Letter from Israel

A team of us spent part of last week in Jerusalem to present the 10th IIE Victor J. Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East. You can read about this year’s winners, those from past years, Vic’s reasons for creating the prize, and the symposium we convened on “New Faces and New Hopes” on our Goldberg Prize website.

In a week during which not a lot of good news came out of countries that begin with “I”, we drew inspiration from the ten winning teams of Jewish and Muslim grassroots activists who bridge many divides and, above all, know and trust each other. You will see the significance of that in a moment.

Of all the historic sights associated with human construction over millennia, none left a deeper impression on me than the separation wall that keeps the Palestinians apart from their former neighbors in Israel. As one put it, “in the 1980s and 1990s we knew each other. We talked. We went to each other’s weddings. Now we don’t, and we don’t know those who live on the other side of the wall.”

Contact and friendships did not, of course, prevent two intifadas or many acts of terrorism. But it did allow for the emergence of a grassroots civil society, which made things much less terrible than they could have been, and for a time, legitimized many different ways of thinking about how Israelites and Palestinians might actually live and work together. The teams that have won IIE Goldberg Prizes founded and worked in amazing civil society organizations that, among other things, advanced the human rights of all, as they contributed to the hope that the way to peace was not through separation but through embracing each other’s humanity.

As walls go, the sheer size is daunting. It is four times as long as the Berlin Wall and over twice as high. It is changing geography and too much else.

When Robert Frost observed that “Good fences make good neighbors,” he was echoing the view of a type of person who preferred not to engage with others. Perhaps his geography and circumstances provided that luxury. But it is truly hard to conceive that the diverse and divided population of Israel today can get along without sharing water, human resources, food, and a desire to spare another generation the grief that comes with war.

The neighbor in Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall,” does not ever justify the preference for a wall. There are many justifications given for the one in Israel, and security is foremost among them. Americans who visit Israel blog and editorialize about it almost as much as the people living on either side of it. But none of the reasons given for it are anywhere near as compelling to me as achieving a real peace and settlement over the lands that everyone claims and seems to have repeatedly taken from each other throughout the troubled history of this region. And you cannot get to that kind of peace if the parties live in separate and very unequal communities.

So I stand with Frost: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” And I worry a lot that if the barrier walls of deprivation, humiliation, and ignorance persist, they will be toppled with violence and fire from which no one will be safe or immune.