By Curt Collier
Some have privately asked my opinion of the war between Israel and Hamas. Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, brutally killing approximately 1,200 Israelis and taking another 240 people captive. For this, I agree that the Hamas political organization must be neutralized. Yet, in response to this horrific attack on Israeli citizens, Israel has bombed the Gaza strip, killing approximately 14,800 Palestinians. It is hard to know what percentage of the Palestinians were militant combatants, but reports are that up to 50 percent of those killed in Gaza were under the age of 18. How can this be a just response?
The 9/11 attack against the United States killed 2,977 people, and for this, those connected with this heinous act have been hunted down and killed across the Middle East. According to the Washington Post (May 2023) and based on research from Brown University, approximately 4.5 million people died post 9/11 as part of the US “war on terror,” both in direct conflict and the “reverberating” death toll from associated violence, starvation, and disease. Was justice served here, as well?
Horrific death tolls in Ukraine, Yemen, and Myanmar
While we focus our attention on Israel, approximately 500,000-plus soldiers have died in the Russo-Ukrainian war within the last 20 months (New York Times), and the seven-year-old civil war in Yemen has left over 377,000 dead and 20 million currently on the brink of starvation (Human Rights Watch). Two years after the coup, the military junta that imprisoned Myanmar’s democratically elected prime minister has killed near 3,000 people, put 13,000 in inhumane prisons, and as I type these words, continues to rain down terror on its own citizens (Amnesty International).
Which conflict should I stand up for? What about the 8,000 migrants who try to illegally cross the US-Mexico border EACH DAY, the majority of which are asylum seekers? About 6,500 of those were apprehended EACH DAY in September of this year. What about their plight? Many of them are simply families trying to escape violence.
Stop. Rest. Start breathing again.
We are incredibly tribal
This Thanksgiving I drove approximately 310 miles to my brother’s home in Stafford, Virginia (just south of Washington DC), making the trip in about four and a half hours. That is approximately the same distance from Moscow to the Ukrainian border, and nearly 65 percent of Russians live within four hours of Ukraine. Three hundred and ten miles is approximately the same distance from Eilat in Southern Israel to the northernmost point of Israel at the Golan Heights. For some of us, that’s a pretty small place, about the same distance from south side San Antonio to north Dallas, Texas. (Or better yet, it’s 211 miles from Cape May, NJ, to the New Jersey border near Port Jervis, NY–the state of New Jersey’s longest span.) Yet, within tiny places conflicts have raged for centuries. I point this out not to be cynical, but to highlight an important point: how incredibly tribal we remain as a species.
I believe that it is this tendency that drives much of the conflict today…and in fact, has driven conflict since time immemorial. In his book, “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst,” neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky reports on research revealing that within milliseconds, humans can “detect differences about race and gender.” By age 3 to 4, children “have more negative views of Thems and perceive other-race faces as angrier than same-race faces.” As can be predicted, “Individuals prejudiced against one type of out-group tend toward being prejudiced against other ones.” And most discouraging of all, these differences are intensified and amplified when we break into “groups.” Is there no hope?
Shared goals, mutual benefits lead to peace
In much of my reading, I’ve also seen extensive research pointing out a couple of interesting facts. Who is considered Thems is fluid; change the context a little, Thems become Us. In those split milliseconds when people were having negative biological reactions to different races, they also felt warmth toward people of different races wearing the hat of a favored sports team. When groups were primed before the experiment to think about favorite historical figures of a different race, suddenly their innate suspicion of others was measurably dampened. Seeing the “other” as an individual by deepening contact and relationships has been shown again and again to reduce hostilities. Downplaying steep hierarchical structures and creating settings where people work together toward shared goals with mutual benefits leads cultures toward sustained peace. This was recently documented by economist Michael Muthukrishna, author of “A Theory of Everyone: The New Science of Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going.”
Society is highlighting conditions of peace
What all of this means to me is that peace is possible if we continue to work toward the conditions of peace. That behooves us to know what those conditions are, and what we need to do. But we can do it. Through this holiday season and into the next, the Society will be highlighting some of those conditions. We will be offering workshops and inviting speakers who focus on the conditions of peace. We start this coming Sunday, Dec. 3, with a talk on understanding how best to get involved, given all our different styles. On that same Sunday, we will be launching our Media Task Force to address disinformation, and on Dec. 10 we will be celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–an important tool in knowing what to do–by hosting a variety of cultures to share food and entertainment. Finally, on Saturday, Dec. 16, we will gather for our annual Winter Festival, the theme of which is the Light of Peace.
Please join us in this important work.
Curt Collier is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.