Statehood, Selfhood, and the Importance of Boundaries

A few years ago I was going through a very hard time. I said to my father, “I just want my dignity back!” My father, a Navy survival instructor, replied, “Jenny, no one can take away your dignity! Even if you are hanging by your toes in a prisoner of war camp, your dignity is still yours! Nobody can take it away!”

This message of unassailable human dignity is expressed in Article 1 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Article 3 affirms this: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Article 15 broaches identity and countryhood: “Everyone has the right to a nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”

The article expresses the highest ideals. Would that ours were a world for which the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights were descriptive, and not a hopefully idealistic prescriptive document.

So many of the reflections during my trip to Israel, through Palestine, and in and out of tensive sectors of Jerusalem, seemed to contain urgent messages of salvation to me: don’t wait for anyone to come and liberate you. Work not only to end the occupation, but prepare for when it ends, so it is not a very dark day spent staring at a crater. Know that you are living in reaction to the past. Remember that sorrow is part of life, but make sure joy and gratitude are also there.
Factual teachings and personal narratives about the Arab-Israeli conflict feel so urgent because they seem to hint at grave secrets of life. They point toward prerequisites for peace. They present relentless metaphors for statehood and selfhood, such as:

1. Your dignity is yours and no one can take it away from you. You have a right to exist.

2. Existing comes with the right and responsibility to protect oneself.

3. When existence is threatened, aggression occurs.

4. When identity is destabilized, self-absorption and selfishness are engaged as survival mechanisms. There are problems within the borders that must be prioritized and stabilized before serving problems beyond the borders. Once domestic order is secured, humanitarian efforts can and should re-engage. But when the healer is wounded, either ignoring domestic problems or refusing to tend them, then external caretaking is vastly compromised.

5. Strong separation barriers are crucial for internal stabilization, and especially if the neighbor is unstable. Both neighbors must be healthy, self-sustaining and resilient in order for peaceful relations.

6. When border security is good, and invaders neither lurk nor leech, and internal health is not predicated on reward or recognition from foreign entities, internal renewal is possible. Conditions that foster internal renewal and strengthening include confidence in security mechanisms, internal resilience, strong borders, a clear and purposive mission statement, and vigilant efforts toward self-flourishing.

7. When your own suffering overflows your borders, others suffer. When your existence is threatened, you might expand aggressively into other people’s lives in order to establish domination or to appear stronger and more stable than you actually are. But when your aggression comes out of fear of existential threat and infringes on the rights and territory of another without agreement and invitation, you invite attack. Aggressive expansion and engulfment of other’s lives is self-destructive because it results in conflict. It does not function constructively in history.

I asked an attorney and consultant for conflict management and crisis resolution in Jerusalem why the Israeli government supports Jewish settlements in Palestine when they are repeatedly identified as singularly problematic for a two-state solution. He replied, “Because Israel is self-destructive.” Food for thought. Respect your own boundaries, because they are also the boundaries of the other entity. Anything less than respect for the boundaries of others is self-destructive. (Hopefully, if the other party feels threatened, they will give you a warning before dropping a bomb.)

8. If your boundaries are not respected by surrounding parties, you force a cease-fire, you build a wall, and you create ground rules to assuage destruction until both territories can rebuild. An expert on Israeli security infrastructure and chief planner of the separation barrier said “I want to be the one to remove the first stone from the wall. We don’t want the wall. But we need it for security until we have good relations.”

9. Sometimes adjacent territories operate from diametrically opposed values. When the self is portable (like a person or a peoplehood), they may become refugees in a more hospitable place (like you may leave bio-family for a chosen community that shares values). When the self is land-bound,  immoveable, and adjacent lands are incompatible, there will always be the tension of difference and both parties must learn to live with it instead of attacking the other. Peace may be an absence of crisis. It may not ever be nourishing or generative.

How do you define peace, and how much do your demand from your peace? What are you willing to live with? Can you hold the tension of pieces of you being locked in precarious gridlock? If pieces of you are unresolveably incompatible, how can you reduce the suffering of your internal dissonance? How can your conflict become a dialogue? What are your tensive polarities?

Here are some of mine. Jewish statehood versus Jewish religion. Religion versus God. Self-protection versus allowing the transcendence of broadening, caring human contact. Living in reaction to the past versus learning from it. Freedom versus discipline. Specialness versus ordinariness. Expectation versus openness. Fear versus caution. Difference versus alikeness. Compassion versus masochism. Kindness versus manipulation. Fullness versus emptiness. Sometimes these things are not as opposite as they seem; after all, emptiness is form, and form is emptiness.

10. The anchor of healthy self, and a healthy state, is stable identity. Ever-anxious for stability in a world that seems to constantly attack, ever-anxious for constancy in a world that features mainly chaos and impermanence, people over-stabilize their identities into the material realm in the form of sacred spaces. If God is here, and not there, and we know where God is and isn’t, then we feel better.

If my identity looks like a thing that I can see with my eyes, I feel more stable inside and I can rest because I am not under existential threat. Israel is an apt demonstration of this conundrum, the over-stabilizing tendency of human nature that creates separation for stability, and suffers for the over-investment in separation as it turns into exclusion, racism, and death as the separation becomes more frenzied.

Jerusalem, a city split between two warring identities (Judaism and Islam) and one fading peace-maker identity (Christianity), is stable when groups don’t have to struggle to maintain their identity. When there is a sense of violation of sacred space, the tectonic plates get unstable and Jerusalem erupts. For separation to be so valued, and for the parties that are separated to be deeply joined–the Western Wall is the foundation of the Dome of the Rock Mosque, and different Christian Churches own different walls of the same Church of the Holy Sepulchre–the spark of instability and identity threat always, always, always verges upon ignition. At every moment every entity is poised to self-defend, to attack in order to save their lives.

11. Human identity is comprised of many qualities, and the healthy human mind vigilantly balances its components. Some are unstable and in conflict with others (for instance, my strength and my tenderness seem always to be in a rather conflagratory survival match). Some are more peaceful and adjudicate conflict between other parts (my conviction that tranquility and full presence are what I need most helps soften other conflicts, but is also in conflict with my conviction that productively communicating and reacting creates meaningful interaction and generates new ideas). When the more peaceful of my identity components is sick, this is an indication that the anguished parts of me are very badly off indeed.

Christianity in Jerusalem is the same kind of canary in the coalmine. When it is sick we are all sick, even if we don’t know it yet. Christianity in Jerusalem is turning into a museum piece as its constituents drift away for refuge. Jerusalem without Christianity is like Venice without the canals. When the best part of you is sick and flagging, collapse is nigh. Get out of the mine. Get out! Find fresh air. Find a new mine. Take time off. Or change professions altogether.

Statehood and Selfhood mirror and metaphor each other. Through this metaphor we see the crucial importance and the dangerous temptations of borders and boundaries. We see that self-repair and internal flourishing must precede interaction and humanitarianism. They must continue simultaneously. They feed and need each other. They are made strong by boundaries, and once strong, the boundaries may become porous, made of rope, made of sponge, made of air. Before strength, stone must serve.

I conclude with wisdom from the wiser:

“And this is one of the major questions of our lives: how we keep boundaries, what permission we have to cross boundaries, and how we do so.” — AB Yehoshua

“I like pushing boundaries.” — Lady Gaga

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