Views from Abroad: Tricycle asks four Buddhists—in Croatia, Israel, Britain, and Japan—to weigh in on war and the possibility of peace.
Small Expectations, Small Joys
Dr. Stephen Fulder, a peace activist in Israel, sees a world conditioned to believe in war.
In Israel you live under the constant threat of terror attack. How do you cope with the fear and avoid reactivity? The terror here has been going on for twenty or thirty years, in different ways, whether it’s the threat of war or the constant military response to terror attacks. Everyone here is a soldier, everyone carries a gun, and there’s a general sense of underlying alarm. So this is not new, and in the dharma community we do work with it, and we do address it in retreat, and people do practice to cultivate equanimity in the face of insecurity. However, what the dharma community finds difficult is the low-level anxiety that creeps in under their guard; it’s constantly picked up. Those who don’t practice intensively really feel that it slowly and surely eats away at their joy of life and their relationships, and it is something that changes, very slightly, the color of the mind. This anxiety is our real problem. It very commonly emerges in retreats.
As a peace activist, how do you respond to somebody who says, “Listen, we’re under attack. Violence is our only effective response, and any other method is unrealistic.” Violent response fuels a very clear cycle of reactivity. Such a response is not only ineffective, damaging to both sides, it also prolongs conflict. We have to protect life, but this is not done by becoming more oppressive of another community. Indeed, if you ask whether we’d physically restrain a suicide bomber in order to stop him from blowing up a bus, I think everybody would say sure. But would you bomb a community of Palestinians in order to prevent it? I would say that’s a disaster, and it mustn’t be done. Other ways have not been exhausted. People in the peace movement in Israel talk about pursuing other strategies, but often nobody’s listening. Both Israel and Palestine are like two runaway buses. The public is locked into reactivity on a national level. Out of despair, people say, “Oh, there’s no other way, only violence works.” That simply isn’t true, it’s merely conditioning.
You say nobody is listening. Is that disheartening? What motivates you to continue, then? We’re in this for the long term. It’s not disheartening, because there are always a few people who listen. I have no way of predicting, forcing, or expecting results. We’re really throwing our bread on the water and continuing on. You will despair if you expect results or major change. There are forces here that are so much bigger than we are. But there’s hope. I’ll give you an example: We had three years of intensive dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. We used to bring Israelis over to the Palestinian communities and sit in dialogue for several days together. This was a very difficult project, but it went on year after year, and major changes happened to people who participated. Along came the second Intifada [Palestinian uprising], and it seemed to wipe the whole thing out. The same Palestinians we were talking to went back to the streets, and Israelis who were more peace-oriented were suddenly taking an aggressive stance. But there was also an irreversible change in some people, and they went on to become the strongest peace activists now working in the Israeli and Palestinian communities. So results do happen, but we cannot predict where they will happen or how. Things have to take their course. So that’s our response: to reduce expectations, to keep going, and to look for small joys, small flowerings of wisdom along the way.
When you say all options have not been exhausted, is there one in particular that you can point to that has not been given a sufficient chance to work? Yes: the option of listening. There is a tremendous amount of political demagoguery on both sides, whipping up anger and hate. There’s very little intentional work at the level of government or NGOs to create more dialogue between people. And dialogue is crucial here, because the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians do want peace, but people aren’t listening to each other’s stories, or creating a forum where these stories are properly heard. So dialogue and listening, at the level of media or political discourse on both sides, haven’t been explored.
Given the complexity of this conflict, and the mistrust on both sides, how realistic is peace, and how do you respond to those who insist that it isn’t? My response would be that peace is everywhere, you just have to notice it. It’s extremely realistic to know that people are in relationship with each other and that we affect each other’s fate. There’s a total intimacy between our two communities: we live on the same land, use the same water, speak more or less the same language, share the same food. We are like two brothers. So on a local level, interrelation, connection, and peace have already been there. And the Buddhist way is helping us to see that conflict comes only out of despair, out of resignation, out of a negative cast of mind, out of fear and hate. And you see this very, very clearly in the Middle East. Without the fear and hate, slowly these two communities can come together. The minute fear and hate arise, we are far apart again. This has been happening for fifty years. The Buddhist message cleans the psychological landscape of fear and hate, and peace simply happens by itself. People suddenly notice that they no longer need to fight.