iENGAGE: Peace as a value

When peace is a value, we fear neither confidence-building measures nor preconditions, as long as they are in sync with our principles.

West Bank security wall 521 (photo credit: Ksenia Svetlova)
West Bank security wall 521
(photo credit: Ksenia Svetlova)
The peace process has returned to our public and political discourse. With US President Barack Obama’s visit, coupled with Secretary of State John Kerry’s fresh enthusiasm, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are being challenged to dust the cobwebs off their negotiation strategies and find ways to renew the conversation about our common future.
Is peace, however, a process or a value? Over the years, under the belief that the other side no longer sees it as a value, Israeli society has followed suit. In a deep way we have relinquished the aspiration for peace, relegating it to the back shelf of messianic dreams and the prayer book.
Since we have perceived it as unattainable, instead of living with the pain of unfulfillable yearnings, we have realigned our expectations. And so, peace has become a “process” to be managed, to be spoken about at appropriate times, in particular when it serves our public relations interests. The maintenance of the process has become an end unto itself.
The beauty of a process lies not only in the immunity it provides from disappointment but also in the lowering of demands that are required of us.
We merely have to show that we are negotiating in good faith and are willing to show up and talk at any time and at any place, with no preconditions.
The latter is of particular value, as it enhances the chances that the process will continue, God willing, indefinitely. As long as everything is on the table, the peace process is guaranteed an inexhaustible supply of issues to talk about. As long as we are talking, we are fulfilling our duties to the process.
Truth be told, there is a value underlying the “process,” and that is the survival of the state and the security of our citizens. As long as one is committed to the peace process, war is off the table and acts of violence which exceed what is perceived as a tolerable level are condemned. Those who are committed to the process are by definition committed to doing everything in their power to limit such acts. And so, we are committed to the process, for in the unpredictable and volatile Middle East, it provides some comfort and stability and maintenance of a status quo which is an improvement on the alternative.
The Israel whose 65th birthday we are about to celebrate, the Israel which I love, however, never saw the status quo as a goal. While survival and security are certainly values of tremendous worth, they never exhausted the hopes of our people. We come from a tradition in which peace is not a process but a value, a value which far transcends the absence of bloodshed.
When our rabbis teach us that all of Torah was given for the sake of peace, they are asking us to reorient our consciousness of ourselves and of our reality.
Peace as a value challenges us to think of the possibilities of what life would be like when we live in harmony with ourselves, others, and our surroundings.
It is a life not defined by a zero-sum game consciousness but by the possibilities of win-win. It is when a sum total far exceeds the value of its parts. When we see the other and are open to being enriched by the lessons they can teach us. It is when we enable ourselves to transcend self-interest and to experience the joy and completeness which come from giving. It is when justice for all truly reigns within the land.
Like all values, peace is difficult to attain. The world of realpolitik does not merely question it but attempts to erode its place within our system of values. In a harsh world in which naivete is often dangerous, the value of peace is often undermined.
And thus, we give birth to the peace “process.”
However, when something is a value, truly a value of such significance that it can be spoken of as the goal of all of Torah, one does not let the exigencies of reality destroy it. Holding something to be a value means that I shape my world in its light and do not allow the world to shape it. Now, to hold peace as a value does not mean that one is naively innocent and childish. It does not mean that I expect “peace now.” It does mean, however, that I want peace now.
As a value whose implementation never ceases to obligate me, I think about it, speak about it, dream about it and constantly ask myself one simple question: What do I have to do today to bring peace closer? The attainment of peace, like a process, requires two sides. However, while a process is by definition a negotiation among parties, peace as a value obligates everyone independently. While the fulfillment of peace is not only dependent on me, the actions of others do not absolve me of my responsibilities.
These responsibilities include the ongoing education of my fellow citizens to ensure the immunization of our values in the face of the cynicism potentially promulgated by the “realists.” It requires the education of our citizens to prefer the pain of unattained hopes over the short-term comfort of lower expectations and the self-righteous aggrandizement of arguing, “It’s not our fault.” It obligates us at the very least to assess all of our actions and ensure that there is nothing that we are doing to hinder its implementation. Only when peace is truly a central value within our national culture can such an honest assessment occur.
Finally, embedded within the notion of a value is the willingness to reprioritize, to take risks, and to pay a price not merely for its implementation but also to enhance the chances of its implementation.
As a value it is more valuable than other things, and our politics must give expression to this not only in words but in actions.
When peace is a process, acquiescing beforehand to preconditions, confidence-building measures, and pre-commitment to a particular outcome or framework for resolution is unnecessary. The goal of the process itself is precisely to work these things out, hopefully indefinitely or at the very least until blame is placed on the other side, at which time we can freeze the process, to be resumed at an as yet to be determined later date.
When peace is a value, however, we must do a tremendous amount of work first and foremost among ourselves, assessing how it can best be achieved and coexist with our other values. We are engaged in a never-ending process among ourselves to determine the principles which will shape our policy, a policy founded on the yearning to implement the value. As such, we neither fear confidence- building measures nor preconditions, as long as they are in sync with our principles. To negotiate in good faith is not to come to an empty table but to one in which both sides have done extensive work and can show how their values get translated into policy. These are not concessions that we make to the other but strategies which we are willing to execute to enhance the possibility of implementation of the values which are ours.
We are now 65 years old and can celebrate the gifts of Jewish sovereignty, power and success.
What do we want to celebrate when we are 66? Will we want to give thanks for one more year in which we were able to maintain the status quo, or will we be able to celebrate a year in which our national identity reconnected with its noblest values and aspirations? Will we dare to emerge out of the “process” and embrace the value? It may not make any difference in the status of our relationship with our neighbors, but it will at the very least change who we are and what we do. As for the rest, who knows?
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and director of the institute’s iENGAGE Project –