Peace Means Embracing What We Fear

Image by Sunguk Kim.

“In the midst of our grief and pain, let’s remind each other who we are.” .

These are the words of Stefanie Fox, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace. She goes on:

“We are people committed to tikkun olam, the repairing of the world. The Israeli government and U.S. government are justifying massive atrocities, tearing this world further apart, and doing so in the names of us and our beloved families. When we say never again, it includes Palestinians, and it means right now.”

Peace or war? Murder or compassion? The hell in Israel and Palestine these last few weeks is the planet’s latest focal point of self-annihilation, which always begins with the dehumanization of enemies. And as Fox points out, this can lead to . . . holocaust: “the unthinkable becomes acceptable when we deny people their humanity.”

And yes, most of the world knows this. But the more power one has — by which I mean military and political — the easier it becomes to stop knowing this. Power, I fear, does far more than “corrupt.” It takes away one’s sanity. Or at least it can.

There have also — over the decades, over the centuries — been, as Jeffrey Sachs points out, “brave leaders” who have pushed for nonviolent change in the world: Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, Mahatma Gandhi, John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. They were all assassinated.

And this, of course, feeds the global skepticism: War will never end, so we have no choice: We have to stay prepared for it. And when we’re “prepared,” we also, inevitably, wage it. Because war equals mass murder, the need to justify it — to turn it into an abstract necessity rather than, oh, the slaughter of civilians, the slaughter of children — becomes intense, and justification secures war’s inevitability. And this makes political leadership so much simpler. When we’re always right — when the enemy isn’t just “wrong” but evil — we have no choice but to kill our way to dominance. It doesn’t matter how much blood we shed. Their blood doesn’t matter; it isn’t even real.

Thus, as Jake Johnson writes:

“Clean water is running out, hospitals are overwhelmed by thousands of airstrike victims, more than a million people have been displaced, and thousands have been killed, but Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom refused on Monday to even acknowledge that a humanitarian disaster is underway in the occupied Gaza Strip.”

And not only is the enemy’s death barely worth a shrug, the good guys don’t actually wage war, they just keep order. Consider the words of Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, who warned that the conflict was in danger of spreading beyond the borders of Israel and declared to the world: “No one should escalate this.” At the same time, as The Guardian reports, Sullivan noted that the U.S. will be seeking new weapons packages for both Israel and Ukraine “significantly higher than $2 billion.”

Perhaps this is why the world has been unable to transcend war. Only the other guys wage it — not us.

Or as Darryl Diptee writes: “We have conquered the elements, tamed the wild Earth and made great technological advances with our superior intellect. Yet, we still cling to the same paradigm of our primitive, cave-dwelling ancestors: Kill, or be killed.”

Moving beyond this primal urge is humanity’s incomprehensible challenge: finding empathy while looking into the barrel of the gun, while hiding in terror as the bombs fall, while digging through the rubble looking for loved ones. My God, how is this possible?

“I am horrified to hear the language of genocide entering the public discourse. People are losing sight of each other’s humanity.”

These are the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who speaks for the disarmed world. Will his words matter? Will Stefanie Fox’s words matter? Never again?

“When I put myself in the shoes of an Israeli Jew,” Guterres writes,

“I experience the recent horrors in the context of two millenniums of discrimination, expulsion, exile and extermination, leading to the Holocaust. During the 15th century, my own country of Portugal expelled or forcibly converted its Jewish community and after a period of discrimination, they were forced to leave. . . .

“Then I try to consider the circumstances across the divide: if I were a Palestinian living in Gaza. My community has been marginalized and forgotten for generations. . . .

“As a Palestinian, I have nowhere to go and no political solution in sight. I see the peace process essentially ignored by the international community, with ever more settlements, ever more evictions, and endless occupation. It is only natural for me to feel an enormous sense of pain, insecurity and again, blind fury.”

Guterres calls — of course — for an end to the cycle of ever-escalating violence, and here’s where I collapse in emotional frustration. Calling for an end to violence accomplishes nothing, or so it seems as the bombs explode. There will be no Manhattan Project of peace: hundreds of empathy experts gathered in a newly created town in New Mexico or wherever to develop a force for peace equivalent to a nuclear explosion. No, that won’t happen.

Indeed, there is no equivalence between peace and war. Humanity’s instinct, when faced with apparent danger, is “fight or flight,” not “fight or listen, fight or love.” I say this not with cynicism, just with acknowledgement of the difficulty we face moving beyond war and violence.

This is the paradox we’ve been handed. In order to transcend war — by which I mean, in order to survive — we have to transcend our own “survival” instinct, which is so easily politicized, turned into a moral certainty, weaponized. This is happening right now. All we can do is refuse to be part of that certainty and walk, unprotected, into the unknown future — and embrace it.

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.