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