Illustration of figures pointing angry into the face of a figure holding out his hand as if for a handshake


A Different Model of Peacemaking

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Marc Gopin

I have spent much of the last three years going back and forth to Syria engaged in shuttle diplomacy. When I was growing up, I feared Syria, a place dangerous for Jews. In the course of my peacemaking work a few years ago, I met a woman from Syria, an elite reformer who invited me to her country. These visits have changed my life.

I had already been working on conflict resolution in Palestine and had been experimenting with symbolic gestures there. In my shuttle diplomacy to Syria, I discovered that religious diplomacy is based on relationship and on evidence of care. People have to know you and trust you enough to feel that you are on their side. You do not have to be on their side in such a way that you are betraying others, but you have to show you care. This is the difference between peacemaking and taking sides, which is a razor-thin edge.

In Syria I spent three years trying to show on television, on the radio, and in other interfaith opportunities that I cared about and loved the Syrian people. Then I decided to take more risks. The last time I went to Aleppo, I visited a mosque with 3,000 people; it turned out that half of them were Iraqi refugees. The mufti who invited me had not bothered to tell me that ahead of time. I love the mufti; he loves me. We do not speak to each other very much because I never learned Arabic, and because it is safer for us not to in terms of his position.

The mufti brought me in as an honored guest to an anteroom with about 50 people, including Ismaili and Christian guests. He is beloved by many because he defends women’s rights and Ismailis and Christians. He also supports many poor people who have come to Syria from Iraq and other places. He is hated by the jihadists, of which there are many in Syria. He seated me at a table at the front with him, and he started to give a speech. I was listening to the translation. Suddenly he introduced a tall man, about 25 or 30 years old, dressed in white. With sorrow, the mufti said, “And this man was in Abu Ghraib for six months and he lived for 22 days in a coffin.” Then he continued with his speech. I did not know what to do. I have written about apologies, we have debated forgiveness and apology, and suddenly I was there in the moment, and the mufti was still talking.

I broke protocol. I interrupted his speech. I could not stay in my chair. I went over to the man and asked him his name. The people began to yell at me. They yelled to the mufti: “Why did you bring him here? He voted for George Bush.” I said to them, “We didn’t vote for torture.” The man told me his name and he also told me he has two brothers who are missing. I said, “I apologize to you in the name of the American people.” We talked and then we embraced.

After this event we went into the hall with 3,000 people. At a certain point the mufti called me to the front. The man from Abu Ghraib was next to him. He told the people what had happened in the anteroom. He was crying and angry. He said religious leaders and political leaders are going to destroy the world. He talked about the Shi’ite-Sunni split and what was happening to Iraq and more. He pointed to us and said, “Show the world what we have done today.” Fifty of his followers at the front pulled out their cell phones and started videotaping all of us together. The pictures spread throughout Syria. Two days later we found out that Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, told someone that this was more important to him than all the speeches of the presidents of the United States.

The mufti knew what he was doing. He was presenting a way to deal with adversaries: to reach across the divide through apology and forgiveness. He talked about apologies and the need for the Islamic world to apologize for the things they do that are wrong. Our relationship continues.

I believe that this may be a different kind of peacemaking than most people are accustomed to. It crosses the divide between diplomacy and spirituality and ethics and poverty. It calls for a combination of practice and vision. In this example with the mufti, and earlier when I was part of a group meeting with Yasir Arafat, visionary speech and language were required. Religion has always been balanced between vision and practice, the prophetic and the practical. No changes in point of view will occur without vision, but at the same time this kind of change requires transformational practice.

The confrontation in the room in Aleppo was more important to me than the gesture I made. In my notion of conflict resolution and peacemaking, people need to fight. For me, true reconciliation involves some pain and some disagreements. In those are moments of revelation.

Because of experiences like this, I have shifted my thinking on religiously based peacemaking. In my earlier books, Between Eden and Armageddon and Holy War, Holy Peace, I present paradigms of conflict resolution in Judaism, where I talk about role models and exemplars. I concentrate on Jewish hermeneutics and textual evolution. I still think textual evolution has a place, but these days I respond to what is necessary in the context. What is necessary in a congressional office is entirely different from what is necessary in a debate between religious clerics who are Jewish and Islamic. You have to be elicitive, humble, and less focused than my book was on textual debate. I am less and less convinced that textual debate drives either negative or positive change. Rather, change occurs through relationship and leadership.

Love of argumentation is at the core of the Talmud, at the core of the Jewish religious experience. This kind of peacemaking embraces conflict for good purposes.

I also want to highlight a difference I see in contemporary patterns of Jewish peacemaking. Jewish peacemaking diverges from the harmony models that exist in Christianity and Islam and even in Buddhism. Their emphasis on peace and harmony does not exist in Jewish consciousness. Instead, there is a love of argumentation in the context of learning and spiritual experience. Love of argumentation is at the core of the Talmud, at the core of the Jewish religious experience. It is a search for truth, for what is right. It embraces conflict for good purposes. It can be easily misunderstood in its cultural effects on people’s behavior, precisely because it does not fit well with the harmony models.

The key to the peacemaking character in my tradition is not harmonious dialogue, but shuttle diplomacy. It is built on relationships. It is encapsulated in one phrase, as a Jewish mitzvah, the obligation of redifat shalom, the pursuit of peace. What characterizes pursuit? It is chasing, chasing after something that you don’t have. It is frenetic and goal-obsessed. It breaks boundaries. This is a mitzvah, a rabbinic moral duty in Judaism.

Redifat shalom is an active practice, related to pikuah nekesh, the saving of life. The maximization of the saving of life requires self-defense in measured degree, but mostly it requires an active offensive of caring for the other and reaching out to the other.

Marc Gopin is the director of George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. This essay is drawn from his remarks at the conference “Visions of Peace and Reconciliation in Religious Traditions,” which he co-sponsored with HDS’s Center for the Study of World Religions.

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