Fear is not abstract or theoretical. Real, visceral fear has taken hold of Israel and Palestine in the past several weeks as violence has intensified. Jewish Israelis are afraid to leave their homes, to walk in markets, and to take buses for fear of being stabbed, deliberately hit by a car, or pelted with rocks by Palestinians. Arab/Mizrachi Jews and Jews of Colour are afraid of being attacked by fellow Jews mistaking them for Palestinians committing acts of violence. Palestinians are afraid of being attacked by violent Jews or shot by soldiers mistaking them for Palestinians committing acts of violence. All of this takes place in the context of forty-eight years of occupation, growing extremism on both sides, and the mutual demonization and steady disintegration of relationships between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. Fear, anger, and pain – not only unaddressed, but actively fueled – are a very, very dangerous combination.
Recovering in the hospital, Uri Rezken, a Mizrachi Jew who was stabbed by a Jew thinking Rezken was a Muslim Arab, told Israeli TV, “We are all human beings, we are all equal. It does not matter if an Arab stabbed me or a Jew stabbed me, a religious, Orthodox, or secular person. The fact is that he committed a hate crime, a racist crime based on religious differences. This alone leaves me speechless.”
I recently taught at a five day retreat with my dear Israeli friend and colleague Professor Melila Hellner-Eshed. She is part of the leadership of the Sulha Project, a group of Israelis and Palestinians – the children of Abraham/Ibrahim – who meet regularly to encounter the other in their full humanity and to discover their shared destiny. The project began twelve years ago at the height of the Al-Aqsa Intifada when Israel and Palestine were locked in cycles of terror. Sulha has been bringing Israelis and Palestinians together ever since, turning a culture of fear and violence into a community of shared pain, empathetic listening, human connection, and genuine hope for a shared future.
Melila described the leadership team meeting which took place the week before. “It took a long time for us to look at each other. There was so much anger and fear.” She explained that despite how painful it was, the commitment was to be together. And slowly they started talking and slowly they started listening to one another. She is clear that these encounters are essential in order to fight against alienation, dehumanization, and anonymity. There is nothing naïve or simplistic about this commitment to return to relationship, over and over, in the face of fear and pain. Melila said, “Our hearts are hardened from so much fear and violence around us all the time. We can bring about the ability to soften our hearts.”
I am preparing to co-teach a Jewish Buddhist meditation retreat titled From Fear to Love (space is still available) from November 26 – 29 in Arnprior. While the retreat is not focused specifically on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this moment is deeply informing the questions and the work that will lie at the heart of the retreat. These are the questions we will delve into: How does fear block our ability to have an open, resilient, and responsive heart? Can we cultivate a loving orientation even in the face of challenges, fear, or pain? What practices help us open our hearts?
For us too right here in Canada there is a choice of whether or not we will be hardened by this present surge of violence and by the on-going violence – hardened into numbness, detachment, and despair, hardened by fear and defensiveness – or if we will choose to reach empathetically toward the human realities of all of those involved with hearts that are softened and open.
I don’t have a solution to the conflict, but I do know the way out of violence is not more violence. I do know that human beings lose the capacity to think clearly and courageously when we are angry or numb or afraid, so that any ability to work toward building safe and sustaining lives for both Palestinians and Israelis will require wading through all the emotional obstacles that keep us separated from one another.