Book review: This Side of Peace

April 6, 2011

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I was excited to read This Side of Peace, by Hanan Ashrawi, because I have not read (or even come across) many books by either women or non-Westerners about peace. Ashrawi is a high-ranking woman in the Palestinian movement and served as a spokesperson for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in the 1980s and early 1990s. In this book she discusses her involvement in the events leading up to the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

I found This Side of Peace at times quite interesting and at other times quite boring. I was most interested in the parts where Ashrawi discussed her background and personal experiences, thought, and feelings. However, there was not as much of this as I expected in the book – a great part of the book was a fairly detailed account of all the negotiations Ashrawi participated in. I was not particularly interested in all the back and forth details of these negotiations and found myself even skimming a little bit at certain points.

There is no question that this book casts Israel in a negative light, but this was not unexpected since it is written by a Palestinian. I have read some critiques of the book that criticize how one-sided her perspective is – how she mentions the harmful things Israel has done to Palestinians but not vice versa. However, I don’t think Ashrawi would deny that the book is one-sided – she wrote it to give us her and the Palestinian’s perspective on the issues, not to present an unbiased look at all perspectives in the Middle East. I believe it is important to hear the Palestinian perspective from a Palestinian, not filtered through what the American media would like us to hear.

This Side of Peace also casts the United States in a negative light – from Ashrawi’s perspective, the United States negotiators who were involved in the peace process were clearly biased towards Israel rather than truely uninvolved third parties. I found this aspect and Ashrawi’s description of the negotiation process quite troubling. Of course Ashrawi’s perspective is filtered through her own desires and beliefs, but I have no doubt that negotiations do in fact follow a process similar to what she described: each side has its position, and does its best to hold firm to that position, demanding that the other side do X, Y, or Z before they will sign any agreement. Reading descriptions of these processes strengthened my belief that true peace cannot be reached through such negotiations. We need to at a minimum move away from position-based negotiation and towards interest-based mediation. As long as the parties stick firmly to their positions the best that can happen is a compromise that neither side is happy with. The “peace” that results is unlikely to be long-lasting, as we have in fact seen in the years since the famous 1993 handshake. The parties involved deserve a truly unbiased third-party intermediary guiding them through the process, rather than people working for a government that has a clear interest in one side.

I felt that the personal aspects of This Side of Peace were most effective in evoking compassion from the reader and allowing the reader to view the Palestinian people as human beings rather than simply the “other.” Ashrawi describes air raids and the complexities they had to go through simply to have adequate schooling for the children in their community. This sort of story needs to be told and heard by people on both sides if we truly want to achieve peace. Ashrawi is clearly a compassionate human being who cares deeply about her family and her people. Scattered through-out the more tedious negotiation descriptions, she had insightful comments into human rights and personal motivations. I was most touched by this passage from the first chapter:

My life has been taking shape as a Palestinian, as a woman – as mother, daughter, wife – as a Christian and a humanist, as a radical and a peace activist, as an academic and a political being. And as a composite of all these constituents, I am hopeful that one day I shall attain the only identity and name worth seeking – that of human being.

Although I was not as captivated by This Side of Peace as I hoped to be, I am glad that I read it and have therefore broadened my perspective a bit more.


Pieces of a puzzle

September 17, 2010

Creating a world and culture of peace is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. In a jigsaw puzzle, each individual piece by itself gives only a glimpse of the picture of which it is a part. It is only when all the pieces interlock together that the whole picture becomes clear. Peace is the same way. We have a general idea of the big picture, but can only imagine what the final result looks like. We catch glimpse of it when two nations resolve a conflict non-violently, when an individual strives to lead a sustainable life in harmony with the earth, when a girl in Africa is able to pursue an education and earn her own income, when a Muslim and a Jew in the Middle East become friends, but it is not until all these pieces come together to form a whole that we will have peace.

It is possible to construct sub-groups among the individual pieces, in both a jigsaw puzzle and the path of creating peace. The natural way to work on a puzzle is to look for pieces with similar markings and put them together to create something larger. In peace, some of the pieces are naturally more related to each other than others, and through looking at these groups we can begin to gain an understanding of what the whole might look like.

The edge of the peace puzzle might be the values on which a culture of peace is based: healthy relationships and communities, cooperation, compassion, and the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings. These values are the container in which actions towards the creation of peace take place. When two neighbors decide to use mediation rather than the adversarial courts, one reason is because they value their relationship. When we push our government to provide social services, it is because we have compassion and believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all humans.

Another sub-grouping of pieces are the ones focused specifically on building cooperation and addressing our tendency to categorize into “us” and “them”: conflict resolution, bridge-building, and restorative justice. These actions encompass inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogues; story-telling; groups with differences doing cooperative activities together; individuals learning non-violent communication and learning to listen; individuals, groups, and nations resolving conflicts non-violently; and restoring, rather than punishing, people who have caused harms in the community.

Closely linked to the cooperation and conflict sub-group is another group related to education and treatment of children. Our parenting methods and educational systems must teach children the values of peace: cooperation over competition, listening, valuing needs and feelings, compassion for others, and democracy. We must teach children that they are valued as human beings with worth and dignity, and that community and relationships are important. Perhaps most importantly, we must model the behavior we would like our children to learn.

Another crucial sub-group of pieces are social services and basic human rights, the economy, and the environment. Basic human rights include water, food, shelter, health care (including control of one’s reproduction),  education, and dignity. It is crucial to the big picture of peace that our societies, economies, and governments be structured in such a way that all humans are ensured these rights. In order to do so, our economy must be based on measures of health and happiness, not on ever increasing consumption of material goods. Resources must be distributed equitably and created in ways that are sustainable and not using up finite sources. In our economy and our lifestyles we must value community and the inherent worth and dignity of all humans.

Two last pieces each exist in their own sub-group: empowering women and inner peace. It is impossible to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all humans without recognizing that throughout most of recent history women were not valued with the same worth as men nor afforded the same dignity, and that in creating peace we must take positive actions to reverse these effects. This piece is in fact linked to all the sub-groups I discussed above: we need education that teaches that women are as important as men, social programs targeted towards women (for example, job training and reproductive health care), an economy that values work traditionally labeled women’s work, and bridge-building between women and men.

Finally, there is the piece of inner peace. Although it is up to each individual to find and create it for themselves, many of the pieces I have discussed can help and encourage individuals on their path to inner peace. Conversely, as people reach inner peace, it will be easier and more natural for them to work towards peace through one or more of the actions above.

I am not under any illusion that I have definitively defined all pieces of the puzzle. What else can you think of that contributes to the big picture of peace?

As we work on our individual pieces in the puzzle of peace, let us remember to look as well for where we might fit in to the big picture. Together, and only together, we can create peace.


We must dialogue

August 6, 2010

In most conversations, we talk at each other, often without even really hearing what the other party has to say. As others speak, we are already preparing in our head how we are going to respond. This sort of conversation is often sufficient to get us through the day – we pick up on the content that is relevant to ourselves, the parts with which we already agree, and let the rest slide by.

However, when we get into conflict or encounter individuals different from ourselves, our usual approach to conversing will lead us to dehumanize each other. Typically, if we are having a disagreement, we work hard to convince the other party of our position, without making an effort to understand their perspective or attempting to discover common ground. We take our beliefs as a given and do not let ourselves question the assumptions on which our views are based. We will quickly become stuck in intractable conflicts with this approach, as each party refuses to recognize the validity of the other party’s perspective.

In order to move beyond the “us vs. them” mentality, beyond dehumanizing people different from ourselves, beyond the concept of “the other,” we must make intentional efforts to engage with each other differently. We must dialogue.

In dialogue, we enter into conversation with the intent of understanding each other better, understanding ourselves better, and being understood. Together, we uncover and explore the assumptions and experiences that lead to our different perspectives. We listen attentively to each other’s words, and speak openly and honestly. We do not use rhetoric to try to convince others of our position, but instead share personal experiences that influence our current beliefs.

To dialogue, we must be willing to change. It requires us to put ourselves in a place of vulnerability. We may question previously held beliefs. We must be interested in valuing relationship above closely guarded views of “right” and “wrong.”

In order to create a world in which we can each reach our full human potential, where we live with our differences without feeling threatened, and where we resolve conflicts through non-violent means, we must be willing to enter into dialogue with each other.

I am particularly inspired by the work of Libby and Len Traubman, who founded the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogues in San Mateo, CA, 17 years ago, and continue to do inspiring work with dialogue.

For a more in-depth exploration of the dialogue process, I recommend an excellent essay at BeyondIntractability.org. Here is an excerpt:

In dialogue, participants explore the presuppositions, beliefs, and feelings that shape their interactions; they discover how hidden values and intentions control people’s behavior and contribute to communication successes and failures. For example, it begins to become clear why a group avoids certain issues, or why it insists, against all reason, on defending certain positions. Participants can collectively observe how unnoticed cultural differences often clash, without their realizing what is happening.[18] These observations help participants to determine what is blocking effective communication.[19]

However, this can happen only if people are able to listen to each other without prejudice and without trying to influence one another. Because its broad goal is to increase understanding about parties’ concerns, fears, and needs, dialogue centers on inquiry and reflection. Participants refrain from assuming that they already know the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of the other.[20] Instead, they assume that the other is speaking honestly from experience, and listen closely. This process of deep listening and reflection typically slows down the speed at which parties converse. The slower interchange enables individuals to observe the conversation while it is actually occurring, so that they become more aware of both the content of the communication process and the structures that govern it. They gain insight into the “assumptions and unspoken implications of what is being expressed along with that which is being avoided.”[21] Each participant can examine the preconceptions and prejudices that lie behind his or her opinions and feelings, and then share these insights with one another. Participants not only expose ideas to one another’s scrutiny, but also open themselves up to the possibility that their ideas will be changed. This means that they try to appreciate what the other side is saying and keep their ears open, even when they do not like what they hear.[22] To be fully open to new ideas, participants must be ready to abandon their old ideas in the face of new and better ones. They must be willing to change their minds and emerge from the dialogue as altered people. If they instead strive to convey their own points of view and defend their positions, genuine dialogue will not be possible.[23]


The Value of Communities

April 12, 2009

I recently read the book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, by Bill McKibben. In this book, McKibben aims to challenge the idea that more (stuff, money, etc.) always equals better. He claims that in the developed world we have long passed the point where more and better were equivalent, and that acquiring more money and stuff no longer contributes to our happiness (if anything, it detracts from it). He suggests that localized economies, which are based not on growth and efficiency but on drawing strength from the unique contributions of each individual in the community, and which require individuals to be dependent on each other, are both more sustainable and make us happier.

You can read my full review here, on my blog, Books and Other Miscellany; in this post I want to focus on a few thoughts the book triggered in me.

I have long been disgusted by the consumerism and hyper-individualism in this country, so many of the topics in this book were not new ideas to me. However, it got me thinking about the importance of communities. McKibben focuses on the economic side of communities – on how a local economy could work and on how this leads people to be more involved in their community. He suggests that this involvement – when you know the person who raised the cows that gave you your milk and when the solar panels on your roof contribute energy to the local power station – makes us happier even if economically it is less “efficient” than mass industrialized food and energy production. The idea that we are happier when we actually need each other is, I think, an important point and one that many people miss.

This in turn got me thinking about another benefit of living in an inter-dependent communities, one more directly related to peace. When people know each other and need each other, they are both less likely to hurt each other via criminal activity and more likely to make efforts to resolves conflicts in a sustainable, peaceful manner. McKibben does in fact mention that crime rates are lower in the types of communities he describes. This seems obvious – it is much easier to commit a crime when you don’t know the person you are hurting when you do it. I suggest further that although of course people are going to have conflicts, they are likely to be motivated to resolve them peacefully when the other person provides them a service and/or is their customer. Such communities are therefore the perfect place to use mediation and restorative justice techniques.

I also wonder if increased use of mediation and restorative justice can contribute to building more sustainable, inter-dependent communities with more localized economies. I think they can. Although they are not directly economic activities, they help individuals feel more involved in the community surrounding them. Both mediation and restorative justice can sometimes be alternatives to the government-run courts, representing a more localized (specialized to the needs of the community) approach to crime and conflict and avoiding the top-down, one-size-fits-all approaches handed down from the government.

I think that in order to create a non-violent world that is environmentally sustainable and in which there is no poverty, we must turn away from the path of globalised growth economies and hyper-individualism. We need to redirect our momentum as a society towards smaller economies that are based on the unique needs and strengths of individual communities rather than efficiency and growth. As we do so, we will live in both a more peaceful and more sustainable manner.


Mediators Beyond Borders

March 27, 2009

You have probably heard of Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres), and possibly have heard of Engineers Without Borders, but you most likely have not heard of Mediators Beyond Borders. It is a relatively new non-profit, established in 2006, with the following mission:

Mediators Beyond Borders brings together experienced mediators to volunteer their skills world-wide, in collaboration with local, indigenous and global partners, to improve conflict resolution capacity and support alternative approaches to expressing, negotiating and resolving interpersonal, political, economic, social, ethnic and religious differences.

I am excited to discover that there is an organization doing this type of work! Conflict resolution, mediation, and alternative dispute resolution are critical to building a more peaceful world, and it is wonderful that there is an organization through which people interested in this work can volunteer and donate their time to the parts of the country and world where conflict is rampant. They have projects going on in several locations, including Liberia, New Orleans, and Zimbabwe. When I contemplate whether I would be interested in doing international, humanitarian work, this is the type of work that most draws my interest (however, my immediate goal is to do such work within my local community rather than internationally).

An important piece of building peace is making it sustainable in the local communities. Although first-responder work is important in crisis situations, for long-term peace it is crucial that the communities take control and are not dependent on outsiders to sustain their peace. Mediators Beyond Borders definitely seems to have this focus, with a goal of partnering with local communities:

Mediators Beyond Borders – Partnering for Peace & Reconciliation is a non-profit, humanitarian organization established to partner with communities worldwide to build their conflict resolution capacity for preventing, resolving and healing from conflict. This partnership involves the design and implementation of sustainable peace building initiatives responsive to the needs and culture of the communities, and to the history of each conflict. MBB is not a first responder, and is not prepared to intervene in the midst of violent crises.

I love the concept of “Without Borders” or “Beyond Borders” in all three organizations. It highlights that we all have a shared humanity which transcends political and geographical borders, and taking care of each other is more important than our differences.


A critique of just war theory

February 6, 2009

Note: I cross-posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

Arguing About War, by Michael Walzer, is a collection of essays on the topic of just war theory. The first section of the book contains essays on the theory of just war, the second section looks at specific wars in the 1990s and early 2000s through the lens of just war theory, and the third section contemplates what the best form of world government would be. Walzer’s perspective is a philosophical rather than a political one: he analyzes the morality of war.

I chose to read Arguing About War because I feel that to fully understand and argue my own pacifist position I need to consider arguments for why war is sometimes necessary and just. I admit, therefore, that I came to the book with a bias: I did not expect to, nor did I want to, be completely convinced by his arguments. However, I feel that I have read his work critically and have not blindly tossed it aside due to my biases.

My understanding of just war theory is that it is a moral framework for examining war critically. For a given situation, it asks whether choosing to go to war was or is the correct moral choice. It also looks at conduct during war, holding up each action taken during a war to moral critique. In Walzer’s words:

The theory of just war…is, first of all, an argument about the moral standing of warfare as a human activity. The argument is twofold: that war is sometimes justifiable and that the conduct of war is always subject to moral criticism.

Walzer is careful to point out that a true application of just war theory should not be to “excuse” a war:

Just war theory is not an apology for any particular war, and it is not a renunciation of war itself. It is designed to sustain a constant scrutiny and an immanent critique.

He also clarifies the use of the word “just,” and admits that all war is in some senses “unjust”:

But just is a term of art here; it means justifiable, defensible, even morally necessary (given the alternatives) – and that is all it means. All of us who argue about the rights and wrongs of war agree that justice in the strong sense, the sense that it has in domestic society and everday life, is lost as soon as the fighting begins. War is a zone of radical coercion, in which justice is always under a cloud. Still, sometimes we are right to enter the zone.

The last sentence summarizes both just war theory and my doubts about it. The basic assumption of the theory is that such a thing as a “just” war does in fact exist. I am not fully pursuaded by Walzer’s arguments that this is the case outside of the theoretical realm, but I also have not established a convincing argument for myself that one never could exist. World War II is a classic example that is held up as a just war – it was in self-defense and there was an awful genocide to be stopped – and it is certainly one of the most troubling wars to consider from the perspective of pacifism. However, regardless of how one analyzes WWII, there are many aspects of just war theory and Walzer’s arguments that I am deeply troubled by, and that I think prevent us from moving beyond war.

The assumption that just wars can exist is seemingly the base assumption one must accept to accept just war theory. However, there is another, more troubling, assumption underlying this one: that force and violence, and therefore war, is or can be an effective means of resolving a conflict. This is a belief so pervasive in our society that Walzer may not even be consciously aware that he is assuming it, but it is clearly there in his writing. I question this very assumption: as I have written in a previous post, violence is a vicious cycle; if one side uses violence, the other side is very likely to retaliate with more violence. How, then, can violence be an effective way to resolve a conflict? In order to eliminate war, we must critique this assumption rather than blindly accept it.

In defending force, and even war, there is often an argument that it is for the purposes of security. However, I think that Walzer’s view on what makes a nation secure is narrow. He claims that “The ‘reason’ of soldiering is victory, and the ‘reason’ of victory is the protection of one’s own people, not of other people.” While I agree with this statement, I do not agree with the unstated assumption that victory is in fact a way to achieve protection of one’s own people. If one nation is a victor, then another nation is the loser, and that loser will most likely harbor negative attitudes towards the victor. This is not a very secure situation. To probe this issue deeper, let’s look at Walzer’s argument about weapons inspections in Iraq:

Third, the U.N. inspections: these will have to go on indefinitely, as a regular feature of the Iraqi landscape. For whether or not the inspectors find and destroy weapons of mass destruction (some of these are very easy to hide), they themselves are a barrier to any deployment of such weapons. So long as they are moving freely and aggressively around the country, on their own time schedule, Iraq will be under increasing restraint. But the inspection regime will collapse, as it collapsed in the 1990s, unless there is a visible readiness to use force to sustain it.

Presumeably we are trying to ensure our own security by preventing Iraq from having weapons of mass destruction. However, I do not think that the permanent presence of inspectors will do much to make us secure. If the inspectors leave, Iraq will go back to its business of creating weapons of mass destruction, no doubt with more determination than ever. Therefore, our security was only temporary, only as long as we could forcefully keep inspectors in the country. Force is ineffective for permanent, long-term security in this situation because it demonstrates an immense lack of trust and serves only to antagonize the other nation further. There is only one way to build mutual security between nations, and that is by building trust. Force will always damage trust, and is therefore not effective to ensuring security.

In assuming that force and violence can be effective, it is also necessary to assume an us verus them mentality, and Walzer does so without hesitation. For example, in talking about Bosnia, he says:

We are extraordinarily dependent on the victim/victimizer, good guys/bad guys model. I am not sure that any very forceful intervention is politically possible without it. One of the reasons for the weakness of the United Nations in Bosnia has been that many of its representatives on the ground do not believe that the model fits the situation they have to confront.

Indeed, I agree that a forceful intervention is not possible without a good guys/bad guys model to back it up. But again, I ask, is this an effective way to approach situations? Perhaps the problem with the U.N. is not that they do not buy in to the us versus them model, but that they still buy in to a model of force as conflict resolution. In another essay, Walzer does not seem to recogize quite how fundamental otherizing is to war. He writes:

Wartime propaganda commonly has the same effect, demonizing the other side, even when both sides expect the war to end with a negotiated peace. Once the Enemy has been created, any of ‘them’ can be killed, men, women, or children, combatants and noncombatants, ordinary folk. The hositlity is generalized and indescriminate.

I agree with what Walzer is saying here, but I do not think he follows his own argument far enough. He recognizes that wartime propaganda can create an enemy, which leads to indescriminate killing. I would argue that the creation of an enemy is not only the result of wartime propaganda, but is in fact a prerequisite for going to war. It is not possible to send your fellow citizens off into battle unless you believe that there is an enemy to be fought, posing a threat to the security of your nation.

The entire theory of just war is therefore based on the assumptions that security can be achieved through force and violence and that it is morally correct to view some citizens of the world as the “other.” These assumptions prevent us from reaching peace. The only way that we can move beyond war is to move beyond these underlying assumptions to a world view and morality that does not legitimize force and otherizing.

Walzer demonstrates a distinct lack of imagination as to how one can resolve conflicts through a means other than force. This is particularly clear in his essay on Kosovo. Towards the beginning, he writes, “The truth remains, however, what it was before the inventions: soldiers with guns, going from house to house in a mountain village, can’t be stopped by smart bombs. They can only be stopped by soldiers with guns.” Later on in the essay, he explains the justification for forceful humanitarian intervention by using an analogy to a fire: “If the building is burning, and there are people inside, firefighters must risk their lives to get them out.” Walzer’s use of this analogy does not make any sense: I agree, if a fire is burning, you take whatever risks necessary to put it out, but last time I checked, you do not fight a fire with more fire. He might argue that there is a difference, that the fire is genocide against innocent people while the fight against it is a war fought against the country’s military. However, these two actions are fundamentally the same thing – the use of force and violence – and furthermore Walzer seems to recognize that in saying that the only way to stop soldiers with guns is with soldiers with guns. I would argue that in fact we do need to put out the fires of the world, but we need to do so in the same way that we put out real fires: with something other than fire. Trying to stop soldiers with guns by bringing in more soldiers with guns will only escalate the situation, just as trying to fight fire with fire would. If we truly want to stop the violence and descalate the situation, then we need to look further, for a means of stopping the aggressors that does not cause them to feel threatened and become more fearful, angry, and defensive.

Walzer does not even seem to grasp what peace really looks like. He writes about Iraq: “Though Iraq did not use weapons of mass destruction in the Gulf war, the peace agreement imposed after the war – which was authorized and, in part, implemented by the U.N. – included restrictions on the development and deployment of such weapons.” There is a fundamental problem with the wording in this sentence: peace cannot be “imposed.” As long as there is coercion involved, there is no peace. In another essay, Walzer derides the Peace Corps, demonstrating a lack of understanding about what they actually do: “Soldiers are not like Peace Corps volunteers or Fulbright scholars or USIA musicians and lecturers – who should not, indeed, be sent overseas to dangerous places. Soldiers are destined for dangerous places, and they should know that (if they don’t, they should be told).” First of all, Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars are not at all equivalent; Peace Corps volunteers work in devasted parts of the world specifically to improve the possibilities of peace in those areas, while Fulbright scholars take residence at a university to pursue research. Peace Corps volunteers work on fundamental issues such as education and health, and these issues are absolutely critical to a future peace. Furthermore, they do go to places that could be considered dangerous, and there is no reason why they should not. No, they are not being sent off to kill or be killed, but they are taking risks just as much as soldiers, and working more towards peace than any soldier ever could. Finally, the strongest indicator that Walzer does not fully understand what peace means is a section in his last essay, on “Governing the Globe.” In discussing the idea of a unitary version of governing the globe, where there is a single world republic, he writes: “…I don’t want to deny that something is lost when one gives up the more unitary versions of globalism. What is lost is the hope of creating a more egalitarian world with a stroke of the pen – a single legislative act enforced from a single center. And the hope of achieving perpetual peace, the end of conflict and violence, everywhere and forever.” The funadmental problem with this statement is that perpetual peace does not mean the end of conflict. There is nothing wrong with conflict; in fact, it is absolutely inevitable in any community or relationship, no matter how large or small. The goal of peace is therefore not to end all conflict, but to resolve conflicts in ways that are constructive instead of destructive.

I have one final issue with just war theory, and that is from the point of view of a realist rather than an idealist. Every war the Walzer discusses in detail in these essays was in fact not just in practice. He points out how some of these wars could have been just, if certain things had been done differently, but the fact of the matter is that these wars were only just in theory, only if something had been different. The question I have is therefore, is there ever such a thing as a just war in reality, and if not, is it useful to have a theory of just war? I suspect Walzer would argue that even if no war is ever actually, perfectly just, that just war theory is still an important framework for holding war up to a moral critique. However, I argue that it is not possible for a war to ever be completely just in practice because of the fundamental nature of war. No matter how hard we try to hold war up to a moral critique, it will not meet that critique because war itself is a flawed means of achieving the goals of security, human rights, and other things for which a “just” war may be fought. Thus, I claim that just war theory is not a useful framework for critiquing war, because it is based on the same flawed assumptions and does not question deeply enough the effectiveness of war in reaching the stated ends.

Although it was at times painful, I am glad that I read Arguing About War. It has helped me to clarify why I have always been disturbed by just war theory. It is not simply that I feel so strongly that all violence and killing is wrong (although I do), but that just war theory relies on assumptions about the world that I do not agree with. I do not think that if we truly want to work towards peace it is useful to use just war theory, because it prevents us from considering a new way of looking at the world. In our imperfect world there may very well be times when war seems inevitable, but trying to consider whether the war is just or not keeps us in the cycle of force and violence. In order to move beyond war as an acceptable option we need to break out of this cycle and imagine a different world.


Violence is not the solution

January 9, 2009

Last night I got into a discussion about Gaza, and, as is typical for me in a verbal discussion, I was not able to defend my arguments against violence very well. I was accused of “feeling” that violence is wrong, but not providing any rational argument against it or suggestion for an alternative in this particular situation. I think this is a valid point; I do “feel” that violence is wrong, but not everyone does, so in order to convince people to try something different it is important to show why violence is not just wrong, but ineffective, and to provide ideas for what to do instead.

I therefore would like to attempt to set feelings aside and argue that rationally-speaking violence is not an effective long-term solution to the conflict in Gaza, as well as propose some alternatives. I welcome thoughtful discussion; please feel free to leave a comment.

Why violence is not the solution

An argument in favor of Israel’s actions usually starts out with the point that Israel has a right – and perhaps even a moral obligation to its citizens – to defend itself. The word defend automatically brings up the image of force, but force is not necessarily the best defense. If what Israel really wants to do is ensure its security; that is, to protect itself and its citizens, then we need to stop thinking of violence as the only option.

Using force against one’s attackers will not ensure long-term security for one significant reason: violence breeds more violence. When people feel threatened and attacked, they naturally feel anger towards and fear of their attackers. They are not going to suddenly decide that they love the people doing the killing and want to make peace with them. No, they are going to continue to hate them and want to do violence in retaliation. Thus, Israel’s current actions are not surprising: Israel felt threatened and attacked by the rockets and decided to retaliate. However, the problem is that their retaliation will only increase Hamas’s hatred, anger, and desire to retaliate in return. Violence is a vicious, escalating cycle.

At this point one might argue that the vicious cycle does not apply in this situation because Israel’s military is so much stronger than Hamas’s. Israel can very likely “win” this particular battle, achieving through force their immediate goal of stopping the rocket attacks. They can perhaps even take down the terrorist-led government by killing many of the key people in it, leaving behind a seemingly subdued group of people. In the short-term, therefore, Israel may feel as if they have greater security after they have succeeded in this battle. However, their sense of security will be an illusion. The hatred will not have magically disappeared. No matter how many of the key militants they kill, there will be someone left behind in which hatred is brewing, someone who will become a new leader. Eventually the Palestinians will acquire more rockets or other weapons, and once again attack Israel. The violence, the battle that Israel appeared to have won, only ensured a short-term peace. There is no doubt that the conflict will spring up again, and another cycle of violence will begin. We do not need to only theorize about the future to be convinced; taking a look at the immediate past of the region shows clearly the cycles of violence and “peace.” Violence has been tried many times before and clearly does not work. Why should we continue trying to use an approach that will get us nowhere except to more violence?

In short, violence is not a solution because all it can do is lead to more violence and hatred. Violence cannot breed peaceful coexistence, because the use of violence requires an us versus them mentality that turns a group of people into the “other” and excludes mutual acceptance.

As I mentioned above, Israel’s actions are not at all unexpected given the situation. In the context of a society where we condone the use of violence as a solution to conflict, it does not make sense to condemn Israel’s actions. I condemn them in a larger context, one that says violence will not lead to long-term peace, as evidenced by history, sociology, and psychology, and therefore we should look for a different solution. I challenge Israel to take the high road, to break themselves out of the cycle of violence and try something different.

Alternatives to violence

Let me preface this section by pointing out that if I had all the answers, I would be over there helping them resolve their conflict, not sitting here writing a blog post. I am not an expert on the details of the situation and I have not studied the history of the region in depth. I do not presume to be able to solve a centuries-old conflict in one short examination of it. However, I have a few ideas of things they could try. Some of them may seem a bit out-there, unlikely to ever happen, but this is the type of problem that requires creative brainstorming of solutions. You never know until you try.

At the root of all conflicts are needs and feelings. Every human being has needs, and when those needs are not being met, conflict (and violence) often results. Every human being also has feelings, and when those feelings are not acknowledged and accepted, conflict (and violence) often results. (Note that accepting a feeling is NOT the same thing as accepting an action based on that feeling. It is possible to accept that Palestinians feel anger towards Israel without accepting their actions of shooting rockets at Israel). So one place to start with the conflict in Gaza is to do active listening with the key individuals involved. This means individual meetings where the person in the role of “counselor” listens to the other person talk about their perspective on the conflict. In order for it to be effective, the counselor needs to probe for the root needs and feelings (the person is most likely not aware of what these are; a good counselor can draw them out) and reflect back to the individual what they hear, thus acknowledging the person’s needs and feelings and making the person feel accepted.

I am aware that this may sound a bit too touchy-feely to many of you. Most of us are extremely uncomfortable thinking about our own or anyone else’s needs and feelings, let alone talking about them, because our society has taught us to repress them. This does not mean they are not important, however. In fact, I maintain that addressing each individual’s underlying needs and feelings is absolutely necessary to reaching permanent resolution of a conflict. As long as there are feelings going unacknowledged and needs going unaddressed, the conflict will not be resolved; people will continue to harbor resentments and bitter thoughts.

We cannot stop there, however. After individual meetings with the leaders as I described above, I would propose bringing the leaders together for mediation. I realize that negotiation has been tried and not succeeded numerous times. Perhaps true mediation has also been tried, but I do not know. By true mediation, I again mean something that includes needs and feelings. Negotiation by itself is not sufficient because it jumps right to the last step, of trying to come up with a compromise. True mediation starts by getting each party to truly hear what the other party is saying. They take turns explaining their position, and the other party is required to reflect back what they hear. The act of doing this results in each party gaining a better understanding of the other position. Only at this point will they be able to make progress together towards a solution. Furthermore, they should be seeking a win-win solution, one that meets ALL of their stated (true, root) needs, not a compromise with which neither side is completely satisfied.

It would be very difficult for Israel and Hamas to initiate these actions all by themselves. This is where the third side comes in. The rest of the world needs to put serious pressure on both Israel and Hamas to stop their censeless fighting and try something else. Some uninvolved third-party needs to step forward and lead the steps I proposed above. Someone needs to initiate individual meetings with each leader and work through their needs and feelings with them. Someone needs to lead the mediation (or most likely series of mediations) between Israel and Hamas. We cannot expect the involved parties to take these steps by themselves; the rest of the world must take action to help them work towards a non-violent solution.

However, perhaps none of this will work. Perhaps the Hamas leadership is simply too irrational, and there is little hope of doing enough individual counseling work with them to really reach to the root of the conflict. We of course cannot know this unless we give it the best try we can, but assuming that we do encounter failure, do we just give up and go back to violence? No, we should not go back to violence. There are other things to try.

I suggest to you that the majority of the people living in Gaza do not in fact harbor such virulent hatred against Israel. Yes, they elected a terrorist as their leader. However, I have read suggestions that this was because this same terrorist promised them social services programs, something the previous leader, being corrupt, did not provide. I do not know how accurate this evaluation is, but I don’t doubt that there is some truth to it. The people who elected Hamas likely made a very rational decision: when you are struggling for your survival on a daily basis, you are probably going to vote for the person who promises you the most hope of a better life, regardless of what other policies and beliefs that person might have. So instead of looking at the needs of the leaders, who may be beyond hope, let’s instead look at the needs of the people.

I can perceive a few needs from my perspective, although to really find out we could of course have to talk to the actual people living in Gaza and Israel. The needs that I see include the needs of those living in Gaza for sufficient food, water, power, health care, and education, and the needs of those living in Israel for assurance that they and their loved ones will not be hit by a rocket. I want to focus on the basic survival needs of those living in Gaza, because they are the ones who elected a terrorist. I suspect that if these people’s needs were met, they would be much more likely to elect a leader who is not a terrorist. Such a leader may be more rational, and thus more willing and able to enter into mediation with Israel. Furthermore, the people would not need to use Israel as a scapegoat for their problems (which they may or may not be doing now, and Israel may or may not actually have caused some of their problems – the point is that when people are struggling to survive they will look for someone to hate, someone to blame their struggles on). Essentially, meeting people’s basic needs for survival is a prerequisite to reaching peaceful coexistence. Thus, what can Israel and the rest of the world do to work towards a solution to the conflict? Ensure that everyone’s basic survival needs are being met.

However, meeting the general population’s basic needs is probably not enough. It is important to recognize that the mutual hatred and distrust between Arabs and Jews is centuries old. Many Arabs and Jews grow up with little exposure to each other, and they are taught – not necessarily explicitly (although that may be the case), but through their society and culture – to hate and more significantly to fear the other. Removing the centuries-deep layers of distrust and fear is neither an easy nor a fast process, but it is a necessary one.

Meaningful exposure and interaction is critical to removing fear and distrust. It is not as easy to fear a group of people as the “other” when you have a human connection with someone from that group. To bring this out of theory and back to the current situation in Gaza, I propose activities that bring Palestinians and Israeli Jews together in activities where they must cooperate to solve a problem. How about forming many small mixed groups and having them work together to tear down the barriers along the border of Gaza (if there are physical barriers)? Or having them work together half the day rebuilding a destroyed Israeli structure and half the day rebuilding a destroyed Gaza structure? Or perhaps building a community center together that sits right on top of the border, and then having them work together to come up with programs and activities that the community center could host. Some other ideas are an exchange program where a young college-age Palestinian spends a week living with an Israeli family and vice-versa, or bringing Palestinians and Israelis together to live in a Kibbutz-like setting for a month. Forming connections between children is also critical. How about a mixed Arab/Jew elementary school or after-school program that emphasizes cooperative interaction between the children, where they have to work together to solve some problem? Some of these ideas may sound impossible, but the point is that we have to be creative. We have to think of ways we can bring people together to build bonds and trust with one another. If we come up with enough ideas, we are bound to come up with something that is possible.

Building mutual acceptance, trust, and peaceful coexistence between two groups of people that have hated each other for a long time is anything but easy. It requires creativity and hard work, thinking of solutions and things to try that go beyond the easy, instinctual reaction of using force and violence. Violence may appear to solve conflicts in the short-term, but it is an illusion. As long as the two groups are using violence on one another, they will continue to fear and hate each other. Long-term security can only be guaranteed by breaking the cycle of violence and reaching beyond it for human connection and the gradual return of trust.