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POSSIBILITY

“Sad,” we shared, sitting in a circle, 18 of us, in an event organized by “Sulha,” minutes after viewing the film “Oslo Diaries.” Reflecting on the film’s rendering of those fleeting, precious moments in Oslo, between 1993-6, we needed to be with others. Shimon Peres’ words, in the last minutes of the film, still rang in our ears and hearts…..”When you decide to swim across the Sea of Galilee, and in the middle you tire, don’t swim back, swim forward….” And despite Shimon’s elegant coaching, when the Sulha facilitator asked people to express their feelings in one word, at least half responded with, “Sad.” You could see it in the drawn faces around the circle. The pain of re-witnessing such a missed opportunity, a moment when the possibility of a decent future was palpable.

The film takes us through the excruciating Oslo meetings, the breakdowns and breakthroughs, the fierce determination of the handful of Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, the final victory of the signing of the accords. The viewers re-experience the elation of those days, the celebrations, Palestinians thrusting olive branches into the barrels of the tanks that patrolled their streets, Israelis hugging in the city-squares and weeping with joy. And then we watched the victory dissolve, dashed onto the rocks of the Hebron massacre, the murder of innocent Israelis in the suicide bombings in our buses and streets, and finally, the hate-filled campaign against Oslo, leading to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

This is a moment when it’s appropriate to be feeling our feelings about Oslo. We need to be feeling this sadness, together. We need, now, to give ourselves space and time to re-experience how badly we wanted and worked for peace, when we could smell peace coming.

For the settlers, it was not olive branches they were smelling, it was a frightening smell. This “peace” meant the end of their pioneering mission to regain all the land that was in God’s original plan. They were the new chalutzim, and they were fulfilling the will of an ultimate authority. They would not go gently.

History. At the moment, this moment, let’s ask: What is all this feeling useful for? In Hebrew, the word “why” is composed of two words, “for what?” How do we confront the passivity and cynicism that too often flow out of our disappointments?

By coming together, not going it alone. And by asking “for what?” This entails being accountable for fulfilling our personal vision in life. It demands that we have a personal vision in the first place. Next, the question is, “How much of my time on earth do I intend to spend intentionally working for what I believe in?”

One evening in 1969, as a Vietnam anti-war demonstration was winding down in downtown Berkeley, I threw a rock through the front window of a real-estate firm known for its ruthless treatment of tenants. At that moment, I became the only person, in that crowd of 100 activists, who was not shocked or surprised by the shattering of the plate glass. I was not surprised because I had become cause in the matter. A player, not a spectator.

Some of the most uncomfortable questions we are left with, as we recall Oslo, are, “Where does this leave me? Is abiding anguish a choice I am willing to make? If I love my grandchildren, why would I not be doing what I can to make the world I leave them a treasure of possibility?”

Yoav Peck, a Jerusalem organizational psychologist, is director of the Sulha Peace Project

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE NORMALIZATION DILEMMA

For 18 years, the Sulha Peace Project has brought together Palestinians from across the territories with Israelis from around the country, in order to hold people-to-people dialogue and solidarity-building. Of late, many of our Palestinian activists have endured harsh anti-normalization criticism from their friends and relatives, and some have been dragged into long, humiliating interrogations at the hands of Palestinian security. The director of a site where we held a recent gathering was harassed by the Palestinian Authority for renting us space.

As we rumble into the 52nd year of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, it may be useful to revisit the contention, strident in various sectors of the Palestinian public, that cooperation with Israelis represents “normalization” (tatbiyah) and is thus forbidden. How is normalization defined? Huda Abuarquob and Joel Braunold, two leaders of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, explain that “the anti-normalization movement has called for an end to all interactions between Israelis and Palestinians that do not subscribe to three key tenets: ending the occupation; equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians; and a full right of return for Palestinian refugees. These three tenets are shared with the BDS movement, and, as such, the two movements are joined at the hip. Yet the effects on the ground of the anti-normalization movement are far more serious.” Expressions of the anti-normalization efforts include threats, security-force interrogations, bitter criticism from friends and family, and even physical disruption of people-to-people gatherings. Joining with Combatants for Peace in a joint Israeli-Palestinian march in the West Bank protesting the occupation, I was hit by some of the eggs a group of anti-normalizers hurled at us from the side of the road, and some confrontations have even led to beatings. While the initiative comes from the Palestinian side, anti-normalization efforts also enjoy support from some hard-line Israeli activists.

Abuarquob and Braunold continue: “Real progress does not come fast enough for those who suffer the brunt of the occupation, but these joint programs are the best hope of fundamentally changing the worldviews of those who have been fighting for generations. People-to-people work today has evolved to be less about dialogue and far more about building trust. This is painfully slow and offers only incremental progress, yet given how each population fears the other, offers a real option for progress.”

Progress toward what, you may ask? Does it really matter that participants in Sulha’s people-to-people activities return home with hope in their hearts, after encountering people from the other side in deep dialogue listening circles, along with singing in Hebrew and Arabic, drumming, dance, prayer and a common meal? We know that it does matter, that together we are laying the human foundation for whatever future agreement will be reached. Any of the peace plans on the table will require Palestinian-Israeli cooperation, around security, commerce, water, waste. Cooperation will not work if there is not a critical mass of people who have built the trust that flows from experiencing mutuality and our common humanity.

At the same time, we activists must remain aware of the contradictions we embrace. While we engender a sense of solidarity among program participants, we must not ignore the gross imbalance in the life-situations of people from the two sides. While I complain about the stinging jellyfish that visit Israel’s shores during the first half of the summer, I do not forget that most Palestinians would be happy to brave the jellyfish if the army allowed them to leave the territories and get to the sea at all. The wellbeing I am privileged to enjoy is unknown to people who are awakened in the night while heavily-armed soldiers arrest their twelve year old sons.

It is gratifying, at our gatherings, to witness not only Israelis acknowledging the pain of Palestinians but also to see Palestinians listening to the concerns and anxiety of Israelis who live with fear of rock-throwers, knife-wielders, bombers and fire-starters. At the same time, equalizing our very different kinds of oppression is not the direction we must take. While we reject the anti-normalizers’ blanket condemnation of dialogue, there must be recognition, in any of our people-to-people contacts, of the disaster (“nakba”) of Israel’s creation, from the Palestinian perspective. Israel’s success rests on the conquest of Palestine. 750,000 Palestinians fled during the War of Independence, and the argument about the Arab nations’ choice not to recognize the ’47 U.N. partition has nothing to do with the experience of conquest the Palestinians have endured to this day.

It is not comfortable for us to acknowledge the vast gap between the Palestinians’ suffering and our own. But acknowledge we must, if we are to move forward. Joseph Montville, of the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, writes: “The psychology of victimhood is an automatic product of aggression and resultant traumatic loss in individuals and peoples. The refusal of aggressors to acknowledge the pain of the hurts inflicted on victims, and therefore the absence of remorse by the aggressors, creates an overwhelming sense of injustice in the victims.” Can we afford to belittle the collective victimization of the Palestinians? We do so at the cost of unending strife, violence, attack and counter-attack.

Montville continues: “A society, a leadership, a world, and, indeed, a universe the victims had heretofore assumed would shield them from harm have all let them down…. The victims’ collective sense of security in their identity, their self-concept, their basic dignity, and a future for their children has been dealt a devastating blow.”

We Israelis are challenged to embrace a terrible contradiction: On the one hand, after 2,000 years of collective homelessness, Israelis now lay claim to this land. On the other, our victory is the source of unfathomable suffering. When we ignore suffering, we become aggressive, righteous, callous. Yet, there is an alternative….. We can confront our shame, our regret, and ultimately we can express our empathy for those who have paid the price of our success. It is only here, in a blessed and courageous act of reaching-out, that the paving stones on the road to healing can be lain.  Before negotiation can be conducted or written agreements and maps disputed, we must express our sorrow for the Palestinians’ plight, and assume active responsibility for our part in righting the wrong. This will require a bigness of heart that is lacking in our present leadership. That does not make it less of an imperative.

I can already hear the protests, the talk-backs: What about their aggression, and what about the Jews expelled from the Arab countries? What about our suffering? Friends, it is time to give up this tit-for-tat thinking. Can we not allow our nation’s strength to enable the opening of our hearts? Is this not the time for coming forth and reaching out? We Israelis have the upper hand, and this is the time for generosity of spirit.

Yoav Peck, a Jerusalem organizational psychologist, is director of the Sulha Peace Project

LIVING WITH THE OCCUPATION

Today, I helped a 22 year old Palestinian get a permit, despite the fact that he is on some army blacklist, so that he can spend the last days of his wife’s life beside her at the hospital in Tel Aviv. She is dying of cancer, and he has until now been prevented from leaving his West Bank village to enter Israel. As a leader at Sulha, an organization that connects people for solidarity building, including bringing Palestinians into the country, I cooperate with the army. Over the years, working relationships with the soldiers at the army permit-office have enabled us sometimes to get through bottlenecks. I didn’t do much today. Just contacted a veteran officer who has often assisted us, within the limits of his authority, asked him to take urgent action to get the field office to yield, regarding this young Palestinian. I offered to take personal responsibility for his actions, if he were to be allowed in.

We representatives of the various peace organizations have a strange connection with the army’s permit office.  They often throw up obstacles to our doing what we do with Palestinians. Rejected permit applications are never explained, the intelligence world is not accessible to us. Sometimes, if the applicant is a distant cousin of someone who once attacked Israelis, his application will be denied. People we know personally and whom we trust are often denied entry. Irritating as this is, the soldiers are there to protect Israelis like me from terrorists, and I actually expect them to do that. Not simple.

What kind of cooperation is acceptable, when dealing with the occupation? Does one strengthen the army’s hold on the territories when one negotiates and cooperates with it, treating the army as a legitimate player on this field? If we didn’t cooperate, the activists who come to our events, and the curious from both sides who have never sat with someone from the other side, would stay at home. The Palestinians who we enable to get to the sea with their children would miss the short breather of a day in Israel, enjoying the change of scenery. Israelis have no moral conflict in joining us at Sulha, just their own reticence. But Palestinians who come to Sulha events often face criticism and even interrogations, when they arrive back home. They are accused of “normalization,” defined as any act that denies the reality of occupation.

While I can understand opposition to Palestinians getting rich through doing business with Israelis, we at Sulha are busy peacemaking, we spend much our time together confronting the oppressiveness of the occupation. We develop determination, among our participants, to carry on the struggle, while experiencing folks from the other side who want to be free of occupation, no less than they. This work is good for everyone. It helps create the human framework onto which any political resolution will be built. So attacking our participants as “normalizers” makes no sense to me. How to interpret the phenomenon? Is it the deep bitterness festering for years under occupation, a hopelessness that would deny anyone else the experience of hope, a few hours of relative freedom?

Last night, near Bethlehem, we brought 100 Palestinians, Israelis, and some American guests together. The gathering was graced by the presence of a young couple from Gaza, with their three kids, who managed to get a five day permit. We lit candles with accompanying prayers, we did some icebreakers, and then we went into 90 minute listening circles where we worked on the continuum between constriction and freedom. People shared from their hearts, there were no political arguments, because we were connecting at a different level. In my circle, one Palestinian teenager shared his fear to go out into the street in his village, when the soldiers are around. A hijab-covered woman spoke of the empowerment she draws from her practice of Islam. People listened attentively, as the “speaking object” was passed around. A disabled man from the States spoke of his pain when facing the attacks of his friends and family on his leftwing views. An Israeli spoke of his fear for his grandchildren’s future. People connected, appreciating each other’s openness.

After dinner, we played guitars and sang songs in Arabic and Hebrew in which we cried out together for peace. “Earth and sky,” we sang, “the heat of the fire, the sound of the water….I feel it in my body, in my spirit and soul…” The children came to the center and we prayed and sang our hopes for them, as they danced in a circle, holding hands.

“Normalizers?” I would rather expect the Palestinian Authority to bless our activities, to support us. But following yesterday’s event, there has been a volley of criticism, hatred, threats, in the social media. Some of our activists are even afraid there could be physical violence directed at them. Aren’t our governments making things tough enough, without us fighting among each other the little sparks of solidarity? We will continue along this path. We will arrange a meeting with the PA, and we’ll make our case. We will not succumb to the pressure. Hope and devotion to our common future will carry the day. The children demand it.

Yoav Peck, a Jerusalem organizational psychologist, is director of the Sulha Peace Project

HOPE IN HARD TIMES

You can take a guy out of the Berkeley ’60’s, but you can’t take the ’60’s out of the guy. As a graduate of the California ’60’s, I still believe in and work for profound social change, I still love flowers, and I still organize peace-gatherings.  I cannot grow long hair anymore. I’m 71, but sometimes I wish it was ’71 again.

In the spring of ’71, together with my brother Jon and five others, we had a group that played political rock ‘n roll called “Contraband.” Our pianist had played with jazz great Chet Baker. We tried to tame him into rock ‘n roll, and he pulled us toward jazz. We sometimes found a groove, where the power of the people became a thumping rhythmic melodious harmony, and we felt that anything was possible. The band went acoustic for street-actions, and I remember the Berkeley cops chasing us through back-yards when we demonstrated to stop an eviction, and Jon threw his trombone ahead of him over the fence he then scaled. At the July 4, “Hot Town, Summer in the City Peoples’ Political Festival,” with people dancing all through the band, because there was no stage, singing Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets.” We wrote new lyrics and the chorus was “Fighting in the Streets…”  Some fierce communal love energy, wine, smoke, congas, all kinds of workshops, with one about how to make a rope-climbing playground for your kids. “Uncle Ho’s” garage mechanics were part of the community, freaks who brought their tools to events and taught people how to fix their own cars. We were making the revolution!

Or not. Things haven’t played out as we imagined they would. Trump is not what we had in mind back then. And Netanyahu is not what we Israelis had in mind 26 years ago, when Yitzhak Rabin won the ’92 election. Frumit and I drove up to the Sea of Galilee just after the election, and as we held each other, looking down from the hills across the wind-blown lake, the sun was setting on what felt like a country we peace-lovers had just taken back. The year before, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had been forced to attend the Madrid Conference, and he even rose to the occasion, issuing the following at the conference’s close: “”With an open heart, we call on the Arab leaders to take the courageous step and respond to our outstretched hand in peace.” Then Rabin came in, enabled the secret Oslo negotiations to take place, and we were on the way to peace. During the Oslo years, we were moving toward what looked like a transformed future. Doors were opening, the Foreign Ministry was alive with young folks competing to advance contact with the Gulf States and other corners of our region. Hope was in the air, hearts were opening.

You could still drive through downtown Jericho back then, and as I made my way through the city one day in ’94, I came upon on a shared jeep patrol of Palestinian and Israeli soldiers as they smoked cigarettes together. I leapt out of the car to shake their hands, and we drank strong coffee, congratulating each other on the breakthroughs that seemed to be happening everywhere. Those days now seem as far away as the Berkeley ’60’s, and today we are facing a grim reality.

Half a million settlers now lay claim to land that has been in dispute for 51 years, with Netanyahu doing everything he can to please and appease them. Last week, the government passed the “Nation State Law,” which removes the status of Arabic as an official language in Israel, and will allow the establishment of separate communities based on ethnicity or religion. Another ruling denies gay fathers the right to bring a child into the world through a surrogate, and a Conservative rabbi was hauled in for questioning for performing a wedding not sanctified by the rabbinate. Dark times.

At such a moment, it is tough to keep alive the vision of a better future. Yet, while dark times drive some of us to despair, some of us are inspired to become more active. This is happening here, and apparently a lot of Americans have re-engaged, thanks to Trump. We must not succumb to the cynicism and defeatism rampant even among liberals. We must bang out our rock ‘n roll and strive for jazz. We must stand proud and take the steps, one at a time, that will renew our hope as we struggle to return our beloved countries to us. The Sulha Peace Project will gather 100 Palestinians and Israelis in Bethlehem in a couple of weeks, where we will probe issues of constriction and freedom in quiet listening circles, sharing a meal and our prayers. We’ll join hands and sing our songs, looking into each other’s eyes, and to the horizon.

Yoav Peck is director of the Sulha Peace Project

EMPATHY FOR GAZELLES

I have always wondered how it is possible that the Jewish people, including the Israelis, can allow another people to endure what we no longer have to.
 
How strange that just at the 1948 moment when we Jews brought to an end 2,000 years of homelessness, we created homelessness for 700,000 people. We are not to blame, but we ARE responsible.
 
Now the Palestinians are burning our fields and nature reserves, scorching the Israelis’ land around Gaza. Hundreds of fires, the news reported tonight that the gazelles had succeeded in escaping one nature reserve fire. We feel for the gazelles, we are relieved they’re safe.
 
What do we feel for the people who are burning our fields, and their families in Shuja’iyya neighborhood who are waiting for their three hours of electricity to begin? The ragged remains of bombed-out buildings from the 2014 war, children in the street schlepping carts with jerry cans of water for their families, water 90% of which is unfit for human consumption.
 
Under the Oslo “people to people” program, I was sent by the foreign ministry to conduct managerial training workshops for mid-level managers of the Palestinian Authority in a hotel on the beach in Gaza City. My hosts walked me around downtown at dusk. At the opening of the workshop, I clarified that though I sounded like an American, I am an Israeli, and served in the IDF. One heavy-set guy in the back said, “I don’t care if you’re my enemy, if you have something to teach me.” The workshop went well. At the end, the guy approached and grabbed my hand, said, “Well, you’re not my enemy, and I learned a lot.”
 
They are just people down there in Gaza. They have kids they worry about, they mourn just as we do when one of their dear ones dies. We Israelis are strong, resourceful people, and we remember we were once slaves in Egypt. Let put our strength to work in the service of compassion. We will not be free until the Palestinians are as well.
 
Yoav Peck is Director of the Sulha Peace Project, bringing Palestinians and Israelis together for people-to-people contact
 

DRAIN THE SWAMP

My Sodastream appliance proffered the last portion of CO2 gas, this evening, to make me soda. Selzer, two-cents-plain. God’s most thirst-quenching drink, with a squeeze of lime. I walked to the supermarket with the empty gas canister, and by the time I will have drunk the present bottle, the full gas canister will be ready for making more refreshing soda on these sweltering Jerusalem days. The good life.

We Israelis are comfortable, our prime minister is celebrating his various triumphs, business rolls on, folks on my little lane are making supper, the kids are doing their homework. Like serving birthday cake in an old, leaky boat in the middle of an alligator-filled swamp. The plaque from my late father’s desk, now relocated on my shelf, says, “When you are up to your ass in alligators, it is difficult to remind yourself that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.”

A Palestinian dropped a marble slab on one of our soldiers, Thursday night, and today I visited his grave, smothered in flowers. Ronen Lubarsky, the latest Israeli victim of the occupation. Sadly, most Israelis are either indifferent to this event, or they let fly a couple of curses and.. “may they be erased from the earth,” referring both to his killers and to all Palestinians. How few of us look to the roots of this needless death. Who of us wonders what would drive a young Palestinian man to crouch on a roof until he could kill someone, knowing how likely it is that he too will be killed.

The source of this swamp we are in, swatting away the mosquitos of our restlessly dormant awareness. The source….the absence of a future-vision or leadership, the hardening of our hearts in daily interchanges, even with each other, the pushing in lines, on the roads, the smugness of people being sure they’re right, the down side of Israel. “Why are these people like this?” asked American Rapper Azealia Banks at the end of a recent concert tour here. “I don’t understand… the amount of times I’ve been purposefully coughed on, stepped on, cut in line is tooooo much . I need a strong drink….” Banks later tweeted: “I will never ever ever ever ever go to Israel again. I love my fans but y’all gonna have to fly out to come see me because y’all country is nuts.”

We are nuts, we live as though we are not poised at a precipice. We blind ourselves to the significance of the kinds of lives our neighbors are living. In the Palestinian neighborhood of Issaweeyah, 3 minutes from comfortable French Hill, it is the third world. Garbage everywhere, nearly unpassable streets, ragged children wandering the alleys during school hours, a grimness we Israelis don’t know.

We must awaken to the other. There is a deeply ethno-centric side to Israelis, and it is killing us. We can be warm, and kind, and sweet. But our existential reality is that we are controlling, violently, the lives of three million Palestinians, and we are prisoners in the jail we have created. Marketed to us as being for the sake of security. If we want security, we need to make peace. It’s really that simple. Not easy, simple.

Yoav Peck is director of the Sulha Peace Project, bringing Palestinians and Israelis together to build people-to-people solidarity

 

 

DARK TIMES

This insane country! We killed 55 Palestinian demonstrators yesterday. 770 are wounded from today’s live fire. Yesterday afternoon we also celebrated the utterly superfluous relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and in the evening in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Neta Barzilai entertained a crowd of thousands to celebrate her victory at Eurovision. At midnight I returned from a spontaneous demonstration at Netanyahu’s residence. 150 of us then  marched chanting to the American consulate down the street, where we managed to block traffic for a little while. All of us just felt we couldn’t stay home. The sign we hastily scribbled in Hebrew read, “We’re celebrating, they’re mourning.” It was good to march with a spirited, vocal crowd for a couple of hours, to see old friends. All of us are torn up, crazy over the abandon with which our soldiers are shooting people. It can’t be that we must kill in order to protect the border. We can’t watch the pictures of the human catastrophe we have created in Gaza. An eleven year siege, now culminating in horrid, avoidable violence. Hamas even extended a cautious feeler last week to see how all this could be curtailed. No response from our government. Today, Nakba Day, may be worse than today. Dark times here in the holy land…..