Meredith Rothbart
Meredith Rothbart
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To the silent majority: Peacebuilding is not a hashtag

Peace starts by demanding change. It starts with dedication and commitment, with humanizing the other. And it starts 20 years before it is achieved.
People take part in a rally for peace outside Jerusalem’s Old City, on May 19, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People take part in a rally for peace outside Jerusalem’s Old City, on May 19, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

We like quick fixes. Especially Israelis. Microwaves, Insta pots, wireless credit cards, high-speed this, high-tech that. Even the Tami4 is a bit unnecessary, in my opinion. But I get it, if we can have what we want easily and quickly, then let’s have it and let’s have it now. Why should peace be any different??  

There actually is a secret to peacebuilding, even to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The problem is that it is not sexy and definitely not high-tech nor instant.

The secret to peacebuilding is time, effort, and money. It is dedication and commitment

The secret to peace is attitudinal change at the individual, societal and political level. 

It is interfaith dialogue, civic engagement, youth empowerment. 

It is nonviolent communication and activism.

It is women leaders. 

It is economic development and partnership. 

It is justice.

My mentor Rev. Dr. Gary Mason, who helped bring about peace in Ireland, always says, “If you want peace today, you should have started building it 20 years ago. And if you don’t feel like working for peace today, then you better not complain to me in 20 years that the conflict is ongoing and affecting your children.”

After dedicating more than a decade of my life to building deep relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, I know to brace for the comments and eye-rolls during upticks in violence and wars. I wait for the: “Now you see there’s no point, right?” or the “Great, now you’ll quit your job, right?” or my favorite, “Guess the peace business hasn’t been too successful, right?”

But for a variety of reasons, those were not the messages I received this time.

This time, I have been receiving questions instead of comments, such as “What can I do?” and “How can I help?” and “What can I do tonight to lower the flames?”

This time is different. We all keep saying that, but what does it mean for peace?

Was this the painful moment that the silent majority needed in order to open its mouth and demand change? I sure hope so.

To my Israeli friends, family and neighbors who have recently asked what you can do today, tonight, now to stop the violence, my answer is NOTHING. 

It is too late. You missed your chance for this round. 

There has been a metaphorical gas leak for decades that went ignored. Now that the flames have been reignited, your bucket of water – while appreciated – will do nothing to extinguish or even lower them.

Peacebuilding doesn’t prevent violence but offers a nonviolent constructive outlet in its place. The risk of the silent majority remaining silent is that we tacitly accept violence as the only option. If we stay silent, we enable parts of our majority to justify violence — rather than work against it, rather than changing the reality.

We must decide to stop being a silent majority and start demanding change. We must decide to build a more peaceful reality now.

Loved ones have been killed. Homes have been destroyed. Our cities are scorched. 

Peacebuilding is not a hashtag, a picket sign, or a WhatsApp group. Peacebuilding is not a dialogue circle, talking about our feelings and hoping that this will prepare our societies for some magical future political agreement.

Peacebuilding is taking concrete actions to make lives and the daily reality for Israelis and Palestinians better today, defined by a) less hatred, tension, and violence, b) increased quality of life, and c) improved systems for interaction.

Here’s how we start.

Step 1: Educate ourselves.

Read Side by Side for starters (a great introduction to the competing Israeli and Palestinian narratives of the conflict) and take a browse through Amal-Tikva’s recent report on the State of Cross-Border Peacebuilding Efforts. Follow the mentioned NGOs and think tanks on social media and sign up for their newsletters. 

There are books, entire think tanks and institutes dedicated to our conflict. But there’s no need to get overwhelmed. As they say in Arabic, shwya shwya, slowly slowly.

Step 2: Humanize the other.

This is possibly the hardest part and arguably the most important. It is going to hurt. I realize that I am one of very few religious Zionists who has close Palestinian friends that I have known for years. Listening to their personal experiences this time around breaks my heart more than ever.

It hurts listening to friends like Suma from Sheikh Jarrah speak about how difficult it has been as a family of girls to get the smell of sewage water out of their kitchen, their car, their skin and their hair. 

It hurts listening to young Mutaz’s humiliation, being stripped to his underwear on the way to school, while the contents of his backpack were dumped into the street.

It hurts listening to Ismat struggle to save enough money to buy a house for his children, just up the street from his family home filled with so-called other “religious Zionists”, who look just like me and my family but are really just unnecessarily mean people who know it is his house. They see him there. They spit and sneer as he walks by.

It hurts listening to Manar, traumatized from sitting in Hamas prison. 

It hurts listening to Muhammed, unable to reach his parents in Gaza and fearing the worst. 

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (zt”l) addressed this very issue in his book Not in My Name: Confronting Religious Violence (which I highly recommend for inspiration):

“We know that Sarah and Isaac are part of the covenant. Hagar and Ishamael are not. But our sympathies are unmistakeably drawn to them in some of the most powerful scenes of pathos in the Bible, Hagar cast out into the desert, the young Ishmael dying of heat and thirst. We saw how Joseph and his brothers had to overcome their mutual estrangement, and we saw how Leah cried out for love and was heard by God. These are extraordinary stories because they force us to enter into the mindset of the characters who are not chosen, who seem to be left out – displaced… They force us into an imaginative act of role reversal. They show us that humanity, light and virtue are not confined to our side. They exist on the other side also. They humanise the Other.

You can definitely start by chatting with the Palestinian nurse taking your blood or pharmacist filling your prescription. Try joining a one-off protest or dialogue group just to break the ice. But from there continue on to real relationship building. 

It is possible. I promise. 

Step 3: Donate, join or start an initiative.

There are many projects and NGOs that offer opportunities to meet the Other and engage in real activism. I recommend skimming through Chaim Meshutafim and the Alliance for Middle Peace for some options, or reach out to us at Amal-Tikva and I will personally connect you.

Participating or supporting grassroots and civil society initiatives may feel like a small step, but I urge you to heed the call of Bertie Ahern, former Prime Minister of Ireland who signed the Good Friday Agreement, securing the end to ongoing violent conflict in Northern Ireland.

“While political voices are important and vital in building progress, the voice of the community translated through civil society is paramount. Whether it is Trade Unions, Women’s Groups, Business Organisations, Youth Leaders, Civil Society translating the wishes of the community and the desire for peaceful progress is absolutely essential. In the case of Ireland the role played by civil society was a key component in our efforts to end violence and make a peaceful society.”  

Step 4: Demand change.
As you educate yourself, humanize the Other, and actively participate in building a more peaceful reality, you will notice that some elements of this new reality must be taken on at the political and diplomatic levels.

Some areas that need attention were mentioned in Nasreen Haddad Haj-Yahya’s article here. 

When it comes to your own political party, whichever that may be, make sure to check for and demand investment in the recipe for a political reality, defined by less hatred, tension, and violence, b) increased quality of life, and c) improved systems for interaction.

This is relevant regardless of where you are on the political spectrum.

And I know that I mocked your Facebook Frame, hashtag, picket sign and dialogue group above, but the truth is that these elements are extremely valuable. Publicly showing your support for the Other, for peace, equality and justice, regardless of your political views or party affiliation, does truly change the public discourse. This is critical and shows #constructivesolidarity, which is critical for any positive changes to happen.

Step 5: Hope for and believe in peace.
When you need inspiration, listen to the tunes of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, or read the stories from Kids4Peace. Know that you are not alone, that there are thousands of peacemakers growing up in this land, practicing their new skills in active listening and nonviolent communication, ready to take on concrete measurable pieces of this conflict and transform them one by one.

Last, remember that violent “intractable” conflicts have been resolved. 

Take Gary’s case for example. In 1987, Ireland saw more conflict-related deaths than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict saw in 2017 (despite Northern Ireland being 1/16th the population).

All relevant political leaders refused to meet under any circumstance, let alone discuss a peace that seemed all but impossible. Via the International Fund for Ireland, the international community invested $44 per person annually on grassroots peacebuilding projects in Northern Ireland. While the Northern Irish peace process has not produced a utopia, it has certainly been one of the more successful peace processes of the last half-century. This is largely because the years prior to the signing of the accord focused on building trust and decreasing fear.

By contrast, an average of $1.50 per person has been spent annually on building peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Until now. 

For the first time in history, the US government has committed $250 million to peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians, with matching commitments from other governments in the pipeline, and private philanthropists interested in supporting an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. 

This isn’t aid for one side or the other. This is an investment in initiatives that bring people together instead of further dividing them.

We can all be a part of this, and we must start now.

Together, we can build and inspire an influential pro-peace constituency, persuade others that peace is possible, and motivate leaders to take steps toward building a more peaceful reality.

If you’re part of the silent majority, this is your call to action. 

About the Author
Meredith immigrated to Jerusalem in 2008 from Allentown, Pennsylvania. Somehow in between studying in a religious Zionist feminist seminary and serving in the IDF, she participated in a leadership program for young Israelis and Palestinians which inspired her career in peacebuilding. Meredith co-founded Amal-Tikva (meaning hope in Arabic and Hebrew), a collaborative initiative where philanthropists, field experts, and organizations come together to support civil society peacebuilding. In the moments when she’s not pursuing peace in the Middle East, you can find Meredith at the playground near her Jerusalem home chasing her adorable kids.
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