“Did you find everything you were looking for?” asked the cashier at Trader Joe’s last Sunday morning. I believe they’re trained to ask that when you check out.
“I didn’t find peace on earth,” I tell her.
“Over in the bread section,” she says.
“Sure,” she says. “Cheese rolls are over there on aisle 2. That’s what you’re looking for, right?”
“No, peace on earth.”
“Oh that,” she says, looking a little deflated, and puts the milk carton and half a dozen eggs in my shopping bag.
There’s nothing you can’t laugh at, Bernie used to say out of unquestioning allegiance to the Order of Disorder. But even he would shake his head grimly when it came to Israelis and Palestinians.
Today I’m remembering my wizened old algebra teacher in my first year of high school. He was short, old, and looked like a walrus; I think we were his last class before retirement.
If you asked him: “Mr. Wallach, why does 3x+5=11?” he’d say, shaking his head gravely: “Because the cat told a lie.”
“Why, in the equation 13-2X=4x-5, does x=3?” You always got the same answer: “Because the cat told a lie.”
Perhaps, after a long life of teaching, he no longer gave a damn. We were pretty smart anyway and we taught ourselves algebra at home. I continue to be deficient in algebra, but I can’t forget Because the cat told a lie. Great Zen masters usually had a particular style of teaching, and that was Israel Wallach’s, though who knew anything about Zen at the time?
Instead of teaching us about proofs and equivalences, he liked to knock holes in mathematical certainty. Beware of asserting that x absolutely equaled y just because you proved it on paper. He would veer into philosophical discussions with our two geniuses in the back of the class, touching on calculus, musing on infinity and the perfection of zero.
I was not one of them, I sat to the very right of him, three seats in back, and while I couldn’t for the life of me follow any of that discussion, I was still intrigued. What immensity was the old man looking at as he peered through his big, thick-lens glasses? Dumb as I was in mathematics, even I could see that he was throwing us at a wall every time he answered Because the cat told a lie. He was supposed to know mathematics, but he seemed to know something else, too, and I couldn’t figure it out. Proofs were proofs, weren’t they?
Maybe I think of him today because of proofs that come in about who bombed the hospital in Gaza. Everybody has their proofs, distorted by the media as usual, but in the end, why? Because the cat told a lie.
But one of them is true and the other is false, people insist. There is truth, and there is lack of truth, right? Yes, if you want to pass the test at the end of the year and continue to second year of high school. Yes, if all you care about is pinning responsibility and guilt on one side and innocence on the other.
But if you care about something else—like peace on earth, or at least a real peace in the Middle East, one where everybody gives up something because everybody has a stake there—then proofs and solutions to equations have little value.
This evening I also think about friends of mine, Israeli and Palestinian, who have been peace activists for years. I hear from my brother that a member of the family has been called a hero for his work by the Gaza border because he retrieved bodies and worked to locate hostages. It’s very moving to me to hear about this.
At the same time, there are other heroes, too, heroes not so honored, certainly not recognized over many years, and those are the Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians, and Muslims that have stood ready to hold more than one narrative in this explosive part of the world. It’s so easy to stay with just the one—We’re right and the others are monstrous oppressors, or we’re victims of unending antisemitism. So many, many narratives in the Middle East.
It’s especially horrible for them now. They’ve been mocked and derided for years, called impractical dreamers and spiritual wusses. What’s practical? Fighting is practical. Armies are practical. They get results. What results? What we saw on that first Saturday after Hamas’s attack on Israel? What we see now in the Gaza Strip? Other than cause death and destruction, what results are we talking about?
Now, with all the rage and passion, there’s lots of pressure to take sides. If you mention that the others also have a right to freedom and dignity, you’re seen as a traitor, a betrayer of your own people at a time of their greatest suffering.
And what about the ambivalence that is bound to come up when you go to the funerals of your friends’ children day after day? You prepare food, cry with them, share their grief. Tell me, who are the heroes who even then continue to hold more than one narrative, who know that the formula of one missile=another missile, or one missile= two or three or five hundred missiles, lead to nothing but more death. Proofs of who did what to whom don’t budge weeping hearts and inflamed minds.
These are the people who talk on the phone whenever possible with someone from “the other side,” or fly at their own expense to meetings in Europe or Dubai because holding those meetings inside Israel or Palestine is not viable and is even dangerous. There are so many, many stories in that part of the world and they’re ready to contain, recognize, and even honor each of them, trusting in the power that comes out of bearing witness, listening, speaking, and finally recognizing the other as yourself.
These people are heroes, too. They probably won’t get any models, but I remember them, think of them, love them. This blog post is for them.