acknowledge the suffering of the past without letting it predetermine her actions in the future. Her actions follow the direction of a vision of peace rather than narratives of past affliction. Individual peace and stability keep us from participating in the perpetrator/victim paradigm, in which we either become perpetrators or else abdicate power and act as victims. Both are the language of violence, be it towards ourselves or others.
2. Under the reign of fear and trauma, we build institutions of oppression and discrimination rather than structures that serve everyone equally and protect the human rights of all citizens. We also institutionalize violence through laws that discriminate in favor of one group over another, as well as through informal rules of engagement that penetrate all sectors of society. Peace implies that service agencies (and governing agencies are, after all, service agencies) work to benefit all inhabitants equally and fulfill everyone’s basic requirements: food, water, shelter, safety, health, and education.
3. The same is true on a national basis. Here, more than any place on earth, there must be respect for all religions and cultures, and especially the Abrahamic religions. The country as a whole must honor the social contract for all its inhabitants.
This is the place to discuss the name Holy Land, which lacks resonance for some. This is due to its ambiguity as well as to the sense, shared by many in the secular population, that the word holy feeds sectarian violence. But holy is derived from whole. Israel and Palestine may strike stronger chords, but their borders have been mostly defined by conquest, political compromise, and foreign influence, leaving the historical narratives of many, both Jew and Arab, unacknowledged and their aspirations unfulfilled. Both countries should develop their respective visions, but the peace we talk of here must address everyone’s hopes, values, and yearnings. It’s a language of wholeness. One can honor this without being “religious.”
At the same time, this land is the cradle of major religious traditions and the object of prayers for millions of people over millennia; for the same reason it has also been the stage for competing claims and conflicts, causing terrible suffering both here and in the world at large. It has an archetypal energy that can go both ways, creating devastation on one hand, and new paradigms for co-existence, mutual respect, and even love on the other. It can be a site for apocalypse, as some believe, or the model for peace among religions. The land itself is alive here. It breathes of oppression, massacres, war and death; it can also breathe out wholeness, joy, and appreciation of all the different manifestations of God-given life.
4. Finally, peace in the Holy Land could have global implications. Right now our earth faces possible pandemics that can spread anywhere on the planet, the continued oppression of women and children through poverty and the lack of education, and the catastrophic consequences of climate change. References to Israel or Palestine elicit cynical shrugs; people are tired of its violent history and the explosiveness of its politics. But a shift can create potential in place of predestination, and the Holy Land can realize a new kind of destiny, modeling peace, justice, and respect for all the world’s inhabitants. It can be an international vortex for new processes and modalities, a refuge and school for people seeking to leave war behind and bring a sustainable peace to their own lands.
PROPOSAL: VISIONHOLDERS AND A BEARING WITNESS RETREAT
We propose that a local group of leaders—Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims, Jews, and Christians—come together to develop a comprehensive vision of peace in the Holy Land. We envision a relatively small group of Visionholders who can dialogue and strategize together, own their individual religious and cultural identities while opening up to elements they have in common with others, and together developing a long-term vision. Each works within his/her respective structures in different areas, i.e., political, service, arts, etc., while holding the space for a more encompassing vision of peace. These leaders are also committed to holding this bigger conversation with their constituencies in their respective spheres of work, helping it percolate down to the grassroots.
While the group of Visionholders is local, we suggest a small, secondary, international group that will provide support and even advocacy in their respective countries, and who will sustain the Visionholders. The lack of a central vision in the Holy Land has provided opportunities to outside countries and international forces to push their own agendas, be it Egypt, the United States, Iran, Daesh, or Syria. We are an inescapable part of the world’s web, but without a firm vision of our own, our cause—whether Israeli or Palestinian—will continue to be used by other governments to further their interests, accompanied by financial incentives and political manipulations. A small body of outside leaders—political, spiritual, cultural, and social activists—who subscribe to this vision will be asked for advice and help when needed.
In order to move forward with a vision for peace in the Holy Land, we propose a 4-day retreat, as follows:
The first two days will be spent bearing witness at a place identified with anguish, hurt, and heartbreak. While it would be best for the entire group to do this together, travel restrictions may make this impossible. In this case we suggest that two locations be specified, one within reach of Israelis and one within reach of Palestinians, and that the two groups stay at that location and bear witness to what happened there. [It might be worthwhile exploring having Palestinians bear witness to what happened to Israelis, and Israelis bear witness to what happened to Palestinians, if that’s viable.]
The purpose of these days is to embed us in places of catastrophe in the most direct way possible. All of us have our ready-made opinions and feelings about these things; staying and bearing witness help us to let go of these old thought patterns and assumptions, witness, be touched once again by this Holy Land and by what people have done here, and develop a fresh, open mindset. Without this, we could cling our usual patterns of thought and be closed to others’ ideas.
The entire group should come together for days 3 and 4 at a place where everyone can attend, perhaps in the Gush Etzion bloc. Here Visionholders will share their experience of bearing witness and what it has brought up for them. They will begin to develop a vision of peace for the Holy Land that will address the needs and powerful emotions of all its inhabitants and that will point the direction for the future. There may be disagreement on short-term objectives, but the goal will be to arrive at a powerful consensus around the basic vision. We hope that Visionholders will form bonds and strong personal relationships that will enable them to support one another in times of stress. The bottom line will be that regardless of new waves of violence and oppression that may break out, this group of leaders will continue in their commitment to the vision and to supporting each other.
Visionholders will also discuss the retreat with their constituencies and the people they work with, bringing the message to the grassroots level. We are aware that this could be sensitive, and that new ideas are often met with cynicism and angry accusations, but visions need movements to implement them, not just leadership. We might consider inviting a few of our international “sustainers” to witness our retreat, while leaving the leadership and active participation to local Visionholders.
“It always seems impossible, until it’s done,” Nelson Mandela said. May we create that vision of peace that will keep us on track, energize our efforts, create new, enduring friendships, and keep our heads pointed toward the sun, feet moving forward.