What Divides Us?

I recently sat in Tel Aviv and listened to a discussion by a Jewish woman and Palestinian man on the topic of peace and reconciliation.

What made this talk different from other peace-making conversations I had heard was that both had lost a child in the violence between Arabs and Jews.

One had lost a son when a young Palestinian took the life of almost a dozen persons out of hatred and anger over the deaths of several uncles at the hands of Israelis.

The other, in a gut wrenching way, recounted the story of how his 10-year-old daughter—walking with her sister on the school yard at 10:00 in the morning, right after a math test—took a bullet to the back of her head from an Israeli border patrol (no doubt with his own story, his own fears, his own mistakes in a country where everyone is only understood by understanding the past.)

As the story unfolded, I wanted to leave the room. I had begun to cry and, as a father, couldn’t take any more. I was in the chair directly next to the man so I felt obligated to stay where I was. I’m glad I did as the story of these two individuals turned out to be a life changing moment.

This man, this woman and many hundreds of others have banded together into a “parents circle.” They have all chosen the path of peace rather than revenge. Each has determined to end the cycle of violence by forgiving, pitying, understanding, humanizing and empathizing with the story of the other.

The Jewish mother said it well. “The beginning of the end of violence comes when we see the humanity in the other. The beginning of violence comes when we forget the humanity in the other.”

Closeness goes with empathy, dignity, reconciliation, peace and, ultimately, love.

Distance goes with objectification, labels, animosity, hatred and, ultimately, violence and war.

In the most extreme of cases, the parents in this Israeli-Palestinian parent circle live out love. They don’t talk about peace, they make peace. They make peace with their choices. They make peace with their comfort and support of each other. They make peace every time they have to explain to family and community members why they are not seeking revenge. They make peace every time they choose to channel the hurt and pain not into destroying, but creating beauty.

As this father said in broken and heavily accented English, I don’t want to try revenge. Revenge doesn’t work.

After a while, I began to think of my life against the backdrop of their story. I began to think about my family, my friends and my community against this story of reconciliation and redemption.

What divides us? 

What separates people who were once friends?

Is it simply distance? Have we generalized or assumed the other person’s story or motives? Have we stopped seeing their humanity—their hurt—and substituted only their guilt, their wrong and the justice we seek from them? 

Have we let little things create so much space that our insecurities and imagination have created a monster that doesn’t exist?

Have we returned perceived slights with violence of our own? Have we traded slander received with gossip of our own?

Have we walked away from peace talks because we are right, we deserve justice, we are entitled to pity, being the victim, perpetuating hostility? 

Looking at this Israeli mother who had been born in South Africa and knows more than any of us about hate, strife and communities at odds … 

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Ken Wytsma
Ken Wytsma is the author of Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things, President of Kilns College and the Founder of The Justice Conference