The seemingly intractable discord between Israel and Palestine not only continues to cause enormous suffering and anxiety, but also to reverberate around the planet as a kind of symbol of all our conflicts in what we might call the post-nuclear age.
The mid-20th century superpowers were forced to admit, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, that war at the nuclear level was self-defeating, a victory only for war itself, not for the participants.
Isn’t that ultimately true for all wars, large or small? Yet the world, including the superpowers, continues to divide along the Israeli-Palestinian fault-line, almost as if one had to have an adversary to be clear in one’s identity.
The conflict has functioned as an iconic symbol of general feelings of fear or powerlessness or injustice, let alone claims to the same territory, that give rise to the best or the worst in us as we humans try to resolve our endless differences.
It is symbolic in a darker and more specific sense for the Arab world, where—even as the Arab Spring flourishes—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has encouraged anti-Semitic stereotypes and still energizes the hatred of extremist groups like Al Quaeda.
Not all conflicts involve sides with equally legitimate aspirations. Few would recognize the legitimacy of drug cartels to dominate and corrupt the governments of whole nations like Mexico or Afghanistan.
And in the United States, there is a growing recognition that some financial institutions have profited obscenely by betting against markets and throwing millions into poverty, avoiding criminal prosecution through their power over elected officials. Even now a new “Arab Spring”-like protest against insufficiently regulated corporate power is growing in many cities across the United States.
It is the rough equality of the legitimacy of the Palestinians’ and the Israelis’ demands for security and land that makes that conflict particularly difficult. The Jewish people have a history that has earned them the right to a certain realistic paranoia about adversaries. The Palestinians are legitimately concerned by the expansionist impulse of Jewish settlers who create more “facts on the ground” as each year passes without resolution.
The issue has tied the United States government in ethical knots as it tries to maintain its traditional support for Israel while not condoning Jewish expansion into territory that might lie within a future Palestinian state.
President Obama, caught in a difficult political position, nevertheless said one true thing in his latest appearance before the United Nations: “Each side has legitimate aspirations—and that’s part of what makes peace so hard. And the deadlock will only be broken when each side learns to stand in the other’s shoes; each side can see the world through the other’s eyes.”
This rough equality is why, in spite of the contortions candidates for high office in the U.S. must undergo to stay in the good graces of a powerful Israeli lobbying effort, and also in spite of the fact that Hamas still refuses to accept Israeli’s right to exist, President Obama had it right when he said that each side must learn to see with each others’ eyes.
Seeing with each other’s eyes must begin with self-examination, because the conflict also represents the universal human propensity to externalize what some Islamic scholars have called the Greater Jihad, our struggle with ourselves and our own shadow-side, into a Lesser Jihad, a zero-sum game in which we simplify “enemies” into stereotypes who are different from us and wish us ill. This is happening not only between Israelis and Palestinians, but also Pashtuns and Tajiks, Shias and Sunnis—and let’s not forget Democrats and Republicans.
The insight, or inter-sight, of empathy is not a political act in the usual way we think of politics as competitive jockeying for power. It is something that takes place on a deeper level, within and between individual people. It requires the sharing of separate stories that take their place in the common story of what everyone wants for their children—a world without genocidal weapons, drug violence, militarism, or financial institutions that have forgotten their obligation to the common good.
Empathy as a principle can seep into politics as a refusal to take sides, a refusal to define ourselves negatively in terms of whom we fear and hate, an embrace of global citizenship that looks for what is best for the whole.
The world we want for our children, for all children, cannot and will not be a world without conflict. But we can build a world where, from the time they are very young, children grow up understanding that conflict and difference are not negative, but an opportunity for examining ourselves in the spirit of Greater Jihad, for learning the skills of everyday peacebuilding, and for moving toward creative resolution of conflict on the basis of common aspirations.
The ultimate implications of the Arab Spring for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are still unclear. The paradigm of violence, “an eye for an eye,” still holds our world in the balance, but as citizens both in the Middle East and our own country turn increasingly to non-violent assembly and protest, we are witnessing the possibility of something new that is both political and beyond politics—a movement into the mainstream of Gandhian tactics of non-violence and creative initiative. May everything we think and do further this new spirit of true reciprocity, the dawning realization that we are all in this together.