THE world has been shocked by a second major conflict on Europe’s doorstep, with the spark being the horrible and inhumane attack by Hamas on Israel. The stakes here are so contentious, they have divided our already fractured world even more. Extreme labels are being thrown around with shocking ease. To dare to write about this, one dives into a quagmire with roots that go back 3,000 years and more.
So let me stand back first, before touching on names and histories, on actions and events. Let me talk about the middle. Just that, the middle. What is it?
You have two points, two opposite points that mark the extreme ends of a line, an object, a form. The middle is that point which is equidistant from both extremes. Without the middle, the extremes are disengaged and the line or object — the whole — falls apart. In other words, the middle makes the whole possible, opens the possibility of form. The middle is the balancing point. The middle provides dimension. Without the middle, no movement is possible from one side to the other.
Now, any stable structure relates well to its middle. In living forms, it is the middle that keeps the extremes together and provides the channel for all inner movement to take place. Looking at ourselves as moving organisms, we find that on the lower extreme lie the instinctive parts — the powerful sexual organs, the deep workings of the bowels; at the upper extreme, the head with its openings to the outside world and the brain that coordinates this constant encounter. But without the middle, instinct and mind will collapse. And our middle contains our lungs, our life-defining hearts, extending into moving arms and legs, woven through with intricate webs of arteries and nerves.
Now, we’ve been hearing a lot about extremes and extremists lately. And to connect this dot, an extremist would be someone with a weak middle. Extremists can be brutal, acting purely on instinct (the power of the lower body). Or extremists can be fanatical in their visions of society and life (living much in their heads). What is missing is the middle. What is missing is feeling. The movement of a pumping heart. We call their actions “cold-blooded” for a reason. We call them amoral. Which begs the question, where does our sense of morality come from?
It comes from a well-functioning middle. It comes from a middle that brings the extremes together into a coherent whole. It is also the point of healing: when our middle is strengthened and our inner flow is restored, we are not only more able to distinguish what is moral in a given situation, we also become more whole (healed). Without a flowing middle, morals stultify in the head as unchanging and eternal givens upon which one can act robotically — unleashing powerful instincts (themselves estranged from a moderating middle) that can more readily lead to extreme acts such as killing, rape and torture.
Without a heart, we become inhumane. How does this happen? In other words, how can the middle ground, the flow of feeling, be disturbed, damaged, impoverished? What turns an innocent baby into a murderous adult?
One of the main causes of a crushed middle is trauma. Trauma leads to overwhelming pain, and one’s system protects itself by minimising that pain, compressing feeling towards the extremes. Now, the great dilemma of our lives as humans lies right here: how do we proceed from this (compressed) point of being traumatised? Do we (and can we) proceed along the line of restoring the whole, of revitalising the middle, regaining the flow of feeling and connection with others? Or do we get stuck right there, breeding and building upon the isolation of the extremes, from a position of being frozen?
This is the fork in the road where, on the whole, we have a choice. Do we keep burying the pain and burn ourselves to death in one glorious act of existential revenge? Or do we embark on the slow road towards the painful opening up of arteries and nerve paths to restore the middle ground, to become fully feeling beings again?
What makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflagration so seemingly intractable are the many layers of historical trauma on both sides.
When the state of Israel was founded and many of the more than 700,000 Palestinians were forcibly removed from the land they had lived on for centuries (the Nakba), they were basically treated by many Israelis and Western powers as a non-people who had “many Arab states to go and live in”. The trauma of the Palestinians is that their feelings as a society were not taken into account. On top of that, since then they have had to live in confined spaces where their autonomy and freedom of movement have been largely taken away, creating breeding grounds for extremism.
When it comes to the history of Jewish trauma, it is hard to even fathom the extent of it. It is an excruciating story of continual dispossession and valiant journeys to return to the land of their origins. It honed one of the most resilient, best networked and gifted national identities in history. Their story spawned world religions and they have an outsized level of cultural and intellectual influence globally. But the gifted’s heightened level of sensitivities also has downsides (as a gifted artist I am well aware of these). High sensitivity amplifies the effects of trauma and can cause over-defensiveness, leading to antagonism from broader society.
On top of it all, one can hardly over-emphasise the trauma brought on by the Holocaust, and the fact that any subsequent sting to the Israeli body politic is experienced and felt as an attack 10 times its size and impact. Is it therefore any wonder that in all the clashes since 1948, 10 Palestinians have died for every Israeli casualty, on average? Not that this is justified and morally right. But you need to understand what is at play here.
With so much trauma and damaged middle grounds on both sides, the last thing most people want is weak or extremist leadership. But that is what we have from Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas. Netanyahu went into coalition with extremists to regain power and was instrumental in strengthening the position of Hamas, in a cynical ploy to keep the Palestinians politically divided. His weakness stems from a compromised middle ground, with his moral compass failing him. This not only made him corrupt, it also disconnected him from the feelings of the Palestinians.
Hamas, in turn, took the worst direction at the trauma fork: to stay frozen and unleash bestial powers in the name of cold and eternal principles. There are many, of course, who condone Hamas's horrific attack, saying the Israelis forced them into it through a system of de facto apartheid. But this, again, is how morality breaks down: if decimating civilians is justified because of trauma, then all hell is on the loose, for all extreme acts can ultimately be traced to some form of trauma.
Remember that we had an almost impossible situation in South Africa, too. We had a traumatised Afrikaner people holding the black population under their thumb for 40 years, choking their movements, insensitive to their feelings. And then, the miracle of 1994. But it was no miracle. The work was done by leaders who started meeting and looking each other in the eye, finding new terms and focal points around which to converge in order to prevent larger catastrophes. And most importantly, they brought forward the voices of the silent majorities of ordinary people on all sides who, when it came to the push, simply wanted to get along and live in peace. The negotiating table became the central forum to which all, including extremists, were invited to talk, feel each other, build middle ground. The extreme path of violence was forsaken.
The challenges to attaining peace in the Middle East are much greater, but that is also why any possibility for healing and a restoration of a human middle there would have a far more powerful impact globally.
Can it be done? I must, as a human with a pumping heart, say, yes, it is possible.
I remember watching a documentary about Daniel Barenboim taking young Israeli musicians into Palestinian territory to join young Palestinian musicians for a collective orchestral performance. It was a terrifying affair — the Israeli youths being escorted with heavy security under the most stringent and limiting conditions. But then, at the moment they started playing music together, their common humanity flowered in such a profound way that tears flowed on all sides. Even I cry as I write this.
It can be done.
It is wrong to carry out terrorist attacks. It is wrong to oppress a nation. But to know this, and to point fingers, is not enough. With these main protagonists in the Middle East, we all need to keep choosing the healing fork, in the light of our traumas. We all need to keep learning, through lived experience, not to rely only on words and principles but to go further: to meet, engage, talk, to feel each other. We are all part of the human drama, in which Palestine forms a particular point of vulnerability. For there is a real purification at work, where so many of us, through the stories that emanated from there, found inspiration to look inward, to dig down to what is most essential.
That is why I think Palestine could be a truly holy fork where we choose to connect, find a new form, bring the extremes towards a fruitful distance from each other where they can ignite a living and dynamic middle, an electric current of feeling, from where we could live more morally and meaningfully with each other — striking not only a balance as a human family, but also a balance with the earth and what is left of life around us.
It all boils down to strengthening the middle, rather than the bloody and futile effort to exterminate the extremes. Leaders who can build bridges must be chosen. Faith needs to shift from the head to the heart. Strengthening the common desire for peace is needed (yes, most Israelis and Palestinians desire peaceful co-existence). And the most difficult: it is necessary to face, acknowledge and understand the pain of all the trauma.
It is the difficult yet immensely rewarding journey of exposing the moral red lines while at the same time acknowledging the lingering trauma. At the same time there must be justice, empathy, the possibility of confession. This is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa attempted. Despite all its flaws, it allowed the stories on all sides to be heard and gave everyone a chance to see reconciliation in action — the tears, the relief, the closure.
This is not a Left cause or a Right cause. This draws together the firmness and justice of conservatism and the leniency and forgiveness of liberalism in a balancing process where the middle ground is the main arena. It is not creating a new point of isolation where all is suddenly smooth and harmonious, or neutral and relative. The middle is always “the middle of”. It always lies between extremes, bringing them closer to spark creativity, rather than destruction.
In Greater Palestine, on a political level, whether lasting stability can be achieved through a two-state solution remains a question to me. I tend to think, with some others, that the political structure should reflect what is already a rather integrated situation on the ground. That means a unitary state based on a mix of group and individual rights. The psychological obstacles to this are huge, as the immense effort it took the Jewish people to return and build a new state since 1948 was all premised and motivated on the concept of a Jewish nation-state — an exclusive and ostensibly safe home. Yet the longer history is one of a Palestine shared by Arabs and Jews.
Moreover, if I look at the map in terms of a two-state scenario, it reminds me too much of what we had in the “old” South Africa — the minority taking up most of the land and the majority living in compressed and divided islands. We called them “homelands”. As viable independent countries, though, they were a farce. And this arrangement certainly did not contribute to overall peace in the country.
A two-state solution is not a solution to the fundamental problem of peaceful co-existence on shared land. It glosses over the problem of a missing middle and the reality of a common humanity. It also tries to bypass what all other countries are forced to grapple with: an increasingly pluralistic world and the need to redefine one’s nationality in terms of shared land, not ethnicity. For it is the biospheres of land that shaped and are shaping our multifarious identities in the first place.
A unitary (non-nation) state does not imply the total integration of peoples. But it does turn exclusivity into a playing field where different ethnic and religious groupings become contributors to a bigger whole. For individuals, it provides freedom of movement and association, equal political rights and a shared economy with equal opportunity — things that in the long run will benefit all and leave everyone more secure. In this way, all of Palestine will finally belong to both Palestinians and Jews, and all other citizens.
Getting there will not be a smooth process and certainly not a quick one. It will also mean the bigger powers will have do the difficult thing and tone down their favouritism for one side or the other to make room for a true democratic dispensation to flourish. Not least, however, it will make possible the tears of joy, the relief of healing and the profound beauty of humans uniting on basis of their commonalities — such as the music the youngsters of that ad hoc orchestra once experienced, and what the whole of South Africa experienced by winning the Rugby World Cup with a truly representative team.
As extremism rises globally, hope is in short supply. Yet the seeds of the restoration of a common humanity lie in the land itself. And if a moving middle can be restored in the troubled crucible of the Middle East, it can be restored everywhere.
* Francois le Roux is a musician and performing artist known as HA!Man.
♦ VWB ♦
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