Every Thing That Lives Is Holy

By Stephen Nachmanovitch and Abdul Aziz Said 

19 October 2000

Searching the media for truth about the tragic events in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza is near hopeless. Policymakers, pundits and analysts alike are too often uncritical lovers of one side to the conflict or unloving critics of the other side. This may provide an emotional relief but does not bring us any closer to truth. As we stand witness to these events, we must avoid the temptation of taking sides. Taking sides further divides Israelis and Arabs. We need to bring them closer. We need to collapse the perceptual gap between them. This is a time for all involved to abandon their rhetoric and address the deadly serious problems confronting Arabs and Israelis.

As fellow Semites, Israelis and Arabs have more in common that they acknowledge or the outside world can see. Foremost among their commonalties they are both hurting badly for peace. They are heirs to a half century of passionate conflict in modern times. Their legacy would be that much greater if they also become architects of dispassionate negotiation and just resolution. Cast in the role of oppressors and oppressed, Israelis and Palestinians must be seen as people experiencing life with all of its vicissitudes. The Palestinian stone thrower and the Israeli soldier both have become dehumanized. In demonizing each other, they both lose their human face. Most of all, a workable peace requires that conditions be created to enable Israelis to move beyond a culture of fear and Arabs to move beyond a culture of anger. Fortunately, the Semite Arab and Jew is an adaptable being with a highly developed genius for survival.

A few days ago we heard a radio dialog between two American spokespersons for the Israeli and Palestinian points of view. Well meaning and civilized in tone, they were nonetheless incapable of uttering a single word other than blame for the other side. Each retreated to the position that the recent barbarities make further talk of compromise impossible - we each have to hunker down with our own people. What we detected underneath this dialog was a deep, fundamental problem which is shared by all three monotheistic religions. This problem is righteousness.

We would like to challenge the participants in these debates: can you spend even five minutes speaking only of what your side could do better? Could you spend those five minutes without uttering a single word of blame? Without uttering a single word of self-justification? Is it possible that even a brief exercise in dialog that is empty of righteousness might open up a space for something new to enter the universe?

This round of violence and unraveling of the peace process overlapped the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, like the holy month of Ramadan, is a time set aside for people to look deeply into themselves, and in doing so to see clearly their own failings in the past year. It is not a time to review other people’s failings. The other people’s failings may be very real, but it is in our grasp to atone for our own only. God knows there is plenty of blame to go around. And if we were able to prove for all the world to see that the other side has been 22% more brutal or dishonest than we have, what good does that do anyone?

The Temple Mount has become the world’s biggest golden calf. The Second Commandment, observed by Jews and Muslims alike, is not really a prohibition against making sculptures, it is a warning against the profound error of concretizing God, the profound error of thinking that you can possibly know what God is or looks like or wants. The sacred sites in Jerusalem are precious to hundreds of millions of people, but are they more precious than the life of a single child? These extraordinary places are supposed to mark the spot where divinity touches down on earth, where people feel a special communion with the infinite. But if that communion is used to justify even one killing of another human being, one stoning in anger of another human being, then we submit to you, dear readers, that something very much other than divinity is involved.

We remember the words of William Blake: “Every thing that lives is holy!” Every single square inch of planet Earth is holy. If we mark certain spots as especially holy, does that leave other spots out of holiness, as profane, worthless, discarded? This differentiation of sacred from profane, of holy from worthless, allows us to desecrate the sacred earth, allows us to kill each other over a mound of ancient relics in Jerusalem or dump toxic wastes here at home. Both the Palestinian and Jewish peoples, who share among many things the historical experience of being discarded, roaming peoples, should consider what this means. Blame can cover up feelings of shame and powerlessness. In the Jews and Palestinians we have two rejected peoples, two peoples who share the experience of displacement, the history of being not always welcome guests in other countries, and who are determined not to have that experience in the future.

We are not innocent bystanders. We have become a cheering section for revenge and recrimination. We can help Israelis and Arabs to break the cycle of insensitivity and arrogance, insecurity and defensiveness. To be proud of one’s bloody hands invites this cycle to continue forever. It is a cycle of contempt, paranoia and fanaticism. We can help both sides to replace it with a willingness to engage in a sustained dialogue to develop a mutually beneficial peace partnership with a fair distribution of costs and benefits. Let us help Arabs and Israelis fulfill the prophecy of beating swords into ploughshares. Let us help the people of the land of revelation to see the light on their path. Let it not be said that the people of the land where man has killed his first brother, that they have learned so little since the beginning of time.


Stephen Nachmanovitch, Ph.D., is an author, musician, and educator living in Los Angeles.

Abdul Aziz Said, Ph.D., is director of International Peace and Conflict Resolution Program at American University, Washington, D.C and holds the Mohammed Said Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace.