The Tightrope


The students in our teacher education program heard me say – probably too often – that teaching is like crossing a tightrope between hope and despair. Clearly, these words apply more broadly to all of life. Perhaps an even better metaphor is contained in a popular Hebrew song which starts “All the world is a narrow bridge.” But it’s important not to stop there because the real power lies in the closing line, “and the important thing is not to be afraid at all.”

I’ve been reflecting recently on the distressing frequency with which I’ve found myself in the center of that narrow bridge or falling off the wrong side of the tightrope – pick your metaphor. It’s so much easier to surrender to hopelessness than to find hope in these dark times. That applies to almost every issue currently in the public arena – Ukraine, Israel, the Presidential race, the Supreme Court, climate. But hopelessness is self-fulfilling. It leads to paralysis, inaction, surrender. That doesn’t conform to my image of who I am and aspire to be.

Let me choose just one of the issues from my list to see how this is playing out and where there might be that proverbial crack in the ceiling that could let some light in. The situation in Israel these past six months has felt like 40 years of wandering in the desert without any life-giving water. The death toll of the innocents mounts to astronomical heights. As I’m writing this, there’s news of the deaths of 7 workers volunteering for World Central Kitchen, killed in a bombardment by Israel as they were attempting to deliver food to relieve the growing starvation in Gaza. It’s hard to imagine any act that embodies the senseless cruelty of the war and the impossibility of absolving Israel from responsibility for it. How much lower can we go?

So, just at this moment, I’ve chosen to focus my attention on one small crack in the ceiling. Even before the start of the war, I’ve been following a group in Israel whose English title is Standing Together. Its members are mostly young Israeli Jews and Palestinians committed to promoting a society in which both groups can live safely and in equality. As one representative says, “There are two peoples living in this land, and neither of them is going anywhere,” so a path must be found other than conflict, violence and oppression.

Since the start of the war Standing Together has been dispatching teams to the US, Canada and Europe to raise funds that enable them to present a counter-narrative at home to the one that prevails in both camps now, which only sees bad actors on the other side and continuing violence as the only way out of the morass.

The current team of shlichim, a Hebrew term meaning those who are sent, has been in the Chicago area for much of the past week. Rula Daood is a Palestinian citizen of Israel who is trained as a speech therapist, but currently works as a community organizer for ST. Her partner, Itamar Avneri, is a kibbutz-born Israeli Jew who has suspended his doctoral studies in the history of science to work full-time for the organization. Rosellen and I have attended two of their events on consecutive days, the first a small gathering in the home of a friend and the second on the campus of the University of Chicago.

These two radiate hope in their message and their bearing in ways that I haven’t seen or felt since the years of the Civil Rights movement. They know they are on the right side of history, but they are not naïve about the enormous forces aligned against them in both of the communities they represent. On the Palestinian side, the support for Hamas and the justification for the massacre of October 7th grows with each Israeli bomb and artillery shell. On the Jewish side, the support for the continuation of the war intensifies the longer the hostages are in captivity and the more the details of the massacre are brought to light.

Both Rula and Itamar said repeatedly that someone has to be representing a different way, sending a different message. Otherwise, all that is out there for people to hear are the strident, militant, destructive voices, without any awareness that there may be another way. Somehow, the organization and its members sound both idealistic and realistic. They hold a vision of a peaceful future, while at the same time they know how powerful the forces are that are aligned against them. At this moment, their voices represent no more than a faint whisper against the expressions of hatred and the demands for more killing. These two young people are helping me reconnect with the sources of hope that have grown too dim in recent years.

Inevitably, Rula and Itamar were asked whether they supported the two-state solution, which was on life support before the war, but is once again being mentioned, even by President Biden, as a desirable outcome to the war. Their response is impressive. They are “agnostic” about this solution and any others being promoted. They will support any plan that promises to achieve their goals of equality and safety for all. This pragmatic, non-ideological approach to the conflict is attractive to the American audiences they have been addressing, and the hope is that it will begin to gain traction back home as well.

There was a reason we returned to hear them again the next day at the University of Chicago. Most of their audiences have been in synagogues and other venues that present fund-raising opportunities. I was curious to see how their message was received on college campuses, which have arguably been the sites of greatest polarization in their response to the war. I hadn’t taken into account the fact that institutions are now screening their attendees by requiring pre-registrations. As a result, Rula and Itamar spoke to a generally supportive and sympathetic audience. Nonetheless, hearing them deliver their message again with the same fervor and watching this new group of listeners being drawn into the same orbit of hope in which I found myself was inspiring.

In the words of a friend who has found similar inspiration from the work of Standing Together, “Their ability to simultaneously be pragmatic and to dream, to be honest and empathetic, to be determined and to be gentle, is very very special.”

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Marv Hoffman

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