Old guys calling for new voices in Middle East

Six of my Yale classmates who once shared a set of rooms decided we couldn’t make our 65th college reunion, but could get together once a month via Zoom forevermore to distill what we have learned from eight-plus decades of living and thinking and how it might apply to our remaining years and to the knottiest challenges of the day.

Last week, with four on the video chat, we delved into the unrest on college campuses caused by the war between Israelis and Hamas-led Palestinians. That conflict, now a raging war, has been going on most of our long lives, ever since Israel was created in 1948.

We are a diverse group of friends: two Jews, three Protestants and one non-practicing Catholic (me). None of us had any magic answers for resolving the current blood bath.

Larry, a Jewish doctor with a Bronze Star for his medical service in Vietnam, advocates for an immediate cease fire. Mike, the other Jew, a former Marine officer, insists that Hamas must be eliminated before a cease fire can be agreed to.

Both former Marines, Mike and I, think it’s too much to ask of Israeli soldiers to stow their heavy weapons and go down into the Hamas tunnels under Rajah to do hand-to-hand combat with the remaining Hamas leaders hiding there behind Jewish hostages. A surgical victory with minimized losses doesn’t look possible.

The four of us agreed that the underlying hate must be overcome before any kind of enduring solution can be put in place. That means Palestinians must dump Hamas as their leadership, and Israelis will have to move past hard-liner Netanyahu.

In addition to fresh leaders, new voices of conciliation, of reason, of peace need to be found and elevated. Impossible, you say?

The four of us, who have lived through the worst of times and the best of times, looked back to our childhoods in the 1930s and 1940s and marveled at how many profound changes to the positive had evolved in some of our towns. Protestants and Catholics lived in mostly separate worlds. That’s way in the past. We have mostly transformed past religious bigotry in our communities.

There was not much in the way of queer issues back then. I asked, “Did any of us know any gay men in our 1959 class of 1000? No one did. We were sure there were some, but deep in the closet. Flash forward: Three of us have gay members in our families, out in the open. It is absolutely not an issue for any of us. That has been transformative for the better.

I grew up near the Fox River in De Pere. I jumped in the river when I was 14, and a big turd floated by. I got out and never went back. It was as polluted as the Milwaukee River in West Bend. Both were still putrid when I moved here in 1969.

Then, eloquent pro-earth voices began to be heard, like those in Wisconsin of Leopold, Muir, Knowles and Gaylord Nelson. The mindset of Wisconsinites changed dramatically toward conservation. Fifty years later both rivers are fishable again. Transformational thinking has carried the day.

Point is: we humans are capable of listening to our better angels, even when power seekers are trying to win by setting us against one another, by attacking institutions that have kept the peace. The power mongers promote adversarial thinking and models. They divide to conquer with thin majorities.

When mindsets move to the high ground, societies and economies win by promoting collaboration, by putting love or at least tolerance over hate, by innovating versus dominating.

The four of us pondered: how do we change deep-rooted mindsets? Poetic leaders like Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jefferson and Mandela are usually out front.

Larry, a psychiatrist, believes that a mutual show of respect, even if somewhat superficial, is essential to understanding and conflict resolution.

We thought about powerful songs that have touched us deeply, like “We Are The World” from the movement led by Lionel Richie in the fight against global hunger.

Roommate Peter, who led the Hubble Space program, wondered if Taylor Swift could use her immense market power, her lyrics and melodies, to pour oil on the troubled waters in the Middle East.

Far out? Maybe. But the people in Palestine and Israel, once the godawful war ends, may be ready for an approach like the Marshall Plan project that transforms how two peoples who have fought each other to the death can live together.

Germany and Japan are now allies who share deep running respect.

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