Look for ‘Common Ground’

Look for ‘Common Ground

reprinted from The Yellow Springs News
September 21, 2000, By Jay Rothman

When I graduated from Yellow Springs High School in 1975, I traveled the world in search of home. Twenty five years later I have found home, again, in Yellow Springs.

In the interim, Jerusalem was my home for more than seven years. As I engaged with the conflict there, and made conflict resolution my profession, I understood the importance of identity. I also particularly viewed that holy and contested city through Yellow Springs’ eyes.
What was keeping all the different groups from recognizing that, together, they formed a beautiful and living mosaic; while separate, they were just a bunch of broken and ancient tiles? American pluralism proclaims, and Yellow Springs extols, that separate groups maintaining separate identities, despite and because of their differences, together form the whole.

Middle Eastern identity-politics, instead, poses that different identity groups are existential threats to one’s own identity group. Tempered by the Yellow Springs’ view of unity through diversity, even Jerusalem wouldn’t be that difficult to resolve. As has been reported in this paper, I and my conflict resolution consulting company, The ARIA Group, had been retained on a limited basis by Village Council to help determine “areas of common problems and common solu-tions” with particular reference to the wellhead protection plan and process.

My charge was to assess the situation and determine if and how to build bridges across the various groups and concerns in town. I began this charge just as Middle Eastern leaders converged in Maryland and Camp David II began bumping along. Each morning as I logged on to Middle Eastern media, I wondered which conflict would be creatively transformed sooner.

The American problem-solving faith suggests that “common ground” can always be found between various interest groups. Just figure out what they want and pragmatic solutions can be woven between them. This is what Arafat and Barak, with a large dose of Clinton in the mix, were trying to do, for their own legacy and political (and perhaps actual) survival. But identity-issues wrapped up practically and symbolically in Jerusalem got in the way and functional solutions did not work.

Jerusalem may provide a useful lesson for us here. A richer way to understand our divides is that they, too, as in the Middle East, are about identity.

Who are we in this town in the beginning of the new millennium? What are our mini-Jerusalems here (i.e. those things we each care about deeply that helps us define our own specialness and expresses our purposes)? What do we believe in and why? How do we govern ourselves? How do we fact threats and opportunities that the future brings? These are at the heart of the matter, and these are the things that are essential-to all of us.

Having completed my initial charge, my recommendation was that across this town there be concerted dialogue within, between and among the various identities and identity groups. I believe this is still our collective task.

After October 3rd, our Council, whether it remains intact or is changed, must continue to heal some of its own divisions, even while it maintains its important and representative differences. Next, elected and voluntary bodies must bridge their gaps over shared concerns (e.g. safe drinking water for generations to follow). Finally, our town must engage in a concerted process of envisioning and creating its future together.

As the recall process is brought to a head in Yellow Springs, I’ll be in Jerusalem, looking for and helping to nurture glimmers of peace there. I look forward, even before leaving, to returning home and eagerly anticipate the process of reconciliation that will undoubtedly unfold here.