Bridges across an Impossible Divide by Marc Gopin

John Brewer reviews a book that focuses on the spiritual motivations of peacemakers in the Middle East

February 7, 2013

In recent years two developments have occurred in social science, both of which are well exemplified in this book. The first is its re-enchantment or sacralisation, as notions of love, compassion, hope and forgiveness become part of the vocabulary of social science. The other I would call the second-wave cognitivist revolution in social science - the first wave being the rediscovery of meaning in the 1960s - which manifests in a focus on things such as vulnerability, suffering and reflexivity. These developments are not unrelated, for interest in the interiority of people’s emotional life, including religious perspectives on these inner lives, is being extended and applied now to societies generally. Hard- nosed social scientists find this problematic. Even those with religious faith tend to keep personal belief separate from their professional practice as social scientists, and prefer mentions of love, compassion, healing and forgiveness to be reserved for the Sabbath.

These twin developments are particularly heightened in peace studies and conflict resolution research because the subject matter deals directly with emotional interiority. This is the case both with respect to people, through attention to their responses to mass atrocity, recovery from trauma, victimhood experiences and feelings of love and reconciliation toward former enemies, and by extension also to society, in topics such as healing between communities and nations, political forgiveness and the like. This trend is showing itself in an unusual shift - from understanding the structural dynamics of successful peacemaking toward the motivations, personalities and inner emotional and spiritual lives of peacemakers. Some well-known peace researchers, such as Jean Paul Lederach and David Little, exhibit this turn.

Marc Gopin is among them. He has a lifetime of service to peacebuilding in the Middle East and is well known for his pioneering writings on the potential of religion as a resource in peacemaking. This book is designed to be read in parallel with the excellent video series Unusual Pairs, which Gopin made in collaboration with Hind Kabawat, and which captures the life stories of Israeli and Arab peacemakers in their own words. The second part of the book consists of verbatim narratives from five individuals presented in the video recordings, and another three interviewees feature elsewhere in the book with commentary and analysis by Gopin. There is, however, a separate point to be made by Bridges Across An Impossible Divide.

The author wishes to capture the inner life of those brave people who venture across a very dangerous bridge in the Middle East to embrace their enemy on the other side in love and peace. This journey is premised on self-reflection - and the failure to critically examine oneself is said to be the greatest impediment to peace. Such reflexivity, however, is interpersonal and must be shared within one’s own community and with other communities, as a model for confronting and overcoming emotional constraints such as fear and despair. The key argument, though, is that religious resources facilitate and shape this self-reflection, such that the individual’s inner spiritual life is the principal motivation to cross that bridge. In my view, people do not need religion in order to love and befriend, but Gopin’s emphasis is on the way religion animates love, victory over fear, and the wealth of “positive emotions” he sees in peacemakers’ inner spiritual lives.

The problem with this argument is that religious peacebuilders confront an external world that sometimes imposes structural constraints on their peacemaking (as well as sometimes enabling it), so that motivations to facilitate change are never sufficient on their own. Moreover, we do not get a sense here of what differentiates these peacemakers from their co- religionists who use religion for the purpose of continuing enmity. It is simply tautological to argue that self-reflection results in love and that religious precepts about love can shape self-reflection.

Bridges across an Impossible Divide: The Inner Lives of Arab and Jewish Peacemakers

By Marc Gopin

Oxford University Press, 240pp, £18.99

ISBN 9780199916986

Published 29 November 2012

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