Growing up in the United States in the 1950s and 60s, regularly attending synagogue and spending summers at the Jewish Community Center, I never questioned the stories I was taught about the establishment of the Jewish State. In Sunday school I studied the Exodus and learned about my people’s endless struggle to survive against the hatred of our enemies, each of whom seemed committed to our destruction. After thousands of years, this hatred reached its climax in the Holocaust. Yet, out of the ashes of suffering and sustained by the courageous work of remarkable men like David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, on May 14, 1948 a miracle appeared: Israel was born. But the struggle was not over, for our enemies were unyielding in their refusal to accept a people finally returning to their God-given home and wanting only to live in peace.
For the first fifty-eight years of my life my perspective was that at its core, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people resulted from irrational, even genocidal, hatred toward Jews.
In 2006, while Israel was bombing Lebanon, I began to ponder whether such a one-sided understanding reflected reality. Were the people of Israel so innocent and the Arab world, especially Palestinians, so guilty? Or was something missing from my understanding? I decided to find out. Thus began an intensive course of study into the history of Israel/Palestine.
When I began my research, my uncompromising identification with Israel and the Jewish people encompassed countless beliefs and images. For example, I assumed that a significant part of the world’s population held anti-Semitic views and that Israel, the Jewish home, was a shelter from a violent world. I had never questioned these beliefs, nor had I recognized that a disturbing corollary had been added to them: insuring Israel’s existence justified its aggressive policies toward its neighbors and the Palestinians.
In virtually all areas of my life I held tolerant views. Generally, I was rational and capable of an even-handed discussion of almost any subject. But when it came to Israel/Palestine I was righteous and reactive. I negatively stereotyped Arabs and Muslims and was nearly impervious to reasonable arguments to the contrary. My thinking was dualistic, embodying a world of us against them, good against evil. I insisted I wanted peace but I was not even at peace with myself. That didn’t stop me from claiming to possess the understanding and inner resources that could lead to peace.
Although I was unaware of it at the time, existential fear permeated my thinking. Fear induced me to interpret ideas and behavior that fell outside the framework of my identity as potential threats. I looked at the world through this filter of fear and unconsciously superimposed enemy images onto the other, automatically reducing to objects all that I perceived as the enemy. Then, in order to restore apparent safety to my life, I gravitated to policies and ideologies dedicated to disabling or destroying these objects.
What I learned during my study transformed and redeemed me. Most people who do objective research conclude that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is based not on culture or religion but on land – two peoples competing for one land – and they recognize that cultural and religious disparagement between the sides is a consequence of that competition. I agree that land is a primary issue but what I discovered goes deeper and that is that the root cause of conflict is the attachment to a limited identity and the beliefs and images that emanate from and reinforce that identity.
Learning a more accurate history of Israel-Palestine helped me relinquish my enemy images and relieved me of one-sided beliefs that blinded me to the humanity of the other. Finally being able to see the other as a human being was a great relief. Not only was his humanity restored, my own humanity was restored. And, realizing that I was as much Palestinian as Israeli, as much Christian or Muslim as Jew, my unquestioned attachment to a limited identity was set free. In this transformation, compassion replaced fear and clarity replaced confusion.
Compassion is the ability to stand in the shoes of the other and see from all perspectives. Therefore, along with compassion clarity arises. Compassion and clarity, seeking to understand all behavior, ask why the other acts as he does. What are the stimuli for his behavior? Have we in some way provoked his behavior? Compassion and clarity understand that no behavior occurs in a vacuum and that each of us is responsible for the suffering in the world and each of us contributes to the collective mind of mankind.
Peace is only possible when we acknowledge that all sides are equally entitled to self-determination. We don’t have to like the other but without this acknowledgement peace has no chance and the people we claim to care about will continue to suffer – in Israel, in Palestine and throughout the world. They will suffer because our true intention is not their well being. Our true intention – unconscious though it may be – is to hold onto a presumed and mortal identity. This comes before the fate of the entire world.
Richard Forer is the author of Breakthrough: Transforming Fear into Compassion – A New Perspective on the Israel-Palestine Conflict, which is available at Amazon.