BEFORE WE SET OUT on New York’s first ever silent peace walk, Dr. Stephen Fulder told the story of the rabbi who said to his students, “‘There are two ways to make peace, the ordinary way and the miraculous way.’ A student commented, ‘I suppose sitting down and talking to your enemy is the ordinary way.’ ‘No,’ the rabbi told him, ‘that is the miraculous way.’” Fulder, a Vipassana Buddhist teacher from the Galilee, has led many silent peace walks in Israel. Not one has succeeded in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But they did bring peace to the ground beneath their feet as they walked that ground.
The New York Academy of Medicine was packed with walkers draped with white peace sashes. I recognized Buddhist teachers, Jewish activists, and Quakers from actions past. Sufis were there too, and Muslims who were not Sufis. It was hard sculpting the many hundreds of us into the required single file.
I began to appreciate the single file rule as we walked in the light rain along Central Park. It removed the temptation to talk, it underscored the solitude of the walker as well as the commonality of the walk. In life, we walk alone even when we walk together. Peace is both a singular and collective endeavor.
I had never before been in an action where there were no banners or chants or vilified others. The walk was led by a sign that read: NY SILENT PEACE WALK JOIN US. That was it.
An action that does not attribute blame is open to everyone. Fulder is by no means apolitical. He opposes the occupation and refers to Israeli policies on the West Bank and Gaza as avidya (ignorance.) He himself refused to do military service. He once held dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians in Nablus. Everyone was required to listen in silence to the stories of the other’s pain. The Israelis’ fear of terrorist bombings and displacement had to be listened to by Palestinians just as the Palestinians’ fear of Israeli soldiers and displacement had to be listened to by Israelis.
I listened in the rain to the quiet movements of the steps ahead of me and to the steps behind me. I listened to the rustling of the trees and to the people talking on their cell phones. I listened to myself thinking: Does this have anything to do with the battle for land and the claims to land? Can there be a new politics that includes an agenda of listening, and maybe walking as one listens?
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Robert Hirschfield is a freelance writer and photographer whose work appears in Ode Magazine, The National Catholic Reporter, Outlook (the Indian newsweekly), and the London Jewish Chronicle, among other publications. He has travelled most recently to north and South India, and to Israel and the West Bank.
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