A ceasefire has just been announced between Israel and Hamas, and I feel the collective release of breath as many of us experience a bit of relief from the tension and anxiety of the past 10 days.
Watching the conflict from afar, our anxiety is not the fear of rockets or missiles. Here in New Jersey, our lives are not in danger. Rather, our tension builds as we watch the news, read commentaries, and try to respond to the flood of emails offering to help make sense of what is happening. Our anxiety builds from feelings of helplessness as we see the cycle of violence recur, with no apparent hope of resolution.
I see people trying desperately to understand what caused the recent wave of violence. Was it restricted access to the Temple Mount and Al Aqsa Mosque? Evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem? Political calculations on the part of Hamas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu? Of course, all of it — the street violence within Israeli cities, the rockets from Gaza, the retaliation by the Israeli army — has roots in a long history of ongoing violence, hatred, fear, and competing religious and national claims. Most Americans, even Jewish Americans, have little understanding of the complexities of the conflict, which leaves us vulnerable to oversimplification and misunderstanding.
Today there is a ceasefire, and even as we let out a small sigh of relief, we know that a ceasefire is not a long-term solution. I am writing this the day after the ceasefire was announced, well-aware that by the time the newspaper goes to print, the ceasefire may have been broken. Even if it holds for now, surely there will be future flareups with more violence, more killing, more pain and suffering.
As hopes for a permanent resolution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians seem to be fading, the pressure to take sides intensifies. In a society and a world that has become more and more polarized, there is a little room to understand someone else’s perspective. We are expected to take a stand and stake a claim: “I stand with Israel and defend its was right to defend itself and its people no matter what.” Or “I stand with the Palestinians who are fighting for their liberation from an oppressive Israeli government that indiscriminately kills innocent civilians.”
The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says: “To reconcile conflicting parties, we must have the ability to understand the suffering of both sides. If we take sides, it is impossible to do the work of reconciliation.”
The need to understand the suffering of others is addressed in a beautiful prayer called No Pain Like My Pain by Rabbi Tamara Cohen. The prayer ends with the words:
Dear God, help us look,
look closer so that we may see
our children in their children,
their children in our own.
Help us look so that we may see You –
in the bleary eyes of each orphan, each grieving childless mother,
each masked and camouflaged fighter for his people’s dignity.
Dear God, Divine Exiled and Crying One,
Loosen our claim to our own uniqueness.
Soften this hold on our exclusive right — to pain, to compassion, to justice.
May your children, all of us unique and in Your image,
come to know the quiet truths of shared pain,
In Sh’Allah. Ken yehi Ratzon.
May it be Your will.
And may it be ours.
I cannot see a way forward unless more and more people are willing to recognize the humanity and the suffering of others. I cannot stand with Jews who march through the street shouting “death to Arabs,” just as I cannot stand with Arabs who attack Jews. There has been too much killing and violence already on both sides. I can only stand with those refuse to hate. Without the hatred, without the need to take sides, there might be a path toward a future where Israelis and Palestinians live together in peace. We do not have to accept that past violence and hatred must determine the future.
Maybe this seems impossible or hopelessly naïve, but there are those who have chosen this path. One example is Combatants for Peace, an organization of former IDF soldiers and former Palestinian combatants who have the courage to say “We will not hate each other. We will not make each other into enemies.” Their courage inspires me and gives me hope.
I pray for the day when we and our enemies find a way to open our hearts and recognize each other’s humanity. I pray for the day when it would be inconceivable to inflict harm on any human being.
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is now the president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding member of the council’s anti-racism committee.