04 August 2009

Piece by Piece for Peace

I had lunch yesterday with some college students who are at various places on the spectrum of Jewish observance. One of them, politically left-wing, is religiously right and as an expression of her eclecticism has spent time this summer in Egypt and will spend next semester in Morocco before heading back to school. While dining over breakfast in a kosher restaurant (that has the Tav Chevrati)I found myself arguing--with humor but with intention--that this student should allow herself to break her personal kashrut in order to cross boundaries and eat the food of Morocco, especially since she'll be there during Ramadan and will most certainly be invited to any number of Ramadan Feasts.

"I can't do that," she said. "I can't cross that boundary."

And in the role of part teacher and part provocateur, I found myself prodding for a better answer. After a few minutes we both let it drop, me saying I appreciated her principles and she saying she appreciated having her assumptions challenged.

As I read through the headlines today--no leads on the finding the murderer at the LGBT Community Center in Tel Aviv; continued intransigence in negotiation positions between Palestinian and Israeli leaders; a frustrating stalemate between Netanyahu and Obama; the disturbing scenes in Sheikh Jarra; and the unresolved state of affairs of the several thousand Sudanese children, who await their fate in the next three months--to stay and make their life as immigrants to Israel or be sent back to a genocidal civil war (the remarkable amount of issues to tackle here on a daily basis is, well, remarkable)--I found myself thinking of "crossing boundaries" and how there really is not enough of it.

That in our increasingly horizontal world, where everyone is "connected," we have the illusion of boundaries being crossed but to some degree, these boundaries are only being crossed for our own growth, development and edification. We're not really crossing boundaries as much as we're picking and choosing from a variety of menus as we construct our own unique and highly individuated identities. We all have our limits, right? But what happens when are limits get in the way of the kind of border crossing that can really bring about more visceral changes?

I found myself saying to the student, "But you don't have to eat shrimp or lobster or pork! You should just try the lamb and try the chicken. And then, next Yom Kippur, ask God's forgiveness and simply say, 'I was crossing boundaries, breaking bread with Muslims, because sometimes the principle of peace is more important than the principle of kosher food.'" There were four of us at the table and we all sat there in silence for a brief moment, laughed it off, and then ordered our coffee.

The conversation, as a metaphor, hangs with me as I prepare to leave Israel until my next visit. Jerusalem, to some degree more beautiful and peaceful than I've seen it in a long time, is also horribly divided and those divisions are preventing peace in a most severe way. Especially when the divisions are so close. Sheikh Jarra, where Jews have an historic claim but don't need to live (after all, Police Headquarters sits on the hill above, protecting the area as well as Mount Scopus and Hebrew University nearby.) Same for Ras al Amud and Wadi al Joz. Here would be an example not of crossing borders and living among but rather pushing out and replacing, in order to assert ultimate control and hegemony.

Bu what if the discourse were shifted to respecting differences by the paradoxical gesture of accepting the invitation to break bread in your way in your house while inviting the other to break bread my way in my house? The integrity of our houses protected, we also commit an act of generosity in our openness to test our principles in the street, for the sake of peace.

It's an incomplete thought and so one I continue to struggle with--how far are each of us are obligated to go in order to demonstrate that we are ready for peace. You with me, and me with you. A war that has raged for so long, where each chapter raises another barrier, seems to be calling for a solution where barriers come down. And as long as the security fence stands, then let's start by breaking down bread, piece by piece, for peace.


Josh K said...

The philosophical struggle you frame isn’t that different from Obama’s mission to “break bread” with the Axis. It’s about giving up your comfort zone, relinquishing some control, in order to make a more meaningful connection. Obama faces the possibility that such gestures will not be reciprocated, which could leave him looking na├»ve and weak. When your friend the college student travels in Morocco, she will debate the value of adhering consistently, unwaveringly to one’s personal beliefs versus what utility would be attached to sharing fully and intimately in a Ramadan feast (and I realize you were looking past the literal here).

As a kosher Jew (one who eats vegetarian style in all restaurants) I can relate. For reasons political and personal, many times I have wanted to share a meal or the food of a festive occasion, but denied myself the experience because I have chosen to adhere to my version of kashrut even where other aspects of my Jewish practice have fallen off, and even when I have re-examined my religious beliefs. I don’t think there is any doubt that I lost something each time; a level of intimacy, “bonding,” whatever you want to call it. Whether you are breaking bread, sharing mediocre domestic beer in the Rose Garden, or roasting a pig together, you are engaging in a dialogue. So why stay kosher, why build a wall?

I maintain my kashrut because it maintains my Jewish identity – daily, hourly. Every day I make choices about my subsistence that are colored by my being a Jew. Every tuna fish sandwich or pasta marinara is a shofar blow. I have no idea whether your friend feels similarly about her kashrut, but the same issue could be framed around Shabbat observance, or shomer negeeah for that matter. I question whether anyone should give up the tenets of their personal belief system in the name of building bridges (I am not suggesting that you were suggesting that, other than theoretically). I would never ask a Muslim or Christian to relinquish, even momentarily, any of their most ingrained religious principles. It might make it more difficult to find common ground, but I don’t think there is a dichotomy between building new bridges of dialogue and sticking to one’s guns on personal religious practice.

Andy Bachman said...

Great, great response, Josh. Very honest. I've never had a beer in the Rose Garden. Something tells me even a Bud Light would taste damn good.