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12 Steps to Middle East Peace

We can bring peace to the Middle East... with the 12 Steps. Seriously.

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By Malina Saval

08/20/14

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The entire Middle East is in desperate need of a 12-step meeting. I do not say this to be glib or cheeky or to underscore the catastrophic fallout of this latest crisis wreaking havoc on both Israel and Gaza. I say this, simply and straightforwardly, because it’s true. Nothing that anybody in any country has done to create long-term peace in the region has been successful, no plan has worked, and it’s time to try something new. And I truly do believe that the tools that have saved the lives of so many of us in Al-anon and in AA, if implemented on a global level and in governments around the world, could maybe, someday, create a road to peace. Or at least something better than what we have now. 

I’m being Pollyannaish, you say. Naïve. I’m not. I’m being reasonable and logical. The 12 steps are nothing if not practical. Launching rockets into your neighbor's backyard and stockpiling weapons in your children’s schools is not. Using land claims as a justification for continued bloodshed—no matter the people, no matter the land—is not. The only practical solution is peace. 

In AA and Al-anon, where broken souls are repaired and dismantled dreams strung back together, much stranger things have happened.

Per the ringing headlines – “Mission Accomplished” – Israel’s most recent military operation to destroy the tunnels Hamas built to kidnap and kill Israeli soldiers and civilians was successful, but for how long? As we say in program, ‘it’s hysterical because it’s historical’ and, if history is any sort of indicator, at some point in the near future other tunnels will be built, other instruments of death and destruction constructed, other expressions of rage and resentment and animosity—on both sides—will flourish with relentless and thorny fervor unless something in the way we approach this ever-maddening disaster changes. The way things stand today, no effort, no measure of diplomacy or treaty by any country or any leader to institute a lasting peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis has been effective—wars continue to rage and innocent men, women and children continue to die—so why not try another way that is completely different? 

What have we got to lose? 

A little background, on both cultural and 12-step fronts: I’m Jewish. I love Israel. Though I don’t live there now, I consider it my home. And I want to be able to say that without it being a political statement, because it isn't, and it shouldn't be. I have swum in its ocean, studied at its universities and written for its newspapers. I have bought cheap gold-plated rings from a little jewelry shop on Yoel Salomon Street in Jerusalem and meandered my way through the ancient cobblestoned alleyways of Jaffa. I’ve also had eye infections in Israel, and cursed the ophthalmologist in the German Colony neighborhood who prescribed me the gas permeable lenses which led to said infection; contracted strep throat and mononucleosis in Israel; and gotten in too many arguments worth mentioning with pita vendors at the shuk and pushy Israeli taxi drivers. To paraphrase Dickens, I’ve had the best days of my life in Israel, and I’ve also had pretty frustrating ones. Just like any other place on the planet. 

I’ve also traveled to Arab and Muslim countries, and enjoyed those experiences immensely. I once spent Christmas Eve in the West Bank, the melodic chords of a children’s choir wafting across a giant courtyard in Bethlehem where I purchased tiny wooden trinkets from a wizened man’s cart. I’ve camped in the Sinai Peninsula, snorkeled in the translucent blue waters off the coast of Dahab, and sipped pots of jasmine tea in Kusadesi, Turkey. I once took a boat from Eilat to Aqaba, Jordan, by way of Sharm el-Sheikh, sitting on the breezy top deck playing spirited rounds of shesh besh as the sun set with a group of Kafeyah-clad Islamic men en route to Mecca and Medina to make haj. We didn’t talk politics. We didn’t argue. We were just people, sipping bottled Coke with Arabic lettering while enjoying the Turkish answer to backgammon. 

For the past five years, I’ve also been a member of Al-Anon, where the 12 steps have given shape to a life that had previously exploded into chaos. Much like Israel and the Palestinians, each wrestling for control, my husband and I were at constant war. Our spirits were crushed, murdered in cold blood. We still argue and have problems, but the difference now is that I realize how powerless I am to change anyone but myself, and that is a freedom and a relief that every person in the world deserves to experience. 

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable. 

In the first step, Israel and Gaza are perfect substitutes for ‘alcohol’: Israel is powerless over Gaza, and Gaza is powerless over Israel. I’m not talking in terms of military prowess or political or historical claims; what I’m referring to is the way in which each side, despite the futility in doing so, attempts to change the other. It’s the geopolitical equivalent of listening to the sound of opening cans and obsessively counting the number of drinks an alcoholic has consumed, deluding yourself that you can somehow control the situation. You cannot. Ceasefires are not unlike periods of sobriety, and the more we focus on them, the more likely they are to run our lives into the ground. Most of the world’s problems, I would argue, are predicated upon the fact that we’re all trying to get someone else to do what we want. Despite the fact that it never, ever works. Hamas, for example, has structured an entire end goal around annihilating another people. They are not focusing on themselves. They have lost themselves. They have lost their humanity. 

And so the bloodshed continues. 

But can you imagine if, in a perfect world, both the Palestinians and the Israelis accepted one another for who they are, stopped fighting, and relegated themselves to the what is of the situation, instead of the what if, if they each took “contrary action,” let go of resentments and tended to their own communities so they could get to a place where they were able to engage in peaceful, civil discourse? 

And it’s not just them—it’s us, too. This latest war between Gaza and Israel has sparked a firestorm of debates, which mainly consists of us all bashing one another over social media, trying to foist our opinions upon everybody else. And are they even our opinions, since most of us have lifted them from other news outlets? In the process of making everybody’s business our own, which in Al-Anon we learn is neither a healthy nor effective way of resolving conflict, we have also lost sight of who we are. 

We are all at a massive collective stage of HALT: Hungry, angry, lonely and tired. We have become irritable and unreasonable, without even knowing it. But if we just took a step back, if we realized that nothing that anybody else says is really “our business,” if we angled our attention on ourselves and not on others, we would be able to engage in dialogue that is far more civilized and productive. 

Step 2: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 

It seems strange and counterintuitive to suggest that a ‘higher power’ could help restore the Middle East to sanity when it’s at a deep core level a war of religion and faith. But the ‘higher power’ that we speak about in AA and Al-Anon is not one born of religious faith, but of a secular, all-inclusive brand of spirituality. As it says in Step 3—“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him”— each one of us gets to decide what or who or where our higher power is. Maybe it’s God, maybe it’s the memory of a deceased loved one, or maybe it’s a sailboat bobbing out at sea. Maybe you don’t have one, and that’s OK. We are not foisting our beliefs onto anybody, we are not dictating what one needs to pray for or to whom one needs to pray. What matters is that when we are saddled with challenges that are too onerous to bear alone, we ‘turn’ them over, in our minds and in our hearts. Maybe we do pray, or go on a leafy hike, or construct a God Box (mine happens to be a Mason jar) in which we slip notes filled with words of despair or longing – anything so that we can ‘turn over’ the pain that we are feeling and relieve ourselves of the burden of responsibility for ‘fixing’ our lives all on our own. It is complicated, and it does take practice; five years in program I’m slowly progressing but have not yet perfected how to do this. But what I do know is that if instead of countries bombing one another and having to invest their energy whole-hog into anti-missile technology, if instead of killing one another we turned our will and our lives over to the care of a higher power…as we each understand that higher to be…the world would be a prettier, safer, more peaceful place to be. 

Gaza and Israel would continue their recovery in Step 4, where they each made a searching and fearless moral inventory and admitted their mistakes (never mind who’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; there’s not a single one of us that’s perfect). To follow up, they could do a fifth step in which they admitted to themselves and to one another the exact nature of their wrongs. They would get to a point where they could ask for God’s help in removing these defects of character (Step 6) and then ask him/her/it to remove said shortcomings (Step 7) and then, per Step 8, make a list of all persons they had harmed and become willing to made amends to them all. 

Which leads us to Step 9, the most pivotal step of all, in which Gaza and Israel make direct amends to one another, in writing, perhaps, or at an internationally-attended news conference, via Skype, in a CNN Special Report with Anderson Cooper on the ground in Tel Aviv and Wolf Blitzer in Gaza City. To paraphrase John Lennon, can you imagine? 

The maintenance steps would follow, with the two nations continuing to take personal inventory and promptly admitting whenever they messed up (Step 10), sought through prayer and meditation to improve their conscious contact with God as they understood him (Step 11), and finally, as it says in Step 12, carry this message to others (attraction not promotion; think dance party invites in Gaza and barbecue/bonfires on the beach type thing) and practice these principles in all their affairs. 

Fat chance, you say. Wishful thinking. You. Are. Crazy. Are you sure you’re not high right now? I know, I know. Believe me, I know. But, in AA and Al-anon, where broken souls are repaired and dismantled dreams strung back together, much stranger things have happened. I’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. As they say in program, “Don’t leave before the miracle happens.” 

Malina Saval has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2012. She is the author of  “The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens” and the novel “Jewish Summer Camp Mafia.” She’s an associate features editor at Variety. 

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