Adapted from his book What’s Beyond Mindfulness: Waking Up to This Precious Life Watkins Publishers/ London (2019)
I am writing this in May 2021, as large numbers of people are killed and injured and made homeless in Gaza, and Hamas rockets are raining down on Israel.
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But the tragedy is that most of the text was actually written before, in August 2006 during the war between Israel and the Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the same text was relevant in July 2014 and now today. And the tragedy is that the text of the article is the same because nothing has changed. War follows war, with temporary respite in between. Each frenzy of violence prepares the way for the next.
During the Lebanon war I was in the firing line. The days had been constantly punctuated by loud blasts of katusha rockets which had been landing intermittently, randomly, suddenly, and anywhere and I had given up repeatedly seeking cover. At the same time Israeli artillery had been thudding continuously day and night.
Then as now, I feel the blasts in my being, feeling their violence and the terrible tragedy and suffering which they bring. I feel a huge sadness and compassion for suffering which knows no boundaries and does not take sides.
Then as now all the participants draw motivation from a consensus that ‘we are right’, ‘we have no choice’ and ‘we must defend ourselves’. This view stands behind most wars and conflicts, and the encouragement of this view by groups or leaders prepares the ground for war by providing the necessary justification.
The defence of ‘Freedom’ provided justification for the Vietnam war, and ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ for the Iraq war. ‘We have to get them before they get us’ is a common refrain that initiates slaughter, such as that of the First World War.
And it always leads to this conviction that ‘we have no choice’. This consensus somehow makes it possible to inflict so much harm and suffering on so many men, women and children. So it is crucial to ask if it makes any sense.
One ethical view would hold that genuine self-defence is possible, but only as a last resort use of violence to defend oneself when all other options have been used up. It also requires that we use just the minimum of force necessary to disable or restrain the attacker and no more.
The Buddhist tradition, for example, does not forbid self-defence, and has developed techniques of martial arts such as kung-fu and aikido that protect the attacked without hurting the attacker. Clearly this is not the case in the huge death and destruction in the wars being fought as you read this, in Yemen, Syria, etc.
Most wars are fought because of fear
In actual fact cases of genuine self-defence are extremely rare, and in virtually all cases of conflict there are wise and heartful solutions that are not seen and not taken. “We have no choice” generally means “We don’t have the wisdom to act differently”.
Most wars, including this one in Gaza as I write this or those happening as you read this, are fought because of fear, insecurity, anger or revenge. But these are individual and national emotions, often stoked up by media and political leaders.
The emotions create a national blindness, in which neighbours become demonised and labelled as ‘the enemy’. Then it becomes impossible to really communicate with ‘the other’ and sort out any problems together. Fear and insecurity are dangerous, because it is in human nature to want to destroy the object or source of the anxiety and fear, which are uncomfortable emotions.
Most wars are fought in the name of peace, but in reality, they are fought in the name of comfort, and instead of dealing with the fears internally, they attempt to destroy the source of them externally.
If we clearly see these emotions that sweep through the social atmosphere, then we can take responsibility for them, take care of them, and not allow them to be converted into bombs and rockets. Without identifying with these emotions and without believing in the views that arise from them, everything looks different.
All of a sudden the so-called terrorist become a Palestinian boy who has suffered dearly and needs to be heard, the so called ‘Zionist aggressor’ becomes an Israeli family man whose parents died in the Holocaust, the Israeli soldier and the Hamas militant can both be seen as young men, patriotic and resentful but also suffering while giving and receiving violence.
If we are unable to do this, we have severely limited our vision and our freedom to act sanely. If we will not put ourselves in the other’s shoes, listen to him or her, understand the fears, angers and pain that drives them to fight, just as our own fears, anger and pain, and know what we ourselves can do to help each other to get out of conflict, how can we say there is no other choice?
There is a choice to see things entirely differently. To see ‘us and them’ as a habit of mind and not a reality, to see how much we are connected, not separate, even as we fight together and certainly as we live together on this same earth. Pain and joy, love of life and fear of death know no boundaries. We and them can both wake up and realise that our happiness depends on the happiness of our neighbours, and vice versa, and our real safety is in togetherness not in intractable conflict.
In the case of the current Gaza war, it is assumed that it started when Hamas fired rockets into Israel.
Clearly, this was not the beginning. Hamas fired rockets after violence in Jerusalem and the eviction of Palestinians.
It also may be connected to years of siege by Israel of Gaza, which happened after the previous Gaza wars and so the chain goes back and back for generations.
Violence goes in chains. Each act of violence breeds another act of violence. Each act of violence creates the conditions, especially the emotional climate, for the next. Each act of violence makes it harder to initiate acts of peace. Each act of violence conditions the collective consciousness to feel that peace is impossible and only violence is left. But it doesn’t take much wisdom to see this process happening, and unroll it in another direction.
It is possible to create chains of peacemaking, to turn acts of aggression into acts of healing, to look for windows of opportunity for communication, dialogue and understanding of ‘the other’. Where this is not done, it can hardly be said that “there is no choice”. There is. To stop the chain.
To take another road. In nearly all cases ‘the other’ will be relieved and run to sit down with you over a cup of coffee. Non-violence does not mean doing nothing. It means an energetic attempt to create another climate. This requires strength and steadiness, qualities which are shown by genuine peacemakers. Mahatma Ghandi said: “Non-violence is the weapon of the strong”. We can always make this choice.
This raises another question. What are the real intentions, what is the real vision for the future? The habit reactions and the basic assumptions – are they about peacefulness or about conflict? Do we really and deeply yearn for peace, or do we just say so? Each side must ask: are we really trying to make peace? If we longed for peace, our speech, our motivations and our actions would be peaceful, and war would not arise. We all would begin a process of dialogue, healing and support with the same resources and determination with which we wage war.
It would be simply impossible for an Israel intent on peace to take land and water from Palestinians and settle all over their territory. Palestinians with a hunger for peace and a willingness to let go of past hurts, would utterly discourage the madness of rockets, and would spread friendliness and appreciation for Israelis in the media and schools. In such a climate, neither side would have any incentive to bomb anyone. If we yearn for peace, we would have it, and the region would be a light to the world.
One time, on a peace walk with Jews and Arabs in the city of Acre, organized by a peacemaking organization which I founded, ‘Middleway’, the rabbi of Acre asked a Bedouin Mukhtar, leader, who was walking with us: “Tell me, grandfather, how do you intend to make peace”. The old man said, “You see, Rabbi, when we walk together in the street and someone shouts at me ‘go away Arab!’ I don’t respond, I absorb their violence and let it go, and in this way, I have contributed a little bit to peace.”