Finding Common Humanity Amidst Inhumanity
January 21, 2022
When my friend, a Rabbi, first reached out in an early morning email this Tuesday, I was not yet aware of the rapid escalation. When it came time to wish my Muslim friends a Happy Eid, I was perplexed, as the usual cheerful greeting sounded atonal. By weeks end, the violence tearing through Israel and Palestine spiraled, inflaming passions on all sides and leading to speculation on how this latest episode may reverberate within and beyond the immediate region.
At one time in my life, I practiced meditation regularly in a community inspired by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay, as he is known and like Rabbi simply means teacher, was exiled from Vietnam during the war. He was nominated by Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize, and encouraged King to speak out against the war in Vietnam.
Thus, I was vexed when I first heard him talk about not taking sides. I thought myself a passionate peacemaker, advocating for the marginalized, the “wretched of the earth,” whomsoever they may be in a given context. Put differently, how does one not take sides while also seeking to end violence and aggression? How so especially when seeing an oppressed and an oppressor, or when one’s person and one’s people are directly under violent threat?
I started to understand Thay as saying that compassion extends to all sides, as all sentient beings suffer. The life circumstances of any one individual in any theatre of that war, committing any act, he sought to understand while seeking to alleviate suffering overall. This wasn’t naïve sentimentality but lived reality by someone in the midst of warfare.
A few years ago at IFYC, we had a visit from a group called the Parents Circle Families Forum. Our beloved friends Kim Duchossois and Jessica Green, dynamic mother and daughter duo, made this possible. The Circle is made up of members who’ve lost loved ones to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the kind of group that wishes it didn’t exist and wishes there were not ever more potential recruits. We heard stories from the mouths and hearts of Israeli and Palestinian women whose sons and daughters were needlessly killed. So many stories, so much loss – it left me shaking.
Kim and Jess came to know those courageous women and men through direct encounter with them in the “Holy Land” on a women’s delegation, that included my teammate and evangelical Christian Amber Hacker, and was led by a group called Telos. Telos was founded by two people forming a self-described unlikely alliance. One an evangelical Christian from Arkansas and former State Department official in the Bush Administration, the other a part Palestinian Yale-educated lawyer and staunch Democrat who advised Palestinian leaders on peace negotiations with Israel. In a world of ‘anti’ postures, they seek to reconcile ‘seemingly intractable conflicts,” beginning with “The Conflict.”
Before that experience, I had slowly come to pick up layers of “The Conflict” over time. One layer rooted in scriptural stories. In Christian school of theology, for example, I read about the period of 2nd Temple Judaism, the setting for Jesus’s ministry, and how the reconstructed, post-Babylonian Exile Temple was the center of Jewish life. And then I learned of the Bar-Kochba Revolt, a century or so after Jesus, which led to the Roman destruction of that Temple. All that was left was the revered Western Wall we have today. Granting the pitfalls of simple, sweeping historical narratives, the basic scriptural story of the Temple I absorbed was Solomon builds, Babylon destroys, Persia restores, Rome levels one final time (1 Kings, 2 Kings, Ezra, and the extra-biblical Eusebius for Bar-Kochba).
But a story I didn’t then know was the one about the “farthest” mosque,” Al-Aqsa, mentioned in surah 17, ayah 1, and Muhammad’s night journey. I came to read it in a Qur’an class a few years later. Masjad Al-Aqsa is mentioned in the verse itself, where Muhammad is believed to have been transported in one night on a spectacular winged creature al-Buraq, then talks with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, confirming his status as the last of the prophets. Al-Aqsa is believed to stand at the ruins of that 2nd Temple site.
Growing up in an Egyptian family, I came to learn of the recurring episodes of “The Conflict,” ’56, ’67, ’73, and on and on. Related moments in time were like stones forming a fortress of national identity. Oddly, to my American eyes, these stones were carved with jingoistic precision, like “26th July Street,” “6th October Bridge.” I didn’t feel a personal stake; it felt foreign to my immediate reality. When I started dating a Jewish woman, all these layers of “The Conflict” bubbled up again, a litany of stated reasons rejecting our possibility. It became less foreign, the “seemingly intractable” hitting home. But I still held on to the difference between seems and is.
Through friends and teammates Noah and Megan, I also came to know of the work of Seeds of Peace. Megan is a Christian, Noah is Jewish. Both dedicated sweat and labor to training peacemakers through the work of Seeds. I see their efforts like those of Telos and the Parents Circle, working through what seems and what is to actualize what may yet be.
In times of outright conflict and emboldened inhumanity, our humanity still exists. It is. And it lies in the commonality of our stories and of our suffering, the spaces where Thich Nhat Hanh concentrates, and where “Engaged Buddhism” emerges. When you realize that, in that particular sense, you really can’t “take a side.” Listening to the Parent’s Circle, it’s not even clear what it would mean to do so. There remains only the bare ground that unite us all, and the hope hinted at when we meet each other there.
This piece was originally published on May 20, 2021.