The children of today become the grown-ups of tomorrow. The grown-ups of today are the children of yesterday.
Many years ago I was invited to a fundraiser for a program called Hands of Peace which created space for Palestinian/Arab and Israeli/Jewish teenagers to live together for a few weeks and engage in full and honest encounters. The children spoke at the fundraiser and from what I could tell they had many very important and very challenging conversations. How challenging? Think how challenging it is today to talk to someone who thinks even a little differently from you on the topic of Palestine and Israel, leave alone people who think “Israelis” are the bad guys (as if all Israelis are the same) or “Palestinians” are the bad guys (as if all Palestinians are the same), leave alone people who because of deep relational or cultural or historical connections to Palestine or Israel, and to the suffering woven into each of those histories, feel that each word — just listening to it — has the potential to destroy or at least draw blood. These children did it. Held by Hands of Peace, they had these conversations. They didn’t, indeed couldn’t, solve the conflict, but they created a tender foundation of relationships that the grown-ups they would become, perhaps, could draw on to build peace in their region. As I write this, I am sad and somewhat fearful thinking of those children, now in their late twenties. Who are they now? How are they? What’s left of the tender foundation of relationships?
A silent auction was one of the mechanisms of the fundraiser. A box with an embroidered cover was contributed by a young Palestinian, a girl if I remember correctly. A large metal hamsa hand was brought by a young Israeli, a boy, as I remember. They looked like elements of home, they looked like they belonged in a home, and I could afford them, so I bid for them and now they are side by side in my living room, in a central place. I brought these objects to my home many years after some work I’d done with Palestinians and Israelis, whom I’d grown to like and respect, all of them. That work happened at a time when I still hoped for change. Then, as one barrier to peace after another was layered and stacked, often with the blood and tears of someone, or someone else, and sometimes with the bland words of political and bureaucratic “strategies,” I looked away. The box and the hand stayed in my living room in a central place, perhaps silently holding hope. Perhaps those children will…?
And, now, I have been shocked out of my looking away, though I’m tempted to look away again. I could look away, utter some platitudes, and look away once more, but I will not. This time I will not look away and I’m writing this to ask you not to as well. This is not simply about safety, land and dignity, ceasefire, or justice, though all of those things are important for Israelis as well as Palestinians. It’s about the children. It’s about the grown-ups we want tomorrow.
While the violence and kidnappings committed on October 7, 2023 by Hamas militants were unambiguously cruel and wrong, I knew they would be followed by “lawn-mowing.” As I struggled with external and internal responses to the Hamas violence and Israel’s relentless bombing of Gaza, killing and maiming tens of thousands, destroying homes and hospitals, along with a sideshow of beatings and vandalism in the West Bank, I went back to writers I’ve admired: Mahmoud Darwish, Amos Oz, David Grossman, Naomi Shihab Nye. I read news commentaries carefully, looking for more than escalating fear and hatred; looking rather for kindness and empathy that goes both ways even if not quite symmetrically, for glimpses of generosity in the midst of anger and pain. I created a conversation of sorts among poets and writers, using quoted excerpts of their work. As I read the conversation I’d composed, I wondered why everyone doesn’t see: there’s beauty here (I look one way) and there’s beauty there (I look the other way); there’s pain here, there’s pain there; there’s anger here, there’s anger there; there’s kindness here, there’s kindness there; there’s love here, there’s love there; there’s fear here, there’s fear there. I want to write — it fits the cadence of the words and the sentiment cloud I am conjuring up — there’s hope here, there’s hope there, but I can’t. There isn’t much hope, here or there.
If we care about that region, it’s up to us to create space for hope for all the peoples of Palestine and Israel. And I believe that the content and direction of the hope can only be a fair, robust, and viable peace process. It can be slow, it can even be angry, so long as anger is seen, as I learned from Audre Lorde, as a “distortion of griefs among peers.” Indeed anger in this context is a distortion of griefs, but can Israelis and Palestinians see each other as peers? Do we in the rest of the world hold them as peers, hold space for them as peers? If anger is not expressed and understood and explored as a distortion of griefs among peers, it drops into hatred, and “the object of hatred,” as Lorde puts it, “is death and destruction.” Peace does not mean stepping away from anger, “for anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth.” (from “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” in Sister Outsider)
Scouring the news for reasons to hope I watched a brief video on The Washington Post website that shows displaced Palestinian teenaged boys doing parkour, watched by delighted little children. A teenager who is interviewed explains that it’s an outlet from the stresses of the war and the delight of the little children makes him happy. I watched it thinking of David Grossman’s wish. In his essay, “Contemplations on Peace,” he writes: “I conclude with one more wish, which I once expressed in my novel See Under: Love. This wish is uttered at the very end of the book, when a group of persecuted Jews in the Warsaw ghetto finds an abandoned baby boy and decides to raise him. These elderly Jews, broken and tortured, stand around the child and dream about what they would like his life to be, and into what sort of a world they would like him to grow up. Behind them, the real world is going up in smoke, with blood and fire everywhere, and they say a prayer together. This is their prayer: “All of us prayed for one thing: that he might end his life knowing nothing of war … We asked so little: for a man to live in this world from birth to death and know nothing of war.” (in Writing in the Dark)
This wish — my wish, your wish I hope — is not just for happy children, it’s for the grown-ups — whether Israeli or Palestinian— who can be so much more if they are not consumed by fear of destruction and destructive themselves. Little children are sweet and innocent and, of course, we don’t want them to be harmed. But, as importantly, these children grow up to be the grown-ups who govern our world and the world of new generations of sweet and innocent children. Wouldn’t you want grown-ups who know and can give generosity and joy, because they have received it, rather than grown-ups who live with grieving and fearful barriers, hardened by and into hatred, barriers which open more easily to violence than to generosity?