How to Pick Sides in a War

“Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.

Shane Claiborne, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

Israel and Hamas are at war. A statement which does not even begin to capture the destruction, terror, hopelessness, suffering and inhumanity of what is unfolding daily.

When your children are being abducted or killed, when your home is being bombed, when your borders are being breached by those who wish your death or are indifferent to it, writings like this are insufficient at best. To those whose only task is to survive, may you be spared the words of anyone not immediately acting for your protection and sustenance. Here, I am speaking to the rest of us.

Like so many fellow bystanders right now, I am heartbroken, afraid, bewildered, shaken, angry. I write as a peacebuilder with Palestinian and Israeli friends and colleagues whom I care about deeply; as a human being, watching as we yet again move toward our species’ old habits of destruction and annihilation; and, as a Jewish person carrying both ancestral pride and deep wounds. I have multiple layers of relationship to what is unfolding, and so I consider myself a part of the intended audience for this post.  I am viscerally concerned as I consider the continued escalation in the region and its impacts – first on civilians in Gaza, Israel and the West Bank, and second on communities across the globe, mine included. And I will also acknowledge often feeling powerless as I bear witness to the unspeakable atrocities committed by both Hamas and the Israeli military, and now also to the proxy wars within mainstream and social media.

I experience our media mainly as places of patterned predictability with respect to conflict and violence. From a conflict analysis perspective, however, these spaces provide useful windows into the kind of thinking and rhetoric that fuels escalation. It’s a sneak peek into how we got into this mess, and why it’s so difficult to get out. Behind the headlines, posts and memes often dance the questions:

  • Who is right, and who is to blame?
  • Who is the real victim?
  • What makes my “side” justified in its use of violence?

I understand the desire to defend, to fight and to win because I experience it plenty myself these days. But these questions ultimately lead us along a dead-end street – proven as they are by the centuries to have no positive impact on the cessation of violence and instead, exacerbate it.

What I do find compelling is the drive behind these questions. The need to have a ‘side’ runs deep within us, rooted as it is in our needs for safety and belonging. It also, in my view, signals an important and valuable instinct to act upon the crisis, rather than ignore it or feign neutrality.

So my question to you is this: how do we – this community of bystanders who want safety and belonging for and with our peoples, who care deeply, and are called to act – harness the good in this instinct to ‘take sides’ while refusing the concept’s poisonous bait?

First, a quick word on neutrality, a concept that often quickly arises in the search for more humane side-taking. Speaking as a facilitator, neutrality is a concept whose time has largely come and gone. While of course the positive intent here is to avoid the adversarial, escalatory traps of taking sides and instead retain the trust of parties in crisis, the metaphor of neutrality generally fails to lead us there. Neutrality in the Oxford English sense of “the state of not supporting or helping either side in a conflict” is (arguably) counter to our humanity. In my experience, people in entrenched conflict are often in great need of help and support, and the instinct to meet those needs can be a healthy one. Further, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has pointed out,

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

I would add that our neutrality doesn’t do much to bring out the best in the elephant, either.

So no, divesting from the violence, retaliation and the winner-take-all mentality of war does not mean divesting from the people, communities and nations involved in it. Just the opposite in fact.

In restorative justice work, we often use the term “multi-partial” to describe our relationship with parties in crisis. It’s a clunky term with an important connotation. Far from divested, we oppose injustice and stand in solidarity with those who in any instant are subject to violence, dehumanization or oppression. This is a solidarity which does not paint black and white pictures or justify retaliation. It refuses to dehumanize the aggressor, even while working rigorously to contain or disarm them. We are on the side of dignity, human rights, recognition, healing, wellbeing, and self-determination. The conflict specialist and author William Ury calls it the “Third Side.”

Our respected colleague, Dr. Lisa Schirch of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, urges a parallel message in Toda Peace Institute’s November 2023 Policy Brief:

“Hold and expand the space for human dignity of all people. In the midst of conflict and war, there is a demand to take sides in a struggle of “us against them.” A movement of people to refuse this binary is already widespread. Resisting the urge to demonize one side or the other is essential to the safety of all sides. Addressing the trauma and fears on all sides requires more people to uphold the human dignity of all Jews and Palestinians.”

This stance only makes sense if we understand that, as is captured by the Bantu phrase Ubuntu, our humanity is bound up in the humanity of the other. That we cannot find our liberation without (and certainly not at the expense of) the liberation of the other. That my experience of dignity is interconnected with yours.

Writing the description, I admit my feeling is closer to one of somber responsibility than one of hopefulness. The currents I see moving through humanity pull us away from, rather than toward, the promise of Ubuntu. I don’t see us Third Siders prevailing in this war anytime soon. But beneath that sad recognition there is a deep conviction that there is another way; it’s here for the choosing at any time; and to choose it brings us closer to some vital aspect of our humanity. As the luminary Tich Nhat Hahn has written, “peace is a practice and not a hope.

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