Prophets in the Holy Land

Who is a prophet? A possible definition might be he or she who proclaims today the moral truths of tomorrow. Prophets are outside the consensus. They are ridiculed – or worse – in their time. They are disparaged as unrealistic, naïve, even traitorous.

But although the ‘arc of the moral universe is long, it bends towards justice.’ After generations, we look back and recognize the self-evident truth of the prophets’ message, and wonder how their contemporaries failed to grasp it.

I believe that today there are prophets walking among us in the Holy Land. They are not consumed with Jerusalem Syndrome, nor do they proclaim the imminent coming of the Jewish Messiah, or the return of Jesus. Religious language is not heard from their mouths.

The prophets among us today are those who faces I saw on the screen and whose voices echoed forth from my computer last night, the men and women who created and spoke at the Joint Israeli Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony. Their names are Yaqub and Yusra, Hagai and Tal, among others. They told us, as they have every year for the past 15 years, that the excruciating pain of losing a brother or sister, a spouse, a son or daughter or parent in this conflict, has not brought them to sink into the depths of bitterness or to wallow in the soothing illusion of victimhood. It has not led them to lash out against the evil enemy or to dig in their heels for a protracted struggle of the forces of good against the forces of evil.

Rather, as they described to us in one emotional speech after another, their pain and grief brought them to see that we, Palestinians and Israelis, are both perpetrators and victims. We fight with the same conviction and we bleed the same blood. We cry the same tears and we suffer the same anguish. And we fuel the same cycle of violence that is robbing us of our humanity and of our lives.

We will not be sucked into this, they proclaim through their tears. With tremendous understated fortitude, they refuse to relinquish their humanity. Tenaciously, they fight back against the inner currents and the outer pressure that would enlist them as soldiers charging furiously into the next unnecessary battle of this seemingly unending conflict.

‘No, no,’ they beseech us. It is not a decree of fate that we continue to kill each other. It is a human decision. We can end this conflict, but to do so we must meet. We must stand face to face and talk. We must allow the other’s humanity to pierce the hard outer shell of our belligerent national ethos. We must begin to shed our prejudices and stereotypes and start to listen to who they are, just as they start to listen as we tell who we are. We, Palestinians, and Israelis both, must become partners in eradicating this all-consuming conflict.

They are my heroes.  They are my teachers. They are my inspiration. They are all prophets. If only we would listen to them.

But it is not only we the people who must listen to them. They must also listen to us. The prophet’s strength lies precisely in his or her identification with the people. They must not become disconnected from the nation that they purport to lead. The danger of insularity and self-righteousness always lurks on the psychological horizon of the prophet. It can become his or her undoing.

Last night we heard more than once from the Israeli speakers scathing, across-the-board criticism of Israeli’s political leadership. ‘They are only concerned about themselves and not about the citizens of the country. Like kings and princes of yore, they are content to send soldiers to die on the battlefield for their own selfish reasons; they don’t bat an eyelash because it is not their sons and daughters who are going like sheep to the slaughter.’

But to attack the country’s politicians in such a bitter, indiscriminate fashion, especially on Memorial Day, is to attack the people themselves who voted for the mainstream political parties and continue to support them. It is to be blind to the existential needs and fears of the population. It is to ignore, to write off, to disrespect and to disparage, the very people whom you want to convince.

Israel’s leaders are far from perfect. But they are not merely a conceited, self-serving class unto themselves. They faithfully reflect and serve as a mouthpiece for the wounded, traumatized, and defensive national psyche. Like the people that elected them, they – and their pain – need to be respected and listened to. The people and their leaders need to be honored and even loved, they need care and therapeutic concern.

Oh, hark unto me our prophets! I am not telling you things you do not know. I am not foisting upon you values and tools that are foreign to you. It is you who have taught me not to blame those who have killed our children. It is you who taught me to listen to those who have been my enemy. It is you who have taught me to cross the bridge towards the other and to reconcile. The values that you espouse towards the enemy from without must be applied as well towards the adversary from within.

It may be dear prophets – and here I emphasize that I am talking to the Israelis among them – that you have not conquered your anger against those who have murdered your loved ones but have merely deflected it towards another target. It is no longer directed towards the Palestinians but rather towards the politicians and towards the people who sent them.

This is understandable. I do not blame you. But you my teachers and prophets must do better.

The politicians are not evil and are not the enemy. Neither are the Israeli people, not even the religious ones and not even the settlers.

Rather, we are all sickened by a virus that must be eradicated. It is the virus of victimhood, of exclusivity, of prejudice, of belligerence and defensiveness. The virus is the enemy.  We are in this together, all of us have been afflicted. We are wounded and traumatized and oh so fearful. We are in need of healing, all of us.

Please, we need you our prophets, with love and with compassion, to show us the way.

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