Igniting a Peace Fire, Even as War Rages
by Robert C. Koehler
Here’s some advice you probably never got about parenting: Write your child’s name on his or her leg or stomach, so that if — when — your building is bombed, the child can be identified when she’s pulled from the rubble.
Apparently, mothers in southern Gaza are doing this now, as the bombing intensifies. So far at least 2,000 children have been killed — oh my God, such numbers are almost unbearable — and another 5,000 injured. And, perhaps most soul-ripping of all, some 800 children are . . . missing.
This is all part of what I call war’s basic insanity. Nothing about it makes the least bit of sense when you look closely — death by death, nightmare by nightmare — at what it is, at what it does. Or, for that matter, at what it accomplishes. War begets war and only that. Haven’t we, by which I mean the nations of Planet Earth, figured this out yet? And war always comes home, even for the “victors.” What are mass murderers but loners playing war — acting the way their leaders do?
War begets hatred. War begets fear. War begets insanity. A recent example of this occurred not far from Chicago, where I live — when a 71-year-old man in Plainfield, Ill., stabbed two of his tenants because they were Palestinians, killing 6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume, who was stabbed 26 times. The boy’s mother, Hanaan Shahin, was stabbed about a dozen times but survived — indeed, remained hospitalized during her son’s funeral, so had to mourn him alone in her room.
Apparently the landlord, who had previously been friends with the boy, became stirred with anxiety about his tenants’ ethnicity after the Hamas attack on Israel and feared for his own life. You know, war begets fear. He came to the tenants’ apartment, told Wadea’s mom that he was angry at them, to which she responded: “Let’s pray for peace.” But that wasn’t what he had in mind. He started stabbing her.
She got away from him and was able to call the police, but she was unable to save her son’s life.
When a war rages, and we participate in it or at least look on as spectators, its seeming necessity grows. War feeds itself. Look what the bad guys are doing! They’re just terrorists. We have no choice but to fight back. Anything other than that — trying to negotiate or, what, loving thy enemy? — seems absurd and, yeah, almost criminally unpatriotic. Thus, while war begets nothing but hell and definitely does not lay the foundations of peace, that’s all something to worry about in the future. For the moment, winning is what’s necessary, whatever it takes. What we do is necessary. What they do simply feeds that necessity. Is humanity simply trapped in its basic insanity?
I don’t believe that to be the case, if only because, without empathy and connectedness to one another, to the planet itself, we couldn’t have made it this far. What we’re trapped in is a paradox. We quietly — sometimes exasperatingly — acknowledge our need for connection, but we officially glorify war. History is taught from one war to the next. Winning, losing: This is so much easier to understand, to organize around, than, for instance, words such as these from the Dalai Lama:
“We can help ourselves only if we help the Other. It is the cultivation of love and compassion, our ability to enter into and to share another’s suffering, that are the preconditions for the continued survival of our species. . . . The feeling of community with all living creatures can be attained only if we recognize that we are all basically united and dependent on one another.”
I don’t believe the Dalai Lama is speaking with moral outrage or righteousness, but rather simply with realism: Like it or not, this is how things are. The tribal South African term “ubuntu” — which I’ve heard translated as “I am because you are” — comes to mind. Desmund Tutu once wrote: “Ubuntu is not easy to describe because it has no equivalent in any of the Western languages. . . . The solitary individual is in our understanding a contradiction in terms. You are a person through other persons.”
This is, you might say, humanity’s basic sanity. Why can’t it be at the core of our planet’s governing principles? Is that even possible?
Maybe so, even though, alas, human connectedness usually doesn’t create attention-grabbing headlines. And far too many political leaders are in power thanks primarily to their ability to herd enough of the public into fear of a particular enemy. Nevertheless, sanity lives! Even in war-ravaged Israel and Gaza. I was particularly inspired recently by the words of Rob Okun, who wrote about no less than eight organizations there in which Palestinians and Israelis are united and working with one another to create peace. He writes: “More than a cease fire, may their work . . . ignite a peace fire.”
One of these organizations is called Combatants for Peace, which describes itself as a group of Palestinians and Israelis who were once engaged in combat against each other, but came to understand the futility — and insanity — of this. They raised their weapons and saw each other not just as targets but as full human beings.
According to the group’s website:
“The first meetings between the Palestinians and Israelis that eventually led to the establishment of the Combatants for Peace, were mostly devoted to telling the participants’ personal stories. . . . We all have a story worth listening to, a story that reflects something of the horrors of this conflict, but also the potential of breaking out of it. Our personal stories, Palestinians and Israelis, are the stories of life here, of the violence to which we were partners or witnesses but also, the story of choosing a path of nonviolence and partnership, a path to a different future.”
Their mission is transforming, collectively healing, building the social infrastructure of peace. And as I say, Rob Okun mentioned eight different organizations in which Israelis and Palestinians — often who have lost loved ones to the conflict — are working to make their world different. For instance one group, called Hand in Hand, has so far established six integrated Jewish-Arab schools, where “all students learn Hebrew and Arabic.”
This is not simple! Such efforts require deep commitment and, no doubt, plenty of courage. But this is how the future is born, even as war rages.