The beautiful woman standing next to me, Iris Dotan-Katz, stood up one night inside a barrack at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and made a vow to work for an equitable peace in Israel/Palestine, one that will honor the deep yearnings of both Israelis and Palestinians.
It was some years ago now, on a Thursday night in our week-long retreat, when we usually return to the camp in the evening. No lights, just candles that are highly monitored not to burn anything down. Someone shone a flashlight on Iris, a diminutive psychotherapist who asked to speak into the microphone so that all could hear her make a vow right there, where so many of her own family members were killed, to work for peace in the Middle East.
Peace in the Middle East! Isn’t it a joke? Like the one about the Russian czar visiting wounded soldiers in the hospital. He stops by the first wounded soldier, tells him how much he appreciates his sacrifice, and asks him what he wants most in life: I want peace in the world! says the wounded soldier gamely. Warmed to the cockles of his heart by this noble reply, the czar stops by the second soldier, expresses the same appreciation, and asks the same question. What is your greatest wish, son? That all people be happy, Your Czarship. Another wonderful answer. He stops by a Jewish soldier and asks him what is his greatest wish. I would like a corn beef sandwich, Sire!
Peace in the Middle East. Who wants that when you could have a corn beef sandwich from a good deli? That’s like saying that one day one day no one will die of starvation, or one day one day we’ll all get to the moon
Friday night I went to a fundraiser. Two nurses, one of whom sits in our zendo, went down to Haiti to provide medication for the many Haitians living rurally with very high blood pressure, a major killer in Haiti. In Port-au-Prince they got to talking with the Haitian staff about the need for temporary housing for homeless families, which barely exists there though so many have lost their homes. It’s hard to obtain land in Port-au-Prince, they were told. A few days later a parcel of lane came up for purchase. So we bought it, Diane said matter-of-factly.
It was that simple.
Since the land is vacant, by law they need to enclose it if they are to keep it, so they began to raise money for the wall, after which they would start building the compound to also serve as a community center providing services to those around. Somebody suggested a poster: Build a Wall In a Shithole Country.
Speaking of shithole countries, is there a better candidate than Gaza, where almost 2 million people live on 141 square miles? More than 60 people were killed and thousands wounded as tens of thousands tries to cross the barrier into Israel on the day the US officially opened its (not yet built) new embassy in Jerusalem.
So what are we going to do? Get swept up in the rhetoric and the rage? Listen to voices of defensiveness and cynicism? My almost-90 mother, herself a Holocaust survivor, said to me on the phone how beautiful those embassy-opening ceremonies were, the dulcet tones of peace voiced again and again, a promise like some pink-tinged horizon: One day one day. Not now, of course, never now. One day one day.
So here’s the thing. We can follow the indignant media and feel good in our anger and self-righteousness, or we can take the next step. We can now actually build a wall in a shithole country, specifically around land bought by two nurses for shelter and care, help build that facility and take care of people. We can support the Palestinians working to have their own homeland, trying to break through walls and create meaning in their straitened lives. Sami Awad, with Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, has done this for many years. We can support the Israeli and Palestinian activists who have worked towards this same goal in the face of a repressive and arrogant government, and an oblivious population (see Combatants for Peace, or Parents Circle of Bereaved Families).
We don’t have to stand in a darkened barrack in Birkenau and make vows. We can make them now, this day, in our own private corner of the universe, and then, as human beings blessed with only two legs, make every single step count.