A dear friend, Israeli clinical psychologist, therapist, and Buddhist teacher Itamar Bashan, was invited to attend the Buddhist World Peace Conference at Sagain Hill, Mandalay, Myanmar in January of this year to deliver a lecture on peace. Itamar and his family are on the front lines of this “peace koan”, “What is a wise response to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict?”
Below, you can read Itamar’s compelling, honest, and moving response “DEPENDENTLY CEASING in the MIDDLE EAST: A Personal Account.” I’ve taken the liberty to context Itamar’s speech with these few paragraphs to encourage Buddhist participation in this dialogue. It’s important because, as Itamar lays out so very well, the Dharma has a valuable contribution to make.
While a strong progressive Buddhist voice is emerging for climate and racial justice in the form of articles, petitions, activism, websites, social media, and trainings, for the most part Western Buddhist leadership and Sanghas’ have remained silent in response to the extreme use of Israeli force against a highly vulnerable Palestinian population, especially since the Israeli Defence Forces 2014 military operation in Gaza. For those who deeply care about this conflict, our Buddhist silence has become deafening. In the face of Western involvement in the destabilisation of the Middle East, including the unchecked provision of American, British, and other Western funds that are enabling Netanyahu’s “forever rule by the sword“, here’s an invitation to widen awareness and engagement.
I do understand the reluctance. The Israel-Palestine dynamic is a hot, divisive, complex, and loaded issue, even to mention, never mind negotiate. Most people shrug and conclude that it’d likely be easier to configure the Rubik Cube blindfolded than try and reconfigure the Middle East in alignment with a just and collaborative solution. Yet, all conflicts tend to come down to simple, common themes, which is why, even though ideal solutions remain illusive, middle ground can be gained through the recognition of our shared human suffering and aspirations.
A middle way is exactly what the Buddha pointed to, both as a subtle Dharma insight and as a non-violent response to conflict. Over the last decade, my husband and teaching partner Kittisaro and I, have led retreats and workshops in Israel. We love the passion, heart, intelligent inquiry, and depth of soul of the Sangha there. Yet, the power of the Israeli gestalt and the poignancy of Israel-Palestine haunts. It just seems impossibile. After the Buddha’s awakening, he too felt that the task at hand was impossible. So why then, did he persevere and teach his Dharma for four decades? Because even in the face of darkness and ignorance, he recognised all beings have potential to awaken, to transform, and to live good lives.
Ultimately, it is the practice of mindful awareness, depth inquiry, and empathy, both personally and collectively, that opens up the middle ground the Buddha walked. These days, a little more middle ground, wherever it can be found, is the difference between maintaining democracy or sliding into fascism; between life and death.
DEPENDENTLY CEASING in the MIDDLE EAST:
Personal Account by Dr. Itamar Bashan, Bhavana House, Tel Aviv.
What should a peace seeker do in such times? Facing violence, hatred, injustice and
atrocities, what is right action? What is right speech?
I was born in Israel a few years after World War II to parents who were Holocaust survivors. Most people in the neighborhood where I grew up were survivors of the inferno ignited by the Nazis, people that have lost family members, friends, property, hopes.
Many of them have lost their sanity too. Interrupted life. During the two years after the war, my parents were in a refugee camp in Italy, and in 1947 they crossed the Mediterranean from Europe to the Middle East, the same route taken currently by hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees in the opposite direction. After a perilous journey on a rickety boat they arrived in their ancestors’ historical land, with the hope of a new life. The Arab inhabitants received them with suspicion, hostility and violence. Shortly after their arrival the War of Independence broke out and a few months later the State of Israel was founded. Since then to this day, nearly 70 years, Israel is in a constant state of war with its neighbors.
For many years I could not understand how the citizens of Nazi Germany kept silence when Hitler came to power, declared war and conducted the Final Solution, the demonic plan for the mass murder of all Jews in the world, based on a racist ideology. I could not understand how ordinary people – teachers, merchants, artists, journalists, politicians, intellectuals, people of law and justice – most certainly honest, decent, educated people – could keep silent. How could they remain silent in view of the human monster that developed right before their eyes. That silence was incomprehensible to me, a crime that was second only to the atrocities of the Nazi regime.
As a karmic irony, the answer is given to me now on a daily basis. And that answer is painful. As an Israeli, I am a citizen of a country that lives by the sword. A country that was founded to address the needs and to protect the rights of Jewish war refugees to have a new and just life, but gradually became violent and oppressive towards a population that lived in this country for many generations, the Palestinians. Gradually, after its greatest military victory in the Six Day War in 1967, Israel has become an arrogant, depriving, occupying state, violating the international law and trampling basic human rights. Last year, following the strengthening of the extreme right wing forces in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) and in the government, this process gained momentum, and I see how ordinary people – teachers, merchants, artists, journalists, politicians, intellectuals, people of law and justice – most certainly honest, decent, educated people – keep silent. I see first hand the mechanisms of incitement, I see the threats and violence that are directed towards those protesting against the repressive actions, and I understand directly how this was possible in Nazi Germany, how it is possible today in Israel, how it is possible anywhere. We, human beings, have the potential to be either pure or evil. It is our responsibility to choose, we are the owners of our actions and we inherit the results.
In the summer 2014, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched a military operation in the Gaza Strip following the incessant firing of rockets at Israeli towns. According to the United Nations, 2,176 people were killed in this operation of which 72 Israelis (65 soldiers, seven civilians) and 2,104 Palestinians (including 495 women, 253 children).
The large number of dead children and women among the Palestinians caused conscientious Israeli citizens to take to the streets, protesting against the lack of proportionality in exercising power by the IDF. These demonstrations sparked waves of hatred and violence against the Israeli left wing, whose strength has dwindled considerably in recent years. A question was raised whether such demonstrations, provoking so much anger and hatred, is a skillful action, or whether silence is the right action during times of tension. I would like to ask you, dear Dhamma friends: What should a peace seeker do in such times? Facing violence, hatred, injustice and atrocities, what is right action? What is right speech?
From its inception, Israel advocated liberal values, humanism, equality, democracy and human rights. Though it did not reach the level of evil of Nazi Germany at it’s peak, witnessing it’s gradual withdrawal towards becoming a racist, nationalist, clerical-fascist state in a short period is scary and sad. The nationalist right wing is growing stronger, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just informed the citizens that “we will forever live by the sword”. Israel was well known for encouraging pluralism and independent thinking, but now the Ministry of Education advocates uniformity of thought, and it finds an echo in the mob: whoever deviates from the rigid Jewish-nationalistic identity dictated by the government is marked by broad sections of society as a traitor and a collaborator
with the enemy.
These words that I write just now will probably be interpreted by the Israeli majority as unfaithful. I would like to emphasize that this is not an exaggeration: Those who seek peace, who are asking to maintain coexistence with the Palestinian citizens of the country, who support equal rights to all citizens either Jews or Arabs and support the founding of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, are considered by a growing portion of Israeli society as traitors. This ethical and moral decline is a result of the continuous state of violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. These are the fruits of unskillful emotions such as fear, insecurity, hatred and revenge. “The Other” is tagged as daemon and inhuman, and thus develops the view that he is untrustworthy, the only security lies in having him exterminated.
Describing the process of change it is going through, I’m not pointing at Israel as the guilty party. It must be said clearly, loudly and with deep compassion that both parties in the conflict are based on painful and traumatic foundations, suffering victims of mutual ignorance. The Holocaust for the Jews and the Nakbah (disaster; the Palestinians’ exodus in 1948) for the Palestinians are constitutive events, personal and collective traumas, the core of both identities. Generally speaking, both sides refuse to acknowledge the other’s narrative and painful 20th century history. The process of dehumanization, based on denial of the other’s catastrophe, is mutual, and is blinding both peoples’ eyes to see that “The Other” also has family, dreams, rights and feelings of fear, insecurity, grief, insult and revenge.
Trapped in these views and fears, both sides tend to identify with their views and fears and define themselves through them, then those feelings and views dictate acts of violence and revenge in an attempt to destroy “The Enemy” that makes them feel that way. They hope to achieve peace, security and survival by eliminating and destroying what is perceived to be violating the security and peace that they crave for.
When we are not aware of “views as views and of emotions as emotions”, as instructed by the Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta (MN10), when we identify with these mental states, when we define ourselves by them, consider them as “me, mine and myself”, we continue to operate automatically according to old patterns and mental impurities. This process is well described in the first link of the Dependent Origination: ignorance conditions karmic formations (avijja paccaya sankhara). Becoming aware of mind states and mind objects allows us to know our views and emotions, their source in conditions and circumstances, and allows us not to attach to these mind states and objects. It also allows a more empathic view of “The Enemy”. With clear comprehension, the idea of separation disappears and wisdom (panna) arises, seeing clearly the dependent arising of phenomenon and the eternal law: “You can not stop hatred by hatred, but only by the lack of hatred” (Dhp 5). And more importantly: alongside the development of awareness and wisdom, the Brahmaviharas* also develop and enable the reversal of the dehumanization process.
And there is the argument of “he started it”, pointing the finger to the other whilespecifying the point in time when seemingly all began. But with Right View, it is clear that there is no such a starting point. Each event that we indicate as a starting point stems from the conditions and circumstances that preceded it, thus in a beginningless chain of events. There is no point in looking for “the guilty side” in this story, because it’s not a story of a victim and a victimizer but a story of mutual ignorance, blindness, denial, refusal to acknowledge the other’s narrative, that results in shared human suffering. It is a story of two peoples dependently arising, or maybe I should say dependently ceasing, in an endless deadly conflict. The fruit of violent acts arising from fear, hatred and desire for revenge, is more hatred and more violent acts of revenge by the other side and so, in an endless chain reaction, the tendency to act violently out of hatred and vengeance is getting stronger every decade creating a mutual revenge cycle. So it is according to the law of karma and so it is in the bloody actuality of the Middle East:
Bhikkhus, whatever a bhikkhu frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind. If he frequently thinks and ponders upon thoughts of sensual desire, … upon thoughts of ill will, … upon thoughts of cruelty, he has abandoned the thought of non-cruelty to cultivate the thought of cruelty, and then his mind inclines to thoughts of cruelty. (Dvedhavitakka Sutta MN19)
The more we incline towards thoughts and actions of a certain quality, the stronger becomes our inclination to repeat them. This, together with discernment between the wholesome and the unwholesome, is the basis of Right Effort. The individual’s mind works in this way, and it works in the same way in the collective consciousness. What each and everyone of us can do is take care of our own minds, our own actions, and open our hearts. We have no responsibility for the collective consciousness.
Having said all this, I’m still torn by doubts. One can cultivate Right View and Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood, train the mind, cultivate the wholesome and weaken the unwholesome, maintain awareness and stability of the mind, develop compassion and equanimity, be aware of mental proliferation and not let it develop. All these have wonderful fruits. But is this sufficient in view of incitement and political persecution? Is this an answer to the moral decline of an entire society? Is this enough to affect the decline of my homeland that my parents came to, as refugees of war, with the hope of establishing an egalitarian and just society? I have full faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, but is cultivating The Noble Path sufficient in view of the frightening and painful disintegration of Israeli society and its deterioration into a fascist and repressive one, that is happening before my eyes? I made the long journey from Israel to hear from you, good Dhamma friends: what is your answer to this question?
Some of my Buddhist friends claim that the right attitude is to keep practicing and propagating the Dhamma, and just “bear it”, as the Buddha advised Angulimala (MN86); bear the worries, the concern, the frustration, the pain of heart. Mind my own mind. But this doesn’t seem to be enough.
During the Saffron Revolution here in Myanmar in 2007, we watched on TV with great admiration and with deep appreciation, the quiet daily march of tens of thousands of monks and nuns and citizens protesting against oppression and social injustice. The four assemblies were out on the streets. It was a non-violent resistance with a clear and courageous saying: Enough is Enough! Though it was a non-violent protest, it caused a lot of violence, with too many casualties. But for me and for many others around the world, and probably for many here in Myanmar, it was an inspiration to what is Right Action and Right Speech in times of oppression and social and moral crisis.The Suttas tell us that Right Speech is gentle and soft. But sometimes it is harsh and painful, and I refer you to the conversation between the Buddha and Prince Abhaya regarding the simile of a child that put a stick or a pebble in his mouth. “I would take it out even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have compassion for the child.”, said the prince. And the Buddha said: “…Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, but which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others: the Tathagata knows the time to use such speech.” (Abhayarajakumara Sutta MN58). It was clear to me and to the Lay Sangha at Bhavana House in 2007 that we can’t stand aloof. With other Buddhist groups, we demonstrated in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Tel Aviv, to protest. We were shouting, but with a mind of lovingkindness, without inner hate: “Free, free, Aung San Suu Kyi!” I still feel the shiver uttering these words. They might have been not very soft, agreeable and gentle words, but they came out of compassion and great care and love to the people of this country. To people everywhere.
‘Accepting reality as it is’ does not mean non action and just observing. Because compassion is not just another mental factor or feeling in the heart; it is wisdom in action. And equanimity is not indifference and detachment. True, the violent conflict in the Middle East ‘is what it is’. But facing it, an action is required, because as the Medieval Italian poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri said, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
It is each and everyone’s responsibility to take care of the situation. What is needed in this conflict, and maybe in every conflict, is a mutual emphatic acknowledgement of the narrative, suffering, fears and humaneness of the other, seeing clearly the mutual dependent arising and ceasing of both sides. Not only that we can’t allow ourselves to leave it to the politicians, we also can’t allow ourselves to hide behind perceptions like acceptance, equanimity, gentle speech, ‘the way it is’, etc. Understood with wisdom, these words are not to be grasped at or taken as a justification for non action. Yes, we have to act skillfully, with the Right Intention, with Loving-kindness and Compassion, with a pure heart, not with hatred and violence. But we have to take a stand in view of oppression and injustice. We have to speak up and engage. Otherwise, all this practice of the Buddha Dhamma is futile.
May all beings be free from hate, sorrow and blindness.
May all beings wake up. Thank you.
THANK YOU Itamar. Find out more about Itamar’s work here: Bhavana House (Buddhist teaching & meditation); and this article in Israeli Daily Newspaper Haaretz: Happiness Through Abstinence.
Keep Informed via:
Breaking the Silence: Israeli soldiers talk about the occupied territories.
Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: BDS works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.
Maine Voices for Palestinian Rights: Co-founded by Buddhist practitioner Sally Bowden-Schaible
Jewish Voice for Peace: Work with diverse communities across the U.S.A. to achieve a lasting peace for Palestinians and Jewish Israelis based on equality, human rights, and freedom.
Tikkun: To heal, repair, and transform the world.
Get Directly Involved:
UK based Sangha Seva: Being Peace Retreats in Israel-Palestine
Connect with Israeli Sangha
Bhavana House, Tel Aviv & Tovana Meditation Centre
*Brahmaviharas – Four innate qualities of the pure heart, that can be consciously cultivated: Loving-kindness, compassion, joy at the welfare and success of others, equanimity.