We are flying home from Israel/Palestine after the pioneer trip with Combatants for Peace.[fn]The American Friends of Combatants for Peace is only two years old, and this was the first tour that they organized to Israel-Palestine to acquaint foreigners with their work.[/fn] It is Nov. 11, 2018, the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, ending World War I—the war to end all wars. It is also the 14th anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death.
The group Combatants for Peace was formed in 2006, when Israeli and Palestinian former fighters—people who had taken an active role in the conflict—put down their weapons and joined together in nonviolent activism to end the occupation and build a peaceful future for both peoples.
What is a human being? This is the essential question.
I witnessed human beings transforming their personal and collective trauma and pain through friendship, restraint, story-telling, loving and serving children, through seeing the other’s humanity as whole and complete (most of all, through serving children). I was honored to join in the Combatants’ construction of a playground in an area underserved and vulnerable to attacks by settlers. It is for Palestinian children. Imagine Israeli volunteers working side by side with Palestinian children and ex-fighters and international visitors. I saw children with great dark eyes looking towards the future, and witnessing generosity and friendship. Together, they build schools and playgrounds!
In the words of a Palestinian, Bassam Aramim:
It wasn’t until 2005 that some of us who believed in nonviolence started meeting in secret with former Israeli soldiers. We were meeting as true enemies who wanted to speak. … [Then] on 16 January 2007, my 10-year-old daughter Abir was shot and killed in cold blood by a member of the Israeli border police while standing outside her school with some classmates. … It took me four-and-a-half years to prove that my daughter had been killed by a rubber bullet. My goal had been to bring the soldier responsible to trial, but the Supreme Court decided after four-and-a-half years there is no evidence, so they closed the file for the fourth time. … Abir’s murder could have led me down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but for me, there was no return from dialogue and nonviolence. After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but 100 former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.
In the words of one Israeli, Tuli Flint:
I finished my service, and studied for a bachelor’s of Social Work and a master’s in clinical practice. I began to focus on treating trauma and post-trauma, mainly in the context of war and terror. In the reserves, I advanced in rank, and during the Second Lebanon War, I was already a deputy battalion commander, and later, a lieutenant colonel. I commanded 700 soldiers. I finished my role as battalion commander and moved on to serve as a therapist.
The 2014 war in Gaza, a.k.a. “Operation Protective Edge,” shocked me. I saw up close the suffering of soldiers and the Palestinians. I rediscovered what I had known long ago: the eyes and gaze of the trauma victims are the same eyes and gaze on both sides. Broken eyes asking: “And now what?” I met soldiers with moral injury[fn]An injury to an individual’s moral conscience resulting from an act of perceived moral transgression that produces profound emotional guilt and shame, and in some cases, also a sense of betrayal, anger and profound moral disorientation.[/fn] for whom I had no answers. There was not an individual event that pushed me to be an activist for equality and peace—it was a continuum of unnecessary suffering on both sides. I joined Combatants for Peace about three years ago. Currently I am the Israeli General Coordinator for the movement. Working with Palestinian former fighters/combatants is healing my heart. For me, the movement is a bridge between being a combat fighter and being a man of equality and peace.
This organization and these testimonies seem to be a manifestation of the moment when the biblical Jacob faces his brother Esau after decades of betrayal, hatred and fear, and says to him, “… to see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10). I take this to mean: You are empty of my projections. You are entirely worthy of your own history and truth. You and I are unnamable despite our names. We recognize that we are both infinite, ever changing, ever unfolding. We drop the limiting labels, the stereotypes, the single narratives we have told of both ourselves and the other.
When we see the other as complete, does it end war? Does it bring good government? Does it uplift humanity?
But it does reveal the possibility that we can heal and grow beyond our habitual desire to protect ourselves by hurting the other.
I need to allow this truth to triumph over the pain I experienced during this trip, how it touched my deepest shame. Jews, Israel, therefore me as the oppressor. That is intolerable. It cannot be metabolized. The bitter tears I did not shed for many years burst forth on this trip in Ramallah, in Daheishah, in Beit Zahur.
During my blessed life, I have been identified with both Judaism and Israel, the Jewish people, the Jewish past, Jewish oppression, Jewish salvation. Israel and the Jewish story has been my greatest love. It has also been the lens with which I see the world. It is my home.
I was born in 1946. I was a replacement child for my brother, Chester, who was run over by a car in 1944. I was a replacement child for one-and-a-half million Jewish children killed in Europe. I didn’t really want to be born.
I embraced “never again” in all its directional meanings: never again victim, never again perpetrator, never again bystander. The territory of this pledge reaches to the ends of the earth. It is impossible to fulfill. It places a weight of shame that is bruising, even crushing.
On this trip, in Israel and Palestine, I am all three: victim, perpetrator and bystander. In my life, I am all three: always victim, perpetrator and bystander. In a sense, we are all always all three. And this is impossible. It breeds profound confusion and shame. It is a product of the deepest trauma. It is a prison. Victim, perpetrator and bystander are shrouded in deepest distress.
Only a greater love, a greater mercy, the mercy and love that built the prayer room/synagogue at Theresienstadt, where I traveled with my husband a month before. The Terezin Ghetto was a concentration camp outside of Prague established in November 1941. For most of its prisoners, it was a transit camp from which they were deported to extermination camps in the East. Rabbi Arthur Berlinger, a prisoner, managed to find a small shed in the yard of a house. He decided to decorate it and turn it into a Jewish prayer room. On the wall were these words: “But despite all this, we have not forgotten your name. We beg you not to forget us” (from Tahanun in the weekday morning service). And on another wall it is written: “May our eyes behold your return to Zion through compassion” (from the Shabbat morning Kedushah).
Only compassion, infinite love touching suffering, can allow the rough, rigid, self-hating, fierce, angry, terrified, bruised child to relax, to release, to connect to something infinite and great beyond mere humanity, humanity and its suffering and our limitations. Call it dharma, Torah, Jesus, Shekhinah, Mary, Allah, Krishna.
Only through love and compassion for the self and the other can Zion be restored—can the holiness of that ever-desecrated city be restored. This is the meaning of the Combatants with their stories of hatred and fear. This is what we witnessed during the trip when Osama from Jericho embraced Tuli and Avner from Tel Aviv, and we learned that Palestinian Adam and the Israeli Jew Michal had taken their wedding vows a week before.
It is OK to love Jerusalem— “the air of the hills pure as wine amidst the aroma of the pines…”[fn]From Naomi Shemer’s song, “Jerusalem of Gold”[/fn] The air, the stones, the colors, the vast array of costume and color. It is OK to love Jerusalem. It is not OK to own Jerusalem. Ownership, clutching, hoarding and self-aggrandizement do not produce safety. It makes human frailty into human cruelty. Rather, we seek and wish to practice compassion, resting in the infinite, releasing constriction and opening to emptiness. It is very hard. It counters our embedded stories, our survival instincts. But perhaps that is what it is to be human. All of our forms—religions, nations, identities—can lead us partially on that path, but only if we recognize them in each other and ourselves.
Oftentimes, we find ourselves divided between the voices that wish to dismantle injustice and the voices that know we must practice compassion. The Combatants offers a model, albeit marginal and very small, to integrate both the passion for justice and the willingness to love beyond fear.
I have been very moved by the thinking of bell hooks, the African-American critical thinker, writer and activist. She wrote a piece called She is a mindfulness practitioner. It is not surprising that she quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
[King] elevated the call to love to a public cry. He proclaimed love to be the only effective way to end injustice and bring peace, declaring, ‘Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace. … If this is to be achieved [humans] … must evolve for all human conflict a method, which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.’
What does mindfulness have to do with love, and what does it have to do with justice? Mindfulness trains the mind ultimately to evolve, as King suggests, so that the most deeply engrained habits—pushing away the uncomfortable, or believing the defensive postures and patterns of our triggered minds—make way for clearer thinking, responsiveness, connection and wise action. We train by bringing love to our own minds, by spending time in stillness, gently attending to our own wounds, many forged by systems of separation and cruelty. hooks writes:
Dominator thinking and practice relies for its maintenance on the constant production of a feeling of lack, of the need to grasp. Giving love offers us a way to end this suffering—loving ourselves, extending that love to everything beyond the self, we experience wholeness.
Rabbi Alan Lew, alav hashalom, wrote a magnificent book called Be Still and Get Going, in which he integrates Jewish teachings, meditation and social justice. The title comes from the moment when the Israelites see the armies of Pharaoh rushing at their heels as they face the sea. No path through. God says to the people and Moses: “Be still and get going. “Allow yourself to let the chatter of terror and confusion settle down in your minds. Find a way to rest in love and care, and then make your move. Make it with wisdom and care, not out of panic and distress.
Rabbi Lew writes:
In meditation, we let go of each breath, and as we do we feel the boundaries of our being giving way as well. Our personal space becomes larger with each exhale, until the heart becomes boundless. Unfettered by the limitations that it imagines to be coming at it from the outside, the heart is free to express the deep wellsprings of feeling that the sense of being in conflict has stopped up. … Unfettered by conflict, the heart is free to plunge into the infinite pool of suffering that we inhabit with all beings and, beyond that, into the bottomless wellspring of love that informs every moment of our experience and saturates everything in creation—the love that brings the next breath into our body of its own accord whenever we breathe out.” (p. 111f)
In April 2018, I experienced another expression of love and justice. My friend and colleague Rabbi Myriam Klotz invited me to go with her to attend the opening of the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., founded by the Equal Justice Initiative. I had traveled to the South two years before. I visited Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham; the amazing monuments and museums in Memphis; the Whitney plantation, outside of New Orleans, that tells the true story of slavery; and Jackson, Miss., where we discovered the synagogue and rabbi’s home that were bombed in the racial struggles of the 1960s.
I had visited the Equal Justice Initiative started by Bryan Stevenson and read his extraordinary journey as described in his book, Just Mercy. I quickly accepted Myriam’s invitation, and we were in Montgomery for three days. We visited the two main sites. One is a museum tracing the history of racial injustice from slavery through mass incarceration and voter suppression in our day. Then a mile away is a mammoth monument remembering the thousands of lynching victims throughout the United States. As I left Montgomery, I began to write a poem.
Giving Voice to the Victims of Racial Terror
Lynching Victims, Name by Name
On the second of three planes,
Service up to Norfolk, 40 minutes flight time.
No more folks from the conference,
Just regular people.
Military, all sizes, shapes, colors, ages, many strangers.
An hour ago when we were in Montgomery, Alabama,
Birthplace of the Confederacy
Bonded by the effort to get there, the desire to witness,
The hope to birth a new era, a new nation, a new world!
Bonded by a desire to see what divides us as the false narrative. To know love as the
only true story worth telling,
But it is hard to tell the love story
To interrupt hate, when our hearts are so broken and so
Both hard and broken.
Yes, not a contradiction.
Bile rising from my belly
Like the strange fruit hanging in Southern skies.
We were there to make connections
For the sake of love. Connecting the dots…
From slavery, to Jim Crow, sharecropper poverty, convict leasing, voter suppression, public lynching, no equal justice, to mass incarceration and police brutality.
Racial abuse, abuse of women, the poor and the earth—the blood soaking the earth
Brought from every county where lynching occurred.
Deep racism in the cells and pores of this nation. Deep lies. Desecrated images of the Divine.
And water streaming down the wall.
To cleanse, to heal.
Truth being preached, researched, sung, danced, carved into stone, brandished into rusted steel, as prayer and action, as action and prayer.
I understand the Combatants as well as Montgomery from the Jewish lens as part of restoring the Shekhinah. Shekhinah is the crying mother. She is Rachel, who dies in childbirth in Bethlehem and is buried alone on the road. The prophet Jeremiah tells us that she is weeping for her children as they go into exile. Shekhinah is the mother. She is mother earth. She is the mother of all of us—the mother of Tuli and Bassam, the mother of every lynching victim and every child who perished in Terezin. Her tears are the glaciers melting and the seas rising. She is mother of exiles. She is the source of pure and infinite love. The great kabbalist Moshe Cordovero wrote of the Shekhinah in 16th-century Tzfat:
For Shekhinah is the one who is expelled with us, who moves with us, ascending and descending with us. Redeemed with us and exiled with us. She is the one united with us always, never separated from us under any circumstances. She dwells with us. Our deeds cause her separation or .
Our deeds. Our practice of love. Our willingness to evolve.
I close with a poem by a famous Jewish poet who lived 1849-1887. She came from a wealthy Sephardic family in New York. Her father was a silk merchant. After a youth of privilege, she awoke to the plight of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants arriving in the city after the harsh decrees of 1881, and became an advocate and source of love to them. Emma Lazarus’s most famous poem, “The New Colossus,” was revealed in 1886 on a . I think it is an ode to Shekhinah.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands your storied pomp!” cried she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these , the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.