Among our most sacred values is shalom, the Hebrew word for peace. But what does peace mean? Does it demand pacifism? Is it opposition to war at all costs?
This issue arose in the 1930s in a dialogue between Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Buber. In an exchange of letters, Gandhi urged Jews in Germany to engage in nonviolent resistance. In doing so, he said, they should “refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment.”
Buber replied and noted that the effectiveness of Gandhi’s pacifism was limited by the brutality of the Nazi regime. “Do you think perhaps,” he asked, “that a Jew in Germany could pronounce in public one single sentence of a speech such as yours without being knocked down?”
Buber, in other words, understood that nonviolence only works on a shared playing field. The Nazis did not care whether Jews protested or not.
Their hatred knew no limitations. They simply used the German military and S.S. to imprison and murder them.
In contrast, Gandhi succeeded with nonviolent resistance in India because the British shared basic Democratic values even as they imposed segregation in India. Martin Luther King succeeded with nonviolent resistance in America because of the shared values proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.
The violence we witness in parts of the Middle East, especially Syria, is more complicated. How do you resist those who are indifferent, cruel and violent with no compunction about murdering hundreds of thousands of people?
Do you just wait for the carnage to end? Does peace simply require patience? Or does it require action?
That is a question we need to ask and answer. For a deeper explanation of the meaning of Shalom for each of us as individuals and as part of a community, see my newest guide Shalom for the Heart.