On a cold, dreary November morning in the Berkshires, Massachusetts, I finally understood why owls are seen as wise, why in the ancient world they represented Athena and Minerva, the goddesses of wisdom. On my way from an academic symposium in Great Barrington to Albany International Airport, I stopped for a short birding stint in Beartown State Forest. Strolling in the leafless woods amidst a few snowflakes and having no winter gear to speak of, I was stupidly frozen. Neither did I have many birds to watch. What would they do in those bare forests? Heading to the car with a numb mind, I had a strange urge to look back and there, a mere six feet from me, perching on a branch was a godly, ghastly Barred Owl. It was transfixing me with its nocturnal gaze that looked like nothing else but deep and unfathomable wisdom.
Not a day passed and I was warmly seated, jacket and all, in a room at Stanford University, that citadel of human wisdom. The occasion was yet another policy conference on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yes, another round of good intentions, of attempting to come up with some workable measures. So many good intentions, so many important and thoughtful people, such a grand venue.
But no matter the intentions, the thoughts, or the aspirations to think outside the box, the discussions collapsed into the usual clichés that choke whatever good ideas attempt to grow. The low point was a long J’Accuse hurled by one of the Israelis, a former senior official, at the Palestinians, involving how, for example, they keep raising new demands while refusing to recognize the Jewishness of the State of Israel. This accusation-list was marred by the usual Israeli arrogance, accompanied by a lack of any self-reflection regarding how Israel keeps raising its own bar of demands (like the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state) while erasing any hint of the former Green Line, any shred of Palestinian hope for sovereignty. The one-sided accusation-list brought the exasperated chair to close the session in anger. Another conference went down the road of its many predecessors and even Stanford, this citadel of human wisdom, produced no good.
Arguably, no magic is needed to produce the good. The general outlines of resolving the conflict are known. Most of the details are also clear. The chart is here, open for all to see, yet no progress has been made for twenty years. Furthermore, in these twenty years, peace-spoilers moved from the margins of the two societies to the heart of the polities. The peace-spoilers — whose interests and ideals run contrary to conflict resolution — are by now the governments. In Israel the current government is hawkish to the bone, dominated by supporters of Greater Israel and the settlement project, and the Palestinians, notwithstanding the moderation of Mahmoud Abbas, are shadowed by the fundamentalism of the Hamas that rules Gaza and eschews the support and legitimacy of the PLO in the West Bank. And as long as peace-spoilers man the helms of government, no amount of human wisdom, good intentions, people-to-people programs, or third party initiatives will produce a solution.
That was also one of the messages of Secretary of State John Kerry in his Saban Forum address last week in Washington, DC. He made it quite clear, asserting, “We can’t come to a forum like this, we can’t have meetings, we can’t go back and forth and maintain the norms of diplomacy and pretend.” Secretary Kerry sounded every bit as exasperated as the chair who angrily closed the session in the Stanford conference: “The Israeli and Palestinian people deserve better, but the current path is not leading to a more peaceful future. I am concerned that unless significant efforts are made to change the dynamic — and I mean significant — it will only bring more violence, more heartbreak, and more despair. That’s a fear, not a threat.” Years of this back-and-forth between Israelis and Palestinians left their marks on him as well.
Thus, wise people are bound to fail again and again, no matter the grandness of their conferences venues. And so I turn my eyes over to the godly, ghastly owl and to Hegel, who cautioned us almost two centuries ago “that the owl of Minerva takes its flight when the shades of night are gathering.” For Hegel, the shades of night meant the withering away of historical conditions; the withering away that allows human wisdom finally to comprehend the historical processes it has undergone. But this withering away of historical conditions may only be adequate for historians studying past events and human follies, not for those wishing to get a grasp on their future, to devise a better life for themselves, their kids, polities, and neighbors. For them, the blunt words of Secretary Kerry, who warned that the “status quo is simply not sustainable,” are aptly true — but the owl of Minerva may come too late.
And so I fantasize that the darkness that already engulfs the Palestinians and Israelis, the darkness of mutual hatred and unending cycles of deadly violence, will be night-y enough to induce my Barred Owl to spread its wings now, before it becomes too late. Maybe the owl will prove wise in the way we humans fail to be and it will whoosh the peace-spoilers away from the helms. I warn myself against trusting fantasies and owls. I counsel myself and Secretary Kerry that they may not necessarily be the substance on which reasonable optimism rests and from which sound and sustainable politics results. But then again, what possibly could I know, a perpetual conference participant with a mind still numb from a birding stint on a cold, dreary November morning in the Berkshires?