I just happened to be in Jerusalem on the day that Secretary of State John Kerry announced the resumption of peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
My two-week visit was made possible by the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel and the American Jewish Committee, which collaborated in bringing together 16 U.S. seminary professors and denominational leaders for the purpose of reading Jewish texts with Jewish scholars and discussing the challenging issues facing Israel today.
Kerry’s announcement raised the stakes of our discussions, bringing a sort of intensity to what could easily have been a purely academic enterprise.
We deliberated about such topics as “Religious Pluralism,” “Jewish Sovereignty,” “Israel’s West Bank Dilemma,” “Religion and State” and “Israel: Jewish and Democratic.”
We listened as Tal Becker, a leading peace negotiator for Israel, and Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster, discussed the peace process from the perspective of the Israeli government and the Palestinian “street.”
And we observed, in their interactions, the challenges to peace as well as the hopes for peace that exist for both sides.
I sensed that both men genuinely respected each other. Both held doctorates from Columbia University. Both were at the very center of the quest for peace and held significant influence.
Yet, toward the end of a late night, their frustrations with “the other side” emerged, albeit gently.
Two presentations stood out to me.
Muhammad Darawshe, whose family has lived for 27 years in what he referred to as “the Holy Land,” talked about the experience of Palestinian Israelis since 1948 when “the state of Israel immigrated to us.”
He expressed his grief over the fact that no concept of the “Israeli people” exists in Israel, but only the notion of the “Jewish people,” a designation that renders Palestinian Israelis as permanent aliens in their own land.
At the same time, he insisted that Palestinian Israelis do understand themselves to be Israeli even as they grieve the reality that “my country is at war with my people.”
He celebrated the “Golden Age” from 1992-96 when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gained his coalition majority in the Knesset with the addition of five Arab members.
This political reality led to significant changes for Palestinian Arabs across Israel as they gained concessions in the way of water access, healthcare and other essential needs.
Then Yossi Klein Halevi, a noted Jewish author and proponent of interreligious dialogue in Israel, talked about two historic longings in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people – to be a transcendent people and to be free from the burden of chosenness so that it could be like all other nations.
In his estimation, the kibbutz movement in Israel’s early history represented the first longing while the settlement movement represents the second.
In the early history of the state of Israel, the kibbutz movement carried with it the hopes of Israel to be a blessing to the nations, but religious Zionism gained the upper hand after 1967 and the settlement movement became the driving force.
Halevi concluded his presentation with a powerful statement: “The enemy of peace in this conflict is justice.”
His words stung. I had never considered such a thing.
Peace and justice as enemies? I thought the two concepts went together, that peace and justice were twins. When one exists in a place, then both exist.
Now Halevi was asking me to believe the exact opposite – that, in this conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, peace and justice could never cohabit. And yet, the only conclusion I can come to after hearing from some very bright and committed Jews and Palestinians in Israel is that Halevi is exactly right.
Neither he nor Darawshe nor Becker nor Shikaki will ever be able to experience both peace and justice in this conflict.
For them, the challenge is to come to grips with such a thing and to determine what injustice they will abide in order to gain peace.
As for the rest of us, my sense is that we are going to have to come to understand this reality as well.
We have our convictions, whether we lean toward the Jewish perspective or the Palestinian one when it comes to this conflict.
But we don’t live with it, at least not daily, and certainly not in the same way that a Palestinian and a Jew in Israel live with it.
Peace without justice. It’s not ideal. But, in this case, it may very well be the only option.
Rob Nash is associate dean for the doctor of ministry program as well as professor of missions and world religions at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga. A version of this article first appeared in Tableaux, an online publication of McAfee School of Theology, and is used with permission.