Monday, June 9, 2008

Sages and Nihilists

Two quick vignettes about hope.
  1. Yesterday my daughter, returning from teaching in one of Nablus' three refugee camps, was walking through the city with two local volunteers. Whenever we internationals move about the city we wear vests that display the name of our NGO: Project Hope. A local man approached them from behind and, as he began to cross the street, uttered one brief sentence in English: "There is no hope." That was it. Nothing further. He was gone.

  2. After teaching English today in a building downtown, I boarded the elevator to leave. A young man in the elevator looked at my vest and said earnestly: "Hope. Hope for who?" I replied cautiously: "Hope for Palestinians." Then, hesitating, I added: "Do you think there is hope for Palestine?" My caged companion immediately became philosophical. I can't recall his precise words but I will long remember his message. There is no hope without vision and mission, he said. He offered as Exhibits A and B the twin countries of Germany and Japan in the aftermath of World War II. To recover from the War's devastation, he explained, the people of these nations required clear vision, a sense of direction, a shared purpose. The Palestinian people, he said, have no clear vision. How then can they have hope?
The elevator-philosopher was right, of course: hope, like faith, is meaningful only when directed at an object. One must hope in something. Hope is not sunny optimism, nor a function of personality. In this sense, hope is like a vector in mathematics: it must have both magnitude and direction. It is motion towards, not feeling about.

But what about the first man, the nihilist on the street? Was he right as well? Is there no real reason for Palestinians to hope? Is theirs a failed state? Are they fated to remain under Occupation for the next 40 years? In my view it wouldn't be too great a distortion to reduce the conflict in this region to precisely this question: is there hope for Palestinians?

Aaron David Miller, in his new book, The Much Too Promised Land (Bantam, 2008, p.7) describes what he finds so compelling about so many of "the Arabs and Israelis" he worked with over two decades of advising the U.S. Secretary of State:
hardened by conflict and by their own natural prejudices and biases, they managed to struggle on, preserving a sense of humor, fairness, and, most important, hope for the future. In the end this struggle was about good people caught up in a nasty conflict who managed, however imperfectly, to preserve their humanity and faith in the future.
Will a Palestinian statesman or woman emerge, like Moses from the desert, to show the way away from violence and corruption toward statehood? Will the nation of Israel dare take the risks necessary to end apartheid and embrace a just peace? Will the next American president implement policies that offer Palestinians reason to be, or become, hopeful? If not, I fear that more and more Palestinians will slide from profound discouragement into despair. There will be fewer and fewer sages on elevators, and more and more nihilists on the street.

1 comment:

Brett Stuvland said...

Hey Bruce!
Glad you are back in Palestine this summer. In regards to your comments for hope, I was wondering if you had seen the documentary 'Hot House' ? I went to the SB Human Rights Film Festival hosted at UCSB the other week and the movie was about Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Some of the people that the Israelis arrest and keep in there are just the leaders and the most educated among the Palestinians. Some are kept in there because they have planned attacks on Israel, others just because they are leaders using their voices. It was interesting and worth watching.

Miss you and am glad you are there!

Brett Stuvland