After 3,000 years, it’s about time we heeded Abraham’s message of peace

Published 14 October 2000
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Published in The Times, 14th October 2000

Israel is a land saturated with religious memories. I think, therefore, of words spoken more than 3,000 years ago on the occasion of the first recorded conflict in a land that has seen too much bloodshed and grief: “Let there not be strife between us . . . for we are brothers.”

Those words were spoken by Abraham, from whom both Jews and Muslims claim descent. They remind us that religion is not fated to be a cause of conflict. It can be, must be, a force for peace. The violence in Israel is shocking, all the more so because it has come from the search for peace. It happens at a time when an Israeli leader, Ehud Barak, elected to make peace, has gone further and made more concessions than any previous Prime Minister of Israel. In so doing, he went beyond what his coalition partners were prepared to accept, and thus knowingly put his Government and political career on the line for the sake of peace. I supported him, as I did the late Yitzhak Rabin who lost his life pursuing an agreement with the Palestinians.

Rabin and Barak were not simply politicians. They were former military leaders, who had seen with their own eyes that the cost of bloodshed was too high. The courage they showed in war they turned to the cause of peace. They were prepared to pay a high price, and in different ways they both did. That makes it all the more important not to abandon what they began through despair, for despair is what Israelis and Palestinians are feeling right now.

The cost of the past few days has been enormous. Which of us will forget the images of anger, rage, dying children, people lynched and murdered by the mob, holy places being desecrated, in a land from which first went forth the message of the sanctity of human life as God’s image on Earth? It is sometimes hard for outsiders to understand how deeply engraved in Jewish consciousness is the longing for peace. 1 have been reading Michael Howard’s recent book The Invention of Peace, in which he argues, in Sir Henry Maine’s words, that “war appears to be as old as mankind, but peace is a modem invention”. That is not so. In a militaristic age, the prophets of Ancient Israel were the first to articulate the idea of peace as an ideal. Not far from the United Nations Building in New York are engraved the words of Isaiah envisioning a world in which “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more”.

Those words go to the heart of Jewish hope. My great-grandfather, a rabbi in Lithuania, was moved by that vision to travel to the Holy Land in 1872 and make it his home. At the request of the Jewish community, he became the official historian of Jerusalem. In 1881, when pogroms broke out throughout Russia, he realised the seriousness of the plight of Jews in Europe. It was a life-changing moment. Abandoning the life of scholarship, he became a farmer and pioneer, building the first house in a settlement which was to become the sixth largest city in Israel.

He believed, as did most of his contemporaries, that this was an effort from which all the inhabitants of the region would gain. He was not wrong, but in 1894 the village was attacked and he narrowly escaped with his life. He decided that it was no longer safe for him to stay there, which is why he came to, and I was born in, England. That was one of the first signs of the conflict that has riven the land for more than a century. It was tragic then. It is tragic now.

The Hebrew language has two words for strength. One is koach, the other gevurah. Koach is the ability to overcome an enemy. Gevurah is the ability to overcome oneself, to control the desire for victory and practise self-restraint. You need one kind of courage to win a war, but you need another to make peace. Peace is hard because it means letting go of emotions that lie close to our sense of identity itself. To make peace, Jews and Arabs must both let go of deeply rooted feelings of vulnerability and pain. That is hard, but there is no other way.

The Jews of Israel seek security. The Palestinians want dignity, the space to build a land of their own. Those are not incompatible objectives. They can be reached by negotiation. They cannot be achieved by violence on either side. If I defeat you, you lose. But I also lose, because by diminishing you I diminish myself. If, though, we can forgive one another for the pain we have caused each other, there is a chance of reconciliation and, eventually, co-operation.

The imperatives now are moderation, an end to violence, and a principled rejection of despair. Jews and Palestinians have suffered for too long. Abraham’s words still summon us to a future of peace.