MAXWELL:  Hoping for better days

12/28/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The world’s rich may have gotten richer, but 1997 was a bad year for the human spirit everywhere on the globe.

Granted, we did not witness a major war. But we saw a large number of ethnic-inspired massacres and other atrocities against the innocent.

Further, an unusually high number of natural disasters wrecked many lives. Many of us feel a void, too, because Princess Di and Mother Teresa are no longer with us. And even strangers still feel the pain of TWA Flight 800, which exploded over Long Island.

Other people, accustomed to vast wealth, like the Japanese and the South Koreans, have seen their economies slip and their sense of personal well-being threatened for the first time in recent memory.

Well, 1998 is about to arrive, and I am hoping for better days for all humankind. I am not wishing for more money. Instead, I want to see a heightened sense of kindness worldwide, a determination to understand and respect one another.

My heart especially goes out to the people of the United States and to the people of Israel, two nations where I feel at home.

As for America, I want to see President Clinton’s race initiative plant solid roots in every burg in every state. I cannot think of anything that is more important than relations between white and black citizens. What happens between these two groups goes to the very heart of what makes America America.

Recent books, such as David K. Shipler’s A County of Strangers and Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom’s America in Black and White, illustrate the wide chasm separating the races. As I read these publications, I felt sick _ uncomfortably aware that racial hatred and misperceptions have an unrelenting hold over us.

I would like to see us make sense of affirmative action. I am not talking about court battles in which “winning” the argument is more important than “discovering” justice. I am not talking about televised town hall meetings in which the president and anti-affirmative action forces reduce race to evaluating Bill Lann Lee’s qualifications to lead the federal civil rights division. Nor am I speaking of rancorous debates over busing, vouchers and charter schools.

I am talking about a meeting of the minds _ a sincere willingness to acknowledge one another’s full humanity. Imagine an America where white people comprehend the pain of black people, a class that has spent a lifetime on the outside looking in. Imagine an America where black people do not reject white people who earnestly try to assist and make amends.

We, the nation, should resolve to establish “safe places” where honesty on race is not a liability but an asset, where we feel encouraged to utter our innermost thoughts without fearing unfair judgment.

As for Israel, where I intend to return during the new year, I want to see Jews and Arabs finally understand that they are condemned to live together and would be wise to make every attempt to find genuine peace. Whether they like it or not, Jews and Arabs _ Israelis and Palestinians _ are brothers and sisters.

Yehuda Amichai’s poem An Arab Shepherd Is Searching for His Goat on Mount Zion captures the spirit of my New Year’s resolution for the Holy Land and its troubled people:

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion

and on the opposite mountain I am searching

for my little boy.

An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father

both in their temporary failure.

Our voices meet

above the Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us.

Neither of us wants

the child or the goat to get caught in the wheels

of the terrible Had Gadya machine.

Afterward we found them among the bushes

and our voices came back inside us, laughing and crying.

Searching for a goat or a son

has always been the beginning

of a new religion in these mountains.

Clearly, Amichai, Israel’s major poet, comprehends the old bond between Jews and Arabs and the need to restore it. During my last trip to Israel and the West Bank, I was disturbed by the hatred and desperation I saw in the eyes of Palestinian children.

I wondered, are Israeli leaders looking into the distant future? Are they trying to make these dispossessed children feel connected to this land that has been and always will be their homeland? Do Jews, who are in control here, understand that rhetoric, Scripture and traditions will not make Palestinians disappear _ ever?

My wish for 1998 is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat will come to their senses and realize that their hands are soaked with the blood of their own people, that their ill-advised decisions and senseless enmity mean the continued death of innocent people.

America. Is racial harmony possible between blacks and whites?

Israel. Is peace possible between Jews and Arabs?

If history is a guide, I am not encouraged. But the march of history can be redirected in 1998. The people of these nations have the power to embark on new beginnings. Will they?