In the spring of 2003, a few months after the release of my third book, Trailing Jesus,I spoke to CNN Radio in New York City on the second floor of 1 Penn Plaza. It was another in a seemingly endless but exhilarating series of stops along a book tour that at first I welcomed with open arms and then watched deteriorate into bleating pabulum. You see, the Iraq War and the tour began at the same time, which I thought would be a nice sidebar to plugging a book about an American let loose in a religious and cultural war zone trailing the footsteps of the historical Yeshua of First Century Palestine. Sure. Big mistake.
Turns out the only reason many radio or television stations, newspapers or magazines gave half a fart about an independently published tome of personal philosophy wrapped in a travel journal is they needed some perspective on George W. Bush’s foray into biblical-style madness. And so with every stop, specifically this one, I was asked about the possibility that there could ever truly be peace in the Middle East. If America’s “involvement” there, whether at arm’s length (as in literally supplying tons of arms in the billions of dollars to half the region, specifically the place I had visited for a month in 1996, Israel) or directly had made a positive or negative difference.
The ultimate answer to this had nothing to do with America, but it seemed nihilistic, almost pathetic, especially in the setting of one trying to plug a fairly positive book about a peasant mason 2,000 years ago who was roundly rejected by his community, eviscerated by his religion and brutally executed by the state for “loving thy enemy.”
“Keep the conversation light,” I reminded myself. “Sell books.”
So for most of the tour, and many if not all of the interviews, I provided vague answers about respect and understanding and blah, blah, blah. But this one damn time, to a CNN board hand and a relatively cheerful reporter, I let it slip. I said, “No, I don’t think peace is possible there, not even a tenuous one that appears to be the norm for most of this planet.”
Of course, this forced the obligatory follow-up; the very thing I was trying to avoid. Get right to the book, my PR firm, Phenix & Phenix, coached months before. Don’t dabble in world politics. Use the current event to get in, toss off something banal, and plug, plug, plug. Yes; Jesus, Moses, Abraham, the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, and all that nifty stuff about “the first being last and the last first.” It was too late and I knew it.
And so, as the tape reveals, I soldiered on; trying my best not to appear despondent, but also unable to forget the friends I made in Jerusalem and many of the IDF soldiers I spoke with in length about the responsibility of destruction and the right to defend sovereignty or the Palestinian kids I marched out of Bethlehem beside, who told me their parents had been wrong about supporting the PLO and how they wished to be given a place at Israel’s table, despite all this nonsense about a true democracy with jailed citizens and radical freedom fighters, who in a few short years would simply be called terrorists, even by their own people.
“Really?” the reporter asked. “You honestly don’t hold out hope that there is a peaceful solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict?”
And that’s when I went off the rails with the truth as I had learned it six years before. I had met so many good souls, so many people just like you and me. And I let it fly:
“None at all. The only thing I can say is it will continue the course of mayhem unless both parties change their views on how they go about their business of negotiating in good faith, and I think, again, this is part of the Jesus message for me. It’s like that old definition of insanity—‘Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.’ I don’t think that politics, nationality, culture or religion can save those people from their own demise. I think the only thing that can save them is a completely new vision and understanding. They have to put down the flags. They have to release themselves from tradition. They have to destroy cultural barriers. They have to speak to each other as human beings, cross the lines of Jewish and Arab and Christian. They have to say, ‘That’s a person who bleeds such as I. That’s a person who weeps and cares for his/her children.’ No one on this planet is that different. We all want to pursue happiness, safety and love. They want to go to the grocery to buy a loaf of bread or take a cross-town bus without having to risk being blown up. So I think they have to look at the whole mess from a completely new way, and see what they are doing to others and how it is being done to them in the same, heartless, blind way. Until they do that, and I fear they never will, but until they do, I don’t think they’ll know peace. I’m sad to say.”
And, alas, I have nothing else to add these 11 years later. That is pretty much the only solution for this region; and not just Israel, which seems to work as a de facto microcosm for the cultural fisticuffs that passes for law around it. As long as there is religion that bares only the responsibility of interpretation and immovable cultural divides that reflect centuries of baked-in hatred, there will be what goes on today in Gaza City or Syria or whatever is left of Iraq, etc.