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Ideas & Ideals for Peace!
Both when they are right and when they are wrong, ideas are more powerful than is commonly understood...

15 October   |   2002   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... In fact, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back … Soon or late, it is ideas … which are dangerous for good or evil.

The British economist John Maynard Keynes, arguably one of the most influential social scientists in the world, once depicted history in those challenging terms. Indeed, ideas have serious consequences in history, and sufficiently powerful ideas can bend the course of history in new and unimaginable directions. Yet, academics and opinion makers have grown accustomed to think of the engine of history as either politics - often understood as the quest for power, and itself perceived as the capacity to impose the autonomous will of one party upon another - or else as economics. As such, ideas and ideals, passionate visions and moral commitments, as much as the power of the human spirit, are ostensibly meant to be of interest only to philosophers - but not inevitably to politicians!

However, the ailing Czech playwright and thinker Vaclav Havel wrote once that ideas and ideals are the ‘power of the powerless’. In so doing, he drew close to Christian theology as manifested in the ministry of Jesus Christ since it is a profound Christocentric tenet that the Word through whom the world was created remains the centre of the world and its history. And since the Word has overcome the world (Jn16 :33), those who are conformed to the Word have a duty to speak out words of truth and address it to the world in power.

Indeed, where is the sheer power of ideas and ideals for peace? Why are the words of those who conform to the truth of the Word being muted in the midst of all the carnage being visited upon the Holy Land for over two years now? These are just a couple of the questioning thoughts that crossed my mind last week as I attended a colloquium on Conflict Prevention organised by a think-tank in London. As I heard Israeli and Palestinian men and women describing their own situation, and expressing their reactions to the latest bloody confrontations between unequal protagonists, I realised once again the degree of polarisation that has beset both peoples in this conflict. No matter how hard they tried to appear equable or inclusive on the podium, I could feel in those men and women a pool of negative emotions. Alienation, hatred, anger, bitterness, frustration, resignation, despondency, defiance, contempt, loss, indignity and doubt were swirling beneath the polite but hesitant veneer of academic debate or sound bites.

Is it possible that this land could have witnessed so much bloody violence in its history and not yet managed to come up with novel ideas or fresh ideals that carve an ethical egress for peace out of a seeming impasse? Is it also remotely conceivable that everyone has been talking about ‘peace’ for so long but practising ‘non-peace’ instead? Have politicians been nothing better than false prophets who misled the people by referring to peace at times when there was no peace - just like the biblical prophets Jeremiah and later Ezekiel in the Old Testament? Jeremiah said, “They act as if my people’s wounds were only scratches. ‘All is well’, they say, when all is not well” (Jr 6: vv13 -14). And Ezekiel also told a people whose nation was in crisis and weary of hearing bad news from their leaders all the time, “The prophets mislead my people by saying that all is well. All is certainly not well!” (Ez 13:10 [a]). Have we become totally bereft of ideas and ideals? Or are we so uninspired in both our tactical and strategic intents that we have rejected peace for the sake of our own designs, plots and schemes? Where are those men and women who are meant to produce quixotic ideas and ideals that dent - let alone bend - the course of history?

Let me start off by taking stock of a modest number of principles, lessons and reality checks impacting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after two years of bitter confrontations. Might they perhaps help point the way forward?

  • The State of Israel is an unwavering geo-political reality. It cannot be - and to a large extent no longer is - denied by Palestinians or other Arab countries. But Palestinians too are a living but painful reality in quest of statehood, and they - as much as their quest - cannot be ignored forever.
  • The process of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians ought to resume without prevarication. The parties can call the next round ‘Oslo III’ or ‘Camp David III’ or even ‘Madrid II’, so long as they abide by the principles of international legality as enshrined in binding UN Security Council resolutions.
  • The situation on the ground has changed dramatically over the last two years. It is no longer possible to revert simplistically to the status quo ante of 28 September 2000or to claim that it is possible to continue where the parties left off. That would make a mockery of the last two years of reciprocal confrontations or sacrifices, and the relative lull in violence will only eruct once more into an even bloodier explosion.
  • The repercussions of this conflict are no longer constrained to the Israeli-Palestinian dimension. The Arab World has been substantially impacted by it too - be it through their governments, populace or economic interests - as have many other third party countries. Given the US recalcitrance to be a sole honest broker, another parallel body - such as the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council or the European Union - needs to join seriously the negotiations. I was deeply encouraged by the proposals put forward [yet again] by PM Tony Blair at the Labour Party conference in Blackpool a fortnight ago when he stated that the Iraqi crisis could not be dealt with alone without also addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now, it is imperative for Her Majesty’s government to put into practice what it espouses in theory.
  • An international protection force will monitor the implementation by both parties of any agreement once it has been concluded, and will thereby also enhance the prospects of its enforceability.
  • The basic and ultimate struggle today is for land that was occupied by Israel in 1967 - otherwise said, the eastern sector of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians are only claiming a meagre22 % of historical Palestine, and any fears that some Israelis harbour about the further expansionist designs of Palestinians are both anachronistic and unrealistic. As Anatol Lieven, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, wrote only last month, ‘While both Europeans and Americans should feel strongly committed to the existence of Israel as a state, that should not include commitment to Israeli rule over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or to the Israeli settlements there’. William Pfaff, the veteran journalist in the International Herald Tribune, also added, ‘European criticism of Israel has not to date been backed by actions. But if the Europeans were to resort to economic sanctions as a lever of influence, over time they could inflict crippling damage on Israel’s economy’.
  • Settlements - not only the larger blocs but also all the remote ideological as well as state-subsidised settlements dotted across the West Bank and Gaza - are inimical to peace. How would anybody anywhere feel if they suddenly woke up one day and saw a whole colony of caravans parked in their own backyard?
  • The amount of bitter hatred and extreme polarisation that has surfaced between both peoples will not disappear without a large degree of effort from both sides - official, institutional, religious and people-to-people. Although the wounds might ultimately heal, it will take at least another couple of generations.
  • One group that has been an unfortunate - and often controversial - victim of those confrontations is children. Two years into the second Palestinian Intifada, they are still exhibiting serious psychological problems that are manifested by symptoms such as bed-wetting, thumb-sucking or separation anxiety.
  • Joining those children are also the many Jewish or Palestinian mothers who have lost their sons and daughters. At times, it is true that some of those Palestinian mothers appear on a high in terms of the pride associated with the sacrifice of a child for the national struggle. In my opinion, they are simply not processing their loss. However, once those same mothers go past this artificial ‘euphoric’ phase, they will enter a grieving phase when their psychic wounds will become far more palpable and far more traumatic. No Jewish or Palestinian mother, I believe, could freely volunteer her child (ren) for death.
  • Finally, walking down the path of mutual confrontations is a recipe for mutual disaster. It will wreak havoc in the lives of Palestinians and Israelis alike. An alternative is urgently required, and someone needs to show leadership and vision by taking the moral lead. It is no longer viable to hide behind sheer platitudes.

So, what can be done? What is the alternative? Who can take that moral lead? And what does our faith teach us?

In his Sermon on the Mount, as reported in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (beginning with chapters 5 and 6 respectively), Jesus articulated some quite radical views. He said that those who mourn shall be comforted, those who are peacemakers shall be called the children of God and those who hunger and thirst for justice shall be blessed. As such, the Church - in its larger sense as an assembly of believers rather than just the ordained clergy - cannot be inured or indifferent to injustice. To become peacemakers is not a discretionary addendum to the Gospel. Rather, it goes to the very heart of the Christian understanding of its mission and responsibilities.

But this does not mean that peacemaking promotes violence either. On the contrary, it promotes non-violent methods of resistance. Those who wish to have a better understanding of such methods of non-violent resistance need not only subscribe to the writings of the likes of Nehru Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. They can equally read modern-day adaptations of those moral teachings from the likes of Father Raed Abu Sahlieh, a Latin-rite Roman Catholic priest in Taybeh, who has faithfully advocated non-violent methods of resistance for years.

I wish to share with you today a few seminal ideas that could be transmuted into ideals and serve as a platform for future action. My thoughts are predicated on the recent writings of the theologian Leonardo Boff, the international jurist John Mudley, the political scientist Jean Dupuy and a host of non-violent activists, missionaries and journalists who know much more about the situation on the ground than they are willing - or able - to say in public.

  • Following in the tradition set by countries such as South Africa, both parties should start off the process of healing by recognising the injustices and violence perpetrated upon each other. This is not an exercise in one-upmanship or comparative proportionality. It is akin to a purification of memory and one step closer toward paving the way for an apology that ultimately culminates in forgiveness.
  • A commitment to pursue a non-adversarial relationship between the two parties that precludes violence and fosters negotiations on the symmetrical basis of International law and principles of dispute resolution.
  • Acknowledgement by both parties of the deep historical and religious nexus of this biblical land anto tanto with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Such a step means that neither party decries the narrative of the other, but elevates the discourse from one of futile irredentism and negation to one that encourages inclusiveness and coexistence.
  • Education of both Israeli and Palestinian societies to curb all aggressive postures, incitements and negative publicity that only serve to de-humanise the other, and to empower instead channels of communication.
  • According to UNRWA figures, there are well over3 . 5million Palestinians refugees. One third of those refugees still live in fifty-nine camps in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Israel should admit the historical premise for those refugees, and the appropriate mechanisms of restitution could then be activated for them as well as for their hitherto host countries.
  • The Old City of Jerusalem represents the jewel in the crown for all three monotheistic religions. Any resolution should accommodate the religious aspirations of all three-faith communities on an equal footing.
  • An acknowledgement that the ultimate outcome of the negotiations will be the establishment of a sovereign and secular Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel in borders that are not only internationally recognised but also viable and self-governing.

Such hopes, articulated with increasing frequency by religious leaders such as the Latin-rite Patriarch Michel Sabbah or the Anglican and Lutheran Bishops Riah Abu El-Assal and Mounib Younan in the Holy Land, represent a challenge to all peacemakers across the world. But in the final analysis, the concept of ideas and ideals involves the strength of the human spirit and the steadfastness of human sovereignty. As George Weigel puts it, the fundamental human ‘sovereignty’ is not political but spiritual. The spiritual sovereignty of the human person expresses itself through the creativity of the individual and the culture of nations, giving rise to a distinctive form of power. That is the sovereignty believers are called to cherish, guard and ennoble, as they seek to build the foundations of a house of freedom capable of meeting the new challenges.

In the Holy Land, is it possible to discover this sense of human sovereignty that falls within the density of the human spirit and its relentless journey toward the transcendent? Can we unlock the key to an intractable conflict in this land? Where do we Christians - clergy and laity alike, in the Holy Land or all over the world - place ourselves?

My quotation from Maynard Keynes at the start of this article said, ‘Soon or late, it is ideas … which are dangerous for good or evil’. So my question today is whether we are strong, mature, wise and faith-centred enough to encourage ideas that are dangerous for good? Can we construct lofty ideas upon lofty ideals?

The Feast of our Lady Queen of Palestine falls on29 October2002 . It is perhaps high time that we use the symbolism of this feast to acknowledge that the peace of one is the peace of the other, whereas the deprivation of peace and justice for one is by transfusion the deprivation of peace and justice for the other.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2002   |   15 October


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