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Solving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Through Song

For the last seven years musicians Gabriel Meyer and peace activist Elias Jabbour have been doing what politicians have repeatedly failed to do: bringing Jews and Arabs together in the spirit of reconciliation and peace. They do this through the … Read More

By / April 3, 2008

For the last seven years musicians Gabriel Meyer and peace activist Elias Jabbour have been doing what politicians have repeatedly failed to do: bringing Jews and Arabs together in the spirit of reconciliation and peace. They do this through the Sulha Peace Project — a coexistence endeavor based on the indigenous Middle Eastern tradition of mediation and conflict resolution, Sulha.

The Sulha Peace Project consists in a large annual gathering that features three days of dialogue, shared meals, traditional art, music, and inter-faith rituals. Beginning with 150 people in the troubled days of the second intifadah, the event has grown to host over 5000 participants at a time. In addition to the annual occasion, the Sulha Peace Project also provides Israeli and Palestinian youth a rare opportunity to gather together, exchange narratives and ideas, and prepare to be tomorrow’s peacemakers.

The Sulha initiative has been lauded by the likes of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu as a significant and fundamental contribution to peace in the Middle East. Based on the idea that true peace must be built from the ground up, through the people and traditions that make up the landscape of the conflict, the Sulha Peace Project is paving the way for a new reality in the Middle East.

Recently, I had a chance to talk to Gabriel Meyer (son of the late prominent Conservative Rabbi Marshall Meyer) about the organization he co-founded, the difficulties inherent in the making peace, and the role of religion in peacemaking.

What is the goal of the Sulha Project?

The main goal of the Sulha Peace Project is to build trust between Palestinians and Israelis, prepare the two people for peace, and complement the diplomatic efforts, beyond a specific political agenda, stereotypes, cynicism and despair. We are a grassroots effort for peace and one of our purposes is healing, to make the Middle East and the Holy Land of the Prophets, reach its full potential of hospitality, justice, compassion, beauty and creativity.

What is the process by which forgiveness and peace between enemies takes place?

The first condition is trust. Without trust, there can’t be reconciliation. The main thing is to create an atmosphere where people can listen to the claims, pains, and hopes of each other. If you can realize that the other is a human being, then there is a big field of trust that is created and anything can be achieved. There are so many stereotypes that need to be overcome, not least of which is the reality generated by the media. We are trying to manifest and create a new type of reality. An alternative reality that goes beyond all that is put out by the media and daily news.

What is most challenging about the process of reconciliation?

Most challenging is that we are being bombarded by the media with bad news all the time. The media is painting a situation of constant war and suffering. Little attention is given to more positive efforts at coexistence created by people who are exhausted with war. This leads to large-scale despair, cynicism, and fatigue. So I would say that overcoming the negative impact of the media on people’s consciousness, not taking responsibility and handing over the perception of reality to media and politicians represents one of the biggest challenges to reconciliation.

Does the Sulha project champion any political formula to end the conflict? For example, one-state, two-state, or no-state solution?

That is not our job. We complement the diplomatic effort. We do not try to come up with a political blue print for a solution. We are working on creating trust. There are enough people who are creating solutions. They have the plans. Our work is to prepare the people so that when someone does sign a successful treaty there will be people to support it.

Music plays a really important role in the Sulha project. Can you speak to role of music in peace making?

I am a musician originally. I use music constantly as a tool to create sacred space from which to build trust between people. Music and the arts in general are a great means of transformation and healing. Music can reach the ears, minds, and hearts of people in a way that words often fail to do. Whenever you come to a place and hear music that is familiar, music that you heard your grandmother sing, you feel different. When that music is being played by people who are supposed to be your enemy, then it is even more profound. This is how I met many Palestinians and Arabs. I started singing songs from their culture, not mine. It was a real shock which broke the distrust — all of sudden I am singing La illah illa la (There is no God but God in Arabic), and my Muslims partner breaks and thinks to himself “he can’t be so bad.”

Many people see religion as an inflexible force that perpetuates the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews, yet at the Sulha Peace Project religion is harnessed as a force for peace and unity. Can you speak to the use of religion as an instrument for peace?

There a saying in Hebrew: hadinim nimtakim beshorsham, which means “stern
judgment is sweetened from the root.” I believe that religion is at the root of both the conflict and the solution. At our gatherings, we have all kinds of people – religious & secular – but we do use the gems of religion as possibilities for healing. I think that one of the problems with the Oslo peace process for example was that the religious were kept out of the discussion. There was zero mention of the root of peace in the Koran and Torah, for example. Something was missing. For most of the people who are involved in this conflict, religion matters. If you touch the positive part of religion, it has highly medicinal power.

On your website, you say that the goal of the Sulha Peace project is to heal and reconcile the children of Abraham. Why the emphasis on Abraham?

Abraham is our common father. Likewise, Sarah and Hagar are our mothers. We all come from the same family, the same tribe.

I am sure that such recognition goes a long way — but isn't Abraham also the father who is willing to sacrifice his children in the name of God? Isn't Abraham’s relationship with his children also an apt metaphor for the willingness of authority figures in this conflict to blindly sacrifice their children on the altar of some religious or secular ideology?

I personally think Abraham is an archetype. I realize that he is a very complex figure. We can go into a discussion about the binding of Isaac/Ishmael, or how he let Hagar and Ishmael go out into the desert (though he made a point to visit them there), but I see him as a figure of compassion and humanity. He opened his tent to the four directions, and provided hospitality to strangers. Legend goes he would wash the feet of pilgrims and feed them. He defended the innocent at Sodom and Gomorrah. In the Kabbalah he’s related to unconditional loving-kindness, as the creator of the morning prayers, as flowing water.

Some people see what you are doing and say, “This is all very nice. People eating, dancing, singing, praying, and talking together. But how is that going to solve anything? The occupation continues. The terrorism continues. People go back to their homes and they are faced with the same reality. Are you really making any difference?”

The people who come to our gatherings are also crying the pain of their lost ones. There are a lot of people who have suffered. We have settlers and Palestinian ex-militia men. We are not outside of the reality here; we are just choosing to manifest it in a different way. We do not want to perpetuate the same negative feelings. Everyone knows that the problems are out there. We do not give more energy to them. We have CNN, BBC, and al Jazeera; they are doing a good enough job portraying the sickness. We want to portray the medicine.

Are we making a difference? Well, we started with 150 people in 2001, and now, in 2008, we are over 5000 strong. We also have partnered with an organization in the West Bank that teach non-violence resistance in the way of Martin Luther King. Now in our seventh year, we also have youth gatherings — the Sulhita Youth Project which gathers one hundred Palestinian and Israeli kids for a five-day leadership and reconciliation retreat. So I think that we in fact are making a difference.

To date, what has been the greatest failure and greatest success of the project?

The failure is that it is not attracting 100,000 in both sides yet. People in Israel and Palestine are still skeptical and still cynical. But the biggest failure is that people still believe there would be more security without peace. The blindness of people who still think that security will come with war. They don’t understand that for one to be happy the other has to be happy as well. There’s also a lack of justice that needs to be resolved, but it will not be resolved through violence, we have tried throughout history and it has never worked.

The biggest success is that here the Sulhita Youth is fully happening and it is growing. This year we have three youth and three family gatherings. And we found a partner in the Palestinian side that we believe in. We have the explicit support of elders of the stature of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (link to youtube vid) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu among others and also a strong intuition that the framework and way of the Sulha Peace Project is making its mark on society at large.

What can expect from you this year?

Next week we are holding our fifth sulhita gathering with a hundred Palestinian and Israeli kids. In August, we are having our annual Sulha gathering that should once again take place at the Latrun monastery (about 15 kilometers west of Jerusalem and 14 kilometers southeast of Ramla). All are invited.

By mid-October, I will be arriving with my band Amen. Which is also composed of musicians like Amir Paiss from the Israeli band Sheva. In addition to the playing Sulha inspired music we will be screening the new Sulha movie. If you want to support Sulha you can come in August to Israel, or email us to book US tour dates at amen.sulha@gmail.com.

Finally, what message do you have for those Jewcy readers (Jews and non-Jews) whose heart have been broken by the conflict and who have given up on the hope for peace?

Never give up hope. You need hope to be Jewcy. If I did not have hope, I wouldn’t live here. There are still some beautiful beings in Israel and Palestine who are trying to make this place a Holy Land. A broken heart is a full human heart, but you can’t let that lead you to despair. We can’t lose hope. We can't live without hope. As long as you can breathe, there is still hope. Before we die we need to shine our special light. That’s what we are here for.

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