I am writing this in May 2021, as large numbers of people are killed and injured and made homeless in Gaza, and Hamas rockets are raining down on Israel. But the tragedy is that most of the text was actually written before, in August 2006 during the war between Israel and the Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the same text was relevant in July 2014 and now today. And the tragedy is that the text of the article is the same because nothing has changed. War follows war, with temporary respite in between. Each frenzy of violence prepares the way for the next.
During the Lebanon War, I was in the line of fire in the ecological village of Clil in the North of Israel. The days were punctuated by loud blasts of Katyusha rockets, which had been landing intermittently, randomly, suddenly, anywhere—and I had given up seeking cover. At the same time, Israeli artillery was thudding continuously, day and night. Then as now, I feel the blasts in my being, feeling the violence and terrible tragedy and suffering that they bring. I feel a huge sadness and compassion for suffering that knows no boundaries and does not take sides.
Then as now, participants draw motivation from a consensus that “we are right,” “we have no choice” and “we must defend ourselves.” This view stands behind most wars and conflicts, and the encouragement of this view by groups or leaders prepares the ground for war by providing the necessary justification. The defense of “freedom” provided justification for the Vietnam war, and “Weapons of Mass Destruction” for the Iraq war. “We have to get them before they get us” is a common refrain that initiates slaughter, such as that of the First World War. And it always leads to this conviction that “we have no choice.” This consensus somehow makes it possible to inflict so much harm and suffering on so many men, women and children. So it is crucial to ask if it makes any sense.
One ethical view would hold that genuine self-defense is possible, but only as a last resort and with the minimum force necessary to disable or restrain the attacker. The Buddhist tradition, for example, does not forbid self-defense, and has developed alongside techniques of martial arts such as kung-fu and aikido that protect the attacked without hurting the attacker. Clearly this is not the case in the huge death and destruction in the wars being fought, as you read this, in Yemen, Syria, etc.
In fact, cases of genuine self-defense are actually extremely rare, and in virtually all cases of conflict there are wise and heartfelt solutions that are not seen and not taken. We have no choice generally means We don’t have the wisdom to act differently. Most wars, including this one, depend on fear, insecurity, anger, or revenge. These are individual and national emotions, often stoked up by media and political leaders. The emotions create a national blindness in which neighbors become demonized and labeled as “the enemy.” Then it becomes impossible to really communicate with the “other” and sort out any problems together. Fear and insecurity are dangerous: it is human nature to want to destroy the object or source of anxiety and fear, which are uncomfortable emotions. Most wars are fought in the name of peace, but in reality, they are actually fought in the pursuit of comfort. Instead of dealing with the fears or their root causes, they attempt to destroy their external source.
If we clearly see these emotions that sweep through the social atmosphere, then we can take responsibility for them, take care of them, and not allow them to lead to needless death. Without identifying with these emotions and without believing in the views that arise from them, everything looks different. All of a sudden, the so-called terrorist becomes a Palestinian boy who has suffered dearly and needs to be heard. The so-called Zionist aggressor becomes an Israeli family man whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust. The Israeli soldier and the Hamas militant can both be seen as young, patriotic men, resentful and suffering while giving and receiving violence. If we are unable to do this, we have severely limited our vision and our freedom to act sanely. If we will not put ourselves in the others’ shoes, listen to them, understand their fear, anger, and pain that drives them to fight, and know what we ourselves can do to help each other resolve conflict, how can we say there is no other choice?
There is a choice to see things entirely differently.
To see “us” and “them” as a habit of mind and not a reality; to see how much we are connected, not separate. Pain and joy, love of life, and fear of death know no boundaries of us and them. We can all wake up to realize that our happiness depends on the happiness of our neighbors and vice versa, and our real safety is in togetherness, not intractable conflict.
In the case of the current Gaza war, many assume it started when Hamas fired rockets into Israel. Clearly this was not the beginning. Hamas fired rockets after violence in Jerusalem and the eviction of Palestinians. It also may be connected to years of siege by Israel on Gaza, which happened after the previous Gaza wars. The chain goes back and back for generations.
Violence comes in chains. Each act of violence breeds another act of violence, creating the conditions, especially the emotional climate, for the next one. Each act of violence makes it harder to initiate acts of peace. And each act of violence conditions the collective consciousness to feel that peace is impossible and that violence is the only option left. But it doesn’t take much wisdom to see this process happening and unroll it in another direction.
It is possible to create chains of peacemaking, to turn acts of aggression into acts of healing, to look for windows of opportunity for communication, dialogue and understanding of “the other.” Where this is not done, it can hardly be said that “there is no choice.” There is. To stop the chain. To take another road. You might be surprised to see “the other” relieved and ready to sit down with you over a cup of coffee.
Nonviolence does not mean doing nothing. It means an energetic attempt to create another climate. This requires strength and steadiness, qualities that are shown by genuine peacemakers. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Nonviolence is the weapon of the strong.” We can always make this choice.
This raises some questions: What are the real intentions? What is the real vision for the future? The habitual reactions and the basic assumptions: Are they about peacefulness or about conflict? Do we really and deeply yearn for peace or do we just say so? Each side must ask: Are we really trying to make peace?
If we longed for peace, our speech, our motivations and our actions would be peaceful, and war would not arise. We all would begin a process of dialogue, healing and support with the same resources and determination with which we wage war. An Israel intent on peace might not take land and water from West Bank Palestinians, settle all over their territory or lay siege to the whole population of Gaza. Palestinians with a willingness to let go of past hurts might utterly discourage the madness of rockets, and might spread friendliness and appreciation for Israelis in the media and schools. In such a climate, neither side would have any incentive to bomb anyone. If we yearn for peace, we would have it, and the region would be a light to the world.
One time, on a peace walk with Jews and Arabs in the city of Acre, organized by a peacemaking organization I founded called Middleway, the rabbi of Acre asked a Bedouin mukhtar (leader) who was walking with us: “Tell me, grandfather, how do you intend to make peace?” The old man said, “You see, Rabbi, when we walk together in the street and someone shouts at me, “Go away, Arab!” and I don’t respond, I absorb their violence and let it go, and in this way I have contributed a little bit to peace.”
This article was updated May 18, 2021.
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