Not long ago the fellow sitting beside me on a plane introduced himself as a Palestinian. Boy, do you guys have a PR problem, I wanted to say. He went on to explain that he was American-born, and a professor at a prominent university in California. So I found it curious that this was how he chose to introduce himself: A Palestinian. It told me not only that his family came from that area, but that he had a political stance, or as folks like to say, “an agenda.”
We talked about his grievances, and his belief that all terrorism would stop if the U.S. would simply stop supporting Israel. Then, assured my friend, Arabs could put down their weapons and there would be peace. It reminded me of Benjamin Netanyahu’s brilliant response to this suggestion when he said, “If the Arabs put down their weapons today, there would be no more violence. If the Jews put down their weapons today, there would be no more Israel.”
As Latter-day Saints, we not only support Israel, but consider ourselves descendants of Abraham, either literally or through adoption. We have a kinship with Jews little understood by the rest of the world. And many of us have visited the Holy Land and heard native tour guides insist that it was Ishmael, not Isaac, whom Abraham was commanded to sacrifice. The quarrel runs centuries deep and includes fighting over birthright, supremacy, and above all: Land.
It’s interesting that the land they are fighting over is a tiny spec on the desert landscape of that region. If the Middle East were a body, Israel would be the belly button. And, amazingly, Israel’s offers to share it have been roundly refused by Palestinian leaders who will not settle for anything short of complete annihilation of the Jews.
I tried to convince my traveling companion that their cause was not being helped by the images reaching us here in the West, images presented by media outlets who are not, in fact, pro-Israel at all, but are trying simply to capture events and broadcast them. We see suicide bombers, crazed killers carrying tall stakes with decapitated heads on the ends of them, videotaped beheadings, and folks bombing embassies over an offensive newspaper cartoon.
“I have to tell you how this comes across,” I said. “It looks barbaric, savage, uneducated, and unsympathetic. When you refuse discussion or diplomacy, and describe those who attempt it as weak, then you appear to be outside the realm of reason. You send the message that the only thing you understand is the sword. Well, that, and explosions.”
He tried to explain how dearly they love the Quran, and how they will fight to the death to defend it.
“Okay, but you’re fighting to the death of other people,” I said. “I think the idea of fighting to the death means that you, personally, are willing to die for something. Not that you run around killing everyone who has insulted your beliefs.”
However, I told him, I understand having strong allegiance to Holy Writ. In high school my journalism teacher (one of those cool ones who sits on his desk surrounded by adoring students) threw a Book of Mormon into the trash, not two feet from me. Clearly he was trying to get a rise out of me. But I did not throw a hissy fit. I did not go out and slash the guy’s tires. And I certainly didn’t consider bombing his home. I just rolled my eyes and concluded the guy was a rude jerk.
His actions did not diminish the value of the truths in the book; they diminished the man who threw them away.
“But we have a history of persecution,” the Palestinian said.
Really. Let me remind you, I told him, that my people had their livestock killed, their homes burned down, their land stolen, their men and children murdered, their women raped, and Missouri’s Governor Boggs issued an extermination order to kill all the Mormons, at which point they were finally driven– many on foot– across the United States, during which time many others died along the way. So I know a thing or two about persecution.
“But the difference,” I told him, “is that we don’t look back.”
And it hit me: This is a huge key to the success of any people, nation, culture, or even a marriage. You cannot keep looking back and nursing grudges. To this day I have never once heard a fellow Latter-day Saint say one disparaging thing about people from Missouri. We’ve moved on. And we’ve contributed grandly to society, turning out more leaders in medicine, science, the arts, you-name-it, per capita, than almost any other group in the U.S. Is it because we’re smarter? No. It’s because we don’t keep looking back in bitterness.
You could say the same of the Jews. Did the Holocaust happen? Yes. Should we always remember it and prevent such a tragedy from being repeated? Yes. But the Jews have refused to be shackled by their past persecution. They have moved on and made astounding strides in every field of endeavor. I guess you could say they’ve proven the adage, “Success is the best revenge.”
Conversely, look at the groups who lag behind international averages in their contributions to the world. It’s always groups who can’t get past the past. In the case of many Arab nations, they are still angry that Christians and Jews say it was Isaac whom Abraham nearly sacrificed. An LDS girlfriend of mine, who married a devout Muslim and moved with him to his home in Tehran, Iran for 13 years, claims that children of that faith, especially in Iran, are taught to say, “Death to America” at the end of all their prayers. “Death to Israel” is also a common chant, though Muslims claim it is only the extremists who do this. I cannot even imagine uttering a similar prayer against Missourians.
Anytime I’ve found a group of people who are under achieving, shall we say, they’re caught up in past grievances, want reparations, want apologies, want to whine, want to hate people who did them wrong.
Look at family feuds that have crippled the progress of those families. Now zoom in further, and look at individuals who are still consumed with hatred toward an ex-spouse, an ex-bishop, an ex-whatever. Their spiritual growth stagnates, then shrivels. They become tight knots of torment, suffering and chafing under self-imposed agony. They cannot forgive, will not even consider it. They may claim to believe in Christ’s atonement, but they have drawn a circle around their enemies, a circle they are sure cannot be penetrated even by the healing power of Christ himself.
They will not forgive, and neither will they repent. Not until the other guy says he’s sorry first. They are trapped in a childish mentality built upon revenge and retribution, miles away from the teachings of Christ. Like warring nations, they build a monument to the other side’s sins, and allow that to justify their ongoing offensive strikes.
Some marriages that appear to function on the surface often conceal raw spots of inflammation, where resentments over past mistakes are nursed and kept alive. These marriages do not grow and cannot thrive. Ultimately they die.
One member of the team has determined how much the other must suffer to pay for misdeeds, and they keep moving the finish line because, truthfully, they can never get over past hurts.
“If you really want peace,” I told my Palestinian friend, “Then you must take three words of advice: Stop looking back.”
Lot’s wife was given the same advice, and it holds true for all of us. Dwelling on ancient history traps us in a time warp where we can make no changes. Only a clear focus on the present and future allows us the freedom to build and progress.
My seatmate shook his head, dismayed at how little I understood his cause. For him it was simple: Israel is the problem. Israel must pay.
What he didn’t realize was that his entire culture is the one paying, and the price is, and will always be, forward motion.
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