Tag Archives: War

Building Peace Means Letting Go

I saw something beautiful yesterday.

I saw two small children, giggling. They were playing on what is supposed to be a pull-up bar in one of the exercise parks that are all over Singapore. The three adults with them held the children’s hands over the bar and pumped their legs back and forth. The children laughed and squirmed, ready to get down. Once on the ground, they ran off on unsteady, fat little legs. I watched tight little curls and wisp of a ponytail bouncing. The adults reached for the children’s hands and the children reached for each other’s. They couldn’t have been much more than two years old. I watched this scene until the group turned down a lane at the end of the road.

Those children will grow up fast. I wonder what the world will look like as they do. I hope it’s a more peaceful world than the one we have now, and I’m beginning to think that creating that world means letting go of much of what separates us from each other, what makes us see “us” and “them” and not just “people”.

War
Like every Ashkenazi Jewish family, my family has a Holocaust history. But since all of my grandparents and one or two great-grandparents were born in Canada, it’s such that those who didn’t come to Canada before the war (with one exception, I think) didn’t survive. We’ve been Canadian for a long time and it’s my grandparents’ stories about Canada in the 40s and 50s that I grew up hearing.

My sister and I were recently talking about our shared desire to visit Eastern Europe and the conversation revealed different understandings of the role that Poland, Russia, and Lithuania play in our lives. She spoke about feeling ancestral ties to those countries but also regret for not being able to see what our ancestors saw because none of that is there anymore. On the other hand, I’m interested in the people’s history rather than the government and military history that I learned in school. I’m interested in economic recovery and development. It didn’t occur to me to have ancestral ties to anywhere.

We also talked about the concentration camps, which my sister said she had never really been interested in seeing. We talked about the fatigue that is a side-effect of so much study of so much tragedy. There is a point at which you simply can’t take in any more and you stop. I was glued to Holocaust books as a kid and even into college. I haven’t read one since.

But I am and have always been interested in seeing the concentration camps. I’ve always thought of it as an act of defiance. An act of standing my ground and proclaiming my existence. You didn’t want me here. But here I am.

Reconciliation
A conversation with a friend about a month later, however, prompted me to rethink the whole thing. Going over both conversations in my head while out for a run brought a new realization to light and prompted me to write this post. It seems that the way I’ve been thinking about everything above is misaligned with my firm belief in the necessity of peace. I went through a transition with my thinking on peace last year, specifically when I revisited all of my ideas about Israel. It seems that I’ve taken a step back (or perhaps sideways, if I’m being generous to myself) and I would like to correct it.

This is began to understand on my run:

For as long as I can remember, I thought I’d visit the concentration camps with an attitude of victory. We won, you lost. And I’d never really thought past that. But in this scenario, there’s still an “us”, still a “them”. There’s still the misunderstanding and fear that lead to hatred, the result of which is all too apparent far too often.

But now I think that attitude actually misses the entire point. The camps have been preserved to bear witness, to provide evidence, to serve as a constant reminder of what happens when we separate ourselves, invent distinctions between groups, and cut one another off. The camps are a monument and a memorial. They are where the ghosts of the past urge us to do better, to be better. They are not about winning or losing.

So, it is quite another thing for me to visit the concentration camps the way I have visited the beaches at Normandy or killing fields of Cambodia. Visiting the camps in this light means mourning, paying respects to those whose lives were lost too soon. It means being a witness to what happens when we look at life through a lens that compartmentalizes individuals into categories. It means finding the courage, like countless others throughout history, to stand up for what is right in the face of the strongest adversity.

Peace
When I do make that trip to Eastern Europe, I need to make a dedicated effort to deepen my understanding of humanity and the importance of holding all humans together under one umbrella. As a teacher of peace, I cannot approach a conflict without first looking at the humans affected by that conflict. It’s when regular people become the focus of our teaching, our looking back at history, that we can hope to let go of everything that pulled us apart.

That is what peace means.

Peace means looking at the world that we live in and choosing to come together because it’s the only world we have. It means respecting each other’s losses, being happy for each other’s gains, and working for the good of all humanity. It means letting go of what separates us from each other and fighting to maintain what brings us together. It means doing whatever we can so that children the world over can laugh like the children I watched yesterday.

Peace has to come from me. It has to come from you. From all of us. I will do that by letting go of the anger that morphed into defiance that miscolored my perception of how to move forward. Peace is not a contest. It’s not a race. There is no winning and there is no losing. Rather, peace is about opening my arms and letting in the world with all of its bruises, scars, rights, and wrongs. It’s about recognizing myself in you and you in me. Peace is about gratitude for having found you there.

This is where peace comes from. This is the way I want to live and the world I’m committed to building.

Israel Through New Eyes

In just a few days, I’m joining the eighth graders on their two-week B’nai Mitzvah trip to Israel. I’m excited to share a country I love with students who have never seen it, glad to experience it again with colleagues who have visited often, and curious to hear yet another narrative about this land that generates so much passion from all sides.

I’ve written about Israel before and I’m interested about what stories will and will not align with my evolving views on peace and war. I’ll get back to you on that.

Recently, I heard a Hidden Brain podcast about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that provided an update on two men featured in a previous episode. The 30-minute update, which you can listen to and understand without the original story, is here:

Hidden Brain – Encore of Ep. 24: Tribes and Traitors

If nothing else, begin listening at 22:38. Podcast host Shankar Vedanatam leaves listeners with a scene from Westling Jerusalem, a one-man show that reflects the multidimensional relationships between Arabs and Israelis and provides even more complexity to a persistent problem. The soundbite from the show is about 6 minutes long and, I believe, worth your time.

There’s a lot of work to be done in this world. I’m hopeful that this trip will instill in my students  the need for such work. The world needs fresh minds and clear heads.

There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called Yesterday and the other is called Tomorrow. Today is the right day to love, believe, do, and mostly live. – The Dalai Lama

Forward

On the phone this morning, my mum pointed out that I haven’t blogged in a while. I haven’t written in my journal as often as usual, either. I started thinking about why that might be, and I feel that nothing I have to say is important compared to all of the hate the world is experiencing. My grade 10 students write up current events reports every two weeks, and some of them have already come in.

As the world is aware, it has not been a good two weeks.

My students are genuinely concerned, not just about Paris but also about Nigeria, Lebanon, ISIS, and the debate over refugees in the US. They’re concerned about potential evacuation drills, and they’re concerned about why there’s been so much violence in the world lately. One of them told me, “I wanted to find a current event that’s not about war. But I can’t.”

As I listen to student concerns, look over news articles in class, validate fears, and explain what/who/why ISIS is, I have also come to terms with my own unease. I realized this while journaling just a few minutes ago, and I thought it would be a good time for a post.

What frustrates me, and always has, is hate. Hate is not something I understand, not when it’s directed at a specific group of people (and I mean people, not monsters like ISIS, Boko Haram, or the Nazis). I understand fear, though I don’t always agree with it. However, I don’t understand the underlying racism, the hate, that accompanies fear. How is it that we don’t know better? Where did we, as educators, go wrong? Where did we, as people, as humans, go wrong? I’d expect that if asked, everyone in the people category (again, excluding monsters and their affiliates) would claim to want peace.

But we know that wanting peace isn’t enough. Peace doesn’t happen overnight. Peace needs time. It needs to be built. It needs to be strong so that it lasts.

As a student and a teacher of history, I know that peace is fragile. Peacebuilding itself is fragile. Peace is scary for some, I think, because it means letting go. It means admitting fallacy. It means apologizing when you’re in the wrong, when you’ve hurt others. It means compromise.

The way I see it, peace is the only way forward. And if we can’t build peace as a world right now for whatever reason (and I do understand the obstacles) maybe we can start by building peace within and among ourselves. We do that with children. We say things like, “Two wrongs don’t make a right!” (And we smile indulgently when cheeky kids respond with, “But two negatives make a positive!”) We tell children that “hands are not for hitting” and that it’s important to be nice to our friends. Sharing is caring, right? We teach children that everyone is unique and we teach the acceptance of difference. We teach about different cultures, different customs, and the importance of the Golden Rule. We teach friendship and respect and fairness and trustworthiness. We teach about taking risks and about trying again. We teach about perspectives and beliefs and opinions. We teach about hope for the future.

We teach children how to stop, listen, reflect, apologize, shake hands, and move forward. We teach children how to live.

As an educator, I am not in a position to negotiate world peace, and I do not envy those who are. But I do believe that it the responsibility of every person to create a better world. I became a teacher because I firmly believe that every person can play a role in doing so. In my classroom, we build peace. We communicate. We debate. We reflect. We listen and respond to one another as people, regardless of our differences. We highlight those differences to understand them, and we ask questions when we are uncertain. In my classroom, my students are safe. They are learning how to create a peaceful environment, and what it means to be a member of a community.

It is those lessons that I believe the world needs. Bombs aren’t going to stop us from hurting.

Peace, even in the smallest of ways, is our way forward.