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The Words to Use

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A bombing, a missile attack, loved ones lost, many wounded—and in response politicians take to their podiums pouring condemnations on the fire. Inadequate. Dangerous when their words inspire or justify retaliation against other innocents.


What words could offer solace instead? What words could keep hope alive? Are there words that acknowledge loss and bring calm?


Pouring oil on troubled waters means an attempt to calm a problematic situation, an effect first noticed by the ancient Greeks. Benjamin Franklin, in 1762, repeated an experiment first performed by Pliny and wrote in A Letter from Benjamin Franklin to William Brownrigg, 1773:


“At length being at Clapham, where there is on the common a large pond which I observed one day to be very rough with the wind, I fetched out a cruet of oil and dropped a little of it on the water. I saw it spread itself with surprising swiftness upon the surface; but the effect of smoothing the waves was not produced; for I had applied it first on the leeward side of the pond where the waves were greatest; and the wind drove my oil back upon the shore. I then went to the windward side where they began to form; and there the oil, though not more than a teaspoonful, produced an instant calm over a space several yards square which spread amazingly and extended itself gradually till it reached the lee side, making all that quarter of the pond, perhaps half an acre, as smooth as a looking glass.”


Words begin actions, and actions—no more than a teaspoonful—likewise at the windward side of conflict can spread amazingly and widely to reach the rough waves of violence and bring calm. What is this windward side of conflict? What actions “no more than a teaspoonful”? And how will they reach the rough waves of violence to bring calm?


The windward side of conflict is easy to see. It’s all those who seek peace and justice, who believe in nonviolence, who reach out to the other side to make peace in their home, their neighborhoods, across the borders, throughout the world. Do they exist in Israel and Palestine? Yes, they do.


“In a recent visit to the peacemaking communities of Holy land, I found an astonishing (and hardly reported) web of hundreds of organizations fostering reconciliation and peace in powerful ways among goodhearted people on all sides,” writes Jack Kornfeld in his March 7, 2008 report A Shining Web of Good Hearts and Goodwill in Israel and Palestine. “Careening around the West Bank through armed checkpoints and guardposts, guided by the wise Sheik Abdul Aziz Bukari and unflappable Jewish activist Eliyahu Mclean, founders of Jerusalem Peacemakers, I was led to meet with leaders (and sometimes to offer teachings to).”


I know everyone he mentioned. I’ve done a trip much like that. I know those people and hundreds more. Perhaps you know them too. Know them or not, they need you now.


They are Combatants for Peace who worked together to build a playground in memory of a little girl killed by a soldier’s rubber coated bullet, so that her classmates would know that Israelis and Palestinians seek to set aside violence to care about them and build peace. They are families in Gaza who crossed the border into Egypt to bring supplies to needy people in their neighborhoods. They are children, mothers, fathers who in February held hands across the length of Gaza to ask the world to end the siege and give them a chance to live a normal life. They are the Israeli peace groups who brought a convoy of 40 tons of aid to the locked gates of Eretz. They include a young woman from Sderot who joined the convoy and spoke of a better way.


They and so many more need a way to hold on to hope.


On March 10th, 2008, after the killing of the eight students in a Yeshiva in Jerusalem, a group of Christian Peacemakers living in Hebron wrote an open letter to “our Israeli brothers and sisters”.


“Hebron CPTers offer our deepest sympathy to our Israeli friends and wish to express our deep sorrow for the violent deaths of the 8 students and those injured from the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Words simply are insufficient at a time like this, but all we have to offer you are our condolences—foremost for the loss of precious lives but also for what this kind of violence does to us all. Innocent victims continue to bear the brunt of this cycle of violence.

Hope is also a victim, especially at this time of fragile efforts for Peace. Together, we have struggled with you, Israeli activists, for years, to put our nonviolence into action in order to bring about a change for a Just Peace both in Israel and Palestine. Every loss of life is heartbreaking, pushing the cycle of violence into a steep descending spiral.

Please know that we are in mourning with you at this time. We also pledge our continued efforts to work nonviolently with you for a Just Peace.”


Their words in sympathy, their acknowledgement that hope is also a victim is an important way to respond to tragedy. When they say they are in mourning with the bereaved, and when they pledge to continue their efforts to work nonviolently for a Just Peace, they offer an action that is truly “no more than a teaspoonful.”


Will you take this teaspoonful and spread it, in your own words, to those you know who work for peace and justice? It will feel like a drop in the bucket; it will. When facing waves of retaliation and violence, all actions—large or small—seem for naught. But take action now. Write a message of condolence; make a donation to support those who work for peace and justice. Urge your elected leaders to reflect on their words and revise their approach. Send a picture of beauty, a quote of consideration, an acknowledgement of loss to those you know or hear about.


Without doubt, your action will produce, “an instant calm” over a small space in the heart of those who receive your message. May the calm then “spread amazingly and extend itself gradually till it reaches the lee side,” to quell the waves of violence and bring safety, quiet, and eventually justice and peace.

By Donna Baranski-Walker

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