In early 2014, I hiked the Israel National Trail, a 600-mile trek through the Negev desert, the mountains of the Galil, the hills of Jerusalem, the beaches along the coast and everything in between. A challenge for a 50+ casual hiker just getting over a painful divorce, the Trail afforded an amazing perspective on the history and people, vistas and nature of the holy land. And over the course of the two months of hiking alone, I reached a number of conclusions which not only helped to face the physical difficulties of the hike, and to move ahead with the emotional process of healing; they suggest a radical new approach to finding peace between Arabs and Jews in this region.
My forthcoming book, My Israel Trail: Finding Peace in the Land of Milk & Honey, describes this transformative hike, and the manner in which I began to recover from the personal tragedy of my divorce – and proposes methods others can use to deal with their own challenges. But these concepts, these eternal truths culled from my experience, from Jewish tradition and other sources, when applied to the predicament faced by the Jewish nation and the Arab people(s) in this region, can very well be the key to moving beyond centuries of conflict into a new era of peace and prosperity.
Now is the time to re-evaluate the stale and illogical approach taken by so many ‘peace makers’ over the past century, given developments in the region and new leadership in many western nations, as Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt set out to try to succeed where so many have failed, and with President Trump’s first meeting with the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas around the corner.
It may be the perfect metaphor. On a trek, sometimes you reach an impasse. Not only is it unclear what the next step is; you’re not sure even how you got there, and are too scared to move. All the alternatives you can imagine are dangerous, or unpalatable, or frightening. You’re stuck, and the panic starts to rise.
At one point on the Trail, I found myself on a cliff’s edge, on the brink of panic. I had reached a dead end: there was no way forward. But I couldn’t bring myself to turn around; I was frozen in place, trapped. I took 3 deep breaths, put down my backpack, and turned around carefully. I had done that ledge once with the pack, I knew that; all I had to do was convince myself I could do it again, this time in the opposite direction. When I hefted the pack back on, it seemed somehow lighter, more manageable. It had not changed; I had changed. Or rather, my attitude, my sense of self and sense of direction and purpose, had changed.
Sometimes we have to set aside our baggage and re-evaluate. My hike along the Israel Trail enabled the discovery, or re-discovery, of a number of essential truths for living. I was overwhelmed by the daunting challenges facing me—on the Trail, in my life, and at the national level. Every day brought a new difficulty, from scorching heat and impossible inclines to aching loneliness and crises of confidence, from news of family problems to news of terror attacks. I meditated on mountain tops and cried in dry creek beds; I wrote anguished journal entries and composed songs to lift my spirits. I looked back, and inward, and up to the night sky, and over the valley to the next mountain range, and down at the ants in the dirt, and back along the path to see how far I’d come. What I discovered on the Trail was a sense of self, and a sense of personal and national history… and a perspective of sorts on the human condition.
In my search for inner serenity while walking the Land, I realized many of these truths helping me on my personal journey could be helpful to others, and are relevant to our efforts to bring peace to the region, between the Arab and Jewish nations and between adherents to the faiths of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
Here’s what I came to understand, applied to the Arab-Israel conflict.
There are five fundamental elements which combine to create the framework for real peace and harmony, whether personal or national. Humility—the understanding of our place in the universe, which includes a belief in the intrinsic worth and beauty of all people and things. Acceptance—of reality, of the world as it is and not as we’d like it to be. Gratitude—appreciation for what we have and what the world offers us. Forgiveness –of those who have hurt us (or are perceived to have harmed us). A sense of meaning and purpose.
Combining these five on a hiking trail helps immeasurably. A life philosophy based on these five elements can lead to incredible happiness—the kind we all yearn for. And in relations between peoples, between cultures, between religions or civilizations in conflict, these five concepts may well be the key to finally put a stop to generations of enmity, persecution, suffering and killing here in this small sliver of land on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean.
Humility, for perspective
The first step is the hardest, as the song says; in this context it is certainly the least practiced. How many times have leaders—in Israel, the Arab world, Europe, and particularly the US—attempted to propose a “solution” to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict only to see it flounder on the rocks of intransigence or disinterest or, worse, literally blow up in their face? In recent years (and here is not the place to list the dozens of “peace plans” presented) the hubris has swollen to unbelievable proportions, almost a caricature of the diplomat or academic lost in their ivory tower completely disconnected from reality. And this is integrally connected to the lack of any perspective regarding the ability of outside actors to affect the attitudes or behavior of the players on the ground.
As I walked through the desert over those first days, I felt incredibly insignificant; at times it was crushing. But it was also liberating, and humbling, as I discovered how small and unimportant I am, and we all are, in the long rush of history and reality. Trudging alone along wide dry river beds, I often thought of Moses, chosen to lead the children of Israel precisely for his modesty, as well as Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, among others—and without knowing it, discovered this first key to finally reaching peace in our region. A little perspective, please.
Acceptance of reality, based on humility
Connected to this, accepting what is—it’s hot, it’s steep, it’s lonely—allows us to focus on what we need to do, and to enjoy the experience. Acknowledgment of reality as it is, rather than insisting on changing it or berating ourselves for our part in making it that way, is simply cathartic. This is not to say we can’t or shouldn’t work to change our reality; it is simply the first step in mapping our path towards that change. That pithy folk aphorism about accepting the things I cannot change gets it exactly right: acknowledging that there are aspects of life over which we have no control.
As noted, one of the greatest strengths of Moshe was his humility; our sages teach that this was his defining characteristic. Acceptance that we are not truly in control of every aspect of our life—or even many—is a large part of that humility. And for Arab and Jew, accepting our situation, our history, each other, is the next step towards real peace. Arabs and Muslims must accept the internationally-recognized connection of the Jews to our ancestral homeland, and thus the legitimacy of the establishment of the nation-state of the Jewish people (in whatever borders are eventually agreed upon). Jews and Israelis must accept that those Arabs who self-identify as “Palestinian” are here to stay. The key to accommodation is this acceptance of reality.
Gratitude as a result and motivator of acceptance
By accepting any given situation—divorce, death, war, flood—with minimal or no complaint, we open ourselves up to see the incredible miracles we otherwise ignore or take for granted. Gratitude is the third lesson I learned on the Trail. A sunset, birdsong, or stunning view would make my day; I found myself in tears of gratefulness for my family, my health, and the opportunity I had to walk the Land – yes, in the midst of my hurt – and even for the existence of my country.
Combining these three initial elements—humility, acceptance, and gratitude—into a framework for pursuing peaceful relations between the people of the Middle East has never been tried. As a starting point for negotiations, this would dramatically alter both the approach and the environment within which productive discussion can develop.
Israelis celebrating with gratitude the miracle of the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel after 2000 years of dispersal must accept the historical complexities of Israel’s founding, as well as the existence of an Arab community self-identifying as the national grouping now recognized as “Palestinian”. Arabs expressing gratitude for that very acknowledgment by the world (and by most Israelis, too) of their claim to self-determination must accept those same historical complexities and the justified existence of the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Of course “acceptance” must extend beyond mere acknowledgment of the facts on the ground to a deeper recognition of that reality – within the context of appreciation for all we’ve achieved to date. The Arab and Muslim world, and “Palestinian” Arabs in particular, must accept that the Jews are here, returned to their ancient homeland: get over it, acknowledge the truth of the claim, even applaud that return as early Arab leaders did as part and parcel of the new international standard of national liberation movements.
And, similarly, Jews and Israelis can finally admit that the “Palestinians” exist; whether historically they were a distinct national identity or not is now irrelevant. Their claim to independence has been supported by the international community more strongly than that of the Kurds, Basques or others who may have a stronger case, but it is a reality and should be recognized and even promoted, rather than opposed.
(Where a “Palestinian state” should be placed, and the permanent territory and borders of the Jewish state of Israel, is of course another discussion; but one which, based on this mutual acceptance, can take a whole different course and shape than it has up until now.)
And the gratitude which that acceptance brings should be a part of the Israeli and Arab cultures. We in this generation are witness to the incredible, and incredibly poetic and inspiring, re-emergence of Jews on the world stage as a nation—Am Yisrael, the People of Israel—beyond any religious or faith-based cultural construct. And we are witness also to the emergence of a Palestinian people who, within the wider Arab national affiliation, is one of the most advanced, modern, educated and forward-looking ethnicities in the region.
These two communities have much to rejoice over. Focusing on these elements, with the ‘power of positive thinking’, rather than the criticisms and grievances towards ‘the other’, will create an affirmative dynamic missing from previous attempts. These themes should permeate the religious and cultural milieu of the region, Arab and Jew, Israeli and Palestinian and Jordanian and Saudi and Egyptian and further afield.
Forgiveness as a new starting point
Gratitude for my 28-year marriage wasn’t easy to achieve, marred as it was by my wife’s leaving. Yet realizing my own insignificance, accepting the reality, and pushing myself to remember and appreciate all the wonderful aspects of the life we’d built together, was a crucial process enabling me to reach a level of forgiveness.
Whether we base our forgiveness on models suggested by Leo Buscaglia – who taught an iconic class on love at USC for years, stressing the importance of forgiving our parents, for instance, and passionately advocating moving on and exploring all the alternative paths available to us in any situation – or on Gandhi’s understanding of eternal truths, is irrelevant. We simply need to do it.
Israelis and Arabs have much to forgive each other for. At the most basic level, Arabs must forgive Israel and the Jews for their presence in the Holy Land, for their returning to their ancestral homeland and their tenacity in asserting their right to independence as the indigenous people of the land. And Israelis/Jews must forgive Arabs, and Palestinians in particular, for the century (more) of their violent hostility and opposition to the re-establishment, and existence, of that nation state for the Jews. Those are the essentials.
From there, the sky’s the limit: Israelis must forgive the Arabs for the wars and terror attacks which killed their children, and as Golda Meir said, for forcing their children to kill in return. Arabs must forgive Israelis for the injuries and deaths resulting from their defensive military operations, and for the difficulties engendered by Israeli rule over the disputed territories these past 50 years or so. Israelis must forgive the Arabs for their incitement against Jews and others, for their efforts to demonize Israelis and their leaders and Jews and to delegitimize Israel in the media, academia and international organizations. Arabs must forgive Israel for its early discrimination against its Arab, mostly Muslim minority, and for the animosity in Israeli society against the wider Arab world built up over years of conflict with its neighbors and attacks by Arab Muslims.
Forgiveness must take form, not only in internal perceptions and attitudes but in public expressions both verbal and cultural. The Parents Circle Family Forum is one example of concrete steps taken—in this case by relatives of those killed in terror attacks against Israelis and in Israeli military operations against terror—to move beyond acceptance to reach forgiveness, and to move beyond forgiveness to reach acceptance at a deeper level—personal, national, ideological, religious and historical.
Meaning and purpose – beyond the establishment of a “state”
Having forgiven, and looking towards the future, the various possibilities open for such exploration have to be anchored in some set of overriding principles, leading to a goal or goals which make life worth living. Clearly for me each day on the Trail had a concrete, physical goal—to climb to the top of that mountain, to reach the destination planned for that day, to finish the Trail itself. And just as clearly, following my divorce I had new goals to set: getting my life ‘back on track’, finding my life’s partner, and various other personal aspirations relating to family, community, career and more.
Victor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, presents a framework within which nations too can aspire to have a purpose for existence, including creativity, relationships, and growth/change. Israel, it can be admitted, has always been a means to an end, an expression in modern times of the age-old mission of the Jews to make the world a better place. The Arab world, including the Palestinians, can and must turn to the future and establish the goals and aspirations which will motivate them to focus their efforts, inwards and outwards, on creating a better life for their citizens and for the world.
If the Arab world’s goals—and those of Palestinian society—are simply the establishment of an independent Palestinian state for its own sake, or, worse, for the sake of eliminating Israel; or if their goals are to create a Caliphate in the region and to establish hegemony over all the peoples of the area, then Israel, the West and Arab moderates will be forced to abandon not just this effort, but all efforts towards peace. They will remain in the defensive posture they have adopted since the early twentieth century, while praying for (and promoting and supporting) the emergence of more conciliatory and moderate leadership in Arab societies.
But if the Arab and Palestinian aim is to develop a vibrant society and economy, in peace with its neighbors; if they adopt the themes within Arab/Muslim culture which promote progress and coexistence, then the sky is the limit. Or, more fittingly, the ground has no limits, as issues of sovereignty and territory, borders and security virtually resolve themselves.
There are many Arab, Muslim, and in particular Palestinian leaders who are on record as accepting Israel’s right to exist and the Jews’ connection to their ancestral homeland, advocating a Muslim/Arab version of tolerance and co-existence with the West. These men and women – like Mohammed Dajani of the “Wasatia” moderate Islamic movement – are the real future of peace in our region.
The individual and the nation with a (humble) sense of purpose has more motivation to forgive, more reason to be grateful, and greater incentive to accept historical and present reality—because he/she or they just want to get on with things, to achieve their goals.
It was true for me on the Trail; it is true for me in my life; it can be true for others seeking solace and direction, and it can be the foundation of real reconciliation here in the Middle East.
The elements of these discoveries can form the basis for a breakthrough (or break-out) in what has become cynically known as the “peace-process industry”. We need to create a new vision for real peace, based on these parameters. It sounds simple; it may well be. We just need a fresh perspective, a new approach: a five-step path to Arab-Israel peace.
Humility; Acceptance; Gratitude; Forgiveness; Purpose—these five components, applied to regional realities, can be expanded to create a framework for practical steps for Israeli, Arab and international negotiators seeking to finally achieve the vision of the biblical prophets, revered by Jewish, Christian and Muslim faithful and by the Jewish and Arab nations over the years, and inscribed above the entrance to the UN:
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:2-5)
Aryeh Green is the author of the forthcoming book My Israel Trail: Finding Peace in the Land of Milk and Honey (www.myisraeltrail.com), a business executive and consultant, and a long-time advocate of freedom and democracy in the Middle East, and was a senior advisor to minister Natan Sharansky in Israel’s Prime Minister’s office.