When No One Believes in Peace

By Leonard Fein

Published July 07, 2006, issue of July 07, 2006.
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It’s the juxtapositions that do it, every time. They beguile, they irritate, they disconcert, they seduce and confuse and fascinate without end.

The evening sea breeze reaches the patio off the beach in southern Jaffa. On the beach, a scattering of families, the children mostly young. Arabs; that’s mostly who live in this part of town.

Over there, on the sand, is an open-air shower: You stand under it, grab hold of the chain and pull, and you’re wonderfully drenched. The little girl approaches — she’s 4 or 5, I guess—– and jumps in the air to reach the chain. She’s not nearly tall enough. She keeps trying, getting no closer. Her older brother, perhaps 7, sees her, lifts her — but closer is as far as they can get. He puts her down, leaps, succeeds, and the two of them soak for a minute before they run off in opposite directions to rejoin their friends.

Fifty or so miles south of here, at Beit Lahia beach, the same water and the same sand and the same children play. Or did, until the explosion almost four weeks ago that killed eight people, seven of them members of the Ghaliya family.

Collateral damage is not much on people’s minds here, wasn’t even before the news came to be dominated by Gilad Shalit, the captured Israeli soldier. My wise journalist friend tells me that the real disengagement here is of the people. Nothing galvanizes them any longer.

Hopes here have so often been raised and still more often been dashed, every solution that can be imagined and some that cannot be has been brought forward, quickened the popular interest for a millisecond, then tossed into a scrap heap that has long since turned toxic, each new addition another reminder of the situation’s intractability.

No one believes the status quo can be forever sustained. No one believes a negotiated resolution of the conflict is possible. No one believes the conflict can be ended unilaterally. No one believes.

Surely not the families enjoying a Shabbat lunch at Jemila’s restaurant in Na’ura, in the Valley of Jezreel. They are on their untroubled way home from the Kinneret, or from the Golan, from wherever in this summer’s heat they have decided to spend what has become the de facto Israeli weekend, Friday and Saturday.

I am there because Jemila’s eggplant puree and her humus are outstanding, and because tonight a few of us will be at nearby Geva, home base of the Gevatron, Israel’s popular kibbutz-based folk choir. This has become something of a ritual for me, an evening of singing, mainly the old songs, the songs of love and innocence, songs mostly of a time gone by.

Tonight is special; we are joined by my friend Theo Bikel, and there are likely no singers with a broader repertoire than Theo, who sings in 22 languages. We’re joined as well by Saraleh Sharon, Israel’s first lady of communal singing.

No performance; just a bunch of people who start singing at nine in the evening and finish some time around one in the morning. Songs, some of them long unsung, dredged from dusty memories and greeted like long-lost friends.

And suddenly without warning, someone starts and all join in the haunting, yearning melody of Psalm 34, “Mi haish?” “Who is the person who treasures life, who loves each day to see the good? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully; turn away from bad, and do good, love peace, and seek it out.”

Somewhere, not far from here, a would-be suicide bomber is making ready. Somewhere, not far from here, a fresh missile is being loaded on the aircraft that will release it, accompanied by a pilot’s prayer that it will strike its target and only its target. Somewhere, nearby, families mourn.

Wise people, mostly moderates, say we must not dredge up the past. What’s done is done, and if there’s ever agreement to be reached, it must begin with what is, not with what once was. But how do you block out a past so dense as this land’s, these peoples’? Inhale here, and you breathe in grievances and terrors and resentments. Inhale again, and you choke on dreams, on glories remembered and glories imagined, pre-1947 dreams and post-1967 dreams, dreams of conquest and dreams of liberation.

In 1999, in the seventh post-Oslo year, two-thirds of Israelis believed that a peace treaty would mean an end to the conflict. In 2006, in the seventh post-second intifada year, only a third think a peace treaty would mean the conflict’s over.

Being for peace these days is no longer perceived as a realistic political stance, certainly not since the ascendance of Hamas, perhaps also not since the growing realization — slow to be acknowledged — that America’s adventure in Iraq has turned into a debacle, a confirmation of the disorder that characterizes this part of the world.

More and more, then, being for peace — meaning being for peace as more than a winsome prayer, meaning actually showing up — is a moral assertion. Not because war is immoral, though it most often is, but because if you give up on peace, which many people have, you’re not merely abstaining; you are casting a vote for war.

Sometimes, you have to fight a war. Sometimes, war is the only way to stay alive, or to stay free. But to vote for war?

One can yet again speak, and thoughtfully, of what might have been if only this, if only that. So what? And there’s little energy to speak of what might yet be if only this or that. What’s left is what is, which is quite substantial: the malls, the crowded cafes, the bustle even in the summer’s heat. And now and then, a song, a psalm.

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