Another Little Peace of the Heart
Another Little Peace of the Heart
An Excerpt from
He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the
he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in
he burneth the chariot in the fire.
--Psalm 46: 8-10
When I was in the third grade, my younger
sister broke my favorite toy. I yelled at her, she screamed back, and then, to
my surprise, she launched herself at me in a fury, scratching me hard on the
arm. My reaction was blind, unthinking; I raked my own nails down her forearm,
making furrows that, to my shock, began to ooze blood. I was punished, but
nothing cut so deeply as the guilt I'd felt at her pain.
wondered from time to time what happened in this primitive, instinctual tit for
tat, a variant of any playground fight. Some kid pinches you, and you pinch them
back: There, now you know how it feels! The word
revenge doesn't quite cover it; in an odd way, it's more like enforced empathy,
a need to make the other feel, first-hand and in rough proportion, the suffering
they caused us.
such a leap from the dynamics of schoolyard rivalry to the logic of clan
warfare: Here's what it felt like when you dishonored my family,
terrified my child, killed my brother. Carried to its extreme, it is the twisted
reasoning of warfare itself: This is what it is like to have your church
destroyed, your crops burned, your city ruined. See how you like it.
typical day on the planet some fifty conflicts rage, from armed clashes of
massed troops to guerilla skirmishes, civil uprisings, and border incursions,
most of them classified as "low-intensity" (though scarcely so for the forty
thousand whose lives they claim daily). The differences between sides--religious
dogmas, nominal ethnicities--are often so tragically trivial, they only affirm
the combatants' commonality. Even the most "just" wars seem heartbreakingly
preventable had the victors in a previous conflict been kinder to the defeated,
who rose up to become aggressors in the next. Despite their specifics, the basic
narratives of territory, ideology, and historical grievance are so standard, all
that's required is to fill in the blanks with the countries' names.
really want to heal our world, we'd better find an antidote beyond the topical
remedies of truces and treaties. If war is an infection in the human system, its
cure must lie in strengthening what it most directly attacks: compassion itself.
If enmity draws a bayonet-sharp distinction between self and other, only empathy
can cross that line (you in me, me in you). If strife builds up
impenetrable armor (emotional; literal), then compassion calls for mutual
vulnerability. If fighting is justified by some historic grudge, forgiveness
destroys its rationale. If war is the repayment of blood debts, peacemaking
assumes the infinite debt of love.
But how do
we get there from here? We may all be in this together, but when I pick up the
paper, I want to throw in the towel. Every official road to peace has a dotted
white line running down the middle of it, like a perforation that says Just Tear
Palestinians and Israelis are among the planet's unhappiest cousins, keeping the
small house they cohabit in such constant uproar that it threatens to drag down
the neighborhood. From an aerial view, the ancient sibling rivalry between the
children of Sarah and the children of Hagar----Just get over it! No, you get
over it!--looks like a pointless dustup in a sandbox. But it's also a
tinderbox that could set the world afire.
square inch of soil is claimed by great narratives both congruent and
contentious. Here God is said to have been last seen face-to-face--the One whose
angels broke bread in desert tents, whose only Son was crucified and rose, whose
last Prophet ascended heavenward on a white stallion. Underfoot are ancient
bones cubits deep, every step a genuflection to the past. The living feel upon
them the watchful eyes of ancestors whose begats go back to the Beginning of It
All. Would that the Holy Land were not just hallowed ground, but a seedbed for
the peace that passeth understanding.
the latest bulletin from Bethlehem, but there is news behind the news, and it
comes down to this: three teenage girls sitting, knees nearly touching, their
ancient enmity for now foresworn, trying to make a little peace of the heart.
Amal, an eighteen-year-old West Bank fundamentalist with streaked blonde hair is
telling an Israeli girl that Muhammad was the last Prophet and the Koran the
"God gave us all the land. He orders us into
jihad--not just war, but holy war."
fair-skinned Israeli girl in blue jeans, flushes deeply. "By Jewish law, all
Israel is for the Jews. By Muslim law, it's all for the Arabs. The only way
possible to fulfill these laws is by killing millions of people!"
dark, curly-haired Palestinian born in Israel, is caught in between. "I feel
lost. I'm half-half. I can imagine the little child who saw her daddy shot by
soldiers in Jenin and the Israeli kid whose mommy was blown up on a bus.
My father was killed. Everyone I know has lost their cousins. I'm sick of these
mean leaders who only want their place in history. Stop hurting each other,
that's all I can think of."
are part of a group of some thirty girls
flown from an eternal war zone to a borrowed lakeside estate deep in the heart
of rural New Jersey. Under the auspices of a program called Building Bridges for
Peace (part of a larger organization called Seeking Common Ground), they will
live together for two weeks, sleeping in one big room on air mattresses, their
relationships a microcosm of internecine strife and a litmus for any hope of
"I feel like I live in the middle of a stupid
world," Rachel tells Amal and Fatima.
"All that's important to me is you, and you. We're destined to live together in
the same place at the end of the day. If I don't know you, it's easy to hate
you. If I look in your eyes, I can't."
Amal shrugs elaborately. "When we're here,
who knows, maybe we're friends. When we return, you are my enemy again. My heart
is filled with hatred for Jews." She says it bluntly, coolly, planting her flag.
But I detect a wistfulness, the barest hope that her burden--of poisonous
rancor, of history's dolorous weight--might somehow be lifted from her
wrote James Joyce, "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." This is no
high school civics debate, and Rachel's "stupid world" is no typical teenage
plaint. There are Israelis here who one day soon will be girl soldiers carrying
rifles that could be pointed at Amal--at sad Amal, whose uncle was arrested,
released, and soon after shot dead in his home by soldiers; haunted Amal, who
will never forget; vengeful Amal, who admires the shaheed, the suicide
bombers; hard-hearted Amal, who has come here a hater but may secretly hope she
can learn how to love.
A child of
the second intifada, Amal has never met Jews who don't wear fatigues and
combat boots. "She's one of the generation that 'did not know Joseph,'" says
Melodye Feldman, the preternaturally calm American social worker who founded the
programs. Melodye grew up as one of only three Jews in her Florida grade school.
She remembers one of her friends groping the top of her head to feel for horns;
remembers being jumped, kicked, thrown into puddles, coming home to her parents
and sobbing, "If only they knew me, they would like me."
It could be the motto of her program. She has
been bringing together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers for the past ten years
with no other agenda than to place them in fertile soil for compassion, give
them water and sunlight, and hope they grow. Melodye, who was an Orthodox Jew
and staunch anti-Palestinian until visiting East Jerusalem in 1989, was inspired
to act after seeing firsthand the mounting despair among the youth of both
sides. Meeting sometimes in secret with Palestinian counterparts, she proposed a
program whose only goal was to shatter the stereotypes of the Enemy. "I didn't
know what I was doing," she admits freely. "I just wanted to do something to
give young people some hope." She designed a camp-style retreat for young women
that would use every tool of empathy she could borrow or improvise. What
resulted is a sort of living lab for peacemaking, its protocols honed through
trial and error.
At the first Building Bridges program some
girls, in close quarters with their adversaries for the first time in their
lives, were desperate to leave, but Melodye had shrewdly confiscated their
tickets and passports. "You're not your nationality here," she told them.
"You're not your ideology, your religion, your history. All that counts is who
you are as a person." The Palestinians staged a demonstration, refusing to share
tents with the Israelis. But then a freak storm blew in, full of Old Testament
thunder and Koranic lightning. "They all got in tents together fast," says
Melodye, "and snuggled up during the night."
The next morning, one Palestinian girl
confided how soldiers had come to her home, beat her family, and upon
discovering they were mistaken, left without apology or offer of medical care.
Using a technique known as "compassionate listening," Melodye asked a Jewish
girl to repeat the story in the first person, then describe the emotions it had
made her feel--terror, anger, revenge, sadness. The Palestinian girl burst into
tears. "My enemy heard me!" The Israeli girl wept with her, and they became fast
friends. Melodye, a cheerful, unflappable forty-five-year-old whose sharp eyes,
set in a soft, open face, convey the impression little escapes her, knew she was
onto something. "As the saying goes, God gave us two ears and one mouth," she
says, and so she created a program devoted to listening.
There hasn't been much listening in the
Even if the two sides were so inclined, the shouted slogans, crackle of
small-arms fire, explosion of bombs, and grinding of tank treads muffles the
dialogue. These are children of war, Melodye says. They've known little but
stress and trauma, life in a garrison state, an occupied town, a refugee camp.
Many have never met anyone from the opposing side. They are dispatched to her
program by their respective communities, thinking they will champion their cause
to the enemy's face.
Instead, they wind up literally taking their
enemy's pulse: The first thing Melodye has them do is gently grasp each other's
wrists. "They've never touched their 'enemy'; they have no idea what they feel
like. Then suddenly it's like, 'Oh, warm! I feel blood beating!'"
A few of the kids have been to other
programs--"youth diplomatic corps," one put it a little sarcastically--the kind
where issues are debated and coexistence extolled. But Melodye doesn't want them
to coexist; she wants them to care about each other. She's insistent on keeping
it personal. Keep your hate, if you must," she tells them, "but now
just touch her hand, her face, look in her eyes, speak your heart. These
kids have yet to pick up weapons, but their minds are locked and loaded, ready
to go off half-cocked. "Here, you just give those stares that could kill,"
Melodye tells them. "When you get back, you could do much worse. This could be
your last chance to know the other side, their hopes, their dreams, what they're
Melodye will try anything to get them to drop
their canned historical laments and encounter each other as people. They make
life masks out of plaster, molding the wet goop over each other's faces, tracing
the unknown contours. She gets them to form a soft machine by connecting to each
other with motions and sounds, or sit in a circle singing nonsense songs,
patting their own legs and those of their neighbors in a blur of rhythm. They're
from a part of the world where symbols count, and the games are rich with
metaphor: At their first meeting, staff members, mostly Palestinian and Israeli
kids who've been through the program, loop rope "handcuffs" around the girls'
wrists, entangling them in binational pairs, challenging them to get free of
each other when tugging on one end only pulls the other end tighter.
I chat with a Palestinian girl wearing a
T-shirt with a cartoon gun shooting a little flag that says bang. Kids on
both sides talk of violence with stunning casualness. "I had all these boys who
wanted to marry me," she tells me. "One said if I didn't, he would bomb
himself." I'm shocked, but she just giggles: Threatening to strap on a suicide
jacket is a common boast of lovesick West Bank suitors. Her fiance is with the
Palestinian intelligence service; his job is to ferret out the ameel, the
collaborators--find them, report them, maybe hurt them. For her, the intifada
is always and everywhere; for the Israelis, it's wondering about the next bus
bomb, worrying if, as citizen-soldiers, they'll be sent across the green line
into the occupied territories.
at this camp there are no dividing lines but the ones the girls bring with them
and carry inside. I eavesdrop as they talk their teenage flotsam and jetsam of
shoe styles and skin care, boys and CDs; girls who on both sides are every hue
from freckled white to dark olive, who by their ancient genome are virtual half
sisters. I find it hard to comprehend how deeply Other they are to each other.
"An enemy," wrote psychologist Karen Horney,
"is an economical way to form an identity." Economical, but surely not cheap,
with its costs amortized in collective tragedy. The Israelis are raised hearing
about the horrors of the Holocaust and their state's David-and-Goliath victories
over Arab foes bent on their annihilation. "We're shown the old family photos
and it's 'Hitler got her, Hitler got him,'" Rachel tells me. "Every year on
Holocaust Day, survivors lecture in the classrooms. One history final exam is
mostly about the Holocaust. And then we all join the army."
The Palestinians grow up hearing about the
Nakba, the Catastrophe of 1948, when according to dueling versions of
history, they fled or were driven from their hereditary lands as Arab armies
marched into battle against the Zionist Jews creating a nation in their midst.
In the wake of utter defeat, living as refugees for generations, a stateless
people in their own diaspora, they have taken guerilla commandos and suicide
bombers for heroic role models.
"After fifty years of occupation, chaos, and
resistance," sighs one of the Palestinian staffers, "we're all fucked up. To
live as a refugee, it's the same as being subhuman. We're going to need years of
national therapy. The whole Middle East needs therapy!"
Therapists have taken a keen interest in the
conflict as a case study in how war and hatred take root in the human psyche and
how they might be extirpated. Each side in the conflict, says Israeli
psychiatrist Yitzhak Mendelsohn, sees itself as a victim of history struggling
to survive in a hostile world, with the other side as the ultimate threat to its
existence. Individual biography is woven into a collective narrative of
woundedness--what he calls a "dependence on negative memory. People get hooked
into a potent resentment that primes them for revenge and escalation. Hate
becomes a way to create the illusion of power."
Mendelsohn, a quick, intense man with a neat
black goatee, comes to his specialty in "ethnic national conflicts" from an
intimate perspective: Grievously wounded in a Palestinian terrorist attack on a
restaurant ("I got two bullets and needed twenty-five units of blood"), he is a
self-described "victim without hatred." He is, he says quietly, "personally
familiar with the psychological obstacles to peace." The task of reconciliation,
he believes, is to break down the "symbolic scars that bind people to the group"
and offer "some larger sense of 'we' to replace the victim identity."
Melodye has her own diagnosis. "Nations are
stuck in a developmental phase approximating an adolescent identity crisis," she
says, "refusing to compromise, seeing everything in black and white." It's hard
to argue the point: geopolitics as teenage wasteland. An adult personality can
selflessly give, but the world's nationalities are grabby, cliquish, defensive,
obsessed with ego-boundaries. They announce, "It's my room and I can do what I
want in it," leaving a mess for others to pick up after them. They gang up on
weaker kids; they're hypersensitive; they lash out explosively. There is a line
in the Chatu-Shataha Shastra: "Buddhas see delusion as the enemy / And
not the childish who possess it." How many posturing politicians and gung-ho
generals have the courage of these coltish girls who struggle to see through
delusion to reality's shades of gray--and beyond, to life's true colors?
These kids who could soon be gazing down gun
barrels at each other are just teenage girls with half-articulated thoughts and
inchoate longings, still safety-pinning their identities to fit: One minute
they're mouthing the slogans of the intifada or proclaiming the tenets of
Zionism; the next they're tooling around on the pink Schwinn they found in the
garage or teaching each other American country-swing steps.
"First they need to define the box they've
placed themselves in," Melodye says, "then they can step outside it." In an
early session, they're asked to list, in order, their most defining
characteristics. A Jewish girl says, "Family, friends, music, Jewish religion";
another says, "Being from the city, being a high school student, clothes,
travel." Other Jewish kids put "human being" first, or the environment, or love
of animals. But for most of the Palestinians, the list is more circumscribed:
Arab, Palestinian, Muslim, colonized, refugee. It is the template of
oppression, of a people defying erasure by carving a collective face in granite.
If each side is living in an identity-jail, the Israelis' is medium security,
the Palestinians' more like twenty-three-hour lockdown.
"Self-esteem is in large measure a function
of the esteem accorded to groups of which one is a member," writes one social
psychologist. As a result, he notes, "The sources of ethnic conflict reside,
above all, in the struggle for relative group worth." It reminds me of a T-shirt
I saw on a marcher in one of New York's ethnic parades: "It ain't where you at,
it's where you from." (No, I wanted to say. It is where
you at. And here is a recipe for peace: 1) Cut pride into bite-sized pieces; 2)
chew; 3) swallow.)
This is not to argue against ethnicity, which
is in any case a fact on the ground. In a homogenizing global society, with the
unique wisdom of entire cultures being lost as surely as languages themselves
are going extinct almost weekly, we need a counterweight against punch-card
citizenship in a corporate McWorld. But without the translucent overlay of a
common human identity, real peace is a mirage on the horizon.
"We're all of us brainwashed," Fatima, the
Israeli-Palestinian, says to the circle. "We accuse each other with these
phrases, but don't know what they mean. We want freedom? What is it? Words
someone told you to say, not really coming from your heart. Seriously, where did
you get all that stuff?"
"What do you think causes war?" Melodye asks
"History," says one.
"Injustice," says an Arab girl in a
"Religion . . . leaders . . .
misunderstanding," offer others.
"We do," says Fatima. There's a silence as it
sinks in. "All of us. Without people buying into it, it wouldn't happen."
As the days go on, identities become more
fluid. One minute they are pouring salt into each other's wounds, the next
probing them as tenderly as private-duty nurses. They talk it through, feel it
through, first in anguish, then in relief: "I don't want to kill you."
"Well, I don't want to kill you, either!" I hear ululation drifting in
from the sunporch used by the Palestinian delegation, the yearning, keening
vocals of Arab pop music mingling with sinuous Israeli rock from the dining
They're having a great time, but this isn't
just Camp Kumbaya,
telling stories by the campfire, singing and eating s'mores. Their ability to
resolve their blood feud is a field test for peace on earth. If these girls
can't find a way to love each other, what then? I find myself walking around
with a lump in my throat, thinking how it has fallen to them to do what their
foolish leaders will not.
One day, paper bags labeled with the toughest
hot-button issues are put in the center of the room, and each girl is asked to
write down a phrase that best expresses her feelings about it. The responses are
scrawled in magic marker on big white pieces of paper and posted on the walls.
Under "Zionism," an Israeli has written,
"idealists who fought to come back to their country," and a Palestinian, "an
evil organization that wants to kill all the Arabs in the world."
Under "Palestine," a Palestinian has written,
"a dream that will come true, my homeland forever, my soul," and an Israeli has
scrawled, "hostile territory, a danger for my existence."
Under "suicide bomber," the Israelis write "a
killer" and "a dead murderer"; and the Palestinians, "a blessed person," "a
winner in the next world," and, chillingly, "what I hope to be."
The kids shuffle from poster to poster,
subdued, disbelieving. Now it's all been shoved out into the open, every threat
and calumny; their faces are ashen at this secret ballot of fear. I can hear
everyone's heart thud in the silence; it's suddenly a roomful of hunted rabbits.
"I see these words
and I feel scared and angry and want to leave," says one Israeli girl.
Tears tremble on
eyelashes, overspilling rims of reddening eyes as they attempt to smile through
the pain, as if to spare others, or cling to their sinking hopes. A passed
Kleenex box quickly empties.
"It hurts so much that each of us has deep
hatred for the other. It's like you've been sleeping in the same room with a
person who wants to get rid of you." My notes don't say whether this was spoken
by a Palestinian or an Israeli; it's irrelevant.
The dire mood is fleetingly broken by the
town's Funny Bunny Ice Cream truck careening around the corner outside, blaring
its tinny recording of the Disney anthem, "It's a Small World After All." A few
kids who recognize it laugh at the irony.
As the tears dry, they're more curt,
defended; they put on their game faces. "I feel proud to be Arab, proud to write
these words about jihad and shaheed," says Amal defiantly. They
trot out their litanies of grievance, their sullen prejudices. But they also
seem to recognize something momentous is occurring. For once in their young
lives, the truth has been laid bare, a force to be reckoned with--unpredictable,
frightening, liberating. "These words on paper are our biggest fears," says
Fatima. "They're what we're hiding behind our laughing faces, being dishonest
one to the other. I want to learn about them from you."
Later, they are asked to build a bridge out
of arts and crafts supplies. As they sort through Popsicle sticks and pipe
cleaners, Rachel and Fatima tell Amal, "We're here to listen to anything you
want to say." But Amal shakes her head. She doesn't want to talk. "I just want
to draw a bridge," she says tersely. "A bridge that's been broken."
It sometimes seems the bridge has been broken
since time began. What are the root causes of war, of millennia of hatred and
strife? Those who study conflict look at everything from politics and economics,
history and religion, child-rearing methods and marriage customs. But some point
to a key human (and for that matter, primate) emotion that, in individuals and
nations alike, seems to drive the cycles of violence: humiliation. "People would
often rather die than live with such a sense of shame," writes one psychologist.
"Even considerations of self-interest become irrelevant." The need for
recognition, to be heard and seen, is universal. The Nazis cunningly appealed to
restoring German pride after the crushing settlement imposed by the victors of
World War I. In 2001, a nameless man--was it in the streets of Cairo, Karachi,
Jakarta, Damascus?--cried out from among a crowd that cheered 9/11: "You
Americans think we are nobody, like you are the only human beings," he said.
"Now you have heard us. Now you know we, too, are men!"
Shame is a wound to the very sense of self.
Palestinians speak of the daily humiliations of border crossings ("We're herded
into a chute like cattle," one girl tells me bitterly), of grinding poverty and
strutting Occupation soldiers. One girl tells me how her father died in an
ambulance held up for four hours at an Israeli checkpoint outside Jenin even as
his heart gave out. He was forty-seven. "I had thoughts about becoming a
bomber," she says. "But I realized when I came to this camp last year that there
was nothing worse than to lose my life to make others die. The responsibility
for this suffering, it's not Jew or Arab; it's this circle of history, of
violence with no beginning or end."
Humiliation is surely not just the province
of the Arabs. "For Jews in general and Israelis in particular," says a writer in
the Jewish magazine Tikkun, "there is a lasting form of shame associated
with having been vulnerable and victimized during the Holocaust . . . a
determination 'never again' to be subject to such humiliation as to be helpless
prey to a ruthless predator."
is a marble building like others in the nation's capital, a massive stone cube
devoid of postmodernist histrionics, built to last for as long as history shall
endure. As I walk through the entrance, passing a sculpture of a deconstructed
black swastika, its arms twisting to the sky, I see a quote by President Jimmy
Carter carved into the wall: "We must harness the outrage of our memories to
stamp out oppression . . ." In the company of the Palestinian and Israeli girls,
bussed down for an all-day field trip, it strikes me as a very Middle Eastern
sentiment: Isn't this what the Palestinian shaheeds think they are doing?
And the far right-wing Israeli settlers? All over the world, there is no problem
harnessing outrage; the problem is keeping hold of the reins.
A museum guide highlights the exhibits she
feels are "pretty neat--check them out"; the atrium, she suggests, is "a
fabulous place to take pictures." But the museum is not designed as a tourist
attraction. It is a funnel into moral blackness. To walk its corridors is to
follow the saga of a civilization's premeditated murder of compassion itself.
First the Nazi book-burnings, harbingers that failed to kindle the world's
alarm. Then the artificial creation of stark ethnic divisions: here the lurid
charts of racial mug-shots; there a poster promulgating laws against "racial
defilement" and a glass case full of "scientific" meters of curious design:
calipers to measure skulls, and eye- and hair-selection guides in handheld
compacts for white-gowned nurses to classify children for extinction.
The visitor's claustrophobia grows as
exhibits show all cultural institutions--art, music, theater, medicine--suborned
in service of the deranged hygiene of ethnocentrism. In his 1906 book
Folkways, W. G. Sumner catalogued the ubiquity of the self-versus-other
distinctions made by tribal cultures the world over. "Each group nourishes its
own pride and vanity, boasts itself superior, exalts its own divinities, and
looks with contempt on outsiders."
There are only a few insidious steps to regarding the other as subhuman;
astonishing, unthinkable, but to anthropologists, sickeningly familiar. Sumner
notes in a later work that nearly all the tribes he had studied called
themselves by names that meant simply "'men,' 'the only men,' or 'men of men';
that is, 'We are men, the rest are something else' . . ." Modern anthropologists
point to the Amazonian Yanomamo, whose fierceness seems to derive in part "from
their belief that they were the first, finest and most refined form of man to
inhabit the earth, and that all other peoples are a degeneration from their pure
stock." Among the headhunting Amazonian Mundurucu, rival tribes were
linguistically lumped with game animals, providing a conceptual frame to
overcome the natural aversion humans have, along with all other creatures, to
methodically killing their own kind.
corridors narrow as Hitler's power grows and the tapes of crowds Sieg Heiling
themselves hoarse grow louder, engulfing the visitor in a gathering dark. The
museum's architects have designed passages that dead-end in cul-de-sacs,
emplaced red-and-white-striped barricades. You don't know where you're going
until you get there, and even then, you're not sure you haven't been treading a
no-exit circle. One exhibit tells the saga of the Lodz ghetto, sealed in April
1940, trapping 164,000 Jews behind bricks and barbed wire, forcing them to live
with "overcrowding, starvation, disease, and the stench of raw sewage," the
first of four hundred ghettos created to wall off the millions.
From there, you traverse a wooden catwalk and
embark on a journey into Hades: a railcar with a thin shaft of light falling
onto a blood-red wooden floor. Pathetic piles of abandoned luggage, hand
mirrors, hairbrushes, and toothbrushes. The malignant efficiencies of
industrialized murder: canisters of Zyklon-B; a narrow bunk from one of the
Auschwitz barracks where skeletal prisoners lay awaiting the fire. Relics of Dr.
Joseph Mengele's infamous Block 10, where the most gruesome medical experiments
were performed; photos of sterilized children, of bodies disassembled like
department-store manikins. A line from Elie Wiesel: "Never shall I forget the
little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke
beneath a silent blue sky . . ."
I see one girl who'd proclaimed herself a
would-be jihadi in tears. An Israeli, overcome, sags against the shoulder
of a Palestinian friend, who clasps her tight. I see others walking slowly, arms
around each other's waists.
When the dark corridors open out at last into
the muted, sifting sunlight of the white marble Hall of Remembrance, I finally
break down and weep. When I emerge, I see Amal and two of the more militant
Palestinian girls in checked kaffiyeh photographing each other as they sign the
visitors' book in Arabic. I feel touched.
Yet there is something odd as they mug for
the camera, flashing their V-signs. A whisper goes through the bus on the ride
home, building to an agitated buzz. An Israeli who reads Arabic says the girls
wrote something terrible, something unthinkable. What they had inscribed, in
large, curlicuing letters, was: "Death to All Jews."
By the time they get back to camp, all the
girls are in an uproar. They gather in knots to scream and to cry, beside
"It's none of your business what I write!"
shouts Amal. She claims it's freedom of speech. "The guard told me to write what
I felt, and this is what I feel. If Jews went through all this suffering, why do
they make us suffer, too? I've suffered. I get to say it."
"So now it's public!" a Jewish girl yells
back. "It proves you want to hurt us, to exterminate us! I can't believe I spend
a week with you, and now I know you want me dead."
"Don't you feel sad at the piles of bodies,
the millions who died?" another Israeli demands, in tears. "For a few hours, you
couldn't just leave off your suffering and feel ours?"
But this is just the point. A quiet, lissome
Palestinian who has barely spoken all week shouts: "We've seen bodies, too! What
do you expect? We go through hell because of you. A ninety-year-old Holocaust
survivor at least has had some happiness now, for himself, for his children. I
don't know how much longer I can go on. One day when I'm sick and tired of all
this, I might blow myself up!"
A shocked gasp goes through the room. It
takes me by surprise, too, though it shouldn't have: Many Palestinians saw in
the museum not the sorrowful history of the Jews, but a mirror of their own
plight. They did not, could not empathize; the pain of the other only
reminded them of their own.
"Ghettos, checkpoints, identity cards, this
is my reality back home," one told me. "A camp with barbed wire, surrounded by
soldiers, the streets filled with sewage. My dad grew up in a refugee camp, and
then me. I saw me in that museum--me every day, not fifty years ago. I
can't compare it to medical experiments and extermination. But I felt defensive:
This is happening to us, too."
Amal will bend only this far: "I should have
written death to all Israelis, not death to all Jews." One of the Israelis spits
out, "You expect to be treated as a human being, but you don't act like one. You
don't deserve human rights!"
Amal's eyes go hard and glossy, her face
immobile as a basilisk. The lowest blow, for them, for anyone, has been struck.
"It's the Israeli soldiers," she says, her voice finally breaking a little, "who
shout at you, 'You don't deserve to be treated as human.'"
My people's historical disaster is more horrible than yours; its wounds fresher,
its losses more enduring, its anguish more palpable, its injustice a sharper
blade. But is there no end to it, each tragedy planting the seeds of the next?
The Serbs who oppressed the Muslims in the ethnic cleansing of the late 1990s
felt they had been oppressed by the Muslim Ottoman Turks, the injury of
their defeat still throbbing after six hundred years. The unhealed wound is the
psychoanalytic nubbin of the problem; everything else, the fighting and the
oppression, can seem like mostly acting out. The whole planet wired with big red
sticks of dynamite like an old Warner Brothers cartoon, the close-packed
explosive of unassuaged anguish, a fuse waiting for the right matchstick of a
hatred only kindness can snuff out.
"If we could read the secret history of our
enemies," wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "we should see sorrow and suffering
enough to disarm all hostility." But in many places around the world, this
equation is forbidden to have an equals sign. "The Jewish community would be up
in arms," says Melodye, if someone dared to compare one people's ultimate
tragedy of genocide with another's of exile and oppression. "They would be
called a self-hating Jew, anti-Israel."
In May 2004, Israel's justice minister,
himself a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, criticized a plan to demolish
Palestinian homes in Gaza. As quoted in a New York Times story headlined
"Offering Empathy," he told Israeli radio: "I did think, when I saw a picture on
the TV of an old woman on all fours in the ruins of her home looking under some
floor tiles for her medicines--I did think, 'What would I say if it were my
grandmother?'" His remarks created a wave of national outrage. Scolded a fellow
cabinet minister: "Any analogy, even hinted at . . . has no place in any form."
Primo Levi writes with grim eloquence in
The Drowned and the Saved of the pain seared into collective memory: "The
injury cannot be healed; it extends through time, and the Furies, in whose
existence we are forced to believe . . . deny peace to the tormented." But it
must be healed, lest the injury be transmitted down through generations, forever
blighting new lives. There is hardly time to wait for national policies and
official proclamations. What's needed are private edicts of empathy, little
peaces of the heart. The work couldn't be harder, or more humbling: the hearing
and telling of the world's most painful stories; the emotional truths that are
too hot to handle alone.
I watch as Rachel and Amal attempt to mirror
each other's feelings in front of the group, trying to neutralize even a
scintilla of the elemental toxin. Their body language says it all. Arms folded,
legs crossed, heads turned to the side, barely glancing at each other, they are
stoic, removed, their looks searing. They repeat each other's words with smirks
and rolling eyes. They interject their own opinions, Rachel taking a moral
position, citing history and ethics; Amal an emotional one, claiming the Jews
are blind to the suffering under their noses.
It seems as if there can be no meeting
ground, for nobody's pain is dispensable, not even for a second. The
conversation advances a few notches--"We need to point to the tragedy for
humanity," a Palestinian suggests--but I notice something happening that is
beyond words. Even in the midst of their outrage, the kids, Israeli and
Palestinian alike, are treating Amal not with ostracism, but with an outpouring
of affection. She had done her worst, walked up and detonated her nail-bomb of
hate-speech in a supreme shrine to memory, and yet they refuse not to love her.
She pretends not to notice at first, or to care, but when Rachel, leading a
game, asks Amal to come play, I see a quick flash of relief. She hesitates only
a moment before joining in.
The next day has been scheduled on the
calendar as a day of silence. Before it officially begins, Rachel approaches
Amal, who today wears a black T-shirt spelling Mustard in jagged yellow letters.
"Look, I know I will never fully understand your pain," she says awkwardly, her
tone struggling against formality, "but I'm sorry for what happened to you in
your life. I might seem only angry at you, but I was hurt, too. I know you wrote
those words because you thought no one knew your suffering." Amal, gazing into
the middle distance, finally nods with the smallest of smiles. Rachel tells me
later: "All that day, we communicated with looks and hands. And when I could
turn to her with words, we were talking again about this and that."
Rachel later wrote a short story that is, for
an Israeli, a traitorous heresy, comparing the Hebrew concept of milhemet
hakodes, the holy struggle to preserve one's humanity against all that seeks
to erase it, with the "holy war" of jihad. Could these vile acts, she wondered,
stem from the same desperate drive of a people to assert a sense of self-worth?
"People call me a moral relativist for seeing
both sides," says Melodye. "They pat me on the head and say I'm naive for
thinking I can make peace this way. But I know that even the smallest steps are
good. I tell them it's messy work here on the ground, but one by one, people
really do change; and those who do, change others. It may take generations, but
real peace will come."
In small ways, it
already has. One of the Palestinian staff, Muna, confides to me, "I used to
completely deny the Jews' suffering. Then I became close to an Israeli and
realized, all this horror happened just fifty years ago. Their parents are
orphans. They're all in recovery." Her sense of empathy had come to her
unexpectedly. Muna's brother is still, after years, in Israeli administrative
detention. A former athlete, he has nerve damage in his wrists, which she claims
came from a prison beating and from "being stretched" in interrogation.
"Years ago, when I came here, I was ready to
blame," she says. "I was prepared to respond to being attacked, but when you see
they're actually listening, saying, 'I'm really sorry you go through this,' it
shocks you. It was my first contact with Israelis other than the guards at the
checkpoints, the soldiers who hurt my family. It left a stamp on me, inside of
me." She became friendly with one Israeli girl. "I realized we were both
sixteen-year-olds who can't live without fear, both of us. Why can't I invite
her to my home--why?
"My hopes and dreams for a country haven't
changed," she adds. "We need a homeland. I won't forget my suffering. But I'm
willing to forgive the minute that suffering is recognized. We're looking toward
the fruit; not us, but later, thirty years ahead, for our children."
More than four hundred girls have crossed
Melodye's bridges for peace. All have been changed in some way, some more
visibly than others. There have been Israeli girls who resolved to endure the
social stigma of not serving in the army. Some have become peace activists. One
Palestinian is now a leading environmentalist, enlisting people on both sides to
save the fragile desert ecosystem they all share; another, to the ire of the
fundamentalists in her community, has become a feminist.
R'wan, a Palestinian staff member with blue
hair, a pierced tongue, and a tattoo of a Chinese ideogram she says means "Love,
Woman, Friendship," first came as a stone-thrower in the Bethlehem intifada--a
"hardcore militant," she says. But she was touched when, months later, an
Israeli who had been her archnemesis at camp was the first to call her when her
school was bombed, even before any of her Palestinian friends.
"I have to take it from my society for this,"
R'wan says, "for saying that I love Israelis." She would cry when an Israeli bus
was bombed, while her cousins cheered. "I had to worry if I went back with new
ideas I'd never be accepted in our society, even in my own family. Peacemakers
are so rejected in our community." She's studying to be a schoolteacher, hoping
to reconcile the alternate-reality curricula, the warring maps imposed on the
same geography. In some Middle Eastern schools, the scurrilous forgery of the
Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still read as nonfiction. Palestinians
are taught that Jews secretly run the world. Jews believe the Palestinians aim
to complete Hitler's unfinished project. Each people defines itself as a victim
of hatred and oppression, a refugee and an outcast.
After their day of silence, the schedule
calls for a "spa night." Their only instructions are to pamper each other, make
each other feel special. Once again, there's laughter as they massage each
other's hands and feet. I flash back to my time with the bonobos: social
grooming behavior; female alliance. They are subverting war and hatred and death
with red toenail polish. Tentatively, but with growing courage, these children
are doing what their childish leaders are afraid to do: open their unguarded
is growing short. Soon they will be going home. Now it's in earnest, their heads
bent toward each other, the talk urgent, intimate. Suddenly they're on fire to
say everything and anything.
"We haven't finished the job we started,"
Amal tells me. I detect an unexpectedly wistful note in her voice. The signs
still leer menacingly from the wall: Settler: "someone in my family I love";
"someone who deserves to be killed." Israel: "place I love"; "place I hate." But
the enmity has flickered on and off like a worn-out lightbulb filament. Curtains
have parted, letting in shafts of natural light. What they say they want in
their circle today is so ingenuous: "I hope to have a best friend here, to visit
each other when we get back, to meet each other's family." When a Palestinian
says, "I only hate soldiers who kill my neighbors," one militant Israeli, a
middle-class kid in a horse-camp T-shirt, allows, "If someone was doing this to
me, I might hate them, too." One girl, the nationality doesn't matter, tells me
incredulously, "I wanted them to know I have pain, too, but that's exactly what
they're telling me!" Can the chain of violence be weakened, link by human link,
until it finally snaps?
The final night is a gala feast, a kosher
shindig thrown by a local Jewish organization: homemade gefulte fish and
matzoh ball soup, pot roast and roast chicken, potato kugel and carrot
tsimmes with little marshmallows. An elderly man in a toupee, one of the
organization's board members, approaches a cluster of Israeli and Palestinian
girls that includes Amal. He introduces himself as a Holocaust survivor and,
pointing to the Palestinian girls, counts jocularly: "One, two, three,
four--after this week, I'll bet we have four less suicide bombers."
Amal's face drains of blood. The room grows
still. "You think we're all terrorists?" She looks as though she will
faint. Then her eyes flash back to life, and something shocking occurs. Amal the
warrior, Amal the stoic, Amal who has carried her hard ball of pain like some
priceless heirloom--Amal cries. The invisible chalice of tears she has balanced
without spilling a drop falls, breaks into a thousand shards, splashes out all
its contents. Amal cries, and she can't seem to stop.
And the girls gather around Amal, their own
angry one who had secretly gotten used to being treated like just herself; who
had opened just a little in the sun of their affection; who had begun to sense
what it might feel like to be sprung from identity-jail. All of them, Jews and
Muslims and Christians, Palestinians and Americans and Israelis, surround her,
telling her, You are not a terrorist, you are not the enemy; we
know you, you are Amal. The man, too, stricken, apologizes for having
missed what was essential but invisible to the eye. And Amal's smile, that
fugitive always running, always hiding, darts back in for a moment.
"Soon she's returning to the intifada,"
says Melodye. "They all are." But one of the militant Palestinian kids, the one
who had talked about blowing herself up, has approached her quietly,
surreptitiously, about training as staff. "She's recognized that what she's been
taught in books, what the media has portrayed, what both sides want them to
believe about the other, it's all false. She told me, 'You can't make borders to
keep people's hearts from meeting.' She says she wants to be a force for
They all will be, in their own way. These
children belong to families, and families to clans, and clans to villages, and
villages to nations. Have these two weeks implanted an antivirus of compassion
that will spread slowly through their own societies? There's no telling how far
the tentative words of peace they have spoken to each other here will
reverberate. In the desert air, voices carry.
Sebarenzi knows what it is like to struggle to affirm his humanity. Or so I'd
been told. A friend had suggested I look him up if I were ever in Washington,
D.C., saying only he was a Rwandan refugee with some stories to tell. But when I
call to confirm our two o'clock meeting, Joseph tells me in a soft voice he's
had a few friends over that afternoon and they're running late. Might I come by
closer to suppertime?
I only have
a few hours before my train, I tell him, insistent. I really need him to fit me
in. True, I'd scheduled our meeting on short notice--as an afterthought,
really--but I'm hard-pressed to understand how he would prefer hanging out with
his buddies to a chance to speak on the record.
When I ring
the buzzer in the lobby, he doesn't buzz back but comes down to greet me.
Impossibly tall and gracile in the Tutsi way, he refuses my hand and with a
broad smile bends from his lofty height to give me a hug. When we enter his
apartment, he introduces me as "my friend" and gestures to an imposing man with
gold teeth and a dull yellow sport jacket. "Please meet His Majesty." I think
he's joshing until the big man offers his card, embossed with a simple "His
Majesty King Kigeli V of Rwanda." Another man in the pink clerical shirt of an
Anglican priest gets up from the couch to shake my hand. He turns out to be
Rwanda's archbishop. I'm mortified to realize Joseph has interrupted a
long-planned, high-level meeting to see me, too polite to refuse.
face has a sweetness to it that belies his bitter life story. He was born in the
1960s during the first civil war and remembers having to flee into the bush with
his parents. In 1990, the nightmare began all over again. The dominant Hutu
tribe had acceded to power and set out to destroy their hereditary enemies, the
Tutsi, once and for all.
leaders took a page from the bloodstained playbook of Hitler and Stalin, Pol Pot
and Milosevic. First came the society-wide propaganda campaign through the
radio, newspapers, and leaflets. "They would make ugly proverbs about us,"
Joseph recalls. "Like, 'If you invite a Tutsi to be a guest in your home and
give him the living room to sleep in, by morning he'll be in your bed.'" The
Tutsi were soon forced to carry Identicards. "A card with 'Tutsi' stamped on it
meant 'enemy.' You'd interview for a job, all the requirements were met, but
there was a policy of quotas. I had a sociology degree, but I couldn't be
hired." (Social theorists call this process "badging": An in-group finds ways to
distinguish itself from an out-group, whether through genetic traits like skin
pigment, stature, hair texture, and facial features; or artificial signifiers of
clothing, adornment, headgear, tattoos; or manners, rituals, etiquette, speech
patterns. "Irrational beliefs serve the purpose far better than rational ones,"
one anthropologist has noted. "They are easier to produce.")
enough, cards and quotas were supplemented by an official campaign of bizarre
racial slurs. "They called us inyenzi. It means 'cockroach.' You see,"
Joseph says with a sad smile, "a cockroach is an insect found everywhere; you
try to kill them and kill them, but you're never finished." The word grated
ceaselessly from every radio in the country: Inyenzi, inyenzi, or
sometimes just "snake," free-associating the Tutsis' tall, thin stature with a
symbol of evil.
It amazed him, Joseph recalls, how the
incessant barrage of racial propaganda wormed its way into his own brain, making
him ashamed of how he looked, of the way he walked, the Tutsi's long, graceful
stride. "It can shape your mind until you no longer admire even the beauty of
the woman you want to marry," he tells me, shaking his head.
handwriting on the wall, he sent his wife and infant son away and, after he was
jailed and then released, fled the country. A month later, the genocide began.
The virus spread fast, replicating its malignant memes through the pamphlets and
broadcasts that inflamed the Hutu populace to turn upon Tutsi neighbors who had
once been their friends, even murdering their own Tutsi wives and half-Tutsi
children. (The radio exhortations so fanned the deadly grassfires that a pop
singer whose malicious melodies had dominated the airwaves would be among the
first war criminals brought to trial in Rwanda.)
April and July 1994, as many as a million people were massacred, mostly hacked
to death with machetes. Joseph's father and mother, who had insisted they could
weather the new crisis until suddenly the roadblocks and killers were
everywhere, perished along with his seven sisters and brothers, and many of his
nephews, nieces, and cousins. "It is a pain that is difficult to describe,"
Joseph says, his eyes welling up. After a long minute of silence, he says almost
apologetically, "I cannot find a word to express that."
aftermath of the war, Joseph returned to help in reconstruction, creating an
assistance association for the survivors. He was eventually elected to
parliament. Many Tutsi, he says, wanted him to avenge their abuse from his new
position of power. "Friends would tell me, this guy or that guy should be
arrested. Sometimes I would refuse; other times I would say, 'Yes, I'll arrest
them,' and then do nothing. I had friendships with Hutus, but I had to keep this
secret, or I would be seen as a traitor.
"From talking to them, I knew that the Hutus
who'd participated felt guilty. They had killed and killed, they told me, out of
fear the Tutsi would come back and kill them. I didn't want revenge. I
knew their sense of guilt could make them more dangerous in the future.
says, "I had no courage to arrest the Hutu people in my village."
I'm puzzled--he certainly seems like a brave
man. Then I realize he's using the word in the French sense: He didn't have the
coeur, the heart for it.
"Yes," he agrees, "I had no feeling, no power
inside me, to hurt these people back."
Helping to translate between imprisoned Hutus
and their Tutsi captors, he could see they were in "the same situation of
dehumanization as we Tutsi had been. And one day," he says with some amazement,
"I ran across the man who had been the mayor of my village, who had been very
active in the genocide. He was probably the one who oversaw the killing of my
family! I remembered how I used to see him in the village, official, powerful,
beautifully dressed. Now I saw him in a prison camp, suffering, in rags, reduced
to nothing. And I instantly felt sorry. I had some money in my pocket and I gave
it to him." An ambiguous smile plays around Joseph's lips. "I really don't know
why I did that."
In 1997, to
everyone's surprise, Joseph was elected as a compromise candidate for Speaker of
the Parliament, the country's third most powerful post. He argued staunchly for
a policy of reconciliation. "I made a speech that said if there was revenge, the
virus would never stop. We are all already victims. I can't bring back my
family. I didn't want it to be that the one who's powerful today overcomes the
weak one, because then tomorrow it will be reversed all over again. Our children
and grandchildren would be killed. So I do this for my grandchildren. I told the
Hutus that I hadn't come to hurt them, that they shouldn't cry; but they all
cried anyway, even though it's considered bad for a man to do so!
"I live for the idea to not pay back evil,"
Joseph says. "When I returned to my home village, I hugged the people who I knew
had helped to kill my family." I must look a little dumbfounded. "You see, after
the genocide," he explains, "it was a time of anger. I was thinking all the
time, How do I care for my life, but also take care of others who are suffering?
I saw that both were the same thing. The anger and resentment I felt toward
those others was killing my body. I could have a heart attack and
More than that, it had dawned on him that the
survivors had a great and difficult duty. "I realized reconciliation maybe
doesn't come first from the perpetrators, but the victims," he says
thoughtfully. "Maybe victims must take the first step. They should help the
oppressors to move from guilt to apology to reconciliation." He seems surprised
when I mention that this was one of Martin Luther King's great doctrines: the
paradoxical power of the oppressed to restore the oppressor's blighted humanity.
"This is good," he says with his big smile. "I like this. I am glad I am not
alone in my crazy ideas."
Joseph and Melodye and a smattering of Middle
Eastern teenagers do not a mass movement make. They are ordinary people who
decided to take the ideals of the great social prophets and apply them right
here, right now. They are trying to grasp hold of a peace beyond religion,
ethnicity, and politics, one that can be manually fashioned with their own two
"I don't want my
opinion attached to some stupid political leader or to any country,"
seventeen-year-old Fatima told me at the peace camp. "I'm an Arab, yes, but I
feel like I'm a world citizen. I've seen people change if I just listen to them,
even when what they're saying are the hardest things to hear. Everyone around me
says I should get real," she says, rolling her eyes. "That I haven't seen the
way this world is. But I'm going to keep my water clear of anything that could
poison it. I think that innocence is realism, too."
Once King Solomon dreamed that God appeared
to him and offered to grant his fondest wish. Solomon asked only, "Give, then,
Your servant a listening heart." Can something as simple as listening and being
heard liberate the world? Would it be too much to agree, once and for all, that
the heart is the country to which we all belong, and love the only state we owe
Fatima, and Amal finally did finish their bridge; a span of green Popsicle
sticks over which walk three resolute, Day-glo pipe cleaner figures. Amal had
pressed her blue paint–saturated hand onto the construction paper, joining their
palm prints of pink and purple. Like the hands outlined in ochre on the cave
walls of Lascaux, bearing witness to people 35,000 years distant, theirs was a
primeval act of self-declaration: My blood is your blood. I, too, am human.
* Some of their names have been
**In a poll taken in Kosovo in
1997, two years before the genocidal "ethnic cleansing," Serbs and Albanians
living in that province were asked to choose which words they thought most
accurately described themselves and each other as a group. When it came to
themselves, the Albanians selected adjectives like "hospitable, peaceful,
courageous, clean, honest, intelligent, united, and hard-working." The Serbs
characterized themselves nearly identically. But Serbs described Albanians as
"united, those who hate other nations, treacherous, backward, rough,
hard-working, exclusive of other nations, and selfish." And, predictably, the
Albanians chose virtually the same words to describe the Serbs. With ghastly
consequences, both groups lay claim to laudable traits for their own identities,
while threatening traits are projected outward.
The Compassionate Life, (published
by Berrett-Koehler). Chapter reprinted by permission of author. Copyright c
2009, Marc Barasch. To learn more about Marc's work, go to
purchase The Compassionate Life from Amazon.com, click here!