We have been hearing of snow in Hevron and Jerusalem, while in DC it was dreary and rainy the whole day of our meetings with the State Department, White House and Congress. We actually started at the Indonesian Embassy, where, as in Indonesia itself, everyone was smiling and welcoming. I really felt at home there, and they even had toothbrushes and toothpastes for us to use to clean up after the long flight from Tel Aviv and Newark.
Imam Yahya Hendi who was born in Nablus and apparently didn’t have the right documentation to enter Israel, lucked out in one way: he flew back via Amman on the non-stop United Airlines flight right to Washington DC. So he looked a bit fresher than we did. There were some miscommunications and some unclear signals that went on which caused Imam Hendi not being allowed into Israel over the Allenby bridge from Jordan. He was able to come into Ramallah where we saw him on Sunday, and the Israel Foreign Ministry said that they got him all the documents necessary by Sunday to get him into Israel. He claimed that he still couldn’t leave from Tel Aviv with the rest of us, and would have had to go back to Jordan to leave. Israel needs to be allowed to establish laws that protect her citizens, and this may very well be one of them. At the same time, holding Imam Hendi back was seen by many in our delegation as an act of insensitivity and randomness, and it was seen in the context of the security people in Tel Aviv still opening suitcases and giving people what they saw as a hard time, despite having letters and representatives from the Foreign Ministry right there in the airport.
It hurt me to see Israel criticized for just trying to keep suicide bombers out of Israel and off of airplanes. But it also hurt me to see Israel losing an opportunity for showing Indonesians, Muslims and Christians was a moral and accepting country Israel really is. And if the agents at Ben Gurion or at the border would have been more professional, less hard and cold, even smiled more, maybe it would have helped. One of the American Imams on the trip made a lot of sense when he talked about applying the sensitivity training to Israeli security that American TSA officers needed to be trained in. My guess is that while some actions Israeli border security agents use are important to the safety of Israel, there isn’t as much concern to make sure that people feel respected and comfortable. Of course I understand that saving a life is more important than not offending someone. But I think you can do both. Anyway, the reality is that people understood that Israel is a democracy, and they met many people in Israel that they felt were working on fixing things that were wrong. These border issues are just an extra drag in the wrong direction for Israel, but Israel itself will have to find the right balance – not a rabbi heading back to Chicago or an Imam in Washington DC. I just don’t like to see a weakness in Israel’s profile being taken advantage of.
Anyway, after arriving pretty ragged, everyone managed to clean up well and we arrived at the State Department looking just fine everyone dressed up as is the custom in Washington. People kvetched about the border crossing and access issues (there were some riots in Al-Aktza that freaked out some member of the group – having to hear gunshots, having to leave early) and being profiled at Ben Gurion. Wendy Sherman, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs came into our meeting for 15 minutes and did a great job of diffusing this issue by saying that her own son (or grandson?) was detained for two hours because his name was similar to one on the terrorist list. So it even happens in America, the land of liberty and freedom! The State Dept. also gave us coffee, tea and Pepperidge Farm cookies – and they let us take them into the session even though the sign said no food or drink in the conference room. Thank you State Dept. – shows impressive sensitivity and flexibility!
From State we went back to the Indonesian Embassy for lunch. In addition to the great Indonesian food, they brought in deli from Eli’s Kosher restaurant in DC – right nearby the embassy in Dupont Circle. This was very special: I felt so welcomed by this gesture. In Indonesia and Jordan I had to bring tuna fish and mayo from the States. It wasn’t difficult to bring deli from a few blocks away, but they did it with such enthusiasm and warmth that I really saw the Indonesians as they wanted to be seen: caring, open minded, tolerant and flexible. This lunch in the embassy was openness to diversity at its best.
The rest of the day consisted of meetings with the White House where basically the White House rep. to the Jewish community and to the Arab community just told us how important peace in the Middle East was and how concern President Obama was to help the parties achieve that peace. That was their job, and they did what they were supposed to do. At Congress, we were addressed by Congressman Keith Elisson – the first Muslim in Congress – and Rep. Jim McDermott – a very nice, non-Indonesian looking congressman who heads the Indonesian caucus. Go figure. And for this entire time, Ambassador Dr. Dino Djalal from Indonesia was with is – with his wonderful wife. We felt that this mission was important to him, and he took pride in it, and to have his wife there added to his honoring us. I am so grateful to him for his graciousness and courage in pushing this Indonesian and multi-faith mission forward. He acknowledged how much he hoped that one day Indonesia could have relations with Israel, and his wife sincerely said how much she hoped to make it to Jerusalem.
Two more things before flying back to Chicago armed with Kosher Krispy Kremes for Rachel and the Lopatin kids: First, the goodbye was so powerful for me. I kissed so many of my new Indonesian friends and teachers. These are thoughtful people, and I felt they opened up to me, so I felt connected to them. One of them, Dr. Richard, wants me to come back to Indonesia to teach in his seminary for a few weeks – religion, political science, and anything else I was interested in. He and his fellow Christians and Muslims from Indonesia spoke of making Judaism officially the seventh recognized religion of Indonesia! For that I would come back – but I haven’t spoken to Rachel about it yet…
Secondly, an interesting incident that occurred at lunch in the Embassy. We were talking about the Al-Aktza mosque and whether the Dome of the Rock was a mosque or not, and one of the moderate, open minded American imams declared that the entire elevated area – the area that is called the Temple Mount – is all considered the Al-Aktza mosque. This discussion connected with my declaration that any peace treaty should allow Jews to go up and pray Jewish prayers on the Temple Mount, and, long term, Jews should be allowed to build a synagogue up there, along side the mosques. Well, this really got the Imam angry, and he said that any talk like that was a non-started and it would kill any peace efforts – “not one Muslim would allow for that.” Sharing the “Haram ashSharif” – the Temple Mount, now considered by him in its entirety a great mosque – would be tantamount to tearing down the mosque itself. I argued that this is the holiest place on earth for Jews, and he argued that it was a mosque. Clearly there is a lot of work to do when the most open minded and tolerant Muslims declare Jews persona-non-grata at their holiest site. It was sobering, and a bit sad. Luckily, one of the other Imams – older and more experienced with interfaith work – said that this model, of sharing a mosque and a synagogue, was slowly and quietly being developed in America. One day, he said, it could be exported, and that it was a model that perhaps could be used on the Temple Mount. But on the other hand, could we get our Jewish brothers and sisters to agree that a mosque would legitimately remain on the Temple Mount? And what about Christian worship on the Temple Mount? Should we advocate for that?
Lots of questions on this trip. But also so much hope that we can share the holiest land on earth, God’s home, as it were. I really believe that religious leaders of all types can help lead the way in showing how much we need each other and how much we can come together even if we disagree in fundamental ways. Beyond that, the fact that a Zionist American Jew could bond with Christian and Muslim Indonesian leaders – well, Israelis and Palestinians may be able to do it as well. Israel can never let down its guard and its purpose in being the Homeland of the Jews and the safe haven for the Jewish people. But from this trip I hope that maybe one day Palestinians will be a help rather than a threat to this Jewish State, and the Jewish State, the Jewish Homeland will “davka” – precisely be the vehicle by which Palestinians realize their aspirations which have been denied by the Arab states around them for six decades.
As Shabbat comes in on a rainy Chicago, I pray for the peace of Jerusalem as my fellow Jews have prayed for 3000 years, and as other religions have prayed as well. I feel blessed to have been invited on this trip of discovery, and as a Jew living in an era of a proud, moral and thriving Jewish state, I feel blessed to be have been able to show my fellow religious leaders that God has comforted God’s People, and blessed them with a showcase to the world, with a land that will one day model peace and tranquility.
Shabbat shalom and Shalom al Yisrael.