In August, 2014, I spent 12 days in Jerusalem and other parts of Israel. My purpose was to go on a religious pilgrimage with my wife Lisa and a group from St. James Armenian Church in Watertown, MA, the parish I grew up in. The religious and spiritual aspects of my trip were unforgettable and life-changing. But here, I’d like to spend a couple of posts sharing some observations about conflict and resolution, and the intersection of dispute resolution work and spirituality.
Strange as this might sound, I had the good fortune of being in Israel during a war, a declared cease fire and its aftermath, and experiencing how these impacted the people involved. While it was a source of some tension and heightened vigilance, it provided a rare opportunity to experience the shifts and changes that occur when a war stops and a cease fire is in effect, in this place that has been a historical hotbed for conflict. Being a person who has a direct connection to and a stake in the well-being of Jerusalem as an Armenian Christian, but also someone who is not one of the disputing parties gave me a unique perspective on the dispute. My visit also gave me better insights on the depth and intricacies of the historical conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and the other factors at play. Reading about these things is one thing; seeing them and feeling the emotions first hand is altogether different. Similarly, training as a mediator or as a collaborative lawyer is one thing, but being in the middle of the conflict and feeling its tension and energy around you is real.
To say there is more than one conflict going on in Israel between Israel and Hamas, or between Jews and Muslims and their respective positions is a giant understatement. Viewing this conflict as two adversarial positions oversimplifies and disrespects the matter. It is not until we start peeling away layers of stated positions, the past history, and grasp the emotions, the feelings, the interests and the goals beneath these positions, that we truly understand the complexities, what it will take to achieve a lasting resolution, and how insufficient a mere compromise would be.
What is evident here is the choice that people make as to how they view the situation. One choice is to find the common ground, focus on the similar and shared interests and build resolution upon them. Another is to dwell on differences, who has the right to what, and unresolved disagreements, some of which go back to Abraham and his lineage, and draw lines between them.
The more interesting conflict is the one between two attitudes: One is “This is mine, not yours, and that should be yours” vs. “If we can understand, accept and embrace each other and the shared richness of our distinctive yet similar cultures and heritages, how much we could all achieve working in collaboration”. It was interesting that we had two guides on different days of our journeys that reflected the two views. As we toured around Israel, one guide would continually identify an area as “Jewish settlement” or “Arab area”. Often times, when we went to towns like Nazareth or Bethlehem, we found ourselves clearly made aware that these were Christian holy places in Palestinian-controlled towns in the nation of Israel. He also focused on the walls, security checkpoints and fences that separated territories and the minarets that identified Muslim areas.
The other guide talked about the similarities between the peoples, and his appreciation for the cultural differences. He was an Israeli citizen who was Palestinian living in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. I guess that’s what St. Paul must have been like in Rome. The words he conspicuously used more than any others were the words “friends”, “welcome” and “our home”. The only distinction he made was a geographic analogy when we were on a boat in the Sea of Galilee, a beautiful, fresh, clean, vibrant body of water. The Sea of Galilee is a symbol of faith for Christians, the place where Jesus walked on the water to his disciples and calmed the stormy sea. Our guide compared Galilee to the Dead Sea, which is 26% solid and so heavily salt that you really cannot swim in it and cannot do anything but float on it. In a short message of warmth and compassion, shares with us as we crossed the lake, he urged us to “be a Galilee, not a Dead Sea.”
I’ve since been pondering this thought: What is it to choose to “be a Galilee”, a living, vibrant, breathing source of the flow of the waters, rather than to default to being a Dead Sea, the dead end where the flow stops and gets overtaken by salt?