The room reminded me of the church library of the Methodist church I attended in elementary school. Well-ordered shelves covered much of the wall space, each filled with books whose coarse covers and gold imprints lent weight to their contents. This particular day, a man with an impressive beard stood in front of the room.
However, I wasn’t in a Methodist church in Michigan. The man with the beard wore a kippah, the tassels of his prayer shawl hung from under his shirt, and the words on the book spines were mostly in Hebrew. We were sitting in a synagogue in the Israeli settlement of Alon Shvut, located in the disputed West Bank territory, just 12 miles down the road from Bethlehem.
I was in Israel as a part of The Stand and See Fellowship, sponsored by Clal, the Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. We were there to try to better understand the Israeli/Palestinian relationship and struggle. The man in front of us that day was Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, the founder of an organization called Roots — a “movement of understanding, nonviolence and transformation among Israelis and Palestinians.” Talk about a difficult mission. Rabbi Schlesinger lives in one of the most disputed places in the world, working to bring resolution to one of the most entrenched conflicts in the world.
It makes any conflict I have tried to navigate in my sphere of leadership look like playing Candy Land.
In 2014, three Israeli teenagers had been kidnapped by members of Hamas from the gate to Alon Shvut a few hundred yards from where we sat. They were soon killed. A Palestinian teen was then killed by an Israeli in retribution. Riot built on riot and death on death until the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict ignited. A total of 7,500 people were killed, while 10,000 were wounded.
Rabbi Schlesinger shared that until five years ago, he lived like the Israeli story was the only one in the land. He referred to this as the “hubris of exclusivity.” The claims and pain of the Palestinians fell on ears that had been trained to tune them out. Bad behavior on each side gave the other reason to ignore the deeper, legitimate struggles. He explained that the Jewish and Palestinian people are both traumatized people at this point and he applied the well-worn maxim: “wounded people wound people.” Two sets of wounded people flailing out of a place of woundedness will never come to healing.
I can’t help but begin to see parallels to the divisions we see today in our own country. Social media is beginning to feel like the middle-school lunchroom. There are sides to pick everywhere, and whichever table you sit at will draw criticism from someone. “Sitting” with one person or group means you can’t possibly be friends with another.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke to the concept of peacemaking. He told us peacemakers will be blessed and will be called children of God (Matthew 5:9). Peacemaking is becoming a lost art. It is hard, long work that often feels fruitless. It is work that once engaged in often draws ire from both sides.
Rabbi Schlesinger is a peacemaker. For him the start to this process was actually simple: meet people who weren’t like him. For him, this started with meeting the Palestinians who lived in a community on the next hill over. The same Palestinians who wanted his family to leave their settlement and never come back. The same Palestinians who were the reason he had to have his trunk checked for bombs by an armed guard to get into the supermarket.
Peacemaking seems so complex that we ignore it. The conclusion of peacemaking is long and difficult, but acts of peacemaking are deceptively simple. Acts of peacemaking are measured in cups of coffee and relationships. Acts of peacemaking are sometimes more about what you don’t post to social media than what you do.
How can you be a peacemaker? There is neither time nor intent to try to answer the entirety off that question for you in this space. Rather, I would love for one question to settle into your soul.
What is one peacemaking act you can take on today?
Step away from the keyboard and into the coffee shop. Close your mouth and open your ears and you just might find the chasm between you and someone else — a chasm which seemed insurmountable — wasn’t as large as you thought.