High Holidays

To Be a Peaceaholic: A New Year’s Resolution

As we enter the New Year, we are commanded to be honest about who we are, but at the same time, hopeful about who we can become.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy. He is author of the Boundaries of Judaism, and Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. His latest book, Who are the Jews and Who Can We Become, was a 2023 Jewish Book Council Award Finalist.  Donniel is also the host of the award-winning podcast For Heaven’s Sake, together with his colleague Yossi Klein

First published in Times of Israel

I am a peaceaholic. There has never been a peace initiative that I haven’t endorsed or a proposed treaty that I haven’t supported. When peace is not part of our political discourse, or on our political horizon, I experience a profound sense of withdrawal.

While I know that I am supposed to take responsibility for who I have become, in this case it’s not my fault. I was raised by my tradition to “seek peace and pursue it.” As distinct from other commandments, which we are only obligated to fulfill when it is possible to do so, in the case of peace, we are mandated to pursue it, to work to shape reality, so that we have the opportunity to fulfill it.

As a peaceaholic, peace is not merely a value but a need, which I am obligated not merely to support but something whose absence I must mourn, whose implementation I must yearn and work for, a value which demands that I re-prioritize my actions and commitments accordingly. More significantly, it involves a belief that we are most true to who we are, when as a people the discourse of peace and the pursuit of peace clothe our community and our nation.

As a peaceaholic, I am unfortunately finding myself increasingly alone. Everyone wants peace, but fewer are pursuing it. I was raised in an Israel whose culture was grounded on this aspiration. As a teenager, we used to sing about peace, about the end of war, and about how “next year” would finally be dramatically different. We have stopped singing these songs. We are not writing new ones.

For some, peace is an addiction from which we must free ourselves, an obsession which distorts our sense of reality and ability to function as a healthy nation. As a peaceaholic, I obviously do not agree. I don’t want an Israel which has lost the ability to sing about peace. I have always believed that the pursuit of peace is not a dependency which reflects our weakness but rather a sign of strength, a determination to shape reality so that one can live in accordance with one’s values.

An Israel which has ceased to believe in peace weakens itself and its relationships with our people and our friends around the world. The problem is not the recent war in Gaza. If and when Israel needs to respond to clear acts of terror and murderous aggression, Israelis and our friends will by and large understand. It is when Israel is perceived as no longer aspiring to peace and reconciliation, as viewing war as merely politics by another means, as caring for itself to an extent that it no longer cares about injustice to others – it is then that Israel loses a core aspect of its values and identity, and is increasingly alien to its friends and the next generation of Jews around the world.

As the emotional intensity of the war subsides, as the New Year approaches with its call for self-reflection and self-evaluation, it is time for an important and honest conversation. The problem is not the war in Gaza, and therefore no factual analysis of the army’s actions during the war will solve it. The challenge is not with how Israel fought the war, nor even its legitimacy, but with the fact that the war, when connected to the failed peace process, creates a general perception that Israel has changed.

As the New Year begins, with its call for honest self-assessment, it is time to recognize that we do not merely have a public relations or image problem but a substantive challenge both within Israel, and in our relationship with our friends. For them, rallying to protect the frail Jewish state is no longer relevant. Israel’s success and strength have made it less compelling. For them, the survival of Israel is a given. The question is whether to identify with Israel, and identification requires a shared value system and shared aspirations.

I used to be in the majority. But then the Second Intifada occurred. Many believe that Israelis freed themselves from their addiction to peace, because they came to believe that the Palestinians are not interested. It was during the recent war in Gaza, with Hamas missiles and tunnels targeting Israeli civilians, not dissimilar to the terror campaign of the Second Intifada, that I came to understand things differently.

As I was ushering rabbis and educators from North America into the bomb shelter on our campus this summer, I came to understand myself through their experience. The shock and trauma that was so evident in their eyes was not the result of mere fear of the danger to which they were exposed. Iron Dome took care of most of the fear. It was the feeling and awareness as they experienced for the first time that somebody wanted to kill them.

It was precisely here that we Israelis were so calm. We take it for granted and live every day with the awareness that somebody wants to kill us. The Second Intifada and Hamas’s use of Gaza as a platform for terror make this awareness personal and an existential reality, as distinct from a mere theoretical postulate.

It is very difficult to be a peaceaholic when you live every day with the feeling that somebody is trying to target you and your children. This feeling has not broken the backs of Israelis. It has, however, broken the broad base for the pursuit of peace.

While understandable, as an unrepentant peaceaholic, I wonder if it is inevitable and irreversible. I go back, again and again, to my tradition’s commandment to “seek peace and pursue it.” How do I teach this commandment and bring it back to life?

Peaceaholicism, if I may coin a term, requires a nuanced ideology and manifesto. To be a peaceaholic is not first and foremost a political position or the inheritance of a particular party, but rather a disposition and a sense of identity. It does not entail a specific proposal regarding borders, an opinion regarding the willingness of our negotiating partners to make peace, nor a preferred roadmap for how to proceed in our complex reality. It simply involves a commitment to never stop exploring its possibility and to constantly evaluate all of our actions in its light: Does pursuing a particular policy make peace more likely or less likely?

As a peaceaholic, I am obligated to pursue peace. But as my colleague Tal Becker has taught me, I am not obligated to make peace, for that is not in my hands alone. To be a peaceaholic and to advocate for it, it is essential to separate it from the aspiration for “peace now.” As a peaceaholic, it is my responsibility to work to change the reality within which I find myself, not to misread this reality or to be naive about it.

Within the peaceaholic movement it is critical that we provide space for all of us who have serious doubts as to how to match peace with security. Who worry about who truly speaks on behalf of the Palestinian people and what they want. Who don’t know if the radical form of Islam spreading in our neighborhood can be contained, or if it will ever accept the existence of a Jewish state, regardless of its policies or borders.

Within the peaceaholic movement, it is critical that we create space for all of us who know that despite our commitment to peace, there is a time for peace and a time for war. That sometimes, war, with all of its destruction, is not merely an instrument of survival, but also of peace itself. Only a people who value their own survival, are a people to take seriously enough to engage in peace talks.

As a peaceaholic, I am obligated to not infantilize my potential peace partner and allow them “childish” terror. To do so is to reinforce the notion that peace is only my concern, when in fact it will only become a reality when we both are committed to its pursuit.

Peaceaholicism, however, reminds us that we are obligated to not fall prey to self-righteousness and a perpetual, self-exonerating blame game, which frees us from responsibility, because, “It’s not our fault,” “They started it,” “There is nothing that we can do.” As one commanded to seek peace and pursue it, it is forbidden for me to do anything which undermines the possibility of its actualization under the protection of the argument that peace will never happen in any event, and therefore my actions are of no consequence.

We all know that settlements are not the primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East. If only things were so simple. If only a unilateral decision of Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders would usher in a new era of peace and security for Palestinians and Israelis, and facilitate a reconciliation between radical Islam and the West. As peaceaholics, we are obligated to change reality, not ignore it. However, because they are not the obstacle, it does not mean that expanding settlements are helpful and appropriate for a people whose policies must be founded on the obligation to pursue peace. As peaceaholics, we always must ask ourselves, “Who are we? Who have we become? Are we succumbing to reality, or are we still working to shape it?”

As Jews, as we enter the New Year, we are commanded to be honest about who we are, but at the same time, hopeful about who we can become. We live in a difficult reality, some of it shaped by others, and some of it shaped by ourselves and our mistakes. The spirit of the New Year teaches us that while I cannot change others, nor rewrite my past, I can choose a different future, and as a result, am held responsible for my choices.

I am a peaceaholic, but more importantly, I want to be in the majority next year. I want the language of the pursuit of peace to reenter our imagination, culture, and songs. I want it to emerge from the dust of our prayers, from the dormancy of our messianic dreams, into the everyday language and policies of our people.

To love Israel is to stand with it in good times and in bad times. To love Israel is to worry about its safety and to work to protect it. To love Israel is to believe in and to work for a new and different tomorrow. To love Israel is to commit to becoming a peaceaholic.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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