Our religion informs us that our purpose in the world is to serve as a “light unto the nations.” This means that we are to teach the rest of the world the right way to live. The only way to teach this effectively is through example. Since the eyes of the world are so intensely focused on Israel, what we do is critical. We can be showing the world the right way or the wrong way to live.
The capital of Israel is Jerusalem, which means, “City of Peace.” The great irony is that if the entire world were to reflect what’s going on between Israel and its neighbors, there would be a perpetual World War. We can hardly say that we have succeeded in our ultimate mission, and as a result, are causing tremendous suffering, especially to our Arab neighbors. While we may be able to morally justify Israel’s military actions, it doesn’t undo the fact that we are killing many more of them than they are of us, and that is what people see. Thus, we have become a light that much of the world would like to see extinguished.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It wasn’t the vision of our Bible and it wasn’t the vision of the early Zionist leaders. We were supposed to be an example of morality for the rest of the world. And even if we are to take literally the Biblical injunctions to eradicate the pagan Canaanite nations that refuse to allow the descendants of Abraham to live on their lands, those lands are no longer occupied by pagan Canaanites. They are occupied by Arabs, overwhelmingly Muslim with a small Christian minority. Muslims are also the children of Abraham, promoters of monotheism. Both Judaism and Islam consider Muslims the offspring of Ishmael, the brother of Isaac, forefather of the Jews. Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism. Our Muslim and Christian brothers have already fulfilled the Biblical instruction to replace the Canaanites. They, not the Jews, have actualized the Biblical promise to Abraham that his offspring will become as numerous as the grains of sand in the Earth and the stars in the sky.
Furthermore, as a whole, the Muslims are better examples of living by the mandates of our own Bible than we modern Jews are. We have no business treating them like enemies and as second- and third-class citizens. We are very different today from when we were exiled two thousand years ago. We have changed genetically and culturally. We recently reintroduced ourselves en masse into their region while neglecting to learn their language; brought in a seemingly pagan Western culture that worships sex, alcohol and money; taken over their territory with both foreign money and military force; and turned them into our low paid servants building homes for us in their neighborhoods. Somehow we are surprised that they haven’t welcomed us with open arms. Instead, we need to approach them with humility and gratitude, and with a promise that we are returning in order to create a society that will benefit not only Jews but Arabs as well. They, too, are embroiled in violent warfare against one another and could use some help from us in incorporating some of the advantages of the Western democratic system.
What is the point of reestablishing a sovereignty of Israel if it is to become the most dangerous place for Jews to live, if it becomes a concentration camp in which another six million Jews can be annihilated in an instant by a well-placed atomic bomb? What is the point of creating a State if it erases the compassion the world felt for Jews after the Holocaust, and raises anti-Semitism to a level not seen since the 1930’s? We can proudly publicize our admirable accomplishments in science, medicine, technology, arts, business and the military but it’s worthless if the world sees us as the new Nazis. Pre-War Germany was also a jewel of science and art.
The only true justification for the existence of a modern State of Israel is to be a nation that lives by the Golden Rule. This requires us to love our enemies and to return evil with kindness. We have spent countless billions of dollars on warfare. Imagine what the condition of both the Jews and Palestinians would be had that money been spent instead on enhancing life.
If we wish to prevent perpetual and escalating warfare, it is absolutely essential that we rethink our current ways and figure out how to live in peace with our Arab neighbors. Many knowledgeable political analysts think this is impossible and that Israel is doomed to live in a constant state of war. Considering history, as well as the difficulty we Jews have in loving our own fellow Jews, this is not an unreasonable conclusion.
Nevertheless, I believe peace is possible. So did Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who passed away twenty years ago. He was convinced that the world was improving and that the age of the Messiah, which he understood to be the age of universal peace, was rapidly approaching. He was rarely known to be wrong about anything.
We pride ourselves on our brainpower, which we have used nicely for science, arts and business. We need to divert some of that brainpower into the technology of peace.
It is often said, “There are no easy solutions.” This is not true. It is not solutions that are difficult. It’s problems that are difficult. When we have an ongoing problem, we are working very hard to solve it and whatever we are doing isn’t working. Usually when we come up with a solution that works, it tends to be something very simple.
I remember learning a few decades ago in psychotherapy that when we have an ongoing problem, the very things we are doing to solve the problem are actually what’s making the problem continue. Everyone longs for peace, but neither side realizes that the things they are doing in the attempt to create peace are making the state of war continue and escalate.
During my entire lifetime I remember both sides in the Arab-Israel conflict presenting intelligent and eloquent spokespeople defending its side and blaming the other in the hope that the truth will emerge and bring peace. Neither side realizes that the very acts of defending and blaming are acts of hostility. They are an integral part of the problem, not of the solution. The more passionately we defend ourselves and blame them, the more passionately they defend themselves and blame us. And in the process we each convince ourselves that we are right and the other is wrong. As a result animosity flourishes.
Each side longs for the day they can forge their swords into plowshares. We continue making better swords in the expectation that they will lead to the day we can forge them into plowshares. We don’t realize that the better we make our swords, the more we delay forging them into plowshares.
Each side turns to more powerful nations for support against the other. Those nations sincerely believe that by supporting the side they consider to be the good one, they will help end the warfare. Sometimes intervention by other nations does, indeed, succed in putting an end to the warfare. Too often it results in massive triangulation, intensifying hostilities not only between the warring parties but among the nations taking their sides. For example, Iran sees itself as fighting not only the Little Satan of Israel, but the Big Satan of the United States.
There is only one way to live in peace. It is through living by the Golden Rule. And that involves treating people like friends even when they treat us like enemies. But this is contrary to our nature. We are biologically programmed for reciprocity, to treat others the way they treat us. That’s why when people are nice to us, we feel like being nice back, and when people are mean to us, we feel like being mean back. While most people can recite a version of the Golden Rule, they don't generally live by it. They do what comes naturally to them, which is reciprocity. And that’s what happens in every ongoing conflict. One side is mean to the other, and the other side responds by being mean. They expect that by responding with meanness, they will end the conflict. They enter into a perpetual cycle of meanness, each certain that the other one started.
It is easy to treat people like friends when they treat us like friends. The challenge is to treat people like friends when they treat us like enemies. However, few people understand what it means to treat people like friends because no one teaches us what it really involves. There are many ways by which we treat people like enemies and we aren’t aware of it. Therefore even if we would want to treat our enemies like friends, we are not likely to know how to do it.
Scientists solve problems by understanding and applying the laws of nature. They do not invent those laws. They only reveal them through means such as observation, introspection, logical thinking and testing. Peace, too, can only be created by revealing and applying the relevant scientific laws, laws that are derived from understanding human psychology.
If we wish to develop a scientific approach to creating peace, we need to learn from people who actually know how to do it. There are people who intuitively live by the Golden Rule, who treat enemies as friends. The best example I know of in Israel is a remarkable man named Menachem Froman, an Orthodox rabbi who sadly lost his life to cancer last year. Rabbi Froman founded the settlement Tekoa in the disputed territories, ten minutes south of Jerusalem. While one would expect him to be part of the problem, he came to be loved not only by his Arab neighbors, but by Yasser Arafat and Hamas leaders. They felt they could quickly achieve peace if he represented Israel.
Rabbi Froman exemplified the Golden Rule. He treated his Arab neighbors like true friends. He showed deep respect for their religion, culture and people. He knew that peace requires individual citizens to
deal with each other directly as friends. It is not enough to rely on political leaders or the military to do it for them.
Other people throughout history, as well as modern-day figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela, intuitively knew how to create peace. They all followed the same basic rules. I am not sure these people could consciously tell us the specific scientific/psychological rules they followed, just as all of us function by the rules of nature without necessarily being aware of them. But it would serve us well to carefully examine the thoughts, actions and teachings of these moral experts. We need to deduce their rules for peace so that we can all apply them.
To establish peace it is not enough to organize demonstrations condemning violence and to sing Kumbaya at campfires. We need to use our brains to figure out the set of rules for creating peace on an international level. The truth is, this is not a difficult endeavor. It doesn’t require the kind of massive investment of money involved in research for discovering subatomic particles or planets in other galaxies. In fact, there are people who have already deduced those rules. We just need to recognize them and teach them to the masses, including to our political leaders. The brilliant psychologist/scientist/philosopher, Steven Pinker, a self-described Jewish atheist, has done a marvelous job of analyzing violence and its reduction in his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. It culminates in a blueprint for getting nations to live by the Golden Rule. In my own work with individuals, I have formulated a set of logical rules for treating people like friends, and they work nicely on an individual level. These same rules, and many more, can also be found in The Purpose Driven Life, by Reverend Rick Warren, one of the best-selling non-fiction books in history. Snippets of rules for peace can be found throughout wisdom writings. Granted, wars are more complex than individual relations, but the same general rules for treating people like friends must also apply.
It is too easy to give in to our passions and engage in war against those who treat us like enemies. War is the most expensive, tragic and counterproductive approach to creating friendships. Peace is simpler and cheaper, and creates wellbeing rather than heartrending pain.
As Anav Silverman informs us, Rabbi Froman “was instrumental in the establishment of Eretz Shalom or Land of Peace movement, which seeks peaceful coexistence between Jewish settlers and Palestinians in …the West Bank.” If settlers and Palestinians can live in peace, we can all learn to do it. Let us continue Rabbi Froman’s legacy by studying his approach and following his example.
The eyes of the world are glued to us. Our actions have the power to change the world. When we prove that Jews can live in peace with their neighbors in the Middle East, we will fulfill our role as a light unto the nations. We will usher in the age of the Messiah, making Rabbi Schneerson’s prediction a reality.