Peace is a hard-sell these days.
Throughout history, wars have been, in one way or another, battles over land. Napoleon wanted Europe. Hitler wanted Russia (and everything between Germany and Moscow) with western Europe for starters. Spain took as much of the Americs as it could. Settlers from Europe claimed a “Manifest Destiny” to annihilate anyone who tried to block the take-over of all the land between Boston and Seattle. The British treated Australia and New Zealand as if they were vacant islands.
But wars need stories.
Ah, there’s the rub.
Two rubs, actually: (1) who are “the we and the they,” and (2) “when was the ‘Once upon a time’?”
Take the Hamas-Israel War, for example. Where did this war begin? One narrative has it that peace was shattered when Hamas viciously attacked settlements across the Gaza border. Now Israel is trying to obliterate Hamas. News media are vying to attach blame for what’s going on, and the stories are about violence, its perpetrators and victims. Peace hasn’t got a chance.
The longer story, of course, is about land. Nobody can sort that story out to the satisfaction of any two contestants. There are two reasons for that. The most obvious reason is that there is no agreement about where the story begins.
The Levant has been divided and redivided into states and countries, kingdoms and provinces, continuously, since before recorded history. What any particular spot was a part of, depends on when (exactly what particular time) is being talked about. Borders were arbitrary, generally determined by whoever had the prevailing military presence at the time.
The Israeli government under Netanyahu now in 2023 wants the story of Israel to begin with Abraham, Moses, and David. God gave the land to the Jewish people and these heroes took it. The legitimacy of Modern Israel continues with the pogroms and Holocaust leading to the establishment of Zionist Israel by the United Nations in 1948.
This narrative has never been accepted by Muslim “Arabs”. Their story begins with other heroes and features the contest between the Byzantine Empire along with Crusaders against Caliphs who claimed divine authority. That authority was interrupted by the settlement of World War I when Great Britain took control of the part of Syria they called Palestine.
The second reason the story of the land can’t be sorted out satisfactorily is because the “we and they” are manipulated by the narrators.
Hamas, the pro-Israel story says, is the criminal element who perpetrated the atrocity on October 7. Hamas is a military organization embedded (literally) in Gaza. It is unfortunate, the story continues, that Hamas has infiltrated Gaza so thoroughly that, in order to eradicate Hamas and prevent its resurrection, all of Gaza must be bombed and invaded. Hamas must be wiped out once and for all. The distinction between militants and non-militant Palestinians cannot be kept clear because Hamas has mixed in with all the people and buildings. It’s sad that children also are killed. Hamas uses civilians as shields, including hostages from other countries who happened to get caught on October 7. Israel is defending itself. Any narrative that questions that is antisemitic.
There is another sort of narrative, nevertheless, that holds out for clarification about who Israel is. “Netanyahu is an authoritarian militarist and we, too, are Jews who disagree with what his right-wing radicals are doing. We are the majority, in fact.”
As to particular battle plans and objectives, there can only be debate while those with weapons do their thing.
That brings me to my analysis of why peace in this tragic event is not yet forthcoming. Beneath the surface issue of to whom the land of Palestine belongs (what are its boundaries and what power its government has) is the issue of IDENTITY. Eventually, the war will end and negotiation will begin – or vice-versa. But identity is non-negotiable.
Every war of our time was a war to contest identity.
That is what every war was about and why it was not settled by the battles over land. But identities are not clarified or established by arbitration or violence. War is always the wrong strategy. Negotiating a change of identity is also fruitless.
Peacemaking is successful when it leads to the resolution of conflict by accepting the right to prosper of people with diverse identities. Melting must be part of the process. The thing to be done is not to melt cultures into one dominant cultural identity (which is the American myth), but to melt the notion that a single cultural identity should dominate.
Payap University, in which I am an administrative adviser, has peace as a priority. We have a peace lab, a peace doctoral degree, a peace park, and a long tradition of peace advocacy. Yet, I am told we are paralyzed in this instance. This Hamas-Israel War is a conflict that resists dialogue. No matter what one says, it is wrong. The opposite of every essential truth about this war is also true. So, nothing is true that matters. There is no prospect of good coming from opening up conversation about the Hamas-Israel War. We will only open the floodgate of anger and hate if we say anything. (In this regard this is like every polarized discussion these days. There is no fair neutrality and no middle ground). Those angry retorts will be about who is to blame for this whole mess. The role of peacebuilders, however, is never to fix blame, nor is it ever to cover it over.
Upon reflection I think if we are true to our principles as a peacebuilding institution, we need to try to frame a discussion, no matter the danger.
I repeat: THE ISSUE IS IDENTITY.
If we can refocus on identity as the driving force behind most violent conflicts, rather than land (or economic power), peacebuilding can be re-tooled as a viable strategy.
Identity is compound. One’s identity includes segments that are unique and individual. No two personalities are identical. However, community is necessary and inevitable for all of us except rare hermits and a few sociopaths. Community building requires acquiescence to a shared identity.
Me, I’m an elderly U.S. citizen, married to a Thai fellow, living immersed in his extended family and situated in a rural Northern Thai village. I am an academically inclined, officially employed university administrative specialist and a former cleric. I am self-identified that way. Peace, for me, comes because people in the extended family and village tend to agree with this. The Thai Immigration Police are interested in only some of those boxes, and they agree with my identity. Our gay group agrees as well. Parts of the church do not – and this has been problematic.
Societies and nations function on similar principles of agreement, respect, and mutuality. Trouble starts when one segment decides “your identity is wrong.” Sometimes the sense is “our identity is superior to yours.” This becomes the theme in the narrative that justifies whatever amount of strife (i.e. diminution of peace) is to be fomented.
There is another pitfall in using identity rather than territory as a defining marker.
In the 1970s identity politics became a thing. Identity politics is politics based on a particular identity such as race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, social background, and social class. Identity politics is a mode of organizing based on the idea that some social groups are oppressed. The target groups are vulnerable to cultural imperialism, violence, exploitation, marginalization, or powerlessness. Identity politics recommends that narratives which negatively describe and stigmatize groups be rejected, and that a political struggle be undertaken to bring about inclusion rather than exclusion, to foster positive regard and actually to dissolve the political significance of ontology.
Notice that identity politics sharpens differences and foments struggle without being careful about the strategy of the struggle (terror, violence, or ethnic cleansing might all be put on the table eventually). Furthermore, identity politics is reactive – it is the oppressor who starts the shouting and calls the shots.
We need to relearn how we know who we are.
On the whole, if identity is recognized as the core matter, in which the subject has the right to decide and outsiders who are not affected have no role, then what is to be done to enhance peace becomes not only clearer but more attainable. Possibility is dawning at that point.
Bring on the peacemakers.
Before any reorientation of perceptions like this can begin, of course, war must be given up. War is unsustainable. It is exhausting of all the emotional and material resources necessary to wage it. It is like a Ponzi scheme: it requires the recruitment of new participants to continue.
When the Hamas-Israel war ends the real work can begin. It will take a monumental effort to separate identity from geography. It always does. That is why it is so rarely done.
We instinctively think of location as essential to our identity. “I am American, an Illinois boy, an expat in Thailand.” It’s hard to imagine being divested of a defined place on earth. That’s what makes being an “international kid” so disorienting, and what makes ethnophobes and rednecks so aggravating.
The Hamas-Israel War, as with all wars, seems to be about atrocities, behind which are competing claims to land. At an even more basic level this violation of peace is about failure to respect identities. Community building is successful when hospitality triumphs.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.