Parshat Shmot in Beit Jala:

The Minds of Peace Gathering

Ilana Sumka

January 10, 2010

Minds of Peace is an experiment in public negotiation for peace, between Israelis and Palestinians who do not represent any government or formal leadership.  The goal is to encourage people to search for practical ways out of the current situation facing Palestinians and Israelis, to encourage people to think about a future of peaceful relations.  I was an audience member at their third gathering.

I lit my Shabbat candles on the side table.  I didn’t know exactly what time it was, but the shades of pink were rising over the hills of Beit Jala…

As I returned to my chair, Jamal laid out his prayer rug on the floor, facing the setting sun.  He bowed quietly, in a series of reverent, respectful movements.  Watching him pray his evening prayers, I felt at home…

Borders, cessation of violence, principles of trust, Jerusalem, settlements, water, demography and geography.  As if it rests on our shoulders – because in some ways it does – the 6 Israelis and 5 Palestinians sink their hands into the muck that makes up the nitty-gritty details of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  A conversation our leaders seem unwilling to have, this group is drawing borders, negotiating principles, alternating clenched fists with humor…

The negotiations have been going on for hours and we’ve barely finished Jerusalem.  “What about the holy sites?” asks the Israeli facilitator.  “What about lunch?” asks the Palestinian negotiator.  The hall erupts into laughter, and we break for a meal.

These are the same conversations my Israeli friends have over dinner in Jerusalem and the same conversations my Palestinian friends have over lunch in Bethlehem.  But this time the lunch and dinner tables have been brought together, and instead of talking to ourselves we are talking to each other.  Interestingly, just as my Israeli friends disagree among themselves, so too do the Israelis on the same negotiating team disagree among themselves within the team, while simultaneously trying to reach some form of consensus with the Palestinian team, who, parenthetically, are similarly divided at times within their own group.  It’s exhausting to watch as an audience member, and I can only image how exhausting it must be to sit at the table of negotiations.  But it’s also exciting, and even exhilarating at times.  My heart races as I wonder: what will be the future of the land under the Al Aqsa mosque?  Will my neighborhood in Jerusalem switch hands?  Will the Palestinians really be able to prevent violence against Israelis?  Will the Israelis really be able to prevent violence against Palestinians?

In the middle of a particularly protracted back-and-forth around the language of a “special task force” or is it a “”joint committee” and are the members “selected” or “elected” ‘or “nominated” the camera man sighs, turns to me and says, “Boring, eh?”  Yes, sometimes.  I wonder if this really the true representation of the two sides.  Everyone is bored.  Tired of the conversations that go nowhere, fighting over details that no one believes will really lead to anything, anyway.

But I’m an optimist.  A cautious one, but it’s the only option.  I may or may not lose my neighborhood in Jerusalem, the violence may or may not cease, but we have no choice.  Those of us who love our people, and who have fallen in love with the people who are our neighbors – once enemies, now family – we have no choice.  Yes, we have our doubts.  We don’t know exactly what will come of this.  But we have no choice.  Like Moses, Moshe, Musa, who didn’t want to be a leader.  Reluctant, lacking confidence and faith, he argued with God.  I am not your man.  I don’t want to be a leader, I speak broken speech, and I can’t do it.  How about someone else?

Too bad, responded God.  You have no choice.

We, too, have no choice.  The tools we have at our ends sometimes seem meek: words, ideas, flip charts, pen and paper.  The strength of our belief, a commitment to our values, and a vision for the future.  These are the tools at our disposal that will carry us into the future.  There are no promises along the way.  No guarantees.  It’s messy, not perfect.

As the sun sets for a second time in our two days together, I wonder who among us will sit at the next Camp David, the next Cairo, the next Madrid, the next Oslo, and make it succeed.  The day will come when we will look back at this time with relief that the conflict finally came to an end.  Until then, we have no choice.  Imperfect, messy – and we must, each of us on our own and collectively, persevere, because we have no other choice.

Ilana Sumka is the co-Executive Director of Encounter in the Middle East.