Do We Really “Have No Choice”?
Dr. Stephen Fulder
I am writing this in July 2014, as large numbers of people are killed and injured and made homeless in Gaza, and Hamas rockets are raining down on Israel. But most of the text was actually written before, in August 2006, during the war between Israel and the Hizbollah in Lebanon. 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 katyusha 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 there is a strong consensus in Israel that ‘we are right’, ‘we have no choice’ and ‘we must defend ourselves’. I wonder at the consensus that somehow makes it possible to inflict so much harm on our neighbours. Clearly the other side are also saying ‘we have no choice’. So it is crucial to ask if it makes any sense.
One view would hold that genuine self-defence is possible, only as a last resort use of violence to defend oneself when all other options have been used up. But then ethics state that we must use the minimum of force necessary to disable the attacker and no more. The Buddhist tradition, for example, does not forbid self-defence, and has developed the 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 Lebanon and in Gaza today. And there are other views that would argue that with friendliness, fearlessness and clarity, there are many last-resort options other than violence.
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, 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, not allow them to lead us 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, 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 land. 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.
Israelis think this war started when Hamas fired rockets into Israel. Clearly this was not the beginning. Hamas fired rockets after Israel imprisoned Hamas members after the killing of three Israeli youths on the West Bank, which may be connected to years of siege by Israel of Gaza, which is after the last Gaza war 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 act. 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.
Which 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, settle all over their territory and build a concrete barrier on their land between their villages. Palestinians with a hunger for peace and a willingness to let go of past hurts, would utterly discourage the madness of suicide bombers and rockets, and would spread friendliness and appreciation for Israelis in the media and schools. But anyway, 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 in the city of Acre, organized by our spiritual peacemaking organisation ‘Middleway’, the rabbi of Acre asked a Bedouin Mukhtar who was walking with the Jews and Arabs: “Tell me, grandfather, how you intend to make peace”. The old man said, “You see, Rabbi, when we walk together in the street and someone shouts at me because I am an 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.”