Savir's Corner: A bridge over troubled water

A peace conference must be a culture of nonviolence and tolerance despite strong differences and disputes.

June 20, 2013 20:47
Singer Alicia Keys at the Superbowl, February 3, 2013

Singer Alicia Keys at the Superbowl 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Jeff Haynes )


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This summer Israel is blessed with world-class musical performers coming to entertain hundreds of thousands – Barbra Streisand, Alicia Keys, Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys give us a feeling of belonging to the wider world, to a culture where music shapes life, to a mega-culture of peaceful coexistence, with an American twist.

That was also true when the legendary Leonard Cohen gave a peace concert at a packed National Stadium in Ramat Gan.

Thousands of people were holding hands in harmony; Palestinians were introduced to a cheering crowd. Music has reached our shores, but not peace. We like the illusion of living in a peace culture, especially in the Tel Aviv bubble; however we do not. The prevailing culture outside “the neighborhood of the peaceniks” is a culture of hostility and confrontation.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has placed a heavy burden on our society and our youth. The prevailing Israeli culture is characterized by a sense of victimization, suspicion, superiority, anxiety and violence; a culture of conflict. People outside of conflict zones find it hard to comprehend that there is indeed a culture of conflict in which the conflict shapes peoples’ beliefs, attitudes and relations. In our case, the conflict with the Arabs fits into our historical view of Jewish life: always persecuted and victimized. From the old Egyptians to the Nazis to the Arabs – every generation has had its archenemy wishing for our destruction; today it is Iran. We have physically overcome and prevailed, but have not overcome the trauma of persecution. Most Israelis are still convinced that behind almost every non-Jew, not to speak of Arabs, lives a latent or blatant anti-Semite.

Consequently, we are constantly on the defensive and in a state of anxiety – “never again.”

The rebirth of Israel, and our successes in wars and nation-building, also adapt to Jewish mythology as a “chosen people.”

We feel aggressed but superior. To Gentiles, we are “a light unto the nations;” to the Arabs, the Palestinians, we are “legitimate” occupiers, running the lives and destinies of 3 million people; behind each of them we see a terrorist.

Inside Israel there also is a lack of equality – Israeli Arabs are second-class citizens often subjected to racism; African immigrants are treated even worse, often kept in special prisons.

To the average Israeli, there is a comfort in these attitudes – we can always blame someone for our ailments and even our mistakes, and there is no need to build difficult bridges to other nations and cultures.

That does not mean that we don’t have a vibrant culture and tremendous cultural expressions appreciated the world over. Yet the culture that fosters our relationships with the outside world is confrontational, with an excessive sense of being the eternal victim and with a mistaken sense of superiority.

As with every culture, this filters into language – “the whole world is against us,” the pejorative “goyim” or “Arab labor.” Verbal violence often turns into physical violence. This colors our view of other people – we lack curiosity for the culture and achievements of others, unless it serves our economic interests, for example German cars. From within such a culture of confrontation, we cannot normalize our relationship with the world. We call on the world and the Arabs to normalize relations with us; we too have to normalize relations with them. That was the essence of modern Zionism – to resolve the Jewish predicament, not to sustain it – to get the Jew out of the ghetto, but also the ghetto out of the Jew.

Our next-door neighbors are not much better; they are traumatized by conflict and live in a culture of confrontation.

“Jihad” is a blessing to many, “Jewish” is a swear word and the occupation is blamed not only for its real costs but also for every other problem. If we want to live in peace, security and coexistence, we have to leave behind the “comfort” of the culture of conflict.

Peace is a culture, not only a political strategy. Political decisions are necessary, but not sufficient. They must be coupled by a profound transformation of attitudes and values as well as relationships.

A culture of conflict, as exists between us and the Palestinians, leads to the dehumanization of the other, the evil, who barely deserves to live. A peace culture can be brought about by a change in political circumstances – a peace process – but also by an essential educational process.

A peace culture demands first and foremost the recognition of equality between all human beings. No one has the right to be or feel superior. Great empires have vanished because of that dangerous trait; colonial powers have disappeared.

Israelis have to internalize that all Arabs are equal to us and have equal rights.

This is also true for the Arab attitude.

A peace culture demands espousing humanitarian values, respect for human rights, for mutual dignity for each person’s or nation’s right to define itself, for the sanctity of life. Above all, it must be a culture of nonviolence and tolerance despite strong differences and disputes.

Furthermore, a peace culture demands the eradication of artificial boundaries between societies. In moving away from conflict, we must move toward openness, coexistence and cooperation – to work together for the common good, to reduce hardships and suffering and to reap new fruits of integration.

Today’s Europe is the best example of such a transformation. Germans and French are studying and working together, with equality and mutual respect despite centuries of hatred and wars.

Cultural expressions are a profound way to create commonality while promoting humanitarian values. Cultural expression – be it in music, film, theater, literature, etc. – is a global language.

Great artists, who have the abilities to reach beyond borders of divides, are rare and important. Many in the young generation will follow them and their message of peace. The young are creating a new common language – be it on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. Together they are creating a new culture of coexistence and they admire the arts. Therefore artists have an essential role to play if they represent the values of peace and equality and have the courage to express them.

An outstanding example is Bono of U2.

The Irish rock star did more for the African continent than most political leaders; a rebel who combines music with powerful political messages, be it on peace in Ireland or fighting poverty in Africa. With his nonprofit organization, he has helped reduce African debt to the wealthy West and contributed much to the AIDS cause.

Last weekend, he produced a special video, calling on the Iranians to go out and vote.

For years Bono cooperated with the one and only Quincy Jones. Known as Q, Jones is a legend of the music world.

Coming from a background of poverty, he rose to fame despite racial prejudice.

His global success never detached him from acting in favor of a better world, for peace in the Middle East and for development and education in Africa. With “We Are the World” he created world solidarity for the famine in Ethiopia. The best-known performers showed up in Quincy’s music studio, from Michael Jackson to Lionel Richie. At the studio entrance, there was a sign: “Leave your ego at the door!” Years later, with the “We Are the Future” concert in Rome, where I had the privilege to cooperate with him, Quincy established centers for poor children in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

In Israeli music, such examples of social engagement and courage are rare.

The most outstanding one is Achinoam Nini (Noa) who dedicated her career in Israel and in the world to peace with our neighbors. She performed at the November 4 1995 demonstration, at which Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and sang “There Must Be Another Way” at the Eurovision music contest with Mira Awad. Fighting for another way, she was ready to sacrifice some of her popularity, unlike most “consensus artists.”

Not only musicians convey a message of peace. This week, we hosted in Israel, as a guest of the President’s Conference, world-renowned actor Sharon Stone: a brilliant woman of peace, dedicated to the fight against the AIDS epidemic, working to contain malaria in Africa, encouraging gender equality and advocating peace alongside Shimon Peres and the Dalai Lama. The language of Stone, Nini, Jones and Bono is a language of peace, of care and of solidarity. It is not enough to admire their performance and celebrity. Young people especially must follow their message irrespective of nationality, religion, race or gender; follow in order to belong to a world where global messages on peace and solidarity count, thereby contributing to a culture of peace.

The arts, more than politics, become a “bridge over troubled water” of conflict.

As happened in America after the Vietnam War in the Sixties.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel showed the way, raising a loud voice in protest of the war, with a “sound of silence,” calling on people not to blindly follow their political leaders. A culture of war (Vietnam) turned into a culture of peace (Woodstock).

In our region too we are in need of a transformation, with the arts and against the politics, into a culture of tolerance, respect and peace.

The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords. Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.

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