Monday, May 30, 2011

"Trauma and the Arts of Transformation in the Human Spirit" by David Kreider

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, but I have to confess I was blown away when a few days into my first session at SPI in Lisa Schirch’s Strategic Media and Arts-Based Peacebuilding class, as we gathered in groups to think about some stories we might tell each other, I found myself with a gentle, soft-spoken Iranian colleague by the name of Fatemeh who told me she was thinking to talk about the Inquisitions and the Crusades, what they did to her people, and what it meant for her to be here. As I looked at her in disbelief, I felt heartbroken to think that this was what came to her mind - horrible stories of cruelty and violence by Christians - centuries-old - stories I thought were buried and forgotten in history books a long time ago. In her one sentence, in that moment, as I looked into the quiet sincerity and vulnerability in her eyes, I came to realize that there is a world of unhealed and unspoken trauma that is still very much alive and raw and troubling in the interconnected worlds we grew up in. And it hit me that we both were very much a part of this story - and that this story was just one piece of the larger despairingly complex tragedy of Israel and Palestine and the Middle East. It struck me too that somehow we had come from nearly opposite worlds, looking for answers in the same place – in the arts of peacebuilding - whatever they were.

I want to offer you several more windows to the world that shaped my life and brought me here; reflect a bit on my journey to art, and to peacebuilding, and to the connection between them, as well as talk a bit about how that intersection has expressed itself in my work.

Three interwoven stories

When I was thirteen I had a friend called Chesi Stang who told me his parents had come from Germany and that most of his relatives had ended up in Auschwitz, Stutthof, and Buchenwald. At the time, these names meant little to me. It wasn’t till later at the Holocaust Museum of Yad VeShem that his words came back and I began to understand what had happened to his family and those of most everyone around me - in the concentration and death camps of Nazi Europe. Six million Jews and other ‘undesirables’ - were systematically hunted down and hauled away in box cars, shaved bald and marched naked into barracks of block and straw, tortured, experimented on, worked to exhaustion and shot, gassed, and shoveled into pits or crematoriums to be obliterated in smoke and dust like vermin. This was the end of the line for Jews at Auschwitz,

and this is Stutthof, and all that was left of those who entered here.. a mountain of shoes.

And this one too is Stutthoff. Look at what stands at the center of this image… beside the crematorium and in view of the gallows… a cross! I realized that my people, at least people who too called themselves Christian, had as much and more to do with the events of history that gave rise to Israel-Palestine as anyone. I realized that I too represented part of this story, and I’ve come to understand something of the force that moved my Mennonite parents, who had found friendship with Jews in their youth, to come to this place, to try to reach out across the gulf of horror and pain, to engage the twisted perceptions of the God they knew, and to somehow seek reconciliation and healing.

In 1967 things began to intensify in the international chemistry around us, as incidents along Israel’s borders took more adversarial turns. As Egyptian and Syrian artillery and tanks appeared in alarming numbers the first week of June along the Suez Canal and in the Golan Heights and all indications pointed toward war, the call went out to all residents of Israel to dig bomb shelters in our yards and black out our windows and street lights and car lights in the event of an attack by night. I remember the roar of jets flying low, air raid sirens and sonic booms, and the whistle of missiles overhead, and running for shelter, my heart pounding, wondering where they were aimed, and where they would fall, and what was happening just beyond the horizons all around us. I learned several weeks later that Chesi, then 17, had been called to the front lines to fight for what they thought was their survival.

We all know the outcome of the Six Day War - for Israelis a ‘deliverance’ of seemingly miraculous proportions - for Egypt, Syria and Jordan a humiliating defeat - and to Palestinians, a Second Catastrophic Nekba that has come to mean stifling and at times brutal occupation, curfews, checkpoints, humiliating restrictions, fences and walls, home demolitions, land confiscations, summary detainments, searches and seizures of their property, economic strangulation and siege…for nearly 44 years now with no real signs of hope for change.

In the months after the war we began meeting people from the West Bank and Gaza, including the Nicholas family who too had lived in the Gaza Strip since 1956. In the course of our growing friendships I heard the stories of the Palestinians they lived with, many of them refugees since 1948, living in camps and in poverty in what is the most densely populated place on earth. Nearly half of these 1.5 million people I learned were no older than us. Through Mary Ann and Ed especially I came to feel their family’s love for the people of Gaza, and to know their warmth and beauty, and I felt a growing sadness over this conflict, which in time was to hit yet closer to home.

One evening in January 1972, Mary Ann, her sisters and father along with a nurse were driving out of the Strip when gunmen mistook their microbus for an Israeli military vehicle and opened fire, sending hundreds of bullets over and through its front and center seats. The nurse was hit in the head, Mary Ann’s father in the hip and leg, and her older sister in the foot. Despite the pain, her father was able to drive them out of range and her sister ran to a nearby house to call for help. An Israeli ambulance arrived and though they worked to save her, the nurse died on the operating table in Beersheba that night.

As the Palestinian community visited them to offer their condolences, apologies, and remorse, I came to marvel at the power of their grace and faith that enabled their feelings of endearment to deepen for the Palestinian people they loved. They sang a hymn at the funeral service several days later that spoke of a different world and a different politics. The words they sang were these: “Lead on O King eternal, till death’s fierce wars shall cease, and holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace. For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums; with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.” In their vulnerability, over those days, sympathies deepened, and a new sense of identification and respect grew between them and the people of Gaza.

As a child of what is now for me Israel-Palestine, this was my world and my home, and these are my people. I have felt a part of them, and their pain and their interwoven traumas are my pain and my traumas. What is different for me is that I have found friendship across the lines and I have felt torn and sad and angry and sympathetic, all at the same time…

Journey to art and peacebuilding

I left Israel after high school in 1971 hoping someday, somehow, to do something to heal the world I knew... I came back in the fall of 1973 to work at a hospital in Nazareth and the following summer Mary Ann and I got married in Gaza and left what was home to us for college here at EMU. In 1983 we took a trip back, to see our parents and revisit the places of our childhood. It was in Gaza that we met a Palestinian artist, a woodburner and watercolorist, whose work has changed the course of my life. Somehow in his medium and in the beauty of the people and places of Palestine he portrayed, I found inspiration to pick up a tool I hadn’t touched since I was a child. As I experimented with the art of woodburning and ventured my work in some festivals and shows back here in Virginia, I felt a growing sense of affirmation, and gratification, with something meaningful, and beautiful, and strong - encouragement that has sustained me in this work for 27 years.

Eighteen years in however, things took a different turn… as this country took to a global war that grew like a cancer from Ground Zero in New York, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to scare-mongering about an “Axis of Evil” in the Middle East and Korea, to adversarial bravado and rogue disregard for national and international protest, I found myself increasingly unable to ‘do my art’ as I had. Somehow it felt irrelevant, impotent, and irresponsible in the face of what loomed for me like Armageddon. I finally submitted an application to CJP in the winter of 2007.

To make a long and beautiful story woefully short, I’ve found my spirits rejuvenated by the sense of solidarity with so many passionate, dedicated and gifted people, coming together from all over the world, to work together for peace. Despite being pulled in every direction I thought relevant to Israel-Palestine, I felt a growing sense of connection between my search for answers in peacebuilding and my journey into the arts. In the course of my reading, two writers became instrumental in connecting the dots between these two trajectories, trajectories which for me have become as closely intertwined as air is with breathing.

The Bridge from Trauma to the Arts of Transformation

Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and therapist, who’s research grew out of his work with holocaust survivors, has summed up the seminal premise of his work with what I believe to be the most insightful statement about the human spirit ever articulated. It is this, that: "the primary motivational force in humankind is the pursuit of meaning." Meaning for Frankl is everything we hold dear – those we love and that which gives us life and joy. It is everything that is beautiful for us - it is our art, and our capacities to create, and do something good with our talents. It is our work. It is our worldview - that which ties it all together, and gives us a sense of place and purpose in the scheme of things. It is our dignity, and our capacity to choose, even our attitude in the face of suffering and death. (Frankl 106-107). If this is the fundamental need we feel - that which sustains us, and that which we live for - it is here, it seems to me, that the keys to resilience, and to transcendence, and to the transformation of trauma and the cycles of conflict lie.

The second writer is neither a peacebuilder, nor a therapist, but an insightful social thinker whose thesis connects us not only to meaning, but to the capacities in our human spirit to engage it, and to the world of the arts as well. Daniel Pink in a book he entitled A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers will Rule the Future argues in a nutshell that we are undergoing a “seismic social developmental shift” - from an Information Age that relies primarily on our faculties of logic, analysis, and knowledge, to a Conceptual Age built around empathy, joyfulness, design, and meaning. The skills demanded of our children in this changing world, says Pink, are six aptitudes we engage in our right brain - design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning.

As he nuanced these words and as I’ve reflected on the meaning of the arts as imaginative principles, faculties, and skills used for a creative purpose, I was struck that these were the arts of peacebuilding. Interestingly, they line up almost chapter by chapter with Marc Gopin’s “crucial steps to making peace” in his Healing the Heart of Conflict. They resonate too as hallmarks in the teaching, practice, doctoral work, and theories of change of our professors here. And I was impressed to hear many of these words this past Monday as we talked about what we bring to SPI. For Pink and the scientists he cites, this domain of the right brain is the part of us, which is part of ALL of us - and I want to underscore that - that perceives the patterns and the bigger picture - in the threads of logic that wind through the matrices of information we engage. This is the part of us that gets the meaning in our stories, that reads “between the lines,” and interprets the nonverbal cues in our faces and bodies, and enables us to step into each other’s shoes to feel with each other. This is the part of us that can imagine and create new ways of relating that transcend our differences and combine our unique gifts into new symphonies of coexistence. And this is the part of us, interestingly, that cognitive scientists and linguists tell us, communicates in a whole other language – of images and symbols and metaphors – in poetries and stories and music - which capture our emotions and our aspirations in ways that words often cannot articulate.

Coming from where I have, this convergence hit me with a great deal of force. One of the lessons I had taken from my experience growing up in a society so divided that the words, experiences, and logic of one people were incomprehensible to the other, and in which the traumas of each were so all-consuming they could not see the other’s, is that we must find a common language to hear each others’ stories. What struck me is that these aptitudes and arts are the primary media we use to give voice to them. And what gives me hope is Frankl’s premise: that our profound human need for this engagement with meaning, is what will drive us together. Eric Whitacre, a conductor who orchestrated a 2000 voice choir comprised of total strangers from around the world via Facebook and YouTube, marveled: that “human beings will go to any lengths necessary to find and connect with each other.” Maya Angelou, talks about this universal drive for connection this way: “Love is a condition so powerful it may be that which holds the stars in the firmament, that which urges and pushes the blood in our veins… You have to have courage to love somebody,” she says, “because you risk everything…!” Love is that powerful yet vulnerable art that ties every drive, need, and aptitude for human connection and peacemaking together, by linking them to the essential meaning and beauty of our humanity.

Let me leave you with those thoughts and move to talk a bit about my art. I want to do this, not so much as an attempt to hold up my work as any kind of model, or to tell you what you should see in it, as to illustrate this connection of art with meaning, of voice with the resonance it evokes in others, and art with peacebuilding - and to invite you to become a part of that encounter. That, for me, is the beauty and power of art – that it engages us.

To start, I’d like to talk about two images, worlds apart in tone - one of light and beauty, easy to enjoy, the other a darker and more difficult picture. This "Family of Women," is one of a series that portrays the beauty of our human family across the lines of conflict, politics, culture, and age: Jews and Palestinians, Blacks and Whites, Pakistanis, Indians, Vietnamese and Russians, Native Americans, Hispanics, Afghanis, Jordanians, Nepalis and Sudanis, ...and even Catholics trying on Mennonite trappings (Jayne Dougherty, where are you - you're in this one), playing and simply being the family we are together.

Contrasted with that is a more difficult piece I’ve called "Loss of Innocence", an image that grew out of a trip back to Israel-Palestine in 2002. It was a trip made possible by the kindness of family and friends and an accompanying commission for a piece of my work by two generous friends. We went in the wake of several suicide bombings in Israel and a manhunt that ended in Bethlehem. We went hoping to offer a measure of support to the International Center there which was damaged when Israeli forces had come through the compound on their search. We learned as we walked through that they had shot up the place, confiscated hard drives, destroyed office equipment and painted slogans of mockery on the walls of their beautiful brand new multimedia arts center. This Center had been conceived as a haven of beauty and hope in this hope-forsaken place where people could come and draw and paint and sculpt; where children and youth could play music and dance and express themselves in theatre and poetry, and where their community could celebrate their cultures and find friendship.

It was a difficult ten days for me. Growing up with Israelis, I had identified with them as victims, and with the insecurity they felt, surrounded as they were, by countries and people who resented them. It was disillusioning to see this senseless violence directed everywhere and nowhere - to hurt, humiliate, and destroy.

The image here is of a refugee camp that is part of the town, and a collection of faces I photographed while we were there. It took me two years to complete this, one of the most difficult pieces I've ever done from an emotional standpoint. I had gone hoping to create something of beauty for the kindness of my friends, something that captured the spirit and the soul of the Palestinian community, but the images I had hoped to capture just weren't there. This is a picture of the dark side of Israel and Palestine, the burnt colorless landscape of misery and loss, grey shadows of death and instruments of destruction - in the background is a D9 caterpillar used for home demolitions - the stuff of nightmares, real and imagined, for Palestinians. In this picture, in this kind of violation, I believe, there is a loss of innocence - a departure from faith and trust in the goodness of ‘the other’ necessary for relationships. It is etched in the eyes of these women, in the grief cast heavenward, in the memory of a daughter and friend torn away, in a motherless baby in the arms of her sister, in the sadness of a girl holding up two fingers - twice refugees, twice bereft of dignity and loved ones, reduced to begging as she is now for two shekels.

For all I've said about the dark side, there is also beauty and hope for me in this picture. The differences in their garb are indications of the differences of their faiths. As I burned in these lines and shadows I thought also of the lines of nations and states, and the ethnic and religious identities that so often separate us, that are artificial distinctions in the context of our human family. As for the "departed spirit" of the little girl in front, for me she could be Jewish as easily as she could be Palestinian, identifying with these women’s grief and pain. The only color in this picture is a very pale dusty rose, symbol of the hope we cling to in this life. For me as a Christian it is symbolic also of the hope that came in the form of another Jewish child born in that town some two millennia ago. That child grew up to teach us to love our enemies, to forgive those who do us wrong, and to return good for evil. It is in his example of vulnerable love and forgiveness that I have come to feel hope for peace in this world.

As I’ve thought about the interaction of our faiths, so entwined and rooted together - in these stories and in the questions about their meaning, and so sadly set at odds by these conflicts - one of the things I have become most convinced of, is that our faiths also hold the keys to our healing and peace. Some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had during my time at CJP were spent with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian friends reflecting on the scriptures from our traditions in Scriptural Reasoning conversations and an Interfaith Search for Common Ground for Peace group we formed together. I have become convinced that it is in our meaning structures - where we have pegged our most sacred beliefs and values - that we realize the common ground we share, find mutual respect in the principles we live by, and discover the capacities to work together for peace.

In this image I’ve entitled “Windows to the Sacred Common” of a 2000 year-old olive tree rendered from several on the Mount of Olives’ just outside Jerusalem, are words from the Tanakh, the New Testament, and the Quran, laid out in the form of two windows or two arched tablets of stone:

From the Book of Deuteronomy in the Torah: “I call heaven and earth to witness before you this day that I have set before you life and death. Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live...” Deut 30:15-20

From Deuteronomy and Leviticus and the teachings of Jesus recorded in Luke and Mark: “Hear, O my people, the Lord our God is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength; this is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments rest all the law and the prophets.” Deut 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:17-18, Luke 10:27, Mark 12:29-30

From the prophet Isaiah, quoted by Jesus in Mark: “Let no outsider joined to the Lord say ‘the Lord will surely exclude me from his people’ for this is what the Lord says… my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah 56:3,4,6-8, quoted by Jesus in Mark 11:17

From the Jewish Gates of Prayer and the Quran: “God created us all through one human being to teach us that whoever would destroy a single human soul has destroyed an entire world and whoever has sustained a single human soul has sustained an entire world.” Gates of Prayer 689, Quran 5:32

And from Al Imran in the Quran: “Say, o people of the Book, let us come to a common word between us, that we may worship our God as one.” Quran, Al Imran 3:64

Here in interrelated texts, sacred to two-thirds of the world’s population, are statements of a common reverence for life, love for our neighbors, and inclusion to all who share a sense of connection with our Creator God. And there are more in this piece that call us to justice and to peace, and to compassion and mercy which I invite you to look at at your leisure.

Finally, let me tell you a bit about these, which have involved several of us here in STAR workshops and Trauma Transformation classes at EMU, CJP, and SPI. Represented in these pieces of stained and broken glass, coffee beans, stones, beads, and gold and silver ink, are the journeys we took together to share, understand, and heal from our personal experiences with trauma. From what began with blue and green diamonds representing the rivers of our life, broken by our experiences into shards, and laid tenderly into a window, we let the pieces of our stories fill the empty spaces between us, and began to find and feel connections with each other. As we shared haikus, made music, flew kites, walked together in the woods and hills, played games, laughed together, and talked about the sources of our strength and hope, we began to find, and feel, and create something beautiful… In these memorials is a representation of what we shared, and in them our hopes too that our stories may offer hope and beauty to others. The second one now resides at a farm not far from here, at a retreat and recovery center for teen girls who too have lived with stories of brokenness and pain. They have found inspiration in this piece to similarly tell their stories, to sensitize others to the pain that so often goes unspoken among their peers.

If I were to summarize the balance of my work, I would say it is largely a celebration of the beauties of nature and our human family, and expressions in poetry of the meaning of life that binds us together. The resonance these images have evoked in the people who have said something to me of their thoughts, speaks to me of the hunger for beauty and light and connection we share as a human family. I believe these too play a role in building peace as reminders of the beauty we value and share on this good earth.


In conclusion, let me return to the story I began with, of Fatemeh, to tell you a bit more about how it played out. She struggled to tell her story that day in the minutes we had, but I know she felt a great deal of release to have let it out. I remember stopping by her table at lunch that last day and asking what was next for her. She told me she would need to return to Iran, but that she was hoping to come back to enroll as an MA student at CJP, and she asked me to pray with her that that could happen. God was kind and answered our prayers. In the course of her time here, she was deeply interested in interreligious engagement and peacebuilding and was a faithful participant in our Scriptural Reasoning group, and was passionate about citizen diplomacy. I was struck by her words to our graduating class at Commencement two years later, as she spoke of her gratitude and her newfound sense of identity as a ‘Mennonite Muslim.’ I don’t know what that means, or by what force of art or nature or providence that happened, but I know something changed, and that it was beautiful.

As we envision new futures for ourselves and the worlds we touch, I hope we can find ways to give voice to our stories, and to the powerful arts of transformation we embody in our capacities to love and share meaning and beauty and joy with each other. I hope too we can envision ways to orchestrate symphonies of these arts across the lines of the conflicts we deal with, that allow people to give expression to their unspoken stories and dreams for peace with both vulnerability and power. As nonthreatening forms of engagement, I am convinced these can provide strategic opportunities for peacebuilding where other avenues of intervention may be difficult.

Let me close with some lines from Gary Haugen, Ben Okri and Rumi who capture what I have been saying more artfully than I, and then I’d like very much to hear your thoughts, and answer any questions.

Gary Haugen says this: "We cannot long endure history's arc of justice without life-giving stores of beauty, laughter, love and light, without delicious sojourns in nature, and friends who make us flush and ache with laughter."

And Ben Okri: “Authentic strength lies in the capacities to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love, and to be greater than our suffering.”

And Rumi: “In your light I learn how to love. In your beauty, how to make poems. You dance inside my chest, where no one sees you, but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.”

Frontiers in Peacebuilding Luncheon Presentation to Summer Peacebuilding Institute, May 12, 2011

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Non-violence needs women, by Asma Asfour

RAMALLAH - It is not easy for a Palestinian woman to say that she wants to work against violent extremism in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To begin with, as a woman, it is harder to voice criticism while still remaining a legitimate political voice. Moreover, being in a place of national and political conflict where life is continuously stressful, one can find different definitions of the term “extremism”. For example, the Palestinians called the first and second “intifadas” (“uprisings”) patriotic acts against injustice. The same intifadas were labelled acts of violence by the Israeli side. Meanwhile, the recent war in Gaza was seen as a necessary security measure by Israel, while the Palestinians see it as an attack against civilians.

Notions of extremism and violence are shaped by the context in which they occur. As a Palestinian woman who has witnessed the two intifadas, I have been deeply affected—psychologically and politically—by the killing, the shelling, the curfews, roadblocks and the separation barrier. The violence that I have lived through has to a great degree shaped who I am. Moreover, I have been raised to love my homeland, strongly believing in my nation’s right to live in dignity on its land. I find it too difficult to say let us stop demanding our rights just for the sake of peace. That would be something a patriot would never do.

Yet despite being surrounded by violence, I believe in the essential goodness of humanity and do not think that members of modern nations should pay with their lives for myths and historical conflicts. The path of violence does not serve our legitimate struggle for independence.

The fact that violence has been ongoing for more than six generations makes me seriously concerned not only about the possibility of a peaceful resolution, but also about the effects of violence on the daily life of people living in the region. Violence equally affects the perpetrator and the person who suffers from violence. The child who witnessed killing in Gaza cannot be expected to treat others in as calm and gentle a way as a child who grew up far away from killing and shelling.

Living in an environment that adopts violence as a strategy to deal with the Other exacerbates further the negative attitudes and beliefs regarding the Other. Moreover, as we know, violence only begets violence. Eventually, acts of violence directed at an outsider turn inward towards the self. This can lead to internal chaos and divert the nation from its goal of independence. Leaders and non-leaders alike need to study the reasons why the conflict has become so violent and its impact on our societies so that they can work to reduce it.

Palestinian women as Palestinian citizens have much to say in this context. They are the ones who raise men. Partly because they are mothers, women are the real partners in building the future state. In addition, women—who are arguably naturally more predisposed to non-violence—could exercise significant pressure to stop internal violence first and then to form a common vision towards the future state.

As a Palestinian woman and patriot, I cannot cease struggling to attain the rights of my people in a Palestinian state. However, my values dictate that I conduct my quest for rights in a non-violent fashion. Practically speaking, pragmatism itself also dictates a non-violent approach.

I am calling for peace with dignity. This means adopting a new comprehensive strategy that identifies a way to obtain our rights as Palestinians, even if it takes a long time. A non-violent struggle could be the answer that would also lead other nations to support our cause.

Many of my international friends ask me why there is still no resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At this point I realise that people do not know much about the cause and its complexities. The achievement of peace needs brave leaders who believe in humanity and the rights of nations to live in dignity and peace.

Living in peace does not mean Palestinians and Israelis have to be friends with one another; it does not mean selling out the Palestinians’ rights. Peace, as I view it, is finding the best realistic way to live in dignity without war.

* Asma Asfour is a member of the Sinjel Municipality and is an activist for women’s issues. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 06 May 2010
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Holy Wars and Holy Peace, Is there Hope? by David Kreider

Holy wars
I grew up in Israel, in the aftermath of one of history’s most horrific tragedies. Traumatized and desperate after six million of their kin were annihilated in gas chambers and death camps across Eastern Europe, my first friends were Jews whose hopes for a sanctuary and a homeland converged in this place where their faith had been born. Sadly, their tragedy has given birth to yet another in that beleaguered land, causing a conflict that has infected the entire Middle East and three of the world’s great faiths - over half the world’s population.

As a Christian in that context I grew up aware of the histories and the differences that have put Jews, Christians and Muslims at odds. I felt the tensions that still linger, centuries-old, as a result of the Inquisitions, the Crusades and Conquests, and the prejudices that have given rise to such horrific bloodbaths as the holocaust that now poison our relationships. Growing up a member of a peace church tradition, as a Mennonite, with our own martyrs’ history of persecution for our faith, and the conviction that Jesus taught a message of love and of peacemaking even at the expense of his own life, I also felt a deep aversion to the violence I saw around me.

Over the years since leaving Israel in 1971 to pursue my education in Virginia, I’ve watched as the US has played fast and loose with its dominance and self-interest around the world, as it has taken sides at the expense of the disempowered and disenfranchised, and we have pursued our own economic and political interests at the expense of the impoverished and humiliated we have exploited or ignored in our wake. As we experienced our own tragedy on September 11, 2001, I watched in horror as our president led our country, the most powerful nation on earth, like a wounded bull elephant in a blind rage against the bees who had stung it, not recognizing our own culpability in the injustices we had fanned into flame, and went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and talked of other “Axes of Evil” in Syria and Iran.

I have seen the power of competing religious ideologies in the Middle East and around the world. They contend for influence in the halls and think tanks of Washington and elsewhere to devastating effect, in Jerusalem, in Kabul, in Baghdad, in Islamabad, in Tehran, in Mumbai, in Beirut and Cairo, and the list goes on. Is this the vision for the world God had in mind?

Towards Holy Peace
Jesus, as one who taught from the Torah from which Judaism, Christianity and Islam take their roots, it seems to me, was about a different politics. His vision was for a social order that transcended all boundaries - a ‘kingdom’ whose transformative force and governing moral law was love - an all-inclusive love that encompassed God, our ‘neighbors,’ and even our enemies.

Jesus was deliberate and passionate about inclusively engaging others outside his tradition and he often affirmed their faith [Matthew 8:10-12]. His most animated act recorded in the Gospels [Mark 11:15-17] sees him so infuriated by the merchants’ disregard for those whose space they had exploited in the Temple’s Gentile Courtyard that he chases them and their animals out with a whip. The words that burned in his mind were from Isaiah 56:3,6-8:

“Do not let the foreigner say ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’ …The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, [..] and hold fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house; and their offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples..”

The author of the letter to the first century church in Ephesus later put it this way:

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near [..] uniting Jews and Gentiles into one family, [breaking] down the dividing wall of hostility [..] that he might create in himself one new humanity [..] thus making peace [..] So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but… members of the household of God.” [Ephesians 2:13-22].

A personal journey
One of the most meaningful experiences of my life has been my opportunity these past two years to get acquainted with Muslim and Jewish colleagues at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. As our friendships grew several of us formed a group we called Interfaith Search for Scriptural Common Ground for Peace to explore the teachings in our faiths that relate to peacemaking - compassion, love, nonviolence, forgiveness, mercy, etc. As we shared and discussed our scriptures we found a growing sense of kinship and awe in the realization that we were also finding our common humanity, a deepening sense of connection together in our common quest for God and God’s moral laws for humanity as revealed to us through our prophets.

Marc Gopin, in his book “Holy War, Holy Peace, How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East” features a remarkable document drawn up by several rabbis and sheikhs called the Jerusalem Peace Agreement which I found profoundly moving:

“We as representatives of the two faiths, of Islam and Judaism, agree to the following: Both the Torah and the Qur’an are expressions of faith which speak of the divine revelation and oneness of G-d . Both [..] teach their faithful to honor every human being as the living image of G-d. The Holy Torah revealed to Moses, peace be upon him, the prophet of the Jewish people, calls for the respect and honor of every human being regardless of race or creed [and for] special respect and feeling of brotherhood to all believers in the one G-d. Thus Muslims, who worship the same G-d as the Jews, are primary recipients of these feelings of brotherhood.

The Holy Qur’an revealed to Mohammed, peace be upon him, the prophet of Islam, calls for the respect and honor of every human being regardless of race or creed [and for] special respect and feeling of brotherhood to all believers in the one G-d. Thus Jews, who worship the same G-d as the Muslims, are primary recipients of these feelings of brotherhood.

Based on these eternal truths of the Holy Torah and the Holy Qur’an, we declare that no human being shall be persecuted, physically or morally, because of their faith or the practice of their beliefs. We also express our wish for greater harmony and understanding between [us]. We the descendents of Ishmael and Isaac, the children of Abraham, are united to offer our prayers [..] for the end of all enmity and for the beginning of an era of peace, love and compassion.” (Excerpts 2002, 53-54)

The question that haunts and saddens me as I read this beautiful affirmation of common faith is where is Jesus in this, a Jew who also spoke of God as One, and of love and peace and faith beyond the framework of his own tradition? Where were Christians in this?

Reason for hope

There is a growing groundswell of passion for inter-religious peacemaking around the world. Universities and seminaries are building programs in interfaith studies. Closer to home, I am excited to see Eastern Mennonite University too developing a center for interfaith engagement and peacebuilding. Initiatives such as “A Common Word between Us and You,” from 300 Muslim clerics to Christian leaders in the West, and the Interfaith Youth Core movement of Eboo Patel are reflective of this hunger for mutual understanding and peace. At higher levels of US policy analysis, the Center for Strategic International Studies and the U.S. Institute of Peace have sponsored landmark studies whose findings point to inter-religious diplomacy as strategic to engaging the ideological underpinnings of terrorist groups whose networks have become global and their designs apocalyptic. World leaders like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Barak Obama have increasingly engaged the language of faith in their work to bridge the political and ideological divides we face in today’s world. Today in Iran, the Green Movement has also brought together a deep spiritual hunger for peace, religious freedom of expression, justice, and good governance that is uniting people across the lines of our faiths in prayer, solidarity, political action, and support.

Those who recognize the transformative premises in the teachings of our prophets for peacemaking and compassion have an increasingly strategic role to play in transforming the twisted logics of holy war to those of peace and a new social order built on a moral law of love that bridges enmity. Those who have espoused the premises in our scriptures of peace through justice, and of nonviolence, and acted on a politics of compassionate service to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised and worked for development, dialogue and peacebuilding are garnering renewed respect across these lines of faith and politics. It is to this work that we have been called by God, and with this unprecedented convergence of interest in interfaith engagement, we have a remarkable opportunity to rediscover our Creator’s vision for the world in our conversations and collaborative efforts for peace. May our God draw us together as a global human family through our faith and our pursuit of the truth God has sought so diligently to reveal to us, and give us wisdom in the pursuit of peace and justice in our world.

David Kreider is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary and the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University where he is also involved on the Advisory Board of Abraham’s Tent, a Center for Interfaith Engagement. David is also involved with a local interfaith Scriptural Reasoning group among Jews, Muslims and Christians in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Prominent Israelis speaking out for peace and a two-state solution

A growing number of Israelis are coming to realize that their security does not lie in military power, but in a negotiated friendly coexistence with their neighbors. And they are coming to recognize that they need the help of the international community to do so. A fascinating set of perspectives from some key people..

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The High Price of Israeli-Palestinian Peace

A just and secure peace in Israel-Palestine, a scenario in which Jews and Palestinians can coexist with mutual good will, whether in two separately-governed states side-by-side or within each who will undoubtedly govern a mixture of both peoples within their respective jurisdictions, will require a monumental restructuring to dismantle the monolithic economic and political structures that have contributed to their alienation and disparities. The dream will demand a high price in good faith. But the price must be paid, sooner or later. We must begin, I believe, to talk about what justice and peaceful coexistence and true security mean and what must be done to truly achieve them.

B'tselem, Israel's Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories paints a difficult picture when it comes to one of the most contentious issues of this conflict, that of the settlements that now fill the Israeli occupied West Bank. Check out this link along with this one as a background to these thoughts. Consider also this 2002 map of the West Bank and consider that this is occupied Palestinian land: West Bank settlements map. Consider that Israel controls 80% of the water here and that the World Bank has this week (July 9, 2009)noted publicly the deteriorating quality and increasing costs of the water Palestinians are receiving, confirming increasing incidences of diarrhea and water born illnesses in Palestinian households.

Consider also that the West Bank is fenced off and divided up by a complex network of settler-only roads and checkpoints controlled by the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) that limit access to Palestinians. These settlements and this network of "cantons" are a major source of frustration, economic hardship, a violation of Geneva Conventions and international law, and a significant obstacle to peace.

Dismantling and transforming these "facts on the ground" which Israel has persisted in creating against all odds and opposition, will be one of the necessary hurdles on the road to a viable peace. Perhaps the one redeeming value of these "facts" lies in the possibility that they could constitute a meaningful offer in reparations to Palestinian refugees if turned over intact as part of a genuine gesture towards a truly transformative peace. I am convinced this will be a necessary component of a just solution. Part of such a transformation will be a meaningful resolve to work together towards mutual coexistence and economic prosperity. The challenge of "selling" this notion to the Israeli settlers who now live in the settlements and consider them "home" will be difficult. But Israelis and Palestinians must begin to envision a new reality - of coexistence and genuine good will. It will take courage and statesmanship unlike any we have seen in history. Even Anwar Sadat's will pale next to what must be achieved here now.

I believe two things: that such a call for justice is both necessary and possible. It will however not be easy because many have much to lose in restoring the scales of justice.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Secret Israeli database reveals full extent of illegal settlement - By Uri Blau

"...The defense establishment, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, steadfastly refused to publicize the figures, arguing, for one thing, that publication could endanger state security or harm Israel's foreign relations. Someone who is liable to be particularly interested in the data collected by Spiegel is George Mitchell, President Barack Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, who came to Israel this week for his first visit since his appointment. It was Mitchell who authored the 2001 report that led to the formulation of the road map, which established a parallel between halting terror and halting construction in the settlements.

The official database, the most comprehensive one of its kind ever compiled in Israel about the territories, was recently obtained by Haaretz. Here, for the first time, information the state has been hiding for years is revealed. An analysis of the data reveals that, in the vast majority of the settlements - about 75 percent - construction, sometimes on a large scale, has been carried out without the appropriate permits or contrary to the permits that were issued. The database also shows that, in more than 30 settlements, extensive construction of buildings and infrastructure (roads, schools, synagogues, yeshivas and even police
stations) has been carried out on private lands belonging to Palestinian West Bank residents...

Click here for full article as it appears in Haaretz.

When Strategic Paradigms Clash: Why Israel's National Security Strategy is a Recipe for Disaster - The Gaza Case in Point

Security and socio-economic development are inter-related paradigms that profoundly impact our international geo-political relationships. Security and economic wellbeing are powerful human needs and represent forces that must work in concert or they will clash with disastrous consequences. Israel's national security strategy, particularly as it has come to play itself out in Gaza is a case in point. Based primarily on overwhelming force and repressive military action, collective punishment and economic blockades that reduce millions of innocent men, women and children to impoverishment and starvation, refusal to negotiate, destruction of Palestinian social and economic infrastructure - Israel's security is actually being undermined by these tacks, with dire consequences to millions of innocent people and future generations who are becoming hardened and radicalized as enemies.

For anyone interested in analyzing security, it is worth noting that Israel's national security doctrine runs in marked contradiction to US National Security Strategy (one may Google those two phrases to see for yourself or check out the link below) which recognizes the strategic interdependence of diplomacy, development, and defense as foundational to an integrated national security strategy. I am convinced Israel must reexamine these dynamics to forestall the powerful political forces now playing against her.

When Strategic Paradigms Clash: Why Israel's National Security Strategy is a Recipe for Disaster - The Gaza Case in Point.