by Naomi Ishisaka
“My religion is based on truth and nonviolence. Truth is my God. Nonviolence is the means of realizing Him.”
– Mohatma Gandhi
“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”
– UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Constitution (1945-1946)
For nearly 100 years, the Mideast struggle has been one of the most intractable and divisive conflicts in modern world history.
Like a Rorschach test, how one views the Israeli-Palestinian clash largely depends on one’s perspective. For Jews traumatized by centuries of persecution and the Holocaust, creating the state of Israel was a logical response. Many, as former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously put it, were not bothered by the existence of an indigenous people. “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people,” she said. “It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn’t exist.”
Naturally, the inhabitants of the land saw it much differently. As they saw it – and as Zionist leader and former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion later admitted – “Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushua in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.”
Even as Palestinian refugees – then estimated at 700,000 by the United Nations – were fleeing their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Jews worldwide cheered the creation of a safe space after the horror of the Holocaust.
Yet for the Palestinian refugees, who now number 4 million, the horror of the “nakba,” or cataclysm, of losing their lands and homes was just beginning.
These parallel realities have set the stage for an escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has pitted the Arab world, as well as most of Europe, against the policies of the United States and Israel. In the U.S., backing of Israel is a widely supported – in a recent Pew study, nearly 50 percent of Americans said they supported Israel in the conflict and 13 percent said they supported the Palestinians.
This lopsided allegiance is reflected in U.S. foreign policy and foreign aid, leaving the Arab and Muslim world to believe that U.S. interests are antithetical to their own.
This gulf in perspectives is shared by Jews and Muslims in the U.S. as well. Despite the passage of time, the divide in beliefs and approaches keeps simmering until circumstances force it to boiling point again and again. This summer saw a series of events – both internationally and locally – that again illustrated the persistent and seemingly insurmountable odds against reconciliation or peace in the Mideast. Along with the pain of the ongoing U.S. war in Iraq, the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in July and the resultant clash with the Hezbollah – resulting in more than 1,500 mostly Lebanese civilian deaths – became a flashpoint in the Muslim world and international community. For many, the war in Lebanon illustrated the U.S. and Israeli policies of disproportionate use of force against civilians, a lack of concern for human life and a failed strategy of military action instead of negotiation. It sparked heartbreak, outrage and protest all over the world, including in the Puget Sound area.
Then in late July, a gunman forced his way into the office of the Jewish Federation of Seattle and shot six female employees, killing fundraising director Pam Waechter. Like many people, when I heard of the tragedy, I hoped and prayed the gunman would not be Muslim, not Arab, not in any way connected to the political crisis in the Mideast. But our wishes were in vain: The gunman, Naveed Afzal Haq, was a local Pakistani-American who declared, “I am a Muslim-American, angry at Israel,” before he began shooting.
The horror of this event, as well as that of Lebanese civilian deaths, rocked the local community. Interfaith meetings and events were held to try to understand the tragedy. The media wrote countless articles on the background and history of the shooter. Yet throughout it all, underlying divisions remained – and were maybe even heightened as a result.
How can all this change? How can these divisions be breached? At ColorsNW, we deeply believe that through honest and open dialogue and a commitment to shared understanding, differences between people and groups can be bridged, if not resolved. To that end, we organized and hosted an Interfaith Roundtable in mid-November between local people of faith to try to open up some hard truths and foster greater understanding. The resulting discussion was passionate, often brutally honest and yet at its core, deeply compassionate. We compiled nearly 20,000 words of transcripts of the conversation and had to heartbreakingly shorten the piece by more than three-quarters to what you have in this magazine. The full version will be available online at our Web site www.colorsnw.com.
We hope to have done justice to the honesty and openness that our panelists honored us with, and helped a little in the long process of peace.