We all say that we want peace, but when asked to define it, we often describe peace in negative terms, as the absence of violence and human suffering. So how can we achieve something that we cannot define in positive terms?
In many regions that are troubled by deep conflicts, the concept of peace is associated with weakness and defeat, or at best, with passive, unrealistic hopes. In a human environment of extreme emotional clashes, the option of peace is often unappealing to all parties involved. Those who feel powerful at the time, do not see the point in ceasing hostilities before they achieve full victory, while those who feel at a disadvantage are often too indignant and humiliated to even consider reconciliation and mutual acceptance. In both cases, peace seems non-heroic and feeble.
It seems that many peace movements attempt to solve this problem with a fighting spirit that expresses their dynamism and sense of purpose. Many peace activities turn into anti-war protests, expressing negative feelings against warfare, instead of promoting positive attitudes toward peace. Some of these protests cause extreme situations of street violence, which stand in sharp contrast to the goals of the demonstrators.
Are these the only two options - either project an ineffective image of frailty and passivity, or adopt the counterproductive mentality of antagonism and violence?
I would like to propose another option, based on my Jewish roots. Indeed, the Hebrew Bible often refers to peace as the absence of conflict and violence, yet the concept of peace is also described in positive terms.
The Hebrew word for peace - Shalom - is derived from the root - Shalem - meaning, whole or complete. The idea is that true Shalom must be Shalem - peace must represent a reality of wholeness. It cannot be a false appearance that conceals wrongs and pains.
The prophet Isaiah expressed the idea of peace in clear terms: "And the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever. " (Isaiah 32:17).
It is not easy to translate Isaiah's verse. The English text uses the term 'righteousness' for the Hebrew word - Zedakah. This word is derived from Zedek - justice, but it ends with the "ah" vowel, which grammatically makes it a feminine term. It also ends with the extra Hebrew letter for "H", that represents God's name [as in Genesis 17:5: "Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee."]. Jewish scholars explain that the feminine and divine attributes of Zedakah convey a concept that is a higher form of justice. The masculine term Zedek represents the earthly, mechanical, male approach to justice. But Zedakah means a restoration of reality to its just, natural status through deeds that go beyond the dry legal rules. Therefore, Zedakah is often translated as kindness, compassion, charity, grace, righteousness and benevolence. Isaiah uses the term Zedakah twice in the verse, suggesting that peace is tightly linked to the highest form of justice.
Isaiah uses two synonyms next to this term: Ma'aseh Zedakah and Avodat ha-Zedakah. The first should be translated as the deed, or act of Zedakah, and the second means the work, or labour of the Zedakah. Both are proactive, dynamic and assertive verbs: Do, Act, Work!
In my opinion, it is clear that the ancient prophet did not only view peace as a divine reward for good deeds, but he saw active righteousness as the most profound essence of peace itself. The verse actually implies that the Act of Zedakah will be the peace, and the Labour of Zedakah will be the tranquillity and security forever! Thus, the compassionate form of justice is in itself the meaning of peace, and it requires action, effort and dedication.
This may shed a different light on the concept of peace. Instead of representing a static situation of calm that would be the result of a peacemaking process, the ancient Hebrew prophecy seems to suggest that peace should be a dynamic process whose profound content is the dedicated pursuit of justice through human kindness. Achieving peace may not be the result of seeking a compromise between two rivals, but the process of all parties practising charity.
Educating the public to make peace may be much easier if the process starts at home. It may help in both solving internal social problems, which are often the hidden forces that fuel the external conflict, and in creating social behavioural patterns that may be extended to external relationships.
This option is more achievable since people tend to care more easily for those who are close to them. Caring for one's own society has a more natural appeal than trying to curb suspicions toward strangers while the conflict with them is still raging.
If social solidarity becomes a norm and acts of contribution to the community are praised and encouraged, the values of peace and justice may well become deeply rooted throughout society and hopefully, also help to achieve peace between nations.
Ehud Tokatly, 3/February/2005