Shimon Peres and Jerusalem: City of Peace

February 29, 2012

Shimon Peres Hits a Home Run

 

My walk in Jerusalem trying to hug every Jew and Arab set the tone for a walk the next morning with my friends from the mission – the Christians because the Muslims went again to Al-Aqtsa, problem free.  But before that, I met up with the group for a 6:00 PM appointment with President Shimon Peres.  People were excited and I was excited.  It’s always exciting to meet the President of Israel – probably any country – but Shimon Peres has just been around so long and near the center of action in the Jewish state from its beginning that there is something historic about a visit with him.  The Indonesians were excited, and when we sat in a small room at Beit Hanasi, at the Presidential Palace, a room that barely fit our delegation of 24, there was a silence I had never seen in the group.  Something special.  

 

Peres came in, went around and shook everyone’s hands, and bonded with the leading Indonesian Muslim in our group because his mentor, the former president of Indonesia was a founding member of the Shimon Peres Institute.  Right away, then, President Peres was a bridge from the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, a country that had no relations with Israel, to the Jewish state where our group of Indonesians, Muslims, Christians and Jews was visiting.  It felt historic.  Then Shimon Peres spoke in such a dignified and wise way.  Like many other people – maybe the majority of Israelis – I have never really agreed with most of Shimon Peres’s policy ideas, and here, too, I had my disagreements (maybe I agree with Fayyad more! Oy!), even with key elements of what he was talking about.  But Peres wins you over, and we all fell in love and admiration with this 89 year old man who was sharp, witty – in a dry way – engaging and so stately.  I think he has gotten taller over the years!  I was captivated, but I was still able to eat the date and the chocolate bar that each of us got, as well as drink the coffee from the State of Israel little coffee cups that were served.

 

Shimon Peres, I think, was able to bring the group back to a feeling that Israel wants peace, wants to recognize the Palestinians, and is a democracy that is working hard to do the right thing.  The arguments and complaints against Israel hurled against the Foreign Ministry folks at lunch just seemed to roll away.  Peres was so chivalrous: he called upon a woman with a question even though the moderator wanted more of a macher to ask the question – so dignified and sensitive.  

 

At the end of the session I had my big moment:  Parents of one of my best and dearest friends had given me Peres’s book, The New Middle East, right after Oslo – almost 20 years ago.  And Rachel and I had still kept it on our shelf in the living room – I had actually read it.  It was a bit of fantasy about cooperation and peace in the Middle East, but again, Peres might have been wrong about the details, but here was a man with vision.  I remembered the book as soon as I saw Peres would be on the itinerary – I would bring the book with me to Israel and have him sign it!!  Believe it or not, I actually got the book to Israel and, after having forgot it initially, remembered to bring it to our meeting with President Peres.  So right after his talk – he gave us a lot of time, nearly an hour – I went right up to him and asked him to sign his book.  He was still a believer in the New Middle East, and all of there, after his speech, were also believers.  I gave him a pen, which I had gotten from the hotel in Ramallah (he didn’t know that), and he signed: With My Best Wishes, Shimon Peres.  So there you have it: the man wrote about the New Middle East, had signed on it, and by meeting with our group was continuing to work on it after all these years of some ups but mostly downs.  One day, perhaps in ways he could not imagine, Shimon Peres’s vision will come true.  With God’s help – and he did speak to us about his belief in God.

 

Of course after our inspired meeting with Shimon Peres, when we were all floating, we had another session with an amazing Bedouin woman doing incredible things for women’s empowerment in the Bedouin community.  There was also an amazing group Save a Child’s Heart, which works to train cardiologists all over the world – including in Palestinian and Arab doctors.  And Naomi Chazan of the New Israel Fund.  But what could have been an inspiring session turned into a kvetching session: One of our group said: It’s great that Israel does so much good saving lives abroad, but why does it discriminate against its Arab population and the Palestinians.  That member of our group went on to read an article from Haaretz about Arab families in a dispute with the local school district so the kids have to walk miles to get to school.  And that wonderful Indonesian quoted a Hadith (Muslim tradition) that Muhammad cared for everyone, even the cats.  It really got me so frustrated!  Look at all the Muhammadan countries and see if they care about anyone in their country – citizens, minorities, guest workers, Palestinians – as good as Israel.  

 

So this trip was complicated: It did not hide the struggles of Israel to build a just and moral state.  But on the other hand, I don’t think our group really gets that Israel was built pretty much from scratch in a mortal, life of death, battle against every Arab state and Arabs within the country – except for the Arabs of Abu Gosh who were loyal to the new Jewish state. Yet, as I would come to find out, despite not really getting a lot of Israel, people – even the self described Fundamentalist Indonesian Muslim in our group – really did get that Israel was a democracy and was sincerely trying to do the right thing.  That was perhaps the biggest lesson here: The truth comes out, and despite members of our delegation being detained at the border with Jordan, and one of them not being let in, and the Muslims having to run out of al-Aqsa when Israeli soldiers had to come in, and despite the searing criticism of Israel found in Israeli newspapers – despite it all, people came to love Israel and to respect this amazing country.  It will make a big difference when they go back to Indonesia, and I think something important was started here.

 

The next morning, Tuesday morning a group of us headed for Damascus gate, the shuk, the Via Delarosa, the Kotel and back through the shuk to the hotel.  The weather again was gorgeous – it felt warm – and everyone was friendly.  I pointed out that Jews unfortunately do not go beyond Jaffa gate to walk down to Damascus gate even though the area is so beautiful.  The light rail trains move up and down, and their ultra modern look and sound adds a wonderful feel to the Old City, the city not only of the past but of the future as well.  The tracks are grassy, and it give the feel of walking in a garden even though we were walking on a sidewalk along the walls.  We met up with a group of teens and I says “Sabah el Cheir” (good morning in Arabic) and we got into a conversation with them, me, the rabbi in a kippa, introducing these Arabs – Palestinians probably – to my friends the Indonesians.  And we took pictures – pictures are as important to Indonesians as they are to Japanese… and to the Tesslers (Rachel’s family).

 

Just an amazing feeling of connecting and being together in Jerusalem and the potential for Jews and Israelis and Arabs and Palestinians to connect.  OK.  This was not dealing with terrorism, or Hamas’s rockets terrorizing Beer Sheva, or Hizbollah terrorizing the north, etc.  But it did show our group that the younger generation is willing to engage – even more than their parents – and is not bitter and angry, but positive and hopeful.  That was really the number one lesson that I think our Indonesian friends will take home.  And that is incredible – it helps them think positively about Israel, rather than carrying negative, hateful feelings.  If young Palestinians are not hateful, neither should Muslims around the world be.  The hateful speech of the Jordanian minister was totally out of place and nullified.

 

Perhaps Hashem got directly involved in that the Kotel was the most pleasant, calm place for all of us.  Rev. Chloe, of the Episcopal church in New York, said how peaceful and inspiring the Kotel was for her as she spent 15 minutes on her own in the women’s section.  And in the men’s section, not only were there no schneurers to bother my Indonesian friends, but adorable little 6 year olds from a nearby Yeshiva, who were in the middle of davening, were willing to pose and smile for pictures with the Indonesians.  I took so many pictures.  It was really like we were in one big play, and everyone was told to act happy and friendly.  Was it all a show in Ramallah and the Kotel?  I actually don’t think so.  But it was surreal – like Fantasy Island.  We sang Ma Tovu, and the Wall really felt holy.  And there are new, cloth kippot!  No longer those card board kippot.  There is dignity at the kotel.  Wow!  Things have changed – at least that morning.

 

On the way to the kotel, going through the shul that starts from Damascus gate, we passed by the Christian landmark of the Way of the Cross, the Via Delarosa.  And right at the fifth station (or maybe the 8th station) there was a large delegation Christian leaders, and our Episcopalian in the group, Rev. Chloe, met and Indian Orthodox priest who had attended the General Theological Seminary in New York – where Chloe had studied – and had studied with the same patristics (study of the Patriarchal church) teacher.  What a Jerusalem moment!  It was like meeting old friends on Ben Yehuda or Emek Refaim – but this was the Christian version, at the Via Delarosa!  What a city!

 

The rest of the day continued with this dreamlike quality.  Rabbi Sid Schwarz put a lot of work into the trip, but he could not have imagined the incredible warm, sunny weather that made Neve Shalom, the model community of Jews, Christians and Muslims, so stunning.  It is a magnificent location on a hill overlooking Latrun – and an impressive monastery – and with views of the high rises of Modiin in the background.  I walked along the paths in this charming town with my friend Nogrohu, who is the leader of the Unitarian church in Indonesia.  Indonesians are old school: they take your hand and walk with you, so we were walking arm in arm through this Garden of Peace – with the wind rustling every leaf, the sun shining and everything looking possible. The sound of peace.  This was Israel.  

 

Neve Shalom (Walat AsSalam) is 40 years old and well thought out.  They discussed how they have rejected the vaunted Harvard ideas about negotiation – it doesn’t work for them.  But with their own systems, they have built mixed Arab-Jewish schools which educate hundreds of students.  I pushed them on how they celebrate Israel Independence Day and Naqba Day – one Palestinian narrative of what happened to them with the creation of Israel – and at first they shied away from talking about it.  When we got to the actual school building they opened up with a fascinating story of how these two holidays are celebrated and commemorated: At first, the teacher decided to have one wall for Yom Ha’atzmaut and another wall for Yaum anNaqba.  But the students complained and demanded that the narratives be mixed on the same walls.  I take that as a metaphor – divorce is not the solution; the solution is bringing these incredible peoples – my own, the Jews, and the one I have connected to on this trip, the Palestinians – together to learn from each other, to laugh together, to share their passions with one another.

 

From Neve Shalom to Tel Aviv.  We had an incredible session with The Family Circle/Bereaved Families Group.  A mother of a Jewish soldier killed by a sniper; a brother of a Palestinian killed in a scuffle at a check point.  The ability of these people to transform bitterness to a desire for peace and positive thinking is incredible.  The mother read us a poem she wrote on the day her son’s killer was to be released – along with hundreds of others – in the Gilad Shalit exchange; the brother talked about his experience of years in jail – he was a Palestinian terrorist – which led him to promote non-violent resistance.  Ali, the brother, said to the Jews in our group, “Your fear is our greatest enemy.” Meaning, if Palestinians want to succeed in their goals they are going to have to prove to Israelis that they don’t need to fear them.  That will not be – and should not be – easy after the two Intifadas which killed over a thousand Israeli civilians – and all the wars the Arabs have waged against the Jewish state.  But at least he tells the truth to his own people – that causing less fear, not more, is the way to resolving the issues.  From what I saw on this trip, and a previous Encounter trip to Bethlehem, the more contact Jews and Israelis have with Palestinians, in a peaceful, normal setting, the more that fear will dissipate – and that will be a good thing, as long as Israel remains vigilant and focused on her own needs.

 

The session took place in the Dan Tel Aviv, in a room that overlooked the waves of the Mediterranean.  Just stunning.  At the end of the session, we had a ten minute break.  I headed for the beach with our American Indonesian interpreter.  Just across HaYarkon street.  Awesome.  I took off my shoes and socks and waded into the water – still in my suit.  It felt wonderful – not even so cold.  Had I taken my bathing suit I would have gone for a swim.  What a blessed country is Israel, our holy land, the Jewish state.  More than anything I want people from all over the world to feel its glory.  This mission was a start. For dinner we went to a super trendy restaurant in the Old Train Station which is like a Navy Pier or a Quincy Market (Boston) which has been restored and filled with restaurants and bars and shops, with music coming out of a big dancing tent.  Tel Aviv is a bit too trendy for me – I could never dress up to speed.  I’m more like the guy wearing the suit at the beach.  But the energy of a cutting edge city in this ancient land still feels good.

 

At the airport to head back to the States, with our entire mission, the Foreign Ministry sent a representative to help smooth our going through security.  Still there was a bit of a “balagan” (convusion)- but at least the security people apologized.  And still they opened up all the suitcases of the Muslims, filled with Qur’ans and stuff we got from Indonesia.  But everyone was polite, and the Foreign Ministry really tried and did a pretty good job of getting us through.

 

And now off to Washington for meetings with the State Dept, White House and Congress.    

 

As I am on the plane, I yearn, of course, to return to Israel, but also to connect with all the people that live in our Holy Land: Palestinians, Jews, Christians, Muslims – everyone who appreciates God’s gift to the world.

 

Shalom al Yisrael

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More on The Mormon Conversion – Rabbi Barry Gelman

February 28, 2012

I have received numerous responses to my previous post on the Mormon conversions of dead Jews. For the most part, they were polite and sincerely interested in dialogue and explaining to my why I was wrong when I wrote: ” “For the Mormons, salvation is simply a matter of Divine Grace. Without any effort, sinners are excused for a lifetime of sins.”

The following is an explanation that is representative of the emails I received. “The Latter-day Saints believe that without Grace, we have nothing.  However, it is because of Grace, that we have the opportunity to be forgiven for our sins.  However, this forgiveness is only possible “after all we can do”.  We believe that “faith without works is dead”.

I was happy to receive the comments and feel fortunate to have the opportunity to dialogue with some Mormons.

I accept this to be the official doctrine of The Church of LDS and I am grateful to those who pointed it out to me.

Being that this is the case, the presence of Hitler on list of those who were or who were to be baptized is puzzling. His presence of the list seems to indicate that a person can live a completely abhorrent life and still be in line for God’s grace after Baptism. If salvation is about works and grace, why put Hitler on the list?

Here is one response that I received to this question.  ” It is our belief that people like Hitler have been cast into outer darkness upon their deaths.  If there is a bottom to hell, Hitler is there…irregardless of whether or not his name is on a “list”. Again, I ask, if this is so, then why is he on the list.

Some explained the presence of Hitler on the list as well as other dead Jews as the work of rouge Mormons who have been disciplined by the Church. I applaud the Church for their action.

There was one that was was a bit more bold in terms of fate of those of other faiths. “Mormons understand that all will be rewarded according to their works. No kind, good person will ever suffer in the next life, regardless of religious affiliation. All are in Paradise and will go to Heaven.  God is just, and good people will not suffer punishment in the next life.”
I wonder, however, if this refers to even the unbaptized?

Finally, I was surprised by two things. I was surprised at how many Mormon’s read this blog….

I was most upset by the fact that the Mormon responders were unable to accept the fact that even without the theological issue I raised, that posthumous baptisms of Jews, many of whom lost their life specifically because they were Jewish, is utterly upsetting to Jews. Some explained that only Jews who were family members of current LDS church members are allowed to be put on the list. I am not sure why this should be considered any less offensive.

In any case, the dialogue has been productive from my standpoint and I have learned a great deal.

One of the most impressive notes was from a Mormon who noted that their personal feeling was the the Church of LDS is not perfect and that there is room for improvement.

I think this is a good approach for all organizations representing organized religion.


Ramallah! With Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 28, 2012

Hanan Ashrawi is still a player after all these years.  She is the only woman on the Fatah executive,  and she runs a Palestinian women’s organization as well.  Now, I don’t know if that organization is a front for something, but part of the time she is at PLO HQ, and part of the time with her organization.  I guess it was our luck that when we visited her, she was at PLO Headquarters.  We all know the terrorism, murder and horrors, both against the Jewish people and Israel and against their own Palestinian people, that went on from PLO headquarters in various countries.  At the same time, it was kind of a strange, surreal feeling standing at the entrance of glassy, brand spankin’ new PLO HQ high rise in Ramallah, with my big white kippa, taking pictures with my Indonesian friends.  The guards were actually pretty nice – they smile more than Israeli guards, but less than Indonesian guards.  Still, I felt totally comfortable – and welcomed – as a Jew and a rabbi at the PLO building.  I do think times have changed – of course that doesn’t mean that peace has broken out.

 

And actually, Hanan Ashrawi has not changed at all.  The 24 of us were ushered into a room with water bottles next to each of us – that was standard for all the meetings, except for with Prime Minister Fayyad we got also an extra orange juice, and some places gave us sweets as well.  I shook her had when I came in, and the truth is is that she really looks much better in person than on the camera.  She looks younger in person as well – even younger than I remember her looking in the 90‘s when she was CNN and Nightline every evening.  

 

Behind Hanan Ashrawi was the PLO flag, which I guess was not changed since a few decades ago: it still had the entire picture of Israel as Palestine.  And if front of us we were given some PLO letterhead stationary with the entire State of Israel as … Palestine.  I was going to ask her about this, but really, the thing that has changed the least is that Hanan Ashrawi is still saying the same lines she has said even since the 70’s when she began secret negotiations – according to her – with the Israelis as a representative of the  PLO.  Palestinians, according to her, have done all the compromise and all the giving.  The Two State Solution – which she knows is what everybody in the room (except for me) is desperate for, is rapidly running out of time, according to her, and it is all Israel’s fault.  Well, it’s also the fault of America and the Republicans.  Settlements, siege of Gaza, Price Tag people (who are, indeed an issue, but not the real reason for peace not happening), etc. etc. Palestinians have agreed to 22% of the land they really should have, and they are the victims and Israel is the Occupier, which wants to have the Jordan valley as well even if they give the Palestinians a little bit of land.  To me it was clear that if you fast-forward ten years, and Israel would give the Palestinians land, she will be saying the same thing – siege, Jordan valley, checkpoints, Jerusalem, return of refugees, etc. etc.  

 

Of course, she is smart and always has an answer that it is Israel’s fault.  My friend the Imam from Washington, Yahya Hendi, who had been denied entering Israel (from Jordan), but met us in Ramallah, asked Hanan Ashrawi: Isn’t it important for Palestinians to look at themselves for what they could do to improve things or help the process – he used the old Zionist term of “self-emancipation”?  Earlier, Rabbi Melchior had brilliantly done this and said that it is so easy to blame others, but you have to start by looking at yourself – and Peres said the same thing.  But Hanan Ashrawi said No!  The Palestinians are the victims here, and there is nothing they can or should be doing different.  All Israel.  But at the same time, “I don’t like the mentality of the victim…”  So she has it both ways…  But she does it so well!  

 

Some of the Christians in the group realized that her words were a bit of a snow job when she said about Hamas that they do accept a Two State solution, and that they have been amazingly flexible, and that “It’s going to take time for Hamas to get there…”  Her view was that having one side of the government that perhaps wants to destroy Israel: “We should have a right to pluralism… for people to disagree…”

 

OK.  That’s the picture. 

 

The one interesting part of the meeting was that she spoke about women in government in the Palestinian Authority – 25% of the ministers are women, there are 22 women judges, the mayor and governor of Ramalla is a woman – interesting.  She seems like on this issue she may be really doing some good, and she has some insight.  “Women go into civil society and good governance, but not into politics…” It was insightful, but interesting that there is that wall between good governance and the government itself.  She also said that women should control security, not men.  I did not see any women Palestinian guards or police.  But from the Israeli side, anecdotally on our trip, the women guards saved the day several times as far as civility and relating to our group.

 

Ashrawi: “We cannot use the Occupation as an excuse for all our sins.”  But she used it as an excuse to bash Israel and for the lack of peace.

 

So we left, with a picture, and smiles, but, frankly, disappointed that nothing had changed.

 

But then, we got in the bus and headed for the Palestinian governmental building to meet Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.  Again, Guards around Fayyid’s office were very polite – even friendly. Very fancy uniforms. 

 

I rarely use capitals in email, but FAYYAD!  I’m mamash choked up by who he is and what he’s saying. So refreshing. He is modest, he is honest, he is thoughtful, he says things contrary to his interest if they are true, and contrary to the common wisdom. He is self defacing and has a diminutive sense of humor. I had never met him, and I didn’t even know what he looked like.  He came into a very fancy room – with really nice leather chairs – and in a humble and even shlumped-over way, went around shaking our hands.  We felt the modesty that the Indonesian foreign minister exuded – and that is a high standard.  He seems more of an introvert.  He started by thanking us for being there and saying he was looking for advice from us, “We can certainly use it!”

 

Fayyad is the first leader I have heard who actually said not to panic that time is running out, that actually now is the time to push off the “time envelope” and that conditions are not right for an effective resumption of discussions. He was taking responsibility for not resuming peace talks, but rather than blame the Israelis, he laid out many factors in the world that would logically lead him to not wanted to have major negotiations at this time.  That is fine!  He said that the US attitude is that settlements (I use the term he used; I prefer the term “communities”) are illegal – or at least an obstacle to peace.”  Now that impressed me: he could have just left it at illegal, but he didn’t.  He wants to be honest that different American administrations have different attitudes.  He was just so logical – it was such a mechaya!  Of course the Palestinians would not want to sit down now and negotiate: American elections, Arab spring is diverting Europe’s attention, the European debt crisis, a right wing government in Israel where Netanyahu cannot get anything through.  Yes, he is the leader of the Palestinian government so he is pushing their side.  But he does so honestly, and it makes sense.  As Margaret Thatcher said of Gorbachev: This is a man we can do business with.

 

He is against the pre-occupation of getting the negotiating process going.  What that says to Israel is that they, too, should not be jumping in hoops to ensure the Palestinians come to the table.  

 

Fayyad said basically, let’s focus on the issues we can deal with, on issues that are important to Palestinians but that Israel – and the right or left wing in Israel – doesn’t really care about.  He talked about maintenance issues, security issues, issues that Israel can change on without it hitting the newspapers in Israel.  Oy!  This is such a smart man!  He didn’t even mention Jerusalem.  He didn’t obsess about settlements. He admitted that when Israel came in to the towns in Spring 2002 to restore security (at the hight of the Second Intifada), internal Palestinian security and control was bad.  Now, he says, things are much improved.  And, the fact that I could would around so comfortable with my kippa in Ramallah says that things are under tight control.  Importantly, he said that if you wanted to give the Palestinians hope, give them elections!  Now that didn’t work so well in Gaza, but at least he is taking internal responsibility for Palestinian problems.  

 

I asked a question about free markets, and he embraced it, and applauded the Chicago school of economics, and talked about developing the Palestinian pharmaceutical industry.  “One of my better days…” was when they initiated exports of a drug to Germany.  This is a man that is really taking Netanyahu’s idea of building up the economy first, before statehood, seriously.  Fayyad, said, and I quote, “We are not a country yet.”  I just cannot go on to much about this man.  When we were taking photos I said that it says a lot about the Palestinians that they have a Prime Minister like this.  It does.  They may have a lot of problems – they may still want to destroy all of the Jewish state – but Salam Fayyad cannot be ignored.  I was so excited that I whipped off an email to one of our more famous members who undoubtedly spent a lot of time with Fayyad and he agreed: a very good man.

 

OK.  I think you get the picture.  Worth going to Ramallah to meet Fayyad.

 

We got back on the bus, and I could not bring myself to go see Arafat’s tomb, which is right in front of Abbas’s palace like building. I did not want to accord him any honor. He died with blood on his hands – Jewish and Palestinian. Another rabbi stayed in the bus with me. 

 

And then it was off to the only Five Star hotel in Ramallah – though the charming, bustling city has other hotels and deserves more Five Star ones – Hotel Movenpick (Swiss).  We got an unbelievable welcome. Hot towels. Drinks. Quick service to get our rooms. Free wifi in room. Unbelievable. Smiles and attention from a huge staff who smiled throughout our stay.  I loved this hotel!

 

After freshening up, we headed for three Palestinian homes to meet the folks and hear their stories.  Our host, Najah and his wife and six kids.  Najah was a professor at Beir Zeit University.  And he brought in his 80 year old father and his mother, with her head covered.  She looked just like a Russian Babushka.  The grandfather looked like an old Arab Sheikh, and a prominent picture in the room had him shaking hands with a smiling Yassir Arafat.  This family had had Jews over before, and the grandparents, originally from Hebron, told stories about life in Hebron.  The family would regularly borrow money from a wealthier Jewish family which refused to take any interest.  But they were honest about the 1929 massacre, and that the Jews and Christians were squeezed out of Hebron, and that these were indigenous Jews who had lived there for hundreds of years.  In fact, they talked of Jews only being allowed to go to the seventh step near the Cave of the Patriarchs; not allowed to go in – that was only for Muslims.  But I don’t think the Muslims in our party got that.  I don’t think there is any realizations even in the modern, friendly Muslim community to the discrimination that Islam historically had against Jews.  These Palestinians know about that, and were honest about it. In fact the mentioned that there remained three formerly Jewish families in Hevron who converted to Islam so as not to be killed. 

 

The daughter Reem, studying at Beir Zeit: nothing against Jews, just Israel – people coming from abroad calling us terrorists… On the one hand, there is a basic anti-Israel attitude clearly embedded in the Beir Zeit student population – and probably almost all kids – but on the other hand, it was claer to me that this was not a well-developed angry and bitter feeling.  The kids were good natured, happy kids, living relatively normal lives.  But what impressed the Muslims in the group was that the kids had not been to Jerusalem for 10 years.  And it’s true that they would need a permit to get in, but it wasn’t clear how desperate they were to get into Jerusalem.  In any event, the whole family was good natured. The kids – ages 14 – 20  did not at all obsess on their anger towards Israel. In fact, their father,  Najah, complained that people today were just interested in cars and electronics and didn’t care about politics and fighting for the cause. 

 

 

 

They regaled us with a great story of Najah’s brother, a Fatah heavy who got into trouble with Arafat and Warren Christopher for, nebech, threatening a Christian man who married the woman the brother wanted to marry… He was jailed and exiled to Canada, but now he is once again buddies with the Fatah and living again in Ramallah. 

 

Our host family’s wife is name Rafika – Rebecca – and we discussed that it was like my Rachel’s name which in Hebrew Rivkah Leah!

 

We went back to the hotel, spending the night in Ramallah, and happy to do so.

 

A guard at the checkpoint the next morning was surprised I had been to Ramallah with a kippa.  But it was actually hard to leave Ramallah: It is important not to be lulled into a false romance for this warm, friendly welcoming people, who, as a people, are not yet comforable with the existence of a Jewish state, the state of my people.  But whether it was the hotel or the feel of the city and the people we met, it was hard to leave! We crossed the Qalandia checkpoint where I did some schmoozing with the woman guard to get us through, and Pisgat Zeev suddenly appeared – 5 minutes from Ramallah. Pisgat Zev and the Arab neighborhodd Beit Chanina (Arab) share a mall (Kanyon Hapisgah). 

 

Now, we are back in Jerusalem.  We had lunch with the foreign ministry which did a yeoman’s job of defending Israel.  Yes, soldiers had to go into the Al-Aqtza area, and even ask people to leave; but it was because rioters were throwing lethal stones on the Jewish worshippers at the Kotel below (this is a century’s old practice, unfortunately).  I just don’t think many in our group understand what Israel is facing.  But the Foreign Ministry was good.

 

The restaurant, Gabriel’s, made a great steak, and it was located in a charming new, outdoor mall on Shimon Ben Shettach just off of Shlomzion hamalka at Ben Sira.  Right near the house where Zev Jabotinsky lived when he was allowed into Palestine in the 20’s.  I hope and believe Jabotinsky would be OK with making peace with people – Muslims, Christians – who dwell in the Jewish state.  Once Israel is strong, and remains strong, that is when Jabotinsky believed it was time for partnership and cooperations with the Arab population in the Jewish state.  I agree!

 

After the lunch meeting I had to get out… Not only to see Jerusalem, but I felt this energy come over me to connect. Honestly, I felt like I wanted to walk up to every Jew and Palestinian and give them a big hug! Crazy!  I took a walk along the grassy train tracks on this beautiful sunny warm late winter day when Jerusalem was shinier than ever. Just a stunning walk down from Jaffa gate and city hall to Damascus gate into the shuk, saying hi to people and heading for the Kotel and beyond…

 

Tomorrow, President Shimon Peres.  Today we head for the kotel with the group.

 

Until then, from a sparkling Jerusalem,

Shalom al Yisrael

 


Ramallah, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 27, 2012

Woke up early and had a certain energy – I really think that Jerusalem, Shabbat and being with this diverse group gave me this high to connect with those around me and basically spread Jewish and Zionist love. 

 

We hopped in the bus, and it took us about twenty minutes in rush hour traffic  to get to the outskirts of Ramallah and transfer through the Qalandia checkpoint – though there was a lot of traffic around that checkpoint, in both directions.

 

Ramallah is a prosperous and booming!  There are incredible high rises going up when you come in – dozens of new buildings. It is a very pretty city, chariming – very different than Amman which was not uplifting or inspiring.  Here there are hills and vistas, old and new buildings. Built on hills like Jerusalem, but in some ways has even better green space with trees in between low rises and houses. 

 

The northern outskirts of Ramallah, where we were going, driving through Bir Zeit, are really beautiful – hills, apartment buildings, olive groves, sweeping roads.    Beautiful neighborhoods nestled in the Judean Hills.  The housing is old fashioned – some of it Ottoman, no doubt – and even the new apartment buildings work with the surrounding scenery.  Unfortunately, there is garbage all over, so it is certainly not pristine, but it is pleasant and uplifting to drive around.

 

Occasionally we see Palestinian police in smart blue and bright green uniforms and blue cars.  We pass Abu Gash another charming Arab town nestled on a hilltop till we get to our first destination, Jiffna, which is in the valley, with horses roaming in green fields – really a bucolic, countryside feel, relaxed – frozen in time almost.  Reminded me of Oxfordshire or Yorkshire, especially with a gentle fog that was descending in the morning.

 

My iPhone reads as its carrier: Jawwal Palestine… We are not in Jerusalme… A bit eerie, also strange to have BZU – Beir Zeit University – on my list of wifi networks. But it’s locked…

 

We went to a Catholic church for Sunday prayers, and because I don’t go into church sanctuaries, I stood in the back, near the door, under the entranceway.  So I became kind of the “rabbi greeter” to everyone coming late through the back door…  There aren’t many Christians anymore – a few percentage of the Arab population in this area, even though Ramalla was originally a Christian city.  It is a big issue that honest Palestinians recognize – why have all the Christians left?  They of course to not say it is because they have been intimidated…

 

It was a typical Arabic Sunday morning service. The Priest, certainly knowing we were visiting on a piece mission said: “We can all live together…”  I was told later that it was a classic Catholic service, just in the vernacular – Arabic.

 

I saw a kid with a sippy cup, like shul…

 

There was a small, charming choir, and the acoustics and singing were great.  Then the spice came – I was sneezing already from the intense “shuk like” spicy smell. I think because it was not the smells I usually enjoy and the fact that I was coughing,  sneezing and my eyes were tearing helped with any questions of getting “hana’ah – pleasure” from a foreign religion. But the music was beautiful – with the organ and the mostly woman choir – led by a man and a male organ master. 

 

The traditional greeting which comes towards the end of a Christian services was – of course – in Arabic – Asalam aleikum.

 

Beethoven’s 9th was the tune for a hymn in Arabic – but I don’t know what the words were. Very powerful music – I aways tear up for it – even though I don’t know the meaning of the words in German or Arabic. 

 

Service ended with announcements – like shul!  And kiddush  after services – and them a responsive prayer – something like “let us pray”- and then a somber song – not a crazy Adon olam with kids on the bima…. I do miss home!

 

Everyone very extremely friendly and warm – men, women and even teens. That’s really the most pronounced part of this 24 stay in Ramallah – people are friendly and responsive.  I did not see them staring at my kippah at all, nor did I feel uncomfortable.  We all know that terrorist who have killed our brothers and sisters – and our Jewish children! – have come from these kind of places.  But it was easy to connect with all the people we met.  Kiddush was kiddush – with small cups of coffee and a bachlava which I didn’t eat – and people were happy to talk and smile and be polite and welcoming.

 

Everyone, even when telling their stories against the Israeli oppression, was very good natured. A man who married woman from Gaza and had trouble getting her into Ramallah spoke at length, telling his story – which ended with her finally getting permission for her and her brother to come to West Bank. 

 

“Security is the main issue, but…” talked of land confiscation and the fence. 

 

A lot of talk of not being able to travel to Jerusalem, or leave Bethlehem. The assistant priest talked about Good Friday last year when Passover, Easter,  and Eastern Easter all fell on same day. Muslims Salafies yelled and cursed the Christians. The Israeli security guard pushed the Patriarch – but the message was that the Patriarch said in both cases: we are not here to fight; we are here to pray. The lesson was that the Christians want to be a “Bridge for peace between Jews and Muslims”. 

 

Everyone at this church could not have been friendlier.Even the Kids and teenagers! It was like a monument to peace – like a Hollywood facade. But I think in many ways it is genuine – not to say that there aren’t crucial security concerns that our State of Israel has to contend with. 

 

We headed back south to Ramallah and the ride was beautiful – Beir Zeit, just north of Ramallah, is like the Tayelet – sharp slope of trees. Stunning scenery.  We passed the many coffee shop chain: Star and Bucks Coffee!!  Green logo and everything…

 

Next stop: PLO Headquarters and Hanan Ashrawi.  

 

Forgive me, but it’s time to daven and head back to Jerusalem, so I will update the rest of my Ramallah day – and an incredible encounter with Prime Minister Fayyad who is just off the charts, amazing, humble, brilliant, honest man – in the next status update as soon as possible.

 

Until then,

 

Shalom al Yisrael

 


A Jew and a Mormon walk into a Bar…. – Rabbi Barry Gelman

February 26, 2012

Recently the issue of the Mormon church engaging in posthumous conversions has resurfaced. Eh Wall Street Journal reports that:

“Researchers recently discovered that Mormons had similarly baptized the parents of famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, whose mother died in a Nazi extermination camp in 1942. And one Mormon recently proposed for proxy baptism the still-living Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel.” Read More

Naturally Jews are disturbed and insulted by this. No doubt, it has a serious icky factor.

Besides these factors, there is something else, something more religiously important at play here. For the Mormons, salvation is simply a matter of Divine Grace. Without any effort, sinners are excused for a lifetime of sins.

Judaism looks at salvation, or as we call it, forgiveness in an entirely different manner. Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, in an article on Tradition 28:2  explains this approach, popularized by Rabbi Soloveitchik.

Rabbi Blau begins by quoting a Talmudic passage that expresses the difficulty in understanding repentance to begin with.

It was inquired of Wisdom, “What is the punishment of a sinner?” Wisdom said “Evil pursues the wicked.” It was asked of prophecy, “What is the punishment of a sinner?” Prophecy said to them, “The sinful soul shall perish.” It was asked of the Holy One, “What is the punishment of a sinner?”, and He said, “Let him repent and he will be forgiven.”

The article then goes on to explain the need for human initiative and creativity in the process of repentance.

“Most significantly, Rabbi Soloveitchik employs this theory of repentance as an illustration of the creativity of Halakhic Man. For the Rav, creativity represents an essential characteristic of Halakhic Man:

“The most fervent desire of Halakhic Man is to behold the replenishment of the deficiency of creation, when the real world will conform to the ideal world, and the most exalted and glorious of creations, the ideal Halakha, will be actualized in its midst. The dream of creation is the central idea in the halakhic consciousness the idea of the importance of man as a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation, man as a creator of worlds”

From this perspective, the Rav interprets numerous Jewish texts and explains many mitzvot, including repentance, in a new light. Here, the Schelerian view of repentance is crucial. If one views atonement as the miraculous intervention of God against all logic, then man plays at best a passive role in the process. Repentance would certainly not be so significant a component of man’s religious personality.However, the Schelerian understanding of repentance shifts the focus from God’s activity to that of man. Repentance exhibits man at his most creative, as he remolds and refashions his own personality. Rav Soloveitchik points to the halakha that repentance is manifested by changing one’s name. Through repentance, man recreates himself and truly deserves to be referred to by a different name.

It should be noted that Scheler’s approach does not necessitate that man attains forgiveness independently, that is, without any Divine assistance. What his analysis accomplishes is to show how regret and remorse function creatively and positively. Though man may call upon Divine benevolence to achieve atonement, he acts on his own in order to deserve that bestowal of kindness.” Read more

Like the rest of Jewish life, Rachmana Liba Ba’ei – God desires the heart and real religious experience is not defined by the fulfillment of certain rituals or recitation of words. Authentic spirituality is located in the heart and defined by noticeable change in our behaviour.

OK. So after writing and posting this serious post, I was sent a link with Stephen Colbert’s take on the Mormom conversions.


Jerusalem Works Its Magic with Muslims, Christians and Jewish, with Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 26, 2012

It’s Sunday morning, and after a glorious Shabbat in Jerusalem, we are heading for Ramallah to meet our Palestinian “brothers”. 

 
Jerusalem I think worked its magic: we toured the city in bright sunlight on Shabbat and every church, mosque, synagogue, park and vista looked beautiful. Actually, we didn’t see as many synagogues as churches and mosques – the glory of the Jewish  people is in faces and hearts. 
 
I was worried that the Indinesian group especially would have a hard time with the “sabra” personality of the Israelis. But actually, Ben Yehuda on Saturday night (in line at Moshikos schwarma and falafel and the kitch stores selling tourist products) was engaging – Moshikos gave everyone free falafel balls and no one pushed ahead in line! Israel is changing? People that I said Shabbat shalom to in the street actually responded Shabbat Shalom, and that got our Muslims and Christians to say Shabbat shalom as well. While walking in the Old City, just outside Zion gate, we were all thirsty and we came upon a table of drinks and cookies – it was actually one of those outdoor Israeli birthday parties. Our group thought they were selling food, and I was so afraid that they would get refused and that it would feel “New Testimenty” where the Christians (take your pick – Jesus or Muhammad) were rejected help by the Jews… Instead, the partyers could not have been nicer, and our group got drinks and cookies and I wished the grandfather birthday boy a happy birthday – we all bonded as happens all the timf in Israel. I felt proud!
 
We’ve had a lot of sessions with Israeli Arabs/Palestinians, and with liberal, left leaning Israelis. It hasn’t really been “fair and balanced” but our Indonesians are seeing a lot of Palestinians and Israelis (Rabbi Michael Melchior, Muhammad Darwasha, Rabbi Ron Kronish, Hanna Siniora, and many more) who are agreeing and are talking about working together. I think that overall the Indonesians are sweeping a vital democracy – Israel – that is working hard for peace. What they are not getting is why it is so hard to make peace with the Palestinians (Arafat? Fatah? Hamas?) and the Arabs in general. 
 
The Palestinians do continue to talk about the siege of Gaza and issues of dignity. But they have all been recognizing the Jewish state – not just Israel – and even more important: they have all recognized that Jews will be able – and should be able – to live in Palestine, if the West Bank becomes Palestine. This might be just boloney,  but I think it’s a change. It means – as I said to the American Ambassador to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – that there is no reason for anyone to obsess about Jews building more and larger communities in Judea and Samaria: they are not an obstacle to peace; if there is a Palestinian state these Jews will become citizens of Palestine. Not fun, but not an obstacle to peace. 
 
One of the Israeli Palestinian speakers who advocates for Arabs living in Israel made it clear that Israel was a vibrant democracy – nothing like Saudi Arabia. I certainly disagreed with some of what they said, but they were not spewing lies: there complaints actually could help Israel. For now, it sounds like the Palestinians and Arabs in Israel may  be “people we can work with” as Margeret Thatcher said about Gorbachev. 
 
But I’ll report back later today from Ramallah after our meetings with Fayyed and Hanan Ashwari and other Palestians folks. 
 
Leaving the comfort and inspiration of Jerusalem (and the King David) and hoping as always for,
 
Shalom al Yisrael 

From Dubai to Jerusalem, with Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 26, 2012

From Dubai to Yad Vashem

 
Yesterday I briefly updated my status after arriving – welcomed and accepted with kippot – in Jordan.  But after the one hour honeymoon in the VIP lounge –  I heard later that Hanan Ashrawi whom we are meeting later was in the room next door! – we schlepped through Amman to a revealing but painful meeting. Basically, the Jordanian Minister of Religion and his “lackey” Institute Director and Orthodox clergyman tried to use our group as an opportunity to bash Israel for not making peace and for self-defeatingly oppressing the Palestinian people.   This is certainly not surprising, but the amateur and crude way they did it was revealing. I think I am used to Palestinians who are simply much more sophisticated on these issues. Jordan is just a bit nebbech, but hypocritically nebbech. 
 
  The Americans in our group want our mission to remain religious and not political;  some of the Indonesians feel a need to go into the political. But Muslims, Christians and Jews alike in our group were offended by the Jordanians who just didn’t get that their talk of Israelis killing men, women, children and animals didn’t do the Jordanian cause any good. But it was fascinating to see how the Jordanians with their rhetoric and the Dubaiins with their “how many Jews you have in your group” were still unchanged from yesteryear. 
 
 
Jordanians have a high regard for their centrality.  Talked about all the initiatives for peace which  all came from Amman. 
 
Just nebbech. 
 
My Catholic friend sitting next to me was writhing in pain from the frontal assault on our intelligence. It was  particularly painful for me to hear the Jordanians talking about the horrors of the “Occupation” with their history “occupying” the West Bank 1948-1967. Painful. 
 
Interestingly, the minister mentioned that people want to make the Palestinian solution on the East Bank – in Jordan.  Which actually makes a lot of sense since the majority of Jordan is Palestinian. Whether you want a Palestinian state on the West Bank or not, having one on the East Bank does seem like the democratic thing to do. 
 
From the Minister of Religion we drove again through Amman – which does have some pretty neighborhoods – to meet with the 
Islamic Moderation Party and the Islamic Moderation Forum. 
 
They quoted Quran 49:13 – which espouses diversity… “I created you from one drop … So you would becomes nations…”
 
But they are very party – line re Israel. Love Jews, not  happy with Israel, Zionism.  Require full return of refugees. 
 
 
They are against a Jewish State. No need – the Muslims will protect the Jews. What makes them moderates is that they spoke calmly and nicely about their rejection of a Jewish State amongst the Arab states. Also, they only hate Zionists, not Jews. That makes them moderate. 
 
Oy!  I was happy that my question re. a Jewish state that clarified things for our group. The question was straightforward and the answer not surprising, but I think my background in fundamentalist Islam gave me the confidence to ask it. Maybe all those years at BU and Oxford paid off…
 
In any case, the rejection of a Jewish State deeply disturbed the Indonesian Muslims in the group  One of them who has written a book re  Israel quoting Chomsky and Walt and Miersheimer said he finally understood the opposition Israel was facing and would revise the book in the next addition.  
 
The Indonesians Muslims on the bus ride to the Allenby  bridge – Israel! – discussed how their Islam can Recognize a Jewish state. 
 
It was exciting at least for all the Jews to be getting close to Israeli border. First time Alenby crossing for me.  Coming home!
 
Israel border patrol felt so friendly! A lot more smiles than Dubai and Jordan and even relatively efficient. 
 
But a member of our group – a Palestinian American who is the President of Clergy Without Borders and is actually a good ally for Israel, and a defender  of Israel was not allowed into Israel. He had a US passport but there is some law re returning Palestinians. And it might be different if he flew in via Tel Aviv, but I’m not sure. We will meet him in Ramallah on Sunday – yes, even though there is no Palestinian state, somebody (Israel?) is letting him go to Ramallah but not Israel. We’ll get a fuller story from him on Sunday, and maybe this is something Israel needs to do, and he’s angry but not bitter, but it’s not going to help with PR. Oh, well. I’m not in charge…
 
We got to Jerusalem at 9:00 PM – not bad considering we left Dubai at 9:00 am and spent the day in Jordan (Shacharit in Dubai, Mincha in Jordan) and had a fantastic session with Avraham Infeld and a Palestinian leader, Hanna Siniora. And then this morning, Yad Vashem was incredibly powerful with this group of Christians and Muslims, from all over the US and Indonesia. Including a polygamist with three wives.   
 
Yad Vashem with my my new Christian and Muslim Indonesian friends. Very powerful. I was crying at end – and was hugged by the Indonesian photographer from Embassy. Really bonded over the Holocaust. Strange, but makes some crazy sense. 
 
(I wrote this Friday afternoon in Jerusalem…)
And now Shabbat is coming to our holy City of Peace. 
 
May Hashem spread the tabernacle of peace over all of us, Israel and Jerusalem. Shabbat shalom from the spiritual capital of the world, but the national capital of the Jews. 
 
Shalom al Yisrael,
 
Asher Lopatin