The Jewish Mind in the Age of Obama


“Our best protection is to communicate with the people we are most afraid of.”

By Kobi Skolnick

Before becoming a peace activist, I spent years as a settler in the hills of the West Bank, planting trees and cultivating the soil. Some of my family and friends still live there, and I remain deeply connected to them. For this reason, as the Obama administration’s new policies unfold, I am of two minds. I understand the settler perspective, but I have a second view that comes from years of experience working for peace.

My two perspectives are reflected by millions of people in the world. After Obama’s speech on June fourth , one group rejoiced, but for others his words were a dark cloud. For the first group, their hearts were filled with excitement, but others felt the tight grip of fear and distress. Some looked at his words and saw an opportunity to reduce violence, while others saw the speech as a vehicle for more violence. Some saw it as an expression of their deepest values, while for others the speech challenged the very core of their belief system. One group embraced Obama as compassionate, while the other heard in his words an anti-Semitic attack against their sons and daughters.

Is there a bridge between the two perspectives?

For the settlement community, Obama’s speech was the worst news in years. President Obama is living in fantasyland– he doesn’t understand the realities of violence and the hostility directed at the Jewish community. For the Rabbis in the settler community, Obama’s speech goes against the divine design, religious mission, and redemptive plan of the Jewish people. It is a speech whose conclusion means expulsion from their homes after many years of building a flourishing society.

Although this point of view may be difficult to accept, it is important to understand and even strive to empathize with the settlers. It is an impulse of intellect to explain, blame, or define justice in a way that fits one’s point of view, but all too often this impulse only leads to less understanding and more conflict.

I chose to highlight this point of view because looking back, I realize that for years there has been a lack of true empathy to other points of view among our diverse communities. Our instinct is to try and classify one other and group people into boxes: he/she belongs to the right or left, this person is right or wrong. However, this prevents us from listening empathetically to other viewpoints.

As a former settler, I can say that settlers have been hit hard; they lost many dear people and have been living in fear. The memories of friends and family members killed in the conflict are a daily presence in their lives, and the result is not just the building of physical outposts, but also the building of outposts in their memory. From their perspective, the enemy is alive and right around the corner, and proposals for peace have only resulted in more death and loss of loved ones.

I believe that behind burning trees and other intimidating messages from young settlers, there is something deeper going on. From a non-violent perspective, this violence is a tragic expression of unmet needs. This is not unique in the case of settlers – sadly, many people all over the world act this way when they find their deepest needs not being met.

Thankfully, we now find ourselves in a historic moment. After years of labeling one another and taking a strong stand for one side or another, there is an opportunity to meet the needs of millions of people with all of the complexity that this implies. However, the solution must begin with the shedding of preconceived ideas and judgments about each other, and the understanding that all of us are part of the same community– humanity. Inside each of us is the ability to acknowledge and connect with human pain and suffering regardless of ideology.

Millions, if not billons, of people in the world want peace.  However, the definitions of what that peace looks like have kept us apart. The people who think differently are not “Jew-haters.” Nor is President Obama anti-Semitic. In his speech, Obama spoke on behalf of millions of people who want to see peace between Jewish Israelis and our neighbors — a peace that can be achieved through non-violent methods.

We all want to be seen and understood. We all want to contribute to the well being of others and ourselves. Let us celebrate life together despite ideological differences. Let us pour more water on the seeds of life and peace. In this way, we can use understanding and compassion to bring about an end to the conflict.

“The last of human freedoms is the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances” Viktor E. Frankal

© Marc Gopin