Mary Desmond | Staff Writer
On Independence Day, Yehezkel Landau came to Chautauqua Institution for the first time to tackle the Week Two lecture theme, ”2012: What’s at Stake for the Common Good.”
In the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy, Landau explored the path to, and requirements for, peaceful understanding and dialogue within Israel and the United States, between those two nations, and among them and all the world’s nations.
In a speech titled “Truth, Justice, and Peace: Foundations for a Healthy Society,” Landau elaborated on finding peace and healing, nationally and internationally based on his own experiences as a Jewish man with both U.S. and Israeli citizenship. Landau has experienced both sides of the coin in terms of religious prejudice and preference. In the U.S., he has been part of a religious minority, while in Israel, he has experienced life as part of an empowered majority.
Landau is a faculty associate at the Hartford Seminary. He founded the Open House Center for Jewish-Arab coexistence, located in Ramle, Israel, and was its co-director until 2003. He has written many books on Jewish-Arab-Christian relations, including John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words.
There are many similarities between Israel and the U.S. Both countries are democratic, multiethnic and multicultural. And right now, both countries are at war, Landau said. Israel is at war with countries that are hostile to its status as a state. Since 2001, the U.S. has been engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In their military operations, both countries have clearly defined their enemies, Landau said.
“Focusing on external enemies whether in Israel or here, rather than on common humanity, and rather than looking within with critical honesty, may be our critical error,” he said.
In his talk, Landau began by focusing on passages from Hebrew works. In the first chapter of Pirkei Avot, a compilation of teachings by sages of the Jewish tradition, two sages called Simon provide three basic tenets for Jews to follow.
“Simon the Righteous, who says on three things the world stands: on Torah study, sacrificial service or worship, acts of love and kindness,” Landau said.
A few chapters after Simon the Righteous defined his three principles, another sage named Simon wrote that the world is sustained on the principles of justice, truth and peace. A passage in Zecharia inspired the second Simon’s words. They can be translated to mean “Truth, justice and peace you shall administer in your gates,” Landau said.
He said that often, those sets of three tenets are taken separately, but to practice Judaism holistically, to reach peace and to create healthy societies, all six must be followed.
“Genuine lasting peace requires inclusive justice, often requiring compromise between competing visions of absolute justice,” Landau said. “And achieving that kind of justice requires accommodating opposing truth claims grounded in subjective narratives.”
Understanding peace, justice and truth, in that order, is a prescription for peace, he said. He went on to focus on each concept specifically.
Peace, Landau said, does not mean there is no conflict. Conflict is always present.
“This is true from the institution of marriage to international relations,” he said.
Peace is built by dealing with conflict and issue areas with positive, constructive communication. To promote peaceful conversations and healing in the U.S. and Israel, a framework or mechanism for peaceful relations must be followed — “a framework for mutual accommodation of interests and needs in a spirit of trust, equity and empathy with mutual care or compassion exhibited,” Landau said.
The need to always be correct is a curse of human nature. It is also a dangerous catalyst for fanaticism and zealotry, Landau said. Too often we focus on being right, or promoting our own opinion, rather than searching for compromise and building peace.
“In democratic and pluralistic societies like this one, and as in Israel, domestic peace requires commitment to safeguard the common good, a commitment that transcends the self-interest of any group or community within that society,” Landau said.
The concept of mutual accommodation on needs and interests brought Landau to the second principle of the Hebrew sages: justice.
For most people or groups, the idea of justice is usually discussed as something owed to them. Loss of something, whether it be a family member, friend or even land, leaves people with senses of pain and grief. Those feelings make people feel victimized. That sense of victimhood usually sparks retaliation, leaving the group that was once the victimizer, victimized. The cycle is a relentless impediment to peace, Landau said.
In Deuteronomy, there is another phrase, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” that translates to, “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” Landau said. Rabbinical scholars have often explained the duplicated use of the word “justice” by saying it means justice should be pursued in a just manner.
Landau believes the phrase calls for a deeper understanding of justice.
“ ‘Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,’ to my ear, my heart, my conscience, my spirit, is teaching us to pursue a double justice: my own and my adversary’s,” he said.
The understanding of the word justice implies an inclusive justice. To achieve an inclusive justice, the ideas and stories of each side must be accommodated, Landau said. To truly hear and empathize with the voices of our adversaries means to hear their truth.
Truth means that a person or nation understands his or her own experience but also understands and acknowledges the validity of their opponents experience, he said.
“Very few conflicts pit good versus evil or right versus wrong so starkly or clearly. World War II was a very rare, perhaps exceptional example,” Landau said.
In our world today, and in our wars, there are no clear heroes or villains, he said. In our world today, nations and people define their adversaries as evil to justify violence or actions of war, but neither side is ever entirely right or wrong.
Since Sept. 11, in the name of national security, the U.S. has been plagued by an ethical perversion Israel has known for decades, Landau said.
“The golden rule, which is our common ethical heritage, gets distorted into ‘Do necessary harm unto others before they get a chance to do worse unto us’ — justified harm,” Landau said. “To confront inconvenient or unpleasant truths means looking honestly and critically at the formative mythologies that sustain our collective identities.”
In Israel, one of the myths is all Palestinian refugees fled Israel in 1948. The truth is half of the refugees were forcefully expelled. The need to understand the truth about those we define as our adversaries is why Landau founded the Open House in Ramle, an organization that focuses on sharing the truth about the Palestinian authorities.
“We are all co-responsible for this tragedy, and we all have to work together to heal it,” Landau said. “But extensive propaganda machines, well oiled by now, operating for decades, tended to blame the other side and exculpate us.”
For positive peace there must be acknowledgement of harm, apologies for harm and amends for harm done. That type of work is necessary to heal the wounds etched throughout the history of Israel and is just as relevant for the U.S., Landau said.
“For this country, endemic racism, economic and political discrimination, and entrenched privilege for select groups — all of these need to be confronted and transformed in the direction of greater equity and opportunity,” Landau.
The election of President Barack Obama proves the U.S. is taking steps toward ending prejudice and racism against black people. But the U.S. also needs to make amends for another crime against humanity: the treatment of Native Americans by our forefathers, Landau said.
He said that year-round, regardless of election cycles, the citizens of the U.S. and the world must have truthful, honest, empathetic conversations about issues of race, gender, economic inequality, ways of loving each other or sexual orientation. They should challenge prejudice, xenophobia, Islamophobia. The most important thing Americans must learn is to resist the lure of defining their views based on one political party ideology.
“Truth is not the monopoly of any one group or position. Each faction in our diverse society is like a color adding something to the rainbow making up America and contributes to beauty of our social fabric,” Landau said.