by Ruth Oron
The recent documentary “The Gatekeepers,” directed by Dror Moreh, brings to the forefront this burning question: What will make for peace, the real thing, between the Israeli and the Palestinian people? In this important film, the failure to achieve peace after all these decades is commented on with power by the six surviving former heads of the Shin Bet, the Israeli governmental agency in charge of the country’s national security. These six men provide evidence that a policy of brutal force in the occupied territories has failed to make Israel secure. On the contrary, they all say the situation is getting worse and worse, and Avraham Shalom notes that, while difficult for him to speak the words, Israelis “have become cruel.”
The Opposite of Contempt is Good Will
We passionately say that the answer desperately needed by Israel can be found in the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism, founded by the great American educator and poet Eli Siegel. It is in Aesthetic Realism’s understanding of contempt,and the one opposition to it: good will. Contempt is the “false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.”
In his book Self and World, Eli Siegel explained:
“The first victory of contempt is the feeling in people that they have the right to see other people and things pretty much as they please.…The fact that most people have felt…they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort –this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world. It is contempt in its first universal, hideous form.”
Contempt is ordinary. It can be as ordinary as pretending to listen to a person while thinking about something else. It is the feeling we can change or dismiss any fact for our convenience. It’s looking down on someone for how they dress—“I’d never wear something like that!” And contempt, taken far enough, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the cause of war and all brutality. A national policy rooted in contempt for people can never bring the peace Israel hopes for.
We are Israelis who study Aesthetic Realism, and who, for over thirty years, have told about what we’ve learned in letters to persons in the Israeli media and the Knesset. But the ideas we presented were evaded and avoided, with tragic results. As one of the Gatekeepers, Ami Ayalon admits in the film: “We…win every battle, but we lose the war.”
What is Victory?
In a 1970 lecture Eli Siegel gave, only three years after Israel occupied West Bank and Gaza in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, he asked: “What is a victory? Assume the victories go on and all of Jerusalem is held.… If you don’t have good will for the people you beat, is it a victory in God’s lexicon?”
And in 1982 Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, asked Israeli men and women to take good will seriously, beginning with writing a 500-word soliloquy "What does a Palestinian person feel to himself? What are his hopes, what are his fears?" As I, Ruth Oron, wrote with detail about a Palestinian woman worried that her husband who was fighting the Israelis might be killed, and realized that her feelings were no different from the terror in an Israeli woman’s heart, I saw for the first time that the feelings of people I had feared and hated and seen as beneath me were real, and it made for a change I never thought possible. I came to feel, as each of us who write this feels now: that justice must come to the Palestinian people. And the Palestinian people also need to see that they are more like us than different.
Good Will: The Greatest Practicality
In an essay titled Good Will: The Greatest Practicality, Ellen Reiss wrote: “There will be no peace until a person looks at someone different from himself and feels, ‘I want you to be all you can be, to have what you deserve in this world. I want to understand your feelings—they are as real as my own.’”
For there to be peace in the Middle East at last, people on both sides need to criticize their contempt and learn what it means to have good will. This urgently needed knowledge has existed for many years and it is what every Israeli and Palestinian deserves!
This article was written together with Harriet Bernstein, Rose Levy and Zvia Ratz To learn more about this approach, visit the website www.AestheticRealism.org