Awarding the prize for the oldest surviving conflict in the world would of course depend on our definition of the very broad term ‘conflict.’ But certainly one of, if not the, longest standing political disagreement in history centers around what is known as the fertile crescent, a small strip of land that joins Africa to the Middle East: whose land is it?
The Torah, the most sacred Jewish text of Scripture, spells out the origin of this conflict in a way the broad contours of which few historians refute: the Hebrews, the ethnic forerunner to the modern-day Jews, were oppressed by the Egyptians back around the 12th – 13th century B.C.E. and God “with a mighty arm and outstretched hand” brought them out of Egypt and took them to the “Promised Land” (our crescent in question) where he directed them to conquer and, in many cases, annihilate all the peoples therein. As you can probably guess, the current-day Palestinians trace their lineage back to the latter. The 20th-century story of the European Jew forms an eerie déjà vu of the ancient counterpart: Jews are expelled from their land and, by virtue of the powers that be, are given a new place to live. Only problem: there were already people living there, of course! Where are they supposed to go?
It wasn’t that the Jews of either era didn’t deserve a place to re-start their lives after enduring such awful travesties. It was just that there is rarely desirable land that is just sitting open available for the taking! Invariably, somebody gets butted out.
As the possibility of escalation looms in Gaza and the West Bank, it is easy to feel discouraged simply because there are no easy answers; loyalties, allegiances, alliances, and grudges extend back for millennia. When the end game – if there is one – is way beyond the visible horizon, the only tangible way to be helpful is to focus on the process and our role in it. The role of the U.S. over the last century has been one of chief negotiator, sometimes peacemaker. One could say that we have largely failed at our job if peace is still so elusive. But then again, it’s difficult to know how much more effective any other third party could have been.
Unless you are one of the president’s advisors, you are not in the role of negotiator. Nevertheless, the sentiment of the American public does factor in to decision-making at the top so it is important how we think. As we do, I offer only three simple assets for the process at hand, whether around the kitchen table or in the public arena:
- A listening ear. Too often we presume because we don’t know. And yet we are blessed in metropolitan D.C. with many neighbors who have strong allegiances to both sides and would be happy to be asked what they think. We may get an earful but if we can withhold judgment and keep listening there may be a lot to pick up. When was the last time you talked with a Jew? Or a Muslim? Or someone who has close ties to the Middle East? There’s no better way to build relations with friend or perceived foe than to listen.
- A discerning mind. Beware the black & white interpretations – they rarely move the needle forward. Think carefully not about what you hear but who you hear it from. Consider root causes: we may condemn the means but that doesn’t give us the right to ignore the motives. Know the difference between racial reasoning (what’s right for our people) and moral reasoning (what’s right for everyone). Remember that people aren’t usually acting rationally or wisely when feeling attacked or demeaned. Finally, healing, or for that matter, peace, takes time.
- A humble heart. Chances are, Middle Easterners are not the only ones with deep-seated feelings about this conflict; if you’ve been alive for any length of time either your political affiliation, your travels, or your religion have shaped your view of this situation. Starting with ourselves is always a good bet: I’m I angry? Do I have prejudices? Am I thinking racially or morally? What are my true motives? Taking the log out of our own eyes gives us a much better chance of seeing specks in others and, even more importantly, seeing well ourselves.
Peace is a worthwhile cause. But it can be hell to get there. I’ll end with one of the few things Jesus of Nazareth asked of his followers: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”