Last Thursday I went to part of this 3-day peace gathering/festival thing called Sulha, and I’ve tried to blog about it before, but I think I needed a few days to let all of my thoughts really collect themselves.

Their aim was ambitious and, I suppose, noble–to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to dialogue about the hard stuff and get to know each other as people, all the while connecting on a wavelength that might have some religion somewhere in it (I’m hesatant to use the word “spirituality,” since it so often means so little, but maybe it’s apt here.)

They seemed to do well on logistics–they got permission from Arafat himself to bring 300 Palestinians over the green line, and they got 50 Jordanians there as well, in addition to some old-school guest activists from South Africa, Tibet, England and Ireland, as well as some unspecified number of Israelis, Jews, and other random internationals. The schedule of events was mostly workshops, “listening circles” and playtime. Sulha, it should be noted, is an Arabic concept of a reconcilliation meeting in which–I think I have this right–both parties say what they have to say, but no “forgiveness” is necessarily implied. The Hebrew linguistic equivalent is, of course, “slicha”

I was hesitant to go because it did look kind of ungrounded and new-agey. But quite a number of people had told me about it, and I like the idea of honest dialogue, so I was curious. I only made it to the last day; it turns out a lot of the hard work was happening during days 1 and 2, and actually first thing Thurz was a ritual to say goodbye to the Palestinians because they had to leave early, as much of the day was going to be spent waiting at checkpoints. Oh, right.

It was very moving to see everybody saying goodbye to one another–it was clear that some real connections had been made. I was reminded that the work of confronting What’s Hard really is important, and that there is something that can come of doing difficult but sometimes amorphous inner work. Oh, yeah, I believe that. Right. After goodbye time, the Palestinian folk hung around for a while (they still had to wait for buses and stuff to show up) so I got to chat with some nice people. And it was interesting to hear various people’s’ takes on things like Arafat (according to one woman, lots of Palestinians think he’s the only one capable of making peace with the Israelis) or the word “shtachim” [“territories” in Hebrew, oft refers to the West Bank and Gaza] (one guy said he thought its vagueness was problematic, like referring to a race as “those people”).

After awhile the P-folk left and there were a bunch of other events–speakers, a Sufi sheikh leading a zikr, a concert that featurured a great Arabic singer, a phenomenal Yemenite chazzan (still annoyed that I didn’t get his name) and some 8 year-old girls on lead vocals. Mostly I just hung out the rest of the day and socialized. It was fun. I got home feelling the rosy glow of peace in the Middle East all around me.

But as good as I felt, something still niggled. Like the image of Jews enthusiastically attending a Sufi zikr, even though they are not only not Muslim, but there are no Muslims anywhere in sight. What is that about? I don’t know what the Palestinian attendees got out of the event–most of the ones I talked to seemed pretty enthusiastic about their experience–but it’s hard to get the image out of my head of them sitting in checkpoint lines and my carpool stopping at Abu Gosh for a nice dinner on the way back. Lots of sharing and caring, but does it really affect the political and social reality? Are these events just opportunities for Israelis to feel less guilty and like they can party their way to political change? It seemed, from a cursory glance, that the people who are already doing activism of whatever sort would continue to do so irrespective of this event, and that most of the people who aren’t probably wouldn’t start that following Friday. But is the goal to have people become involved in activities designed to change external reality? If not, what is the goal?

Again with the multiple lenses thing. Part of me is horrified that I’m even asking these sorts of questions–I mean, I am banking my whole life and career on the assumption that prayer and spiritual work really do something, and that rearranging a few people’s hearts is achievement enough any day. Yet part of me is wary, in situations like this, about a sort of sentimentalism and tendency towards self-congratulation that I see sometimes on the Left. Look at me, I talked to a Palesinian today, aren’t I openheated and ghetto-fabulous? Tokenizing and disrespectful. I do believe in authentic connection, but I think we have to be werry, werry careful when we try to figure out what that actually means and how (if at all) we can achieve it in a powderkeg such as this. I also recall Yossi Klien Halevi’s comment about Oslo having failed because it was a meeting of elites–that doesn’t feel irrelevant to events like this, but I’m not even clear about what that means or how one might try to end a war without some elite activity. As usual, no answers, just a lot of questions.

Ultimately I can’t fully speak to Sulha qua itself–I was only there for day three, and I think a fair assessment of the event would require actual presence at days one and two. Maybe I don’t even have the “right” (whatever that means) to even ask hard questions of a certain kind of activism–at least people are doing something, which frankly is more than I can say of myself right now (though after the High Holy Days I do hope to get involved with a particular human rights org here.)

But but but. But if I knew what sort of activity I could attend, vote for, stand up for, wear a sign about, or chant slogans for that would make this part of the world a place where there’s a lot less suffering and where people feel safe and comfortable sending their children to school and like they have ample opportunities to grow and flourish–I’d do it. I think what’s so heartbreaking about this situation for me (and for a lot of people) is that it’s not clear at all how to make that happen.

I did buy a t-shirt when I was there. It has a star of David, a cross, and a star and crescent on it. That is one image I can get behind, because however long we’re here and however it is we get out of this mess, it is going to have to be a group effort not only between people, but between all of us and God.

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