I am standing on a roof in Jerusalem. I’m being shown around the Truman Research Institute for Peace on the campus of The Hebrew University. The roof with its spectacular view to the city and beyond is the grande finale of the tour. The view is a visual dictionary of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see the separation wall meandering through the ochre-coloured landscape. A burgeoning Jewish settlement on the West Bank. Jerusalem’s old town with the holy places of three world religions cheek by jowl.
These are my first steps towards understanding this particular conflict a bit better. Obviously still, I have only scratched the surface of a complex gridlock that requires complex solutions.
Or does it? Peace mediator and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari has repeatedly said that peace is always only a matter of will. What the former Finnish president means is that if one’s first priority is peace, everything else from self-interest to feelings of injustice must be set aside, if needed. As many ongoing conflicts show, this challenge seems too big for man.
What kind of learning process would it require to prioritize peace and non-violence above all? Is it a pragmatic, even logical decision taken by the conflict parties or an emotional transformation from enmity to coexistence? Perhaps both are needed. Let me illustrate with two impressions from my trip.
I discuss the benefits of peace research with my hosts at the Truman Institute when I hear an argument I hadn’t thoroughly thought about before. “An academic approach makes you impartial,” my host argues. Intuitively this makes sense. A scholar with integrity must consider all sides of an argument, study different interpretations of the same phenomenon – strive at objectivity. But surely, scholars’ own predispositions sometimes notoriously affect the questions they ask and the conclusions they make – this is true anywhere in the world.
Another memory: I read a cultural magazine in Ramallah and stumble upon an article written by a young Palestinian girl. The text is a product of a course finding ways to further peace through creative writing. The story is a fictitious monologue of an Israeli soldier after having shot a Palestinian teenager at a demonstration. The soldier remembers his own little sister, killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber, and is torn between feelings of remorse and a sense of just revenge. The monologue begins with the soldier describing the plight of the Jews, having been persecuted across centuries. “Never more!” the soldier exclaims!
I am struck by this young Arab girl’s courage to try and understand her “enemy”, to put herself into the soldier’s head and heart. This kind of courage, I would think, to understand the other at the visceral level of emotions is the beginning of true dialogue and hence a first step towards peace.