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There’s a common misperception that the constant state of warfare and conflict that besets the Holy Land, Eretz Israel, or in Arabic, Bilad Ash’ Sham, is a result of some cultural or racial flaw–“oh, they’ve been fighting for two thousand years, they’ll never stop.”

Even the most cursory examination of human history reveals skirmishes, battles, and wars, interwoven throughout our timeline, have been perpetrated by all religions, races, and cultures. People are people. And a kinder gentler human civilization can be had, but it has to be taught, and then walked.  

As I observed in a report on the Holy Land in 2009–contrary to popular belief–history’s wars and military campaigns have been launched largely due to political agendas, power struggles, or naked resource/land grabs–and although often cloaked in religious trappings–religion has primarily been used as a war-making tool; to mobilize foot soldiers, and rally public opinion when necessary.

Humans are pack animals (viz. “leader of the pack”, not “backpack”), and in modern civilization, we have been arranged into herds within herds; overlapping groupings and interchangeable associations, class, race, religion. But in order to change the perpetual dynamic of two warring peoples, polarized, locked in conflict–efforts must be taken to bring the poles together. This can be accomplished through education by blurring ethnocentric distinctions, emphasizing the universality of what it means to be human-our basic needs, hopes, and dreams. A facet of this ‘coming together’ process involves a sincere effort to understand the life experiences and background of the different societies at play–to be aware–and especially–to empathize with individual and/or group trauma.

While working with an inspiring new organization called the Euphrates Institute, founder Janessa Gans relayed a profound concept from Palestinian nonviolence activist Sami Awad with the Holy Land Trust.

“It is up to the Palestinians to do what the international community has failed to do for the Jewish people:  to heal the trauma they have experienced.”

This is a true universal expression of peacemaking, seeing the pain within the Israeli community at large and seeking to ameliorate it; helping both Israeli and Palestinian alike.

A book by Avraham Burg, “The Holocaust Is Over, We Must Rise From Its Ashes“, illumes on this topic of trauma and healing for the Israeli community and Jewish Diaspora. Avraham Burg is a former Israeli Knesset member and former Chairman of both the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization.

The following is an excerpt from Burg’s, The Holocaust Is Over, We Must Rise From Its Ashes,

Herman (Judith Herman’s “Trauma and Recovery”) attempted to understand the depth of the traumatic experience and to find in it the key for a spiritual recovery. She interviewed victims of post-traumatic stress disorder from battlefield and concentration camps and also victims of crimes, vulnerable family members (especially women and children), former hostages, prisoners of wars and rape victims. Her documentation is stunning and horrifying, but not without hope. The healing process that she proposes is long, slow, and requires patience, but it offers the hope of a future that is at least as good as the pre-traumatic past. I would like to borrow some of her insights in order to understand the Israeli paradox that pairs power with weakness, nuclear weapons with paranoia, solid international status with the world-is-against-us mentality…


…In time, Israel became a multi-traumatic society, a coalition of all its victims that harnesses its worst experiences and turned them into its central existential experience…The result is a national doctrine, aptly described in Yiddish by the late Prime Minister Levi Eshkol as Shimshon hagibor der nebechkicker, literally, “mighty Samson the weakling.”

This national condition includes two contradictory elements that are derived from our history: excessive power and desperate weakness. It makes sense to Israelis, but not to others, who may interpret it as something between hypocrisy and madness. The wisdom is self-evident in the nonscientific expression, “a battered boy will be a battering father.”

Both populations have their backs up against a wall; figuratively and literally. Palestinians in the occupied territories face the trauma of military occupation, endless check points, and resource deprivation. Israel, on the other hand, is surrounded by unfriendly Arab countries, suffers periodic attacks, and throughout the ages Jews have a well-known history of being persecuted and oppressed. Anyone growing up and living in this environment is certainly subject to trauma of one sort or another.  

For Sami Awad, a Palestinian, to take up the mantle with compassion for his oppressor, shows the heart of a true peacemaker in action; healing trauma through patience and understanding, squelching any fires of fear with a cool salve of love. Pervasive fear fuels the conflict and the recent rise of separatist attitudes and political beliefs (e.g. Yisrael Beiteinu / Hamas, etc.), only increases the fear of the “other”. The best antidote to reduce alienation between peoples, starts with promoting intercultural values through our children’s education. There’s no earlier point to appropriately address the racial, cultural, and/or political stereotypes that puts people at odds with one another.

Shepha Vainstein (Founder of the Salaam Shalom Educational Foundation), has been leading the way in building educational programs in the Holy Land for children to learn nonviolence and peace while absorbing a transcendent understanding of humanity beyond race or religion. In a recent speaking tour Shepha explained the purpose behind Salaam Shalom’s Ein Bustan, the first Jewish/Arab Waldorf kindergarten in Israel.

“If we’re going to have peace in the future in the Middle East, we’re going to need to focus on healing children today. At a time when there is so much cynicism and despair about the situation, it’s important to know about a life-enriching approach to education that is changing both Jewish and Arab children’s lives for the better. Waldorf education, an artistic and healing education, nurtures children while cultivating independent creative thinking, cooperative problem solving, and flexibility. Through the Waldorf curriculum children are introduced to other cultures and religions and significant bridges are being built with Arab and Jewish children and their families.”

Reaching children in their formative years to stave off discriminating or racist perspectives is the heavy lifting that will eventually succeed in creating a sustainable peace. In our discussion within Euphrates Institute about the healing potential of addressing collective trauma, the inspirational work of Uri Avnery was mentioned.

Uri Avnery is the founder of the Gush Shalom movement. Gush Shalom, “The Peace Bloc”, is an Israeli group praised by organizations such as Amnesty International and the American Friends Service Committee. Adam Keller, a chief organizer with Gush Shalom, appeared on my satellite TV talk show, Global Peace Network, in 2004.

Uri Avnery, like Avraham Burg, has deep roots woven throughout the entire life of young Israel–incidently, both Uri and Avraham were born in Germany. Uri joined the Zionist paramilitary organization, Irgun, in 1938 and fought for Israeli’s i
ndependence in 1948.

From a 2009 column entitled “Tutu’s Prayer”, Uri speaks about the Holocaust, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation movement, calls for boycotts of Israel (which he opposes)–all through the lens of a conversation he had had with South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu,

“Peoples are not the same everywhere. It seems that the Blacks in South Africa are very different from the Israelis, and from the Palestinians, too. The collapse of the oppressive racist regime did not lead to a bloodbath, as could have been predicted, but on the contrary: to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Instead of revenge, forgiveness. Those who appeared before the commission and admitted their misdeeds were pardoned. That was in tune with Christian belief, and that was also in tune with the Jewish Biblical promise: “Whoso confesseth and forsaketh [his sins] shall have mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13)

I told the bishop that I admire not only the leaders who chose this path but also the people who accepted it.

ONE OF the profound differences between the two conflicts concerns the Holocaust.

Centuries of pogroms have imprinted on the consciousness of the Jews the conviction that the whole world is out to get them. This belief was reinforced a hundredfold by the Holocaust. Every Jewish Israeli child learns in school that “the entire world was silent” when the six million were murdered. This belief is anchored in the deepest recesses of the Jewish soul. Even when it is dormant, it is easy to arouse it.

(That is the conviction which made it possible for Avigdor Lieberman, last week, to accuse the entire Swedish nation of cooperating with the Nazis, because of one idiotic article in a Swedish tabloid.)

It may well be that the Jewish conviction that “the whole world is against us” is irrational. But in the life of nations, as indeed in the life of individuals, it is irrational to ignore the irrational.

The Holocaust will have a decisive impact on any call for a boycott of Israel. The leaders of the racist regime in South Africa openly sympathized with the Nazis and were even interned for this in World War II. Apartheid was based on the same racist theories as inspired Adolf Hitler. It was easy to get the civilized world to boycott such a disgusting regime. The Israelis, on the other hand, are seen as the victims of Nazism. The call for a boycott will remind many people around the world of the Nazi slogan “Kauft nicht bei Juden!” – don’t buy from Jews.

That does not apply to every kind of boycott. Some 11 years ago, the Gush Shalom movement, in which I am active, called for a boycott of the product of the settlements. Its intention was to separate the settlers from the Israeli public, and to show that there are two kinds of Israelis. The boycott was designed to strengthen those Israelis who oppose the occupation, without becoming anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic. Since then, the European Union has been working hard to close the gates of the EU to the products of the settlers, and almost nobody has accused it of anti-Semitism.

ONE OF the main battlefields in our fight for peace is Israeli public opinion. Most Israelis believe nowadays that peace is desirable but impossible (because of the Arabs, of course.) We must convince them not that peace would be good for Israel, but that it is realistically achievable.”

Finally, in bringing to bear existing resources concerning trauma and healing, I would be remiss if I did not mention Rabbi Michael Lerner, who among many other things, is the publisher and editor of Tikkun magazine (from Tikkun Olam or “heal the world”, a Jewish commandment and obligation, or mitzvot).

Rabbi Lerner, on the sixtieth anniversary of Israel, published a Tikkun column on Huffington Post named, “On Zionism, Healing, and Israel’s 60th Anniversary”. In it, Lerner intones the reality of Holocaust trauma and its resultant impact on the people of Palestine,

Jews jumped from the burning buildings of Europe into Palestine not because we were servants of imperial or colonial interests, but because we were desperate and because no one wanted us or would protect us. Unfortunately and tragically, we landed on the backs of Palestinians who were already there, and we hurt many of them in our landing. So scarred were we by our own pain-having just witnessed the death of one out of every three Jews alive on the planet-that we were unable to notice or take seriously the pain that we were causing to the Palestinian people in the process. When our army uprooted Palestinians from their homes and villages, it was in the midst of a struggle for survival in which Jews were determined to be as ruthless towards others as others had been towards us…

…When I look back and watch the irrational and self-defeating behavior of both sides, and when I interview people on both sides of this struggle, one concept shouts out to me: PTSD-Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The trauma on both sides has led people to be unable to think rationally about what is in their own best interests. For the Palestinians that trauma led them to reject the proposal of a two-state solution that was offered them in 1947, and for them to encourage the surrounding Arab states to reject every offer made by Israel in subsequent decades even after those states were decisively defeated in the 1967 War. In later decades, starting in the 1980s, it was the Jews who rejected reasonable offers for peace, and instead imagined that their military might would allow them to crush the Palestinian national movement. Illusion after illusion after illusion.

In considering the best preparation and plan for peace–the Euphrates new mantra–I must say that people bringing heart and head together in showing compassion and generosity will be the torch bearers to show the way; to dispel the dark side of warring tribal “illusions”. There is no more deeper truth than the fact that we are all members of one family of humanity. As Rabbi Lerner expressed, each side wielding an “I’m right, you’re wrong” kind of rhetoric is armed with very specific facts and statistics bolstering their arguments, but until we begin to build an understanding founded on universal basic human needs, of safety for our children, of peace for our collective future, this impasse will continue to fester.

War begins with violation of thought that summons the violence of deed. And people living through fear are often unknowingly contributing to an amplification of the conflict through the use of stereotypes, racist notions, and violent metaphor. It would be helpful if more people could be taught to become aware of this fact. Many are not conscious participants in furthering conflict-but if shown a way to dilute it-the numbers of people for peace will vastly overwhelm and effectively silence the small minority “authors of war“.

We have former warriors and even victims of the conflict working for peace–dedicated to nonviolence and nonviolent communication–these are the stories we must demand the mainstream media to carry, in the States and in Israel. But until then, there are relatively few venues sharing this heartening news. Hearing stories of courage and hope through examples of service to humanity, will open, for some, a door; through which a choice can be made to stop adding to the disease of war and conflict. People could start healing their collective trauma and adopt an intercultural ethos based upon empathy, equity, justice, and peace.

This may sound unrealistic to some, but it becomes more plausible when you co
nsider the shift in attitude among many partisan Israeli political leaders, officers, and soldiers–or their Palestinian counterparts–that have come to realize that peace and prosperity will only be achieved through regional cooperation and interdependence. Beyond the well-known two-state solution (Israel and Palestine, ’67 borders), visionaries like Bernard Avishai go further and talk about a three-state solution (common market with Jordan), and even a 20-state “Sarkozy-like” regional economic cooperation.

These are the voices of reason. They speak from a position unmatched in experience and expertise in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict, and are calling for population-wide psychological healing to prepare the way for peace. Leaders in the US, Palestine, and Israel should heed their call for healing-and begin to have faith in what’s possible on the positive side of the spectrum–instead of governing through fear and myopia. Loving perspectives seen through compassionate eyes can only add to our toolkit for helping to cure the epidemic PTSD afflicting Middle Eastern political affairs today.

Nitzahon la Shalom, Mansour ya Salaam, and Victory to Peace!