Like many Israelis right now, I’m inconsolable. I’ve watched for days as the pain over lost lives and hostages accumulates. This is hell, and the days ahead will be worse.
But this moment is excruciating for me for another reason. In those frantic first hours on Saturday as the events unfolded, I feared they could spell the final failure of what I view as my life’s work — a commitment to peace, justice, equality and a reduction of political violence.
Much of my career has been spent working on grueling political campaigns for parties I believed were committed to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and making peace. I advise numerous human rights and peace organizations, working with people I love and respect (far more than politicians). I have plumbed the depths of ethno-nationalist conflict and democracy in my academic work. I write and advocate for these causes to anyone who will listen, and I spend my volunteer time pushing yet another peace plan that sometimes seems doomed before birth.
This isn’t virtue signaling. If anything, my peripatetic activities reflect despair at the failure of each previous effort to reach the aim of an agreed political resolution to the conflict. Yet at each juncture, I felt an inexplicable need to keep trying, to keep changing paths.
I am fighting the feeling that there are few paths left to try.
Last week, as war broke out in my home, I was in Armenia, spending hours talking to people whose own lives have been wrecked by war. In September, thousands of people from Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave inside Azerbaijan, were driven out by Azerbaijan’s lightning military assault. In a crumbling, Soviet-era kindergarten hastily repurposed as a shelter, people told me about their overwhelming sense of loss. One man just kept repeating, “Homeless, homeless, homeless.”
War is all around us. Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Sudan, Israel: these aren’t just names, these are people’s lives. Some places, like Nagorno-Karabakh, in the far corners of the South Caucasus, are tragically easy for the world to forget, until they explode. Others, like Israel and Palestine, are always on the world’s mind, and they also explode.
Hamas’s savage attack was a shock — but not a surprise. We have all watched peacemaking fail here, as it often does. This isn’t just a crisis for grass-roots peace activists, it’s a grand failure on a global stage. Lately the whole notion of solving conflicts, containing violence through international rules and institutions, the international system itself, appears wholly inadequate to its task of protecting people and preventing wars.
One could be forgiven for asking, what international system? The global institutions so painstakingly built over decades seem to be no match at all for the things that really run the world: money, oil, arms, interests. The Armenians feel betrayed by the international community for its near-complete inaction in the face of Azerbaijan’s punishing, nine-month blockade on Nagorno-Karabakh since December, leaving 120,000 people — mostly civilians — lacking enough food, medicine or fuel. The United Nations sent its first mission to the enclave in 30 years only after most Armenians had been driven out by the violence. Azerbaijan, too, was frustrated for nearly 30 years by the impotence of international law, as seven additional areas of its sovereign territory conquered by Armenia during the 1990s war over Nagorno-Karabakh remained under control of Armenians.
Israel has scoffed at international law for decades by expanding settlements, annexing territory conquered in war, and suffocating the civilian population in Gaza through a 16-year blockade, with few repercussions. Countries that don’t like international courts — including the United States — largely ignore them. Vladimir Putin will probably avoid prosecution for his invasion of Ukraine. Hamas certainly had no concern for international prosecution or for the fate of the liberal rules-based world order when it slaughtered over 1,300 Israelis. Much of the world will view Israel’s unfolding and brutal retaliation — so far, more than 400 Palestinian children have been killed, according to the Palestinian health ministry — as justified.
Worse still, voters around the world don’t seem to mind: many are choosing authoritarian populists instead of democratic rule. In turn, those leaders, from Donald Trump to Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Narendra Modi of India, deride the international system, or despise it outright. Orbán flouts the institutional values of the European Union. Trump tried to drastically reduce funding for the United Nations. These leaders convey to their voters that might and interests rule; values are weak and the international system is a farce — and many of them keep getting elected.
Maybe the truth is that many people around the world actually prefer war and cruelty to peace.
But I can’t leave it there. I’ve seen the other side, too — solidarity that cuts across bitter political divides. My Palestinian and Israeli friends and colleagues comfort one another in times of escalation; we bond over our commitment to ending systems of oppression and injustice, and deplore violence against civilians. Hundreds of Jewish and Palestinian activists in Israel met on Zoom in the midst of the horror last Saturday to organize against the awful specter of violence in Israel’s mixed Jewish-Arab towns.
As the old peace paradigms collapse, those of us working on new approaches toward partnership-based peace (including a group called “A Land for All,” where I am a board member), rather than the hard partition that stokes us-or-them competition, generate new energy. Political peace may be light-years away, but these rare sparks of optimism are the fuel that will carry us there.
Those values can inform nations too. I’ve been asking Armenians about Israel’s role in arming Azerbaijan. I expected anger, but more often people were baffled, or simply deeply disappointed by Israel’s lack of solidarity for a people with a shared history of persecution, genocide, commitment to survival and national rebirth. Faced with their purity of moral logic, my realpolitik cynicism seemed to slip away. Solidarity and its attendant qualities — morality, empathy, protection of civilians, historical justice — matter for all people. Our global experiments for peace and democracy haven’t succeeded yet, but the values driving them may be all we have.
I admit it: Values won’t save us from rank cruelty. W.H. Auden wrote that “we must love one another or die.” But love seems scarce these days. I’ll settle for solidarity, morality, equality and justice. People will still die, but these will save our humanity.
Dahlia Scheindlin is a political strategist and public opinion expert who lives in Tel Aviv.
Source photographs by Fatima Shbair, via Associated Press and NurPhoto, via Getty Images.
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