The hope that glowed from folks’ faces at last night’s Sulha gathering had nothing to do with empty waiting, helplessness, or “someday….” The tears of joy in the eyes of the 60 Palestinians and Israelis who converged on Eco-ME, the center for peace and sustainability near Jericho in the West Bank, these were the tears of people who are the authors of our fate. Folks left the relative comfort of their homes to travel from Hebron and Jenin, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, in order to engage with each other and to face the waves of fear, anger, and hurt that assault us all daily. The gathering was organized by the Sulha Peace Project, a bi-national initiative that has been bringing the two sides together for the past 17 years.
Why do we hold these “Tribal Fires” every month or six weeks? Some cynics snipe, disparaging our “hugging and humus” events. What difference can it make, they demand? Does a deep, warm connection between the sides bring a negotiated agreement any closer? Does Netanyahu care that you are meeting?
Our environment can be discouraging…..many Israelis and Palestinians have lost hope that a solution to our 100 year conflict can be reached. We observe our leaders and we see few signs that they are interested in creating the conditions that will enable progress. At Sulha, we understand that waiting for politicians is a losing game. We know the road is long and tough, and that meanwhile we must nourish the glowing coals that will ultimately bring the antidote to hopelessness, blowing the embers alive, into the warming fire that burns in the handshakes, hugs, and honest conversations between people.
Last night we asked folks to focus on the issue of uncertainty, enabling participants to share what it means for them to face a frightening present and unknown future that threaten to undermine any wellbeing that exists. Melila asked us not to shrink from the fog of our future, to take inspiration from Moses who strode fearlessly into the cloud surrounding Mt. Sinai, seeking engagement with God despite his inability to know what the encounter would yield. In small listening circles, people shared their own experience of uncertainty. The variety was striking. Yusef spoke of his fear as he heads out to his olive orchard, where recently he and his wife and children were assaulted with stones, sticks, and dogs by attackers descending from the nearby settlement. An older Israeli woman spoke of the fog of uncertainty surrounding her experience of aging. A Dutch woman shared her shame and helplessness in the face of her government’s mistreatment of Syrian refugees. We quietly listened, looking into each other’s faces as the “speaking object” was passed around.
We then turned to the question of what we do in order to confront uncertainty. As each person shared their own ways of coping with the unknown in life, what became clear is that, more than anything, we need each other if we are to transverse the fear and loneliness of our private struggles. It is in the support and comraderie of our friends and colleagues that we find the strength to carry on. As we concluded, we silently took each other’s hands around the circle, gazing into loving eyes.
As the children lit the bonfire, Marcia recited her courageous poem, dedicated to “my enemy, my beloved.” We prayed and sang in the fire’s glow, beneath the warm desert sky, as a half-moon rose out of the Jordanian hills to the east. We ate a delicious vegetarian meal and then washed the dishes together.
As the evening wound down, we lingered around the fire with guitars and drums, gently relishing the evening’s gifts. The young guys from Hebron did not want to get back on the bus, trying to stretch our short time together. I looked around at this little community of Palestinians and Israelis, and realized that in the course of the evening, together we had created the possible future, right here in this difficult present. Through our actions, we had stepped beyond hope into the certainty of a future we will bring, together, embracing with our linked hands and deep talk a momentary glimpse of the better days to come.