What will it take to get unstuck?

This is a guest post by Sarah Beller, Director of Education and Programs at J Street, the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans. This piece was adapted from a presentation given at Initiative of Change’s Trust Factor series in Washington, DC on October 11.J Street Conference 2011: Making History, March 24-27, 2012
In the weeks following the speeches at the UN, the peace process feels almost totally stuck. The old approaches for bringing the parties together have run their course, and many of us who long for peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians are unsure where to turn.
At the same time, the High Holy Day season is drawing to a close. What fresh insights and directions do these days of atonement offer us?
I’d like to suggest three kavanot, intentions or outlooks, for getting un-stuck in the new year. While these are by no means concrete policy plans for bringing the parties to an agreement, this season of introspection calls out for us to start closer to home. As Gandhi famously urged, perhaps it is time for us to “be the change we wish to see.” 
To get un-stuck, we have to believe that others can change
Joan was the teacher who took my eighth grade class to Israel. She had long frizzy hair and a tattoo on her ankle, and when we were lucky she had us sit in a circle on the floor of the classroom and regaled us with stories of getting caught in a flash flood in the Sinai desert in the ‘70s. On our trip, it was Joan who pointed out the San Francisco-like beauty of the terraced olive groves on the drive to Jerusalem, and it was Joan’s favorite song, Al Kol Eileh, that we sang in the courtyard of the Goldstein Youth Village on our last day. Al hamar v’hamatok, on the bitter and the sweet, may both be savored and protected. We came home and graduated, and Joan told us she was going back to Israel for a year to study Hebrew and Judaics. It was only August when we learned she had been killed in a suicide bombing.
Far too many of us have experienced loss in this conflict, often due to violence from “the other side.” The question is whether we take that pain and turn away from peace or toward peace. Joan’s personality made the choice clear for me; at her memorial service, a classmate commented, “Knowing her, she was probably chatting with the terrorist.” Here’s a person who loved Israel fiercely—and hated nobody. Someone who saw a spark of goodness in everybody.
In order to do teshuvah, repentance, you have to believe that you yourself can change. And by extension, you have to recognize that others also have the potential to change for the better.
To get un-stuck, we have to take risks
Sophomore year of college, the Second Intifada broke out. Email listservs erupted in polemic accusations, and dueling rallies took to the campus yard. At a planning meeting for a Yom Kippur vigil, a friend who brought up the idea of recognizing Palestinians’ humanity was told he didn’t belong in the room. Upset and confused, I was sure of one thing—this wasn’t the best we could do as a community. I teamed up with Rayd, a Palestinian classmate, to start organizing open conversations for Jewish, Arab, and Muslim students.  Leaving for Yom Kippur services with a knot in my chest, I wrote on my white board, “Peace Salaam Shalom.” When I returned later that evening, I found a message scribbled on the board: “May our peoples soon live together in peace – Rayd.”
During challenging times, our community turns to the extremes. Those with moderate views confront an uncomfortable choice: be silent and cede the conversation to the loudest voices, or stick your neck out and face the consequences. Yet a core value of Judaism is makhloket l’shem shamayim, argument for the sake of heaven. We’re a people that’s proud to have four opinions for every three Jews in a room. Holding the community accountable to this value—particularly when it comes to the Israel conversation—often requires taking a risk. Rabbis fear losing their pulpits if they critique Israeli policies. Students worry they’ll lose their connection with their Jewish communities. To be sure, many communities are working hard to live up to the value of respectful disagreement, but far more need to join their ranks. We need more people speaking their truth and listening (really listening) to that of others—and both of these require taking a risk.
To get un-stuck, we have to be pro-active
During grad school, I decided to go to the West Bank to experience “the other side” for myself. Seeing checkpoints, refugee camps, and the separation barrier for the first time in person was deeply distressing. But I was also inspired by the remarkable Palestinians and Israelis I met who were working, often at significant risk, to make things better. In Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, Husam, a nonviolence trainer, said something to me that seemed a bit harsh at the time given my long-time interest in bridging divides: “I’ll work in my community, you work in yours.” Yet his words helped me realize how much impact I could have by taking action within my own community, the American Jewish community.
The status quo is unsustainable. In the absence of a two-state solution, Israel cannot thrive as a Jewish and democratic state, and Palestinians cannot continue forever without self-determination. The question is, do we let the status quo go on or do we take action to make things different?
Let’s be real. The daily interactions between individuals, companies, and countries are not typically governed by trust, understanding, good will and justice. However, the world as it is is not the world as it should be. As Rabbi Shai Held puts it, “God has entered into a relationship with the Jewish people in which we are called upon to help narrow the enormous gap between the ideal and the real.” Judaism teaches that God created the world and left it unfinished, imperfect. Our role as humans in the world is to be partners with God in continuing the work of creation.
In this new year of 5772, it’s time to renew our approach. People often ask if I’m optimistic or pessimistic about the prospect of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  I think that’s the wrong question. The real question is, do you want to be on the sidelines watching history unfold, or do you want to be part of bending the arc of history—toward justice, toward safety, toward peace?

One thought on “What will it take to get unstuck?

  1. Thank you for posting this. Hearing Sarah in person at the Trust Factor Forum was a gift, and I am grateful to be reminded of her words.It would be wonderful if our Congresspersons could also read them.

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