he sits, and with long skeletal hands
sorts strands from a tangle of juten fibres
and twisting, twisting, twisting makes a rope
that grows and grows each day.
that anything is possible
There is no safety
in poems or music or even in philosophy.
in houses or temples
of any faith.
And no one knows
at what dark point the time will come again
of blood and knives, terror and pain,
of jackboots and the twisted strand
– Anne Ranasinghe (1925 – ) – from her poem ‘At What Dark Point’–
Just before the Second World War, Britain, in a humanitarian gesture, allowed a 1000 young German children of Jewish parents, to enter Britain. Ranasinghe’s parents took advantage of this offer and, in 1939, sent 13 year old Anne to boarding school in England in one of the last ships to sail before the war broke out. While in Germany, she had witnessed at first hand the indignities the Jews had to go through. This poem was written with reference to Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when gangs of Nazis roamed the streets smashing and destroying Jewish property, including schools. homes, synagogues and businesses and killing scores of people.
All these happened in pre-war Germany because of Nazi thugs. The vast majority of the German people had nothing to do with it. The Nazi thugs obviously had the blessings of Hitler and the party machinery. But the sad fact is that the German people largely due to fear did not have the courage to stand up and counter the Nazi hatred. Hatred has led to destruction not only in Germany but in various other countries as well, more recently in Rwanda. It happened before in neighbouring India and Pakistan and in our own Sri Lanka as well. There are ominous signs that such hatred is rearing its ugly head once again in Sri Lanka. We need political, civil society and religious leaders, both men and women of courage who will come out and fight this cancer of hatred. A lot also depends on the political leadership but we however see little signs of that happening, even though there are political leaders, men and women, who have the vision to do what is right by Sri Lanka. We need leaders of the calibre of Nehru or Mandela or an Aung San Suu Kyi, who have both the vision and the charisma to lead our people towards peace and friendship.
We have in this column, referred to the remarkable story of Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Palestinian doctor who lost three daughters due to Israeli shelling. He was already a widower and conscientiously took a stand against revenge or hatred. His remarkable story ‘I Shall Not Hate’ (published by Bloomsbury2011) should be prescribed reading in our schools. In that book he refers to a course in health economics that he followed in Harvard University. At Harvard there were two professors who taught the course he needed and one of them was a Jew. A classmate of his told him to study under the other non-Jewish professor because the Jewish one hated Arabs. He signed up anyway for the class with the Jewish professor because he was known as an expert in the field of health economics. He wanted to learn from that professor and got the impression that the professor was ignoring him in class. He decided to ask for a private meeting. The following is in Abuelaish’s own words: “when I went in to see him, I was absolutely straightforward. I said, ‘you know I am a Palestinian. I know you are a Jew. I was told not to take this class because you would not treat me fairly. It feels as though you are ignoring me in class, and I want to ask you if this is true.’ He was flabbergasted. He said he had no idea I felt neglected in class. We talked about it, and as I tried to offer examples that would justify my concerns, I realised they were petty and insignificant and that I had been influenced by my classmate who had advised against taking the course with this professor. I felt foolish after that and wondered even then if he would hold it against me. But he didn’t. In fact a few weeks after that meeting he stopped me after class to say that there was a speaker coming from the West Bank and that he wanted me to meet her.”
Obviously real friendship was being built up between the Palestinian student and the Jewish Professor. Without that dialogue between the two, Abuelaish’s paranoia after being warned about the Jewish professor would have intensified. Abuelaish says that the class in health economics that he followed taught him a great deal not only in the area of health economics but in human relationships as well; not to judge people by the frustrations we may have with their government.
After his time at Harvard Abuelaish used to receive invitations to come back to the United States to speak about Israeli-Palestinian relations. He says that at these events sometimes he would receive comments from people who really did not know what it was to live with so much conflict. People did not seem really interested in asking a question, but just wanted to use the opportunity to make their own speeches. On plenty of occasion he was interrupted shouted down and accused of not seeing the other side. This lack of discussion created chaos and the Palestinians were blamed. At one speaking engagements all these things had happened at once: the interruptions, the shouting and the accusing. But once they got past the initial unpleasantness the questions were thoughtful and well intended. For example one person had asked, “what can we do here as Israelis in the United States to encourage dialogue?” Another said, “it is great that you are here talking to us but are you also making the same plea for the people on the other side in your own community?” His reply was y yes, of course. I make that same plea and this sort of conversation is exactly what we need to be doing. If we don’t air our grievances we will never get past them.
Still, one man pointedly asked, “you speak of dialogue between the two nations, but whom do we have to talk to – Hamas? you say we need to respect one another, but your elected leaders are not even willing to recognise the existence of the state of Israel. What kind of respect is that?” All that Abuelaish could do was to try and explain that there was a way out of the turmoil. There was need to move forward and stop being mired in what had gone before. It may have sounded simplistic but that was the only way out of the mud our feet were stuck in. The occupation and the oppression of the people in Gaza was like a cancer, a disease that needs to be treated. It is all about the will to solve a problem and the determination before us. Arguing over who did what and who suffered more would get us nowhere. We need to move on and have to build trust and mutual respect between the peoples. We can’t respect someone we don’t know. So the need is to get to know one another, listening and opening our eyes to the other side. That is the only way to encourage respect and equality. This is exactly what organisations like Sri Lanka Unites are doing among young boys and girls in our schools and universities all over the country.
Living Together in Mutual Respect
Desmond Tutu who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa wrote that the TRC attempt was a beacon of hope, a possible paradigm for dealing with situations where violence, conflict, turmoil and sectarian strife have seemed endemic. Conflicts take place not only between warring nations but also within the same nations as we in Sri Lanka have and are experiencing. The aim of the TRC in South Africa and our own LLRC in Sri Lanka, was an attempt to determine how our people can sit down together and live together amicably, to plan a shared future devoid of strife, given the bloody past that we have lived through. The aim of Sri Lanka Unites has been to fight a common enemy which is our ignorance of each other. We need to smash and destroy the mental and physical barriers within each of us and between us. ‘We must speak and move forward as one to achieve our brighter future: we are all living in one boat and any harm to some people living in this boat puts us all in danger of drowning. We must stop blaming each other and adopt the values of our, us and we. Talking is good but it is not enough we must act. The smallest action is more resonant and crosses more boundaries than any words.
We can make a difference
Hans-Gert Pottering, President of the European Parliament, once related a story. A man is walking along the seashore as the tide ebbs revealing a multitude of stranded starfish. Soon he comes upon a young girl who is picking up the starfish one by one and returning them to sea. So he asks the girl what are you doing. And she replies “they will all die if I don’t get them back to the water.” “But there are so many of them,” the man says. “How can anything you do make a difference?” The girl picks up another starfish and carries it to the sea. “It makes a difference to this one.” The story shows the potential of one small act that can make a difference in the face of a situation that seems insurmountable.