"No city is legitimate if it takes away the dignity of those who live there"1
At which point in history does the conflict in Jerusalem and the Middle East have its beginnings?
We can go back centuries, millennia even as each successive civilization puts down its roots in the land, laying the foundations for claim and counterclaim for generations to come. As soon as we untangle one part there is another layer of tangle underneath. So how far do we go back?
In the past I have always looked back to the dawn of recorded history in the Middle East but in fact I actually believe this question to be both unhelpful and inappropriate. Backwards is no way forwards. Over the centuries there has simply accumulated too much wrong and too much right on all sides to make any clear cut moral case for, or against any party being in the right or not. Too many "peoples" now have a cultural or ancestral claim on the land. If making a Divine claim on the land, lack of consideration for others can easily lead us into a "my god is bigger than your god" scenario, which then makes God into an agent of human endeavor.
But as the American writer William Cuthbert Faulkner said, "The past isn't dead and buried. It isn't even past". Right now it seems we are living with the global consequences of past decisions and are reaping the rewards in abundance. Fast forward to the present day and it's not just in Jerusalem that we see the past catching up with us. From Iraq to Crimea, from Africa and Korea to the Americas. Across the globe "policy makers seem to be confused and at a loss...politicians and military leaders sound increasingly belligerent and defense doctrines more dangerous."2
So what is the way forward? There are two key words that govern my attitudes to, and actions within the Middle East whether at home in Scotland or Jerusalem.
Two words, "compassion" and "coexistence".
To have compassion for someone is to show concern for putting someone else's well-being on a par with our own, probably with some sacrifice on our part. It is a recognition that everyone has the right to basic human dignity and it challenges our willingness to offer it regardless of whether we even perceive it as deserved or not.
Although we may have rights regarding various issues, and we may be perfectly within our rights to exercise them, I hope I will always question whether it is actually the right thing to do (or say) given certain circumstances. Is it a compassionate response? Or is it one that says this is my right and you are going to have to live with its consequences?
Freedom of speech (and action) is a powerful tool, but used selfishly can easily become a powerful weapon. Therefore "freedom of speech is not absolute and responsibilities are attached to it".3
With freedom of speech we have been given the tools and the responsibility for seeking to build bridges of mutual respect and understanding therefore negating the need to defend our own position from attack.
“The truth is that we are always forgetting the fact that other people beyond our tribal boundaries are actually as real as we are. No amount of beard stroking or political debate can make us empathise with the strange aliens that throng the world beyond.”4 What we may be witnessing is a global reaction akin to closing ranks by shutting our borders and ignoring or expelling those who are not like us.
Which brings me to the second of my two key words. Coexistence.
A few years ago, on a gable end wall in west Jerusalem I saw a work of graffiti art that said "just forgive". It’s easy to say but in reality much more difficult to do. Fundamentalists, whichever side they are on will have difficulty with this and they will see only the rightness of their own world-view, and in more extreme cases the wrongness of everyone else's. In reality the alternative to forgiveness does not even bear thinking about.
Although it may not be easy or even desirable to forget (lest we repeat our past mistakes), it is possible to forgive. Within a conflict, this can begin to happen when at least one of the sides realises it can, and must, let go of exclusive claims on mistreatment, persecution and suffering, having the courage to recognise that others have suffered too.
Recently I saw the gable end wall has now gone and with it the graffiti art. Let's continue to make sure it's message survives.
1. Garbiel Vallecillo Marques, Honduran film maker
2. Mikhail Gorbachev, Former Premier of the Soviet Union
3. Yasmina Khadra. One of France's most celebrated authors
4. Banksy. British street artist.