Can We Believe in the Mutual Flourishing of Israel and Palestine?

Guest post by my friend and mentor, Todd Deatherage.  Five years ago Todd introduced me to Israelis and Palestinians who said, “If you’re here to pick sides, go away. We don’t need you. But if you want to learn to be a common friend to us both, we welcome you.”  This blog was first posted on July 24, 2014 on The Telos Group blog page under the title, “Can We Speak Without Just Adding to the Noise?” By Todd Deatherage

The Gaza Strip and Israel are 6,000 miles away from my suburban DC home, and though I’m safely removed from the latest round of terror, violence, death and destruction, the people there and their tragic circumstances are constantly on my mind.

Call this latest “escalation” what you will, but a war is being waged, missiles continue to be aimed at civilian populations, and people are dying.  Palestinian militants are dying, Israeli soldiers are dying.  But mostly civilians are dying.  Men, women and children. Especially, and most tragically, children.

The highest cost is always borne by the families of the dead.  I have Israeli and Palestinian friends who have lost people dearest to them in previous iterations of this conflict.  The unnatural end of a life is always devastating, but the loss of a child is incomprehensible to me, yet it's all too real to Palestinian and Israeli friends of mine.  And a parent’s love is a parent’s love, regardless of the child’s ethnicity, religion, nationality or ideology.  Many of these mothers and fathers grieve the most in times like this, because they alone know the pain, the long days and the longer nights that await those who will so unwillingly join their ranks.

Another of the great casualties of this current fighting is any vision for a shared future, any understanding of the humanity of the other, and with these things slipping, the prospects for peace also recede further in the distance.  All the good work of the grass roots peacemakers, those who labor to create the conditions that make for peace, are set back when violence breaks out.  A durable peace will only occur when it takes root in human hearts, when enough people on each side can make room in their hearts for the shared humanity of the other.  But for now, the forces of violence, hatred, and destruction are in the lead, capturing and captivating the hearts of many, even though most people on both sides want it all to stop.

As the fighting rages, many Israelis engage in the all-too-familiar pattern of responding to the shrill sound of warning sirens, taking shelter in safe rooms, comforting the traumatized, burying young soldiers, and living with a sense that they’re all under attack.  And the people of Gaza also face an all-too-familiar reality of having bombs and missiles rain down with nowhere to hide, civilians trapped in a war zone, death and destruction all around them, attending funerals for entire families at once, and frustrated by global indifference to their plight. Meanwhile, Hamas militants shake their angry fists at Israel, continuing to lob rockets on civilian populations, hiding themselves and their munitions in neighborhoods and public buildings. To date, at least 34 Israelis have been killed.  And the Israeli military pushes onward striking targets throughout the densely populated Gaza Strip, pulverizing and destroying, with soldiers and tanks on the ground, and over 700 Palestinians are dead and the number is climbing every day.

It’s so hard to know what to say in moments like this without adding to the polarization that serves the conflict more than its resolution. To offer up words that speak both truth and healing.  To grieve the enormous loss of civilian life in Gaza is not to express sympathy for Hamas, nor is the expression of sorrow for the loss of civilian life in Israel equal to condoning the way in which the military campaign is resulting in enormous civilian casualties in Gaza.  Assigning blame for the deaths of innocents is an important undertaking, but surely we can find common ground in an affirmation of universal human dignity and the sacredness of life.  Each of those who died had a name, a family, and a story that abruptly came to a premature end.

In a state of war, inevitably, the lines are drawn.  The extent to which we’ve imported this conflict into our own culture is evidenced by a quick look at social media.  My Twitter feed mirrors the conflict, pro-Israeli vs. pro-Palestinian.  Five-minute YouTube videos are circulating that attempt to tell the long history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in quick one-sided, black-and-white terms.  If only it were all so easy to explain.  There are also ugly and worrisome anti-Israel and anti-Jewish marches in France, and competing pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel marches and counter marches in London and elsewhere in Europe.  As we sit a safe distance removed from the violence, let’s remember that real people are paying a heavy price, some with their lives.  This is not a football game.

Moments like this provide the ultimate test to all who are committed to mutual flourishing, to a pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace position.  Targeting the entire population of Israeli civilians is reprehensible, using noncombatants as human shields equally so, as is digging tunnels to kidnap Israelis.  Sealing off 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza with an air, land, and sea blockade, and killing children on the beach and funerals for entire families, intentional or not, is also reprehensible, as is a Palestinian civilian death toll in the hundreds, with casualties in the thousands.

Many are speaking from a place of deep anger and sorrow; some from prejudice and ignorance.  It’s ugly out there in the war of words and ideas, of tribes and creeds, of hopelessness and despair.  But I have too many friends on both sides of the green line to remain silent. They’ve welcomed me into their homes, their projects, and their lives, inspiring me by their vision for a different future and their tireless work to get there. I owe them something, do I not? But can I say something without just adding to the noise?  This is not about whether or not I suffer a few Facebook de-friendings or incite nasty responses to my Twitter feed.  The measure is can I speak of my deep lament for all that’s lost in times like this in ways that affirm universal human dignity.  And can I still find something to say that suggests that because this is not the way things were meant to be, we are not resigned to live in this perpetual darkness.  Constructive human agency, and, I believe, divine transformation of human hearts, creates space for hope.

How do we get out of this moment?  A ceasefire is needed immediately.  Neither Palestinians nor Israelis should have to continue to live under these conditions.  Ultimately, the way out of the larger and long-standing conflict will not be found through acts of terrorism or aggressive military campaigns. It will be found through addressing the fundamental issues underlying the years of violence.  Each side needs friends who will challenge them to do what is best for their own people, and, at the same time, who will encourage visionary leadership which realizes that the future of the two people is interconnected, that neither is going away, that the pain of grieving mothers is always the same, and that freedom and security for one people cannot be found at the expense of the other.