Ben-Zion Arjuna Weiss PhD
24 – 9 – 2022
The whole Torah was given for the sake of peace, and it is said,
‘All her paths are peace’ (Proverbs 3.17) [vii].
Peace is the highest value in Judaism.
Growing up in the 50s and 60s in the Orthodox Jewish Community of the eastern suburbs of Sydney, I had no idea that the religion I was born into and in which I became Bar Mitzvah, was fundamentally about peace. It was not long after the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, which itself followed on from World War II and the terror of the Holocaust. For me war and Judaism were linked in my mind. When I found myself at university in the late 60s studying chemical engineering, I became aware of the war in Vietnam. This was partly as a result of an anti-war protest on the campus of UNSW against the visit of the then Minister for the Army, Malcolm Frazer. At that time I could have been conscripted into the army if my birthday came up in the Birthday Ballot, so the issue directly affected my generation. As I was approaching the end of my undergraduate studies, I decided that I would continue on to a PhD rather than go to fight in the war.
As a child of Holocaust survivors, I had no intention in participating in a war in a foreign country in southeast Asia, just because the Australian government thought that I should. I may not have considered myself as a pacifist at the time as I had spent a year in the school cadets when I was at Sydney Boys High. After a year I decided to resign from the cadets, for no clear conscious reason. I enjoyed going out bush, being in wild nature and learning to read topographical army survey maps to find my way around in the open bush. It was fun playing with the guns and shooting at targets. But the idea of shooting at people in a war like situation was abhorrent to me. Being at the antiwar protest some years later really clarified for me that I was against war. I was born the year after World War in Romania and then in 1948 there was the Russian invasion of Romania, according to my very right-wing father. My communist aunt considered this to be a Romanian Revolution. This was the trigger for my parents and I leaving Romania as refugees and the reason I grew up in Australia from the age of 5.
As a young man, studying at university, I became aware of the horrors of war. Although our news reports were highly censored, according to a journalist friend who had been to Vietnam to cover the war. War was something I didn’t want to have any part of, and within a few years I became involved in antiwar protests myself by taking photographs of the marches as a way to bear witness to them. At the time there were several folk clubs in Sydney, like the Copper Kettle in Newtown and the Troubadour in Edgecliff, to which I went regularly. Many of the songs in these venues were on the themes of peace and antiwar. It was at that time that I became aware of the power of music and poetry to influence my thinking about war, peace and other socially relevant issues like worker exploitation and racism. One of the highlights of the folk scene in Sydney back then was a visit by the great folk trio: Peter, Paul and Mary, who sang so many of Bob Dylan’s peace songs like Blowing in the Wind.
After studying science and engineering subjects at university I began to question the religious Judaism of my youth. It seemed very dated and anachronistic, quite medieval in fact. It didn’t seem to relate to the modern world that my studies were preparing me for. I still felt culturally Jewish and had many Jewish friends, but I was now meeting people from other traditions, who became my friends. The Jewish religious practices and the so-called commandments no longer seemed relevant to my life in modern day Australia. The people I met seemed little different to my Jewish friends and I was keen to learn more about the rest of Australia. This I did through breaking away from the Jewish community in the eastern suburbs of Sydney and going to Melbourne where I met my beloved Karen. But I didn’t completely leave my Jewish connection behind because her mother was Austrian Jewish. Melbourne at the time had much more serious and even violent antiwar Moratorium marches. But it was to be still some time before I moved from being an antiwar activist to a peace activist.
The next part of the process involved my becoming aware of Aboriginal people. I’d gone to Melbourne to study Film and Television Production at Swinburne Institute of Education. My first student film there was of Aboriginal people living at La Perouse in Sydney in 1971. I knew they lived there because we went on picnics to La Perouse, and we saw the snake man and Aboriginal people selling artefacts. But for all my 17 years of ‘good’ education in Australia, I knew nothing of who these people were and what they were doing here living in 3rdworld conditions just 7 kilometres from my 1st world Bondi Waverley beach suburbs. This was the time I was awakening to the depth of racism towards Aboriginal people in Australia. To me the dispossession of from their land and the denial of their culture seemed cruel and unjust. I was later to learn of the 100 years of Black Wars that were fought on this country. At that point I could see the link between racism as cultural violence and war, although I may not have been able to articulate it so clearly.
My move towards being a peace activist developed with my interest in Buddhism. I began to read more philosophy and books on Buddhism in the early 70s, after my near-death experience in an industrial accident as a young chemical engineer. I began to ask deeper questions about the meaning of life and that led to my practice of yoga and later Zen meditation. This quest for peace led to my becoming part of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF) and as part of that organisation to help bring the great peace activists Joanna Macy and Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) to Sydney in the mid 80s, both of whom led some powerful workshops and retreats. It was at this time that I was engaged in deep Zen study and practice with Aitken Roshi, who like Joanna and Thay, was a founding member of the BPF.
The quest for peace in my life and in my world was also enhanced by my involvement in non-violence training with a group called Chrysalis, who were a non-violence training collective and attending several courses with the Conflict Resolution Network. My life went through a deep transformation with the birth of our daughter Amica in 1987 and with my becoming an adult educator in migrant and refugee English tuition, using drama, singing and other creative experiential learning techniques. It was not long after that Jan de Voogd, my good Quaker friend. We met in Chrysalis and with Jan I would go out on Sydney Harbour in his wooden sailing boat to meet the American Warships as part of the Peace Squadron. He invited me to attend an Alternative to Violence (AVP) workshop with the Quakers. This further deepened my transformation as a peacemaker as it was from the Quakers I learned about forgiveness.
Quite synchronistically, through AVP I connected to the Dances of Universal Peace at a deeper level. I had been introduced to the dances on a sunny Sunday in Bondi Beach through Tomi Greentree, who put out a sign in the Bondi Pavilion inviting people to come and sing and dance with her. Later she led dances in a hall in Randwick, to which I would go occasionally. When I began to attend the AVP workshops and trained to be a facilitator of AVP at the Quaker Hall, we began to include the dances as part of the Quaker training weekend by taking the whole group to the upstairs hall for the dances on a Saturday night. The AVP workshops included Light and Livelies to keep the energy up and these dances were very uplifting. This later led to my training as a dance leader myself. Out of this process came my connection to the Sufi tradition of Hazrat Inayat Khan, an Indian Sufi master and classical Indian musician who had been given the task of harmonising East and West through his music in the early 20th century.
The Sufi practices along with the dances have further deepened my understanding and experience of peace, not just individually but also in community. This process began with my practice of Zen meditation retreats over 7 days, however, the many hours of sitting on a cushion and being at retreat did not always translate into peace when I returned to my everyday world. Because the dances involve physically interacting with other people in the process of dancing, singing, making music, and relating together in community they enable a complexity of human experience. This seems to allow for a deeper experience of peace making, at least that’s been my experience. Murshid Samuel Lewis, the originator of the dances was also a Zen master, a Sufi master and a horticulturalist. He knew how life forms could grow and by tapping into the folk traditions of the world he managed to harmonise East and West through music. This later included the indigenous traditions that can ground both East and West in the Earth.
My own path led me to a doctorate in Social Ecology on developing antiracism strategies through drama education. This brought in my experience of my drama-based teaching of English to migrants and refugees. In these classes I observed how people from highly conflicted cultures, like Serbs and Croats and Bosnians could transcend generations of conflict by learning together in Australia. It also involved excursions into the bush and Aboriginal studies, which helped ground people in this land and develop familiarity with the original people of this land. So now the peace process included the natural world and the indigenous people whose land we were learning to live on. All these factors led to holistic peace between people and nature through an ecology of culture. The idea of cultural ecology was a finding of my doctoral research, as I realised that with indigenous cultures the culture and the ecology were completely in harmony, whereas migratory cultures, like the British colonisers imposed a British ecology, which was embedded in their culture. The British ecology, which was based on a high rainfall and a wetter climate was very limited on the most arid continent on the planet, with only coastal areas that could sustain European forms of agriculture.
These cultural and ecological clashes have recently been exacerbated by a warming of the climate which has resulted in extreme weather conditions of floods, bushfires and droughts. The Indian ecologist and nuclear physicist Vandana Shiva claims that the third world war is our war with nature, and clearly in recent years Nature is fighting back. This is why peace with nature and the indigenous people of this land who have survived and thrived for over 60,000 years is so essential at this time. As a young man, who identified as a Tasmanian Aboriginal person said at a climate rally: “We’ve survived, Ice Ages, genocide, dispossession and we’re still here, you should talk to us about how to survive!” My own journey as a peace maker supports this idea.
What is interesting is that my own personal journey, that began in the Jewish tradition, has come full circle when I discovered a book called The Challenge of Shalom some years ago. This is a collection of essays showing how the fundamental teachings of the Jewish tradition is about peace. So in recent years I’ve become involved in Jewish Renewal, which draws on the teaching of the Kabbalah and the Tree of Life, thus bringing peace and ecology together. As the great Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot wrote in his poem Little Gidding:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Image at the top: the Children of Abraham in the Holy Land. Religious leaders from Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druze communities come together to rebuild trust in the religious community
Polner, M. & Goodman, N., 1994, The Challenge of Shalom, The Jewish Tradition of Peace and Justice, Philadelphia, PA: New Society
Schwartz, R. H., Jewish Teachings on Peace, in The Times of Israel, The Blogs, October 22, 2017:
Weiss, B-Z, 2007, Challenging Anti-Racism through Drama Education: Steps to an Ecology of Culture, a PhD thesis:
 Schwarzschild, 1994, in The Challenge of Shalom, ed. M. Polner & N. Goodman, p. 16