“Where is the balance between wisdom and force?”
I’ve thought of that question several times over the last few days, as accusations and counteraccusations fly over Israel’s May 31 fatal commando operation against the flotilla of humanitarian aid ships attempting to break the blockade of Gaza. Nine civilians were killed, including a 19-year-old American citizen of Turkish descent.
On Monday, four others died, Palestinian divers shot by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) off the Gaza coast. Israel says the divers were preparing a terrorist attack; the commander of Palestine’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade says it was just a training exercise.
That oh-so-relevant question of wisdom and force is posed in one of a series of essays written by Henry Ralph Carse, a theologian and scholar living in Jerusalem during the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada. They’ve just been published by Ziggurat Books in a collection titled “No-One Land: Israel/Palestine 2000-2002” (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). A copy was waiting on my doorstep when I got home from the Memorial Day weekend, just as news broke of the Israeli raid on the aid ships.
“Nothing adds up,” he writes in the preface. “There is a deep flaw here, a wound in human nature through which the fear and killing flow unstaunched. This should not happen, not for the sake of liberty or security or revenge or guilt or sovereignty. The whole thing is wrong.”
The words are as true today. “A decade has passed since the opening throes of the Second Intifada brought ‘the situation’ to fever pitch,” Henry continues. “But it has been a decade of awakening for no one. We have been sobered by what we learned, but this is ‘newsworthy’ to no one … No one is wiser, no one is free.”
Henry is from Vermont and we have known each other for many years. A graduate of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, the University of Kent at Canterbury in the UK and The General Theological Seminary here in Manhattan, he has lived in the Middle East for four decades, drawn there at the age of 18. “With my guitar and long hair and idealism, I was running away from many shadows, the least subtle of which was called Vietnam,” he recalls. “Israel was the place I chose. I found it more interesting than Canada, so here is where I ended up.”
Henry married and divorced in Israel, had four children, became an Israeli citizen and was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, as were his kids. When I visited him and my friend Anne almost exactly six years ago, he was teaching at St. George’s College, an Anglican-Episcopalian school for continuing education in East Jerusalem in the West Bank.
An experienced and knowledgeable guide, he took me around the still magnificent Old City and to the Palestinian town of Abu Dis to see the 28-foot-high Israeli security wall, covered in Hebrew, Arabic and English graffiti: “Wall = War,” “Yes to love, no to wall.”
We gave a Palestinian hitchhiker a ride to an Israeli checkpoint; he was trying to get to his mother in the hospital. We traveled to the ancient desert fortress Masada and floated in the viscous waters of the Dead Sea. And through it all, Henry expressed a deep love for this place often tinged with despair and a sense of futility, just as it flows through “No-One Land.”
“I believe, even now, that the nonviolent option is the only way for Israel and Palestine,” he writes. “Whatever the caliber of my weapon, if I am shooting the ‘other,’ I am forced to deny that the ‘other’ is like myself. I can only kill from a desperate position, a position behind a veil, from which I cannot afford to see the human beauty and uniqueness I am destroying. This is true whether I am detonating a powerful explosive from 100 meters away to rip through a busload of children, or launching the missile that shatters the body of the doctor on his way to care for a neighbor. The rock in the hand and the high-velocity projectile in the gunbarrel are unalike in strategic weight, but they are identical in the fear and desperation, the bluster and the numbness they represent. It’s all bad magic, bad medicine, and it is turning us to stone.”
And, yet, despite the violent, mad intransigence of both sides present and past, Henry remains hopeful that “the political aspects of this ugly struggle will be resolved, and that two nations will dwell side by side.” Hopeful enough that a few years ago he founded Kids4Peace, a program that brings Israeli, Palestinian and American children of the three Abrahamic faiths to summer camps in the United States and Canada, places where they can talk and play and learn to be friends.
That may be the only hope, to catch potential antagonists when they’re young and pray they learn to outgrow the bitterness and revenge.
“What is the balance between wisdom and force?” Henry asks. “… As our power to be compassionate falters, the Occupation and its consequences continue killing us all. Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, have swallowed enough evil tidings to destroy the souls of both nations, and still neither has the courage to loosen the deadly grip. Silenced by dishonesty, we send more kids with guns to spread the rule of state terror and the rule of partisan terror – all for nothing but to defend the Occupation – or to destroy it. Then, silenced by grief, we bury the dead. If another more honest witness does not step in, the lines of battle will soon pass through every classroom and bedroom in this land. Someone must redraw the border between sanity and cruelty; already we have forgotten where that boundary once stood.”
Real peace, Henry writes, “can only be realized between two very real enemies who are ready to compromise. We need Israeli peacemakers, and we need Palestinian peacemakers, too. Where are they?”
Another good question.