“If you want to make peace you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.”
— Moshe Dayan, Israeli Military Leader
To settle differences, reach understanding and resolve conflict, talking to your enemies would seem to be a sensible approach. Talking to those with whom we have differences is a concept taught in anger management and conflict resolution classes at San Quentin Prison. Communication is a skill that is useful in improving personal relationships.
Yet, this approach to peace-making, eloquently and powerfully projected by President Barack Obama, has brought him intense criticism and derision. His critics ignore a powerful example from history when bitter enemies who killed each other’s sons on the battlefield were brought together to speak face-to-face and produce peace.
Use of force and threats is not the only way to gain compliance. President Obama declared in his inaugural address that, “power grows through its prudent use [and] the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” In emphasizing our “common humanity” Obama envisioned a time when “the old hatreds shall someday pass [and] the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve.”
Those who deride his willingness to “extend a hand” to America’s enemies as misguided, weak and a form of appeasement ignore a basic component in human relationships. Silence and estrangement born of fear and mistrust only increase tension and dehumanize those with whom we need to achieve understanding. When we fail to see the shared humanity of our “enemy” it becomes easier to take their rights, their possessions and their lives.
In seeking a New Beginning with the Muslim world, Obama spoke in Cairo, Egypt. He said, “So long as our relationship is defined by our differences we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end.”
Speaking the truth openly to one’s enemy is not a sign of weakness or surrender, but a demonstration of profound courage and commitment to peace. Obama acknowledged that his speech could not “eradicate years of mistrust… But I am convinced that in order to move forward we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors.”
Obama’s New Beginning in Cairo focused on the major source of tension produced by the conflict between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world. The value of speaking openly to the enemy was demonstrated in the Israeli-Egyptian peace forged in 1977-1979.
SAW THE COST
Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s President and the chief planner of Egypt’s war against Israel in 1973, saw the cost of continued conflict to his country in blood and prosperity.
Against a background of intense opposition at home and in the Arab world, Sadat said, “I am ready to go to Jerusalem and to give a speech in the Israeli Knesset if this will save the blood of my sons.” Speaking in Arabic before the Knesset in 1979, Sadat touched upon the common humanity of his people and his enemy the Israelis. “We all still bear the consequences of four fierce wars waged within 30 years… A wife who becomes a widow is a human being entitled to a happy family life, whether she be an Arab or an Israeli…”
Talking to the enemy may involve letting go of past wrongs so that we don’t become prisoners of the past. Programs at San Quentin like TRUST and IMPACT help us identify who we were in the past so that the past can be purged. Often we are our own worst enemy, and the dialogue we have with ourselves helps us to create a new beginning.