Slow steps to peace

An Israeli woman finds the key to a Palestinian woman’s heart

Photo courtesy of David McNew & Getty Images

An Israeli peace activist who lives in Jerusalem

I would like to tell you about an extraordinary event that happened to me during a recent peace walk in Israel. The walk was an opportunity for Palestinians and Israelis to walk together inspired by the ancient traditions that guided such people as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

For eight days, participants walked from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, passing by Jewish and Arab towns and settlements in silence and awareness, declaring a commitment to deep listening and nonviolence.

I joined the walk with a group of Palestinians and Israelis who practice meditation and mindfulness together according to the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and famous peace worker.

Monday, April 8, the last day of the walk, is the eve of Holocaust Day, a day of deep emotion for the Jewish community. Today, the walk goes from Ein Kerem through Jerusalem to the foot of the Old City walls.

I plan to join the group in the morning, but after a sleepless night I decide to join later.

In the early afternoon I park my car at the final meeting place of the walk, near the Jaffa Gate and the Old City.

When I get to the Jaffa Gate, I find myself in front of a very agitated elderly Arab man exchanging insults with an elderly religious Jew who is standing at a bus station a few meters away.

Some policemen are trying to calm them down. I am impressed by the restraint shown by the policemen. They respect both sides.

The bus arrives, the Jewish man boards, and the situation seems to settle down. Then, a Jewish woman takes it upon herself to start insulting the Arab, who reacts immediately. The police have gone, and I am left alone to try to calm the situation.

She stops a passing police car and says something to the policeman, who walks up to the Arab. I explain him what is going on and he goes back to the woman. I am so happy that all the policemen in this situation act so calmly and help to restore peace.

Then, a Palestinian woman bursts onto the scene. She jumps to the conclusion that the old Arab is under “attack” and rushes in a frenzy to rescue him.

She yells insults at the Jewish woman, who was beginning to calm down, and the situation heats up again. All my attention is now focused on her. I feel she is like a bomb ready to explode.

I try to explain to her what is going on, but she is furious with me, screaming out her hatred, her despair and her pain.

This is Palestine accusing Israel. At this moment I represent Israel for her.

She shouts out her sorrow about what is going on now in the territories, the military incursions into Palestinian towns. She talks in particular about Jenin, where terrible fighting is now taking place. She has family and friends there, and she says that our soldiers are war criminals.

She is convinced that we want to kill them all. Why do we hate them so much? They are not responsible for the Holocaust; why should they be paying the price?

She tells me about the refugees and their constant suffering for which we are responsible! It goes on and on. She shouts and spews her hatred for Israel at me.

I don’t try to argue with her at all. I don’t show any reaction to all these accusations. I feel a huge compassion and an intense need to listen to her, only listen to her.

My patience is nourished by understanding that behind this overwhelming hatred is a deep suffering aggravated by the present situation of war. It must express itself in some way so that healing can take place.

I am ready to listen to what appear to me as the worst accusations, distortions or calumnies without reacting. What reinforces my strength at this moment is that I have absolutely no doubt that the suffering of the Israeli people is not less real and legitimate. I don’t let myself get tempted or trapped into guilt or anger. For me this is not an issue of who is right and who is wrong.

I feel very calm and peaceful deep inside. I know that it is the only way to calm her fury. I let her express herself for a long time without interrupting her.

As she continues to shout at me, I tell her that she has no need to speak so loudly because I am listening to her with all my attention. At the same time I find myself caressing her arm. She lets me do it and progressively lowers her voice, while continuing to let her despair overflow.

She says to me: “Do you understand why some of us come and commit suicide among you? You kill us anyway, so why not kill you at the same time?” She even mentions the possibility of coming and blowing herself up out of despair.

I tell her softly that I don’t want her to die. Nobody should come to this decision. We all suffer on both sides.

She goes on and on, claiming that the Zionists only want to get rid of the Palestinians. I tell her: “You see I am a Zionist, and I don’t want to get rid of you. I wish we could live together as good neighbors.” She listens to me!

At this stage the conversation is quite normal between us. She is almost calm when I notice the people of the walk approaching us slowly, at the top of the street.

They are in a line, a hundred of them, walking in silence, slowly, quietly, aware of each step, creating an atmosphere of peace and safety around them. They radiate calm and warmth.

I explain that this is why I came here, to join a walk in which Palestinians and Israelis are together. I tell her about the walk, its message of coexistence and peace, peace at every step, here and now.

I suggest that she come into the line with me. She hesitates and rejects my offer.

At this moment they reach us. Several people I know shake my hand warmly as they go by. A young woman very active in a group of rapprochement between the two peoples approaches her and gives her a kiss. It appears they know each other.

I notice that she is very moved by the walk and the atmosphere it radiates. She seems calmer, nothing like the furious woman I met only minutes before.

The end of the line passes by us, and I want to join it. Again I invite her, and again she declines. I tell her that I understand and respect her decision.

Before I go I tell her: “I am sure that some day we will succeed in building peace between us.” She smiles and replies: “Me too.”

Then, to my total surprise, she comes close to me and kisses me on my cheeks!

She walks alongside the line for a while. She tells me that she likes this walk, that it makes her feel good, gives her relief, and that her mood is much better now.

I am very moved. I feel overwhelmed by this encounter, especially by its unexpected ending. Peace was there, around the corner. I did not miss it!

I don’t know how long she remained calm. I know that this profound transformation was very real and intense; no matter what followed, it will leave a trace and a memory that cannot disappear.

I never understood so fully the deep meaning of the words pronounced by Thich Nhat Hanh on Oct. 19, after the tragedy of Sept. 11:

“Terror is in the human heart. We must remove this from the heart. Destroying the human heart, both physically and psychologically, is what we should avoid. The root of terrorism is misunderstanding, hatred and violence. This root cannot be located by the military. Bombs and missiles cannot reach it, let alone destroy it. Only with the practice of calming and looking deeply can our insight reveal and identify this root. Only with the practice of deep listening and compassion can it be transformed and removed. …”

This story is not mine alone. I know I have the duty to tell it to as many people as possible, so that planting seeds of peace may go on and on.