Sunday, November 10, 2013

Peace, Love, and Understanding (portion Vayishlach)

“Make Peace, Not Love.”
            -Amos Oz

In Jewish tradition, peace and love are not the same, and the former is not necessarily dependent upon the latter.  Christianity has inextricably linked the two since Jesus’ injunction to “love your enemies” but in Judaism, this linkage is seen as unrealistic at best and, at worst, counterproductive, for it sets the bar for peace so high as to make it essentially unattainable.  Thus Israeli writer and peace activist Amos Oz’s twist on the 1960s hippy slogan: “Make Peace, Not Love.”  Or, for a slanted answer to Elvis Costello’s sly musical question, “What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?” our tradition might say: “We’ll happily settle for two out of three.” (Alas, Mr. Costello himself won't settle for anything other than anti-Israel bias; a few years ago, he cancelled two scheduled shows in Tel Aviv, bowing to pressure from the boycott crowd).

This pragmatic worldview lies at the heart of our weekly Torah portion, Vayishlach.  As the portion begins, estranged brothers Jacob and Esau are reunited for the first time since their bitterly antagonistic parting twenty years earlier.  Upon seeing one another, they weep and embrace—and then, in short order, go off again on their separate ways.  Do they reconcile?  Yes.  Do they live together lovingly, happily ever after?  No.  Jacob and Esau reach a kind of hard-earned, watchful peace based on shared history, common interests, and wary respect.  And this—rather than heartfelt and abiding love—proves to be good enough.  The two brothers will come together again to bury their father Isaac.  Then, for the rest of their lives, they will co-exist peacefully with a healthy distance between them.

I believe that this episode offers a still-vital model for us as we wrestle with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The naïve dream of a Jewish-Arab peace settlement based on love and admiration is, by all accounts, dead in the water.  The time has come to bury that romantic but ultimately unhelpful dream, just as Jacob and Esau buried their father—so that we can move on to the arduous and unsentimental work of laying the foundation for a realistic end to the conflict based on shared interests rather than wildly unrealistic idealism.  I will leave you with the words of Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, from a piece he published in the New York Times last spring.  To read the entire article, see:

The New Peace will be very different from the Old Peace. There will not be grandiose peace ceremonies in Camp David or at the White House, no Nobel Prizes to be handed out. The New Peace does not mean lofty declarations and presumptuous vows, but a pragmatic, gradual process whereby the New Arabs and the New Israelis will acknowledge their mutual needs and interests. It will be a quiet, almost invisible, process that will allow Turks, Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians and Israelis to reach common understandings. The New Peace will be based on the humble, pragmatic assumption that all the participants must respect, and not provoke, one another, so that conflict does not disrupt the constructive social reforms that all seek to promote.
Israel. . . needs a new strategic concept toward the Palestinians. The Arab world needs new organizing principles for its fledgling states. And America needs a new Middle East vision — one aimed not at grand and unattainable all-encompassing solutions but at incremental steps to temper the flames of extremism, tribalism and hate.

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