I wrote this as large numbers of civilians were being killed and injured and made homeless in Gaza, and Hamas rockets were being fired toward Israel. But most of the text was actually written before, in August 2006, during the war between Israel and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. The tragedy is that much of the text of this article is the same because nothing has changed. War follows war, with only temporary respite in between. Each frenzy of violence paves 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. Back then, as now, there is a strong consensus in Israel—95 percent of the population—that we Israelis are right, that we have no choice, that we must “defend” ourselves. I am awed at the consensus that somehow makes it possible to inflict so much harm on our neighbors.
One view would hold that genuine self-defense is possible, a last resort use of violence to defend oneself when all other options have been used up. But ethics demands we use the minimum of force necessary to disable the attacker and no more. The Buddhist tradition, for example, does not forbid self-defense, and has developed alongside techniques of martial arts that protect the attacked without hurting the attacker. Clearly this is not an imperative in the huge death and destruction in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza today.
Cases of genuine self-defense are actually extremely rare, and in virtually all cases of conflict there are wise and heartful 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 labelled 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.
Not identifying with these emotions and not believing in the views that arise from them, everything looks different. 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 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.
Israelis think this war started when Hamas fired rockets into Israel. But clearly this was not the beginning—the chain of violence extends back 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 insight 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. When this is not done, it can hardly be said that there is no choice. There is. To break the chain. To take another road. 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 Ghandi said, “Nonviolence is the weapon of the strong.” We can always make this choice.
Which raises more questions. What are the real intentions behind the war and what is the real vision for the future? Do we really and deeply yearn for peace or do we just say so? If we longed for peace, 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.
It would be simply impossible for an Israel intent on peace to take land and water from West Bank Palestinians, settle all over their territory and build a concrete barrier on their land between their villages, or lay siege to the whole population of Gaza. Palestinians with a willingness to let go of past hurts would utterly discourage the madness of suicide bombers and rockets. Neither side would have any incentive to bomb anyone. If we truly yearned for peace, we would respect human dignity. And we would have it.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.