It is quite an unusual sight: within the frenzy of downtown Tel Aviv traffic or the anxious quiet of Jerusalem streets, a long line of people appears. They walk slowly, in single file and in complete silence. An atmosphere of calm and peacefulness surrounds them. But what is more unusual—and takes most bystanders by surprise—is that they are both Jews and Arabs.
Participant Marion Pergamin wrote of being confronted by a hysterical Palestinian woman as she waited at a bus stop in Jerusalem to join this walk:
A Palestinian woman on her way to Jaffa Gate bursts onto the scene. She is shouting out her sorrow about what is going on in the territories, the military incursions into Palestinian towns. She talks in particular about Jenin, where some terrible fighting is now taking place. She has family and friends there, and she says that our [Israeli] soldiers are war criminals. . . . She tells me about the refugees and their constant suffering. . . . I feel a huge sense of compassion and an intense need to listen to her, only listen to her. . . . I notice the people of “the walk” approaching us slowly, at the top of the street. They are in a line, a hundred of them, one after the other walking in silence, slowly, aware of each step, creating an atmosphere of peace and safety around them. They are very present. They radiate calm and warmth. I point them out to her and explain that this is the reason I came here, to join a walk of peace in which Palestinians and Israelis are together. I tell her about the walk, its message of coexistence and peace, peace at every step, here and now. I notice that she is very moved by the walk and the atmosphere it radiates. She seems to me calmer and calmer—nothing like the furious woman I met only several minutes before. . . . She walks alongside the line for a while. She tells me that she likes this walk, that it makes her feel good, gives her relief and that her mood is much better now. I am very, very moved.
Three years have passed since the founding of Middleway, a group dedicated to applying dharma teachings to the task of peacemaking in a land steeped in conflict and bloodshed for more than fifty years. Middleway was born out of a sense of urgency and compassion felt by participants at silent retreats in Israel, and was especially inspired by the teacher Christopher Titmuss during his frequent visits to Israel and Palestine. Many in our local sangha sensed that the extent of suffering in the region called for engagement beyond sitting on the meditation cushion. At the same time, most felt a resistance to conventional forms of political action. The question then became, what kind of action is appropriate to both making a clear statement and remaining within the ethical, nonviolent principles of the dharma?
Our sangha concluded that our actions should speak louder than words and created a form that is inclusive and nonharming yet expresses in a clear way the need for peace and reconciliation. Our form—an adaptation of the traditional Dharmayatra peace walks—embodies dharma in action. We walk slowly in silence in single file. We wear white sashes as a sign of simplicity. Some walkers hand out leaflets to passersby, shopkeepers and drivers. The walks are led by senior Israeli dharma practitioners, but there are always many participants with-out dharma backgrounds, including both Jews and Arabs. During the walks there are instructions on maintaining a quiet confidence, presence, friendliness and nonreactivity in the face of provocation.
We invite local people to join us at the end of the walks in dialogue and sharing circles. These circles, led by experienced facilitators, encourage heartfelt sharing, the release of pain, personal contact across cultural boundaries, and the building of trust among people from separate communities. Tears flow, friendships are made, stereotypes are questioned, and fears are dissolved.
Some of the walks are one-day events in the big cities, winding through shopping centers and busy streets. Others last several days, and we spend the evenings around the campfire. Sometimes the local mayor or representatives of community groups address the walkers, with the discussions afterwards directed toward sharing of present feelings and personal experiences rather than debating of views. During an eight-day walk from the new town of Modi’in up through the wadis and villages to Jerusalem, we heard from a representative of an Israeli charity that is attempting to restore the memory of the five hundred or so Arab villages destroyed since 1948, a representative of the right-wing nationalistic settlers, and a representative of a group of lawyers that is trying to get the “Separation Wall” rerouted.
The “Silent Walkers,” as we are generally called, are becoming relatively well known in the country. Over the past two years, there were walks nearly every month in all areas of Israel, and lately in the Occupied Territories. The walks pass through cities, towns, villages, religious settlements, kibbutzim and the countryside. Thousands of leaflets presenting our messages of peacefulness have been handed out. There are never fewer than fifty walkers and sometimes more than one hundred. Recently one hundred fifty Jews and Arabs walked on one side of the Separation Wall and seven hundred Palestinians on the other, with a silent exchanging of flowers across the wall.
We have worked hard to obtain media attention, and there has been a great deal of national coverage on TV and radio, carrying our central message that Jews and Arabs together demonstrate that peace is possible. We have been invited to two meetings with Yasser Arafat to share our experience of the effectiveness of nonviolence. All this has been achieved with relatively few volunteers and no financial resources or support apart from what is “dropped in the hat” during each walk to cover immediate expenses. And while our limited resources and minimal organization have made it difficult to reach out and broaden the participation, Middleway has energized our sangha, particularly those members who felt isolated and scattered when depending entirely on sitting groups and silent retreats for a sense of community.
The walks are not explicitly Buddhist and are open to anyone who wishes to join. However, the dharma is embodied in everything that happens: in the mindfulness and peacefulness within the walking, in the intention to reduce suffering and bring healing, in the practice of trust and equanimity when risks must be taken, and in the inclusiveness through which Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, can and do participate equally. The practice of absorbing verbal abuse from people in the street, without reaction, and returning metta (enduring friendliness) is readily understood, regardless of one’s religion. When the Bedouin mukhtar Abu Amin was asked why he joined, he replied without hesitation, “When we get shouted at, I absorb it like a sponge, and in this way I am making peace for my people.” This is walking the Eightfold Path in daily life.
The walks are a form of social action in which inner peacefulness, steadiness and empowerment develop together with peace out in the world. There is a constant interaction between inner and outer. The walks address the negative emotional climate of anger and despair in the region as a source of continuing conflict. They are a middle way between a somewhat narcissistic view that creating peace in the world requires simply that one meditate more and purify oneself and an activist view that action to create peace does not require attention to the state of mind of the actor. In principle, the walks express the understanding that right actions radiate both outwards and inwards and that the two should be in some kind of dynamic balance. Sometimes we walk all day in nature, seeing only dogs, goats and cows, who look at us with curiosity but not much interest in our leaflets. At other times we express ourselves to the human world, venturing into cities, towns and villages, issuing press releases to the media. The steady, step-by-step mindful walking and the heartfelt sharing circles among Jews and Arabs build inner peace and confidence and reduce fear and helplessness.