Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Encounter Part 2 of 2: Hopes and Fear

Political hopes lie at the intersection of what you think is possible and what you think is good. When good and possible don't overlap - they often don't - a choice has to be made of where to compromise. Myself, politically, I'm an idealist, by which I mean that I settle for questionable possibility for the sake of more goodness. I think that spreading an unlikely vision only makes it likelier. I also recognize that idealists often get nowhere, so I'm glad that there are also pragmatists out there who focus on the imperfect achievable instead of wasting their time on the impossible. Left to themselves, pragmatists might become fatalists, so I choose to trust in the balance and express my idealist nature.

When it comes to Israel-Palestine, many would say I'm a ridiculous idealist - I'm still hoping we can all just get along. I want a single Israeli-Palestinian state with equal rights for all and a commitment to world Judaism. I want everyone to take everyone else's goodness as a given, while open-heartedly accepting that there are always assholes everywhere.

Encounter didn't quite crush that hope, but it changed my understanding of what "all getting along" might look like, and just how hard it will be. Encounter made peace seem a whole lot less possible and a whole lot more urgent. So what I hope for is certainly not easy, but I'm writing this today to spread a vision.

I've already written about what it actually was I saw and did in Bethlehem.  What I want to do now is talk about some of the elements that cry out at me for comment.  What you'll see here is something of what upset me most, something of what interested me most, a vision I had in meditation, and my fundamental questions about trust and peace.

One of the most affecting parts of the trip was the Human Rights presentation. Looking at maps of Israeli settlements and the Wall, I don't know how to believe that the Israeli government is acting in good faith. Officially, they say they're in support of a two-state solution (i.e. an independent Palestinian state), but the more they develop inside the Green Line (the internationally recognized border), the harder it will be to create a contiguous, sovereign Palestine. The maps hit me like a Go board, with one player totally decimating the other, and it makes me wince. The further Israel encroaches and penetrates into Palestinian territory, the more complicated every negotiation becomes. Some of this is done, officially, in the name of security. Maybe all of it, I don't know. I don't know how it could be. But trading peace for security strikes me as always short-sighted.

At the same time as a negotiated solution is getting harder, the border restrictions and internal barriers hobble Palestine's domestic economy and cultivate animosity against the Israeli government. 40% of the Palestinian workforce is unemployed at the moment (that's down from 60%), and it's hard to imagine a Palestinian state surviving for very long without a little more meat on its bones. It's hard to imagine, too, that Israel will feel safe next to a Palestine populated by the resentful formerly oppressed. And the alternative - continuing to occupy another nation indefinitely - that can't be a good idea, right? I just don't understand, looking at the progression of things, how the Israeli government thinks it's acting in its own best interest.

It's depressing, but it makes me want to listen to them. It makes me want to hear the government officers' story and find out what they could possibly be thinking of. I really hope I'll get to learn more about that before I leave the country. (If you know where I can go for that, please tell me.) The alternative, for me, is total cynicism, and I'm not ready to go there yet.

But much as I was moved by the presentation's depiction of Israel's self-defeating strategies and restrictive governance, I wasn't sure that they necessarily merited the term 'human rights abuses.'  For instance, Israel makes it all but impossible to legally build new buildings, but they knock down only about 1% of illegal buildings.  You can say that restricting movement and development is abusing human rights, but I'm not sure it's worth the fight. In fact, I think it distracts from the less-commonplace, but more-abusive abuses like violence and unlawful arrest. Even more important, maybe, I think that it pushes people into a defensive conversation about what's morally justifiable, instead of inviting them into a productive one about the mutual long-term good.

The "What The Hell Are They Thinking?" issue was really driven home for me by the sight of the half-built Wall and the ease of walking around it. I wish I had a proper picture for you, of where it crawls along a mountain and just stops. It drove me nuts, seeing that. It's a hike, but anyone committed to doing violence could walk from downtown Bethlehem into downtown West Jerusalem in a matter of an hour or two. Meanwhile, people trying to get across the border legally, to see family or seek work, have to first get the right permits, and then wait in long lines controlled by bored, heavily armed teenagers. At peak times wait is more than an hour.  I really want to believe that everybody involved in this thing is acting in good faith, trying to be fair and right and good and stuff, trying to make the most good for the most many (again,  ridiculous idealist). But seeing a security measure that provides no security, and the human cost for those living behind it - that makes it really hard for me to keep believing.

I've thought a lot about the open Wall since the trip. I've thought a lot, too, about my brief glimpse of Palestinian pop-culture. Some Arabic Jazz. A few minutes of a cop drama (I think). A music video showing in a restaurant. Most of this, I think, is Arabic culture imported from bigger countries, but it speaks to the internationalism of Palestine. I realized that as rich and messy and complex as American culture is, there must be a whole other civilization like that in the Middle East.  A whole world of Pan-Arab culture, and all the shared understandings and expectations that go along with that.  This is where people turn for edutainment, meaning and escape.  I'm filled with wonder at the thought of it.  What are they laughing at over there?  What are they crying over?

Most of the people I met there are on Facebook. All of them have email addresses and read the news.  Palestinians see the rich potential of modern living, they must want to be part of it, but they're stuck in a tragic situation. I think they have a sense of the world. They see Palestine as one part of the wider world - a special, unique part, 'cause it's their own, but still just a part - but they're cut off from real participation by an occupying army. It's hard to imagine.

The night I spent in Bethlehem, I sat and meditated for half an hour before I went to bed. I tried to just feel the intensity and pain and compassion of the day, open up to God and let being be being. In theory, the kind of meditating I do, you're not supposed to be deliberately thinking about anything, but I thought about things anyway, and a certain kind of vision came to me. I wanted to meet the soul of Palestine on this trip, and I think this is as close as I came.

I heard in my head again the words of a young man after our big group games. "The Palestinian is a welcoming people. But the Palestinian is a wounded people." I pictured the complex, evocative, somehow personal landscape of the West Bank. And the landscape transformed in my mind to be a beautiful, graceful, lithe and lovely woman, the Lady Palestine. She had long black hair and olive skin. She wore a rich, dark, forest-green dress that merged smoothly into the ground. She had a big open heart and clear eyes, and she was struggling to stand up. Thick black ropes across her shoulders kept her down, held by young, brash, bullying neighbors. She would stand almost to her full height, then stumble down, and rise up again unphased by the resistance. She looked out at the world with forgiveness. She was a vision of compassionate persistence, revealing her vulnerability, maintaining her strength, working and waiting until Justice would take its course.

I'm not saying that this is real, in any way, as an anything outside my own mind. I'm not saying this woman exists, or that Palestine is really like that. But it's a vision of Palestine, a certain slice of a people's common experience and emergent whole. This is what Palestine looked like when I turned my inner eye her way. I wasn't sure what to do with it, exactly, but I was glad to have my little vision and I went to sleep.

The Lady and her pop-culture raise the question of Palestinian normal. The people talking to Encounter trips are necessarily not normal - they're the forward thinkers and the political activists, sufficiently interested in good relations to bother talking to us. The trip was carefully planned and kind of insulated, and left me wondering what the rest of Palestinians think.

Vivian (the favorite crazy aunt lady), and my host for the night, and the Wall tour-guide, and basically everyone else we met all said that Palestinians don't feel that their government serves or represents them. Those three I listed predict a third Intifada if there isn't a democratic popular uprising a la Tahrir Square. A few people said that Palestine doesn't want to fight anymore. A lot of people said Palestinians don't hate Jews, they hate soldiers, or the government, or the occupation, and they want to live together with us. If they're right, that's fantastic. If they're wrong - mistaken, maybe, or overstating the case for the sake of encouraging peace - well I don't know what then. But I'm an idealist, and an optimist, and for now I believe them.

On the other hand, there are a lot narratives in Israel that say Palestinians are culturally committed to violence. They want all of Israel to themselves, and want all the Jews dead. They'd attack us every day if we let them. They don't want peace. They don't respect peace.

I don't believe these things, but there are people who do. And I'm sure I could tell them all about the peace-loving Arabs I met on Encounter, and they'd still point to a hidden majority, the violent Palestinian normal they believe in, and say some might be good, but the rest want to kill us. I don't know how to change these people's minds, and I can't be absolutely certain they're wrong.

I want to walk around a Palestinian supermarket. I want to sit and read in a Bethlehem coffee-shop. These aren't sociological studies of the popular opinion, but I feel like it would tell me something important, a little more of what it's like to be at home over there, to live occupied.  The people I met are all over there, still, six miles from here. It's kind of stunning, when I think about it. The place felt totally different from this, but we've got basically the same weather. 20 minutes by car, if it weren't for the politics in the way.

The party line in Israel, the way that I've heard it, is that yes, it's terrible. Yes, they're suffering. Yes, even, maybe, it's unethical. But it's necessary for the survival of the State of Israel, and that trumps. I don't believe that, I don't believe it in the slightest, and the one state I believe in is the opposite of that.

Two lines keep coming back to me I heard on the trip: "Walls don't protect people, peace protects people," and "A two-state solution is not a solution." I think that building up Israeli security at Palestinian expense, even with two states, isn't a long term solution. Extremists on both sides will still claim the whole region and pursue violence. Moderates on both sides will still live in fear of the other. Israel (in all likelihood) will still maintain a military presence in or above the West Bank in the name of security. When water and energy get scarcer, good people will do very bad things to each other.

I think that by working together, and living together, and actually getting to know each other, we can change that.

A lot of people are afraid for Israel's survival, and I'm not. When I look at the region, I don't see a real threat to Israeli sovereignty. What I do see is a threat to Israeli lives. If we relax our controls on the West Bank, Israelis might die. I can't deny that. But at some point Israel needs to learn how to trust.

I see this a lot on the personal level. People live in fear, all the time, of things that can't harm them. They live in fear so bad it keeps their hearts closed and their habits narrow. I live in fear this way, and I hear it all over the place. And I hear all over the place how exciting it is to start trusting, acknowledging that trusting might hurt you, and trusting anyway. Taking the pain as it comes, feeling it fully, and continuing to trust. Because when more pain comes, it might damage you, but it won't damage you nearly so badly as your fear did. A lot of my work as a rabbi, I think - a lot of the spiritual work of our times, I think - is about learning and spreading trust of what we fear.

That's what I want out of Israel. I want us to trust Palestinians not to attack us, and then keep trusting them when they do. I want us to look with compassion on their anger, and hope they look with compassion on our fear. I want us to treat them like equals, give them citizenship and education and jobs, and trust them to respond to good will with good will. I want to share a country with them, and trust them to share it with us. If we trust them, there can be peace. If we don't trust them, we'll never know it if we have it.

So that's it. That's the Yotam Plan. It'll probably never happen,. We'll all probably kill each other instead. But I've got hope.

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