Saturday, May 14, 2011

Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution

Dear Friends,

Recent months have seen revolutionary changes in the Middle East, where CRDC has done so much of its practice. Coverage and analysis of these events can be overwhelming and at times misleading. We at CRDC believe that inquiry and analysis of conflict, and analysis of just practices and interventions, require a much deeper engagement with experience on the ground, with the actual experience and values of very diverse stakeholders who are engaged on so many constructive, and destructive, levels in their societies. It is not that the standard analyses of state structures and power are always wrong, it is that they have been inadequate at prediction and intelligent response to what masses of people, from Tunisia to Afghanistan, are thinking and feeling, from the poorest to the wealthiest, from the youngest to the oldest, from the minorities to majorities, from secular to religious. A daunting task indeed, but one that is strengthened by practice on the ground and the insights that come from deep and generous engagement with citizens and citizen diplomacy. Here we offer just a few of our recent pieces of analysis, and we welcome your responses and insights.

Best wishes, Marc Gopin

No Way Out: Ancient Wisdom on Putting Bad Guys Up Against a Wall
by Marc Gopin on 5/6/11

Men in Middle Eastern palaces making decisions about their lives, their families, their fortunes, their necks. I think a lot these days about such men because history and the fate of millions of people often comes down to what is going on inside their heads. They are certainly not unique to the Middle East. Think Robespierre, Mussolini, Marcos, Milosevic, think Idi Amin, Charles Taylor, Noriega, Fujimori. The list is endless, the impact of their choices monumental.

There is an ancient law in the Jewish Torah that forbids combatants from surrounding an enemy on all four sides, requiring instead that there is always an escape route. In the Middle Ages Maimonides, one of the greatest legal decision makers in Jewish history, concluded that this prohibition applies even to a mortal enemy in a defensive war. This sounds bizarre to the contemporary person saturated by media, video games and politicians, all exulting in the pulverizing of bad guys, but there it is in inconvenient black and white.

No explanation for the law was offered in the original codification, but commentators have suggested that this is an act of compassion even for a mortal enemy, similar to other surprising Biblical statements, such as helping one's enemy in Exodus 23. Others suggest that it was a strategic law, along the lines of wisdom literature and prudence. It makes sense to offer an enemy the possibility of escape so that enemy troops will see relocation as a realistic option, that they will give up more easily seeing a way out, that this will divide the enemy, that this will conserve resources and energy, and shorten the war. This would reflect a pattern in ancient wisdom traditions, East and West, that prudence suggests a conservation of energy, a minimization of waste and a maximization of peace.

All of these explanations have resonance in at least some Biblical sources, but no one knows for sure-nor does it really matter. The beauty of ancient wisdom traditions is that they act as a distant goad to clear thinking in impossibly complex contemporary circumstances.
Just think of the onslaught, think of how much we have absorbed so quickly about the so-called 'Arab Spring', think about the myriad of facts, images, truths, half-truths, conflicting narratives, and all of that on top of a mountain of theories and facts of history, politics, religion, economics, and psychology. Then think about how you make moral judgments about politics. Do you only think of the 'national interest', whatever that is? Are you evaluating a course of action for yourself? Your country? Your military? Your overseas aid?

If you don't try to clarify with thought, meditation and intuition, the choices that are difficult you end up being manipulated by media, by leaders, by your own apathy and exhaustion from data over-stimulation. Cutting like a scythe through all the questions about Libya, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Israel, are the choices that leaders are making about their fate, about what their alternatives are, and whether they are back up against a corner or have realistic options.

Here is the 'fourth side principle' in modern terms that states and individuals should embrace:
Always convey messages, directly or indirectly, that there is a way out. Make that path clear, make it enticing. Justify it, from the point of view of justice, as a way to prevent further injustices against victims of the future. As anger rises and outrages worsen move from the 'way out' of verifiable reforms, to full exit options with dignity, to exit with indignity, to exit without assets, finally to criminal prosecution, and from there to the 'no way out' of hostilities. Even then, if there are signals of real acceptance of resolution options then grab them. Nonviolent exit is always more efficient, prudent and just. There will be plenty of time for survivors to seek justice later.

Government officials who understand the logic of this principle and utilize it are hampered often by biases of narrow national, corporate or political calculations. This is understandable up to a point-no government official is hired to pursue his own sense of justice. But they can be prodded to elevate the national interest to align with what is most prudent, stabilizing and just. Responsible citizens need to pioneer the intervention in order to pave the way for government officials to do the right thing. We are often in a more flexible position to discover options. Making the noble choice easier and more enticing for leaders is the most prudent and ethical intervention we can make. It is downright Biblical.

Happy Independence Day Wishes from a Palestinian
by Aziz Abu Sarah

I published this article last year at the Jerusalem post; I thought today is an appropriate occasion to repost it.

It might be hard to believe that a Palestinian would wish an Israeli Jew a happy Independence Day, but I am only following in the footsteps of another Palestinian I know, Ibrahim from Hebron.
Three years ago, I was cohosting a bilingual (Arabic and Hebrew) radio show at Radio All for Peace in Jerusalem with my Israeli cohost, Sharon Misheiker. Our weekly show happened to air on Israeli Independence Day, and on that day we invited Ibrahim, a peace activist, to talk about the land that had been confiscated from him for the building of the separation barrier.

I remember that Ibrahim spoke with compelling passion and heartbreaking emotions about the loss of his farmland, which had been a main source of income. Before ending the conversation, we asked him how he felt about Independence Day, and we received a surprising answer.

With his characteristic candor, Ibrahim told us that he had already called his Israeli friends and wished them a happy Independence Day.
Sharon and I were shocked.

Ibrahim told us that he received the same response from all his Israeli friends: silence, shock and disbelief. They didn't know what to say. They were caught by surprise. They had never heard a Palestinian wishing them a happy Independence Day.

Some of his left-wing friends asked how he could do so, when the holiday was celebrating the same event that was causing much of his suffering. He could have used that chance to recount history according to the Palestinian narrative: He could have said something about the Deir Yasin massacre, or the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who were left homeless after 1948 war. But he didn't. Instead, Ibrahim simply said happy Independence Day, and in doing so took the first step toward building a different kind of relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.

WHY WAS this step important? Part of the Israeli narrative describes a long history of suffering which hit the highest point with the Holocaust and the fear that Arabs would drive the Jews into the sea.
For years, Israelis have heard that Palestinians would never accept Israel's existence and would always work to destroy it. Many Israelis don't believe that Palestinians accept the reality that we are stuck here together. They doubt that Palestinians also dream of a peaceful tomorrow, where freedom prevails and safety is realized. This narrative of pain and fear has captured the minds of Jews, even though Israel has developed one of the strongest militaries in the world.

When Ibrahim uttered the words "happy Independence Day," he challenged that narrative of fear and doubt, and assured his Israeli friends that he knows they are here to stay, and accepts that. He wanted to let them know that he is not waiting for a chance to strike back. In essence, Ibrahim was digging a grave for the narrative of fear and replacing it with a narrative of hope.

For all of us, the past is painful and our narratives are very real to us. For the Palestinians, our pain of the Nakba is still fresh. The lost olive groves, orange groves, vineyards and homes which are part of the Palestinian identity and heritage, the stories, poetry and songs of Palestinian life in what became Israel will always be there.

These are collective memories that will always be carved in the heart of every Palestinian. But memories, pain and longing do not have to lead to revenge and destruction: They can also be motivation for a new tomorrow.

When Ibrahim's friends asked him how they should respond to his wishes, Ibrahim had a simple answer. He asked them to wish that next year both Israelis and Palestinians can celebrate Independence Day together, with the creation of a Palestinian state next to the Israeli one.
Although Palestinian and Israeli narratives are different, our vision for the future can be one. We can all unite and work toward the overdue dream of a viable Palestinian state before it is too late. It is time for our people to not let the past rob us of our future, but rather let it motivate us toward actions of hope.

Israel celebrates its sixty third independence day while Palestinians still yearning for their own state. However Israelis have the opportunity to actively work for the creation of the Palestinian state coming this September. I hope that next year both Israelis and Palestinians will be free from the yoke of the occupation and can celebrate an independence day without being oppressors or oppressed.

Marc Gopin, Director

Marc Gopin is the James H. Laue Professor of Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, and the Director of the Center on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
Gopin has lectured on conflict resolution in Switzerland, Ireland, India, Italy, and Israel, as well as at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and numerous other academic institutions. Gopin has trained thousands of people worldwide in peacemaking strategies for complex conflicts in which religion and culture play a role. He conducts research on values dilemmas as they apply to international problems of globalization, clash of cultures, development, social justice and conflict.
Gopin has engaged in back channel diplomacy with religious, political and military figures on both sides of conflicts, especially in the Arab/Israeli conflict. He has appeared on numerous media outlets, including CNN, CNN International, Court TV, The Jim Lehrer News Hour, Israel Radio, National Public Radio, The Connection, Voice of America, and the national public radios of Sweden, Ireland, and Northern Ireland. He has been published in the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, and his work has been featured in news stories of the Times of London, the Times of India, Associated Press, and Newhouse News Service, regarding issues of conflict resolution, religion and violence.

Aziz Abu Sarah, Executive Director

Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian born and raised in Jerusalem, is a veteran practitioner in the Palestinian-Israeli peace movements. Most notably he was the Chairman of a joint organization of 500 Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families who work for reconciliation called the Parents Circle-Bereaved Families Forum. He also co-hosted a bilingual radio show called "Changing Directions" on Radio All for Peace in Jerusalem. Aziz has spoken in hundreds of churches, synagogues and mosques on interfaith dialogue and on the role of religion in reconciliation. He has also lectured for countless international organizations and universities, including the European Parliament, Georgetown University, Columbia, Princeton, Brandeis, Yale, and Fordham. He is a Co-Founder of Al-Tariq Institute, which runs projects in the West Bank for democracy, non-violent education, and civil society. Aziz has an educational background in Biblical studies and professional background in tourism management.
Aziz has been honored to receive many accolades for his work including: the Silver Rose Award from the European Parliament, the Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East from the Institute of International Education, the Eisenhower Medallion from People to People International, and the Search for Common Ground's 2009 Eliav-Saratawi Awards for Middle East Journalism.

Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution
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