By Phoebe C. Godfrey
I do expect from people, outsiders, … unless they themselves come from Israel or Palestine or they have relatives there, … if you are just an outsider, don’t be intellectually lazy, don’t be emotionally lazy, don’t see just part of this terrible reality, try to see as much of the reality as you can, because the people there now, in the midst of this suffering, they are incapable of doing it, but we need outsiders to somehow keep a space for future peace, because we can’t keep that space right now.
—Yuval Noah Harari on the war in
Israel and Gaza, Zeit online
Since the atrocities committed (and ongoing, as people are still being held hostage) by Hamas against unsuspecting and innocent Israelis on October 7, I have been thinking about what Mevlana Rumi, the Persian poet, wrote: “Beyond good and bad, there is a field, I’ll meet you there.” Additionally, I have been asking myself what it takes to reach this field, this space, proposing that it can only emerge to the extent we allow our hearts to break open, but not apart.
Since Israel began its bombing of Gaza (part of an ongoing 50-year violent and racist occupation), violating human rights, including the Geneva Convention, which prohibits reprisals against civilians for the acts of enemy soldiers, I have been thinking about what it takes to embody the teaching of the prophet Jesus, who very clearly said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:38–39).
From both these enlightened teachings, I catch a glimmer of what it must mean to embody grace and, if there is a God/Goddess, to honor how they have called for us to emulate and embrace the complexities of perspective. When we are in our pain, in our beliefs, in our reality, it is almost impossible to see the other’s pain, the other’s beliefs, the other’s reality, but that does not mean they are not there, and that they are not equally valid from where the other is standing. This is not to say that there are no conceptions of right and wrong, that there are not international laws, human rights laws, treaties, and agreements that we can and should use to help guide us and seek justice, but rather that we must always recognize that justice is a transformative journey and requires above all else that we proceed with deep love and empathy, not just for ourselves but for others, including our enemies.
On that day, October 7, a Saturday, I informally officiated at a wedding between a young French/Swiss Orthodox Jewish man and a French/Tunisian Arab woman who fell in love against the social odds and the wishes of his family but not hers. I said to them that their love is more than our typical socially sanctioned love. It is a challenge to our segregating and tribal ways and as such it is a love that must be held and nurtured with great care and kindness, as it offers hope for the world. I told them I felt honored on that day to bring their love, their traditions, their faiths, and their stories together to help teach us that the field is there, if only we have the courage and the humility to see it.
Since that day, many around the world have been taking this journey to see and even to create the field. Among those who moved me deeply is an Israeli man, Maoz Inan, whose parents, Bilha and Yakov, were killed by Hamas but whose heartfelt words can and should teach us so much. He stated in an interview with the BBC, “I am not crying for my parents, I am crying for those who will lose their lives in this war. We must stop the war!”
Or Youssef Ziadna, the Bedouin bus driver who saved 30 Israelis at a music festival from Hamas’s massacre, risking his own life. He said afterwards, “I knew I couldn’t give up on my mission. I will go and rescue them.” He added, “I would never wish on anyone to see what I saw… This is trauma for my whole life. When I sit alone and recollect, I can’t help the tears.”
Or members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), who have been organizing protests across the U.S., including the largest-ever pro-Palestine protests in D.C., demanding a ceasefire and that “Jewish grief must not be used as a weapon of war.” Acknowledging the increasing number of Palestinians killed, including at the time almost 3,000 children, and calling Israel’s action “a genocide,” JVP also demanded that the Israeli government:
- immediately cease its bombing of Gaza.
- allow all life-saving humanitarian needs to enter Gaza, including water, fuel, food, and medicine.
- begin direct negotiations for Israeli hostages.
Or our friend, a Presbyterian pastor in Hartford, who is married to a Christian Palestinian musician whose family in Bethlehem are in lockdown. Last week she focused her sermon on inviting her congregation to connect deeply with their hearts and spirits and from there to do the hard work of grieving, advocating for justice, and bringing about healing.
Or my own brother, who is Jewish (I am not, as we share a father but not a mother) and lives in Israel with his Israeli wife and three children, and who yesterday led a prayer ceremony “dedicated to the work with the community that is on the other side of the threshold…looking at how the living and the dead are part of the same organism that is called life,” in which work he included all the dead and all the living. On this side of the Atlantic, the ceremony was joined by my wife, Tina, and a friend of ours, who together smoked the sacred Chanunpa (pipe), a Lakota way of sending prayers, while I too sent prayers from where I happened to be outside of the state.
These are, of course, just a few of the many, many examples of those on both sides who are seeking higher spiritual ground and doing what they can, where they can, in order to try to do what Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari proposes—in short, that if you are not directly in “the pain,” “don’t beintellectually lazy [or] emotionally lazy” and “just see part of this terrible reality,” but rather “try to see as much of the reality as you can” to hold “a space for future peace.” And if you are in “the pain,” find community and healing so you too can make your way to Rumi’s field, to a future space for peace, as we will need as many people as possible there if we are to do the hard work that reconnects and redirects those lands, this world, toward justice.