In Angus Deaton’s seminal work on inequality “The Great Escape” he observes, “Our current deep-seated concerns with fairness, as well as our outrage when our norms of fairness are violated, are quite possibly rooted in the absence of storage options for prehistoric hunters.” As with inequality, so too with race, with religion. Layers and layers of conflict going down one beneath the other into the murky pits of prehistory.
So what happens when they converge? What happens when history and time and fate bring together race rage, language and ethnicity and religion and inequality upon a tiny patch of earth? And what if, on that patch, a holy building for one tribe is built upon the holy ground of another? How can these two make peace, when the problems are not necessarily about ideas or philosophies, although there is that too, but more about that primal urge for sanctuary? “Arafat is tricky,” Shimon Peres’s character in the play says, “but he is a man. And a man aches for one thing above all. His home.” When one group is happier clinging in misery to their ideas of nation – checked by enemy soldiers before they enter their holy site – than be given golden castles in a foreign land; and another with an ancient claim that is so much a part of who they are that it is indivisible from their ideas of self, and who have been the recipients of so much prejudice and hate for millenniums that they have nowhere else where they can feel safe.
When both claims are so ancient, when parties to the conflict argue over stories of “the twelve tribes” or “the Canaanites” – when the fight is entwined in the roots of time so far beneath the grounds of prejudice and propaganda that every piece of ‘truth’ has an alternate; and meet upon a tiny patch of earth in a troubled part of the world.
I recently read the play “Oslo” by J. T. Rogers (I didn’t see it in theater, and plays lose some of their punch when they are only read, without observing the whole production). The play is of course about that – about the back-channel Oslo Peace Process that led to the formation of the Palestinian Authority and the beginnings of the ‘two state solution’.
It is a prescient play, because 25 years after 1993 – when the accords began to be discussed – we look to be as far from real peace as we’ve ever been. I don’t pretend there is an easy answer, and neither does this play. The greatest actors on the world’s stage have all set their herculean personalities against this boulder, and failed to even budge it. Only the moistened diplomats fresh from their safe spaces think it’s easy – and this play does exude the naivety of the Norwegians, for which we love them. To see the good in everybody, to believe fixing problems is only a matter of finding the right formula – we need people like that in the world; hope.
I’m glad for this play for one simple reason; it was not prejudiced on one side or the other (which is odd for the arts, so steeped as they are these days in anti-Israel propaganda, a thin and easily pierced veil hiding ancient deep-seated ideas of antisemitism that only reinforce the Israelite’s existential fight for their homeland). That made it readable. Maybe it will inspire some people to begin to rethink peace in the Middle East. I do not have the answers (although I certainly would love a chance to try); I’ve been working on issues of ‘war and peace’ myself for long enough to know that people are not rational and peace is not a natural state. Nevertheless it is achievable – if people can find a way; but the well has been so poisoned on this particular issue that the way is most certainly treacherous and those who embark will surely die upon the path. While we all want to see ourselves wearing that shiny medal; very few want to take the risks involved.
So read this play, and pray for peace. There is no greater commodity, for didn’t Jesus say, from that very patch of contested land, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”