Pursuing Peace

by Bob Leventhal

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Pursuing Peace – Creating a Framework for Engagement

“Depart from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15)

My rabbi began his High Holiday speech by saying, “This has been a very difficult summer for most of us.” Of course, he was talking about Israel. He talked about what it was like to live under the tension of rockets. We all remember when major airlines refused to fly to Tel Aviv. We also saw the incredible instability of the Middle East- Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq. I was in Paris in July this summer when the anti-Israel demonstrations were going on. I saw police cars parked in front of synagogues. In every bistro in Paris the TV sets were showing pictures of Gaza. I walked by signs that explained that this was a corner where Jewish children had been gathered up for transport. I felt their vulnerability. It felt vulnerable again.

For those of us that make a hobby of following the politics of the region it is extraordinarily difficult to keep up with the complex weave of events. In Israel, these are not just intellectual issues- they are existential issues. Many people want to pressure Israel to take a leap for peace because they think that the leap could make things better or make things right.  While a Palestinian state on the West Bank might provide a breakthrough that allows Israel to gain real sustainable peace this risky leap could put a Hamas oriented regime 10 miles from major population centers.

My rabbi noted that many of his colleagues had chosen not to speak about Israel for the High Holidays. They were uncomfortable. It was just too divisive. He disclosed that he had lost some members who felt he had not been strident enough in supporting Israel. A few had quit because he had not condemned Israel enough for the war in Gaza. In my work I see more rabbis choosing to avoid this topic. While the connection to Israel is a core pillar of Conservative Judaism, many rabbis have chosen to flee the topic.

tal becker

Tal Becker

Recently I heard a presentation from Israel peace negotiator, Dr. Tal Becker. Becker is a senior policy advisor to Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and was a lead negotiator in the Annapolis peace talks. He described three main possible paths going forward: “Meltdown, Muddle Through and Miracle.” Becker said that 80% of Israelis still hope for a two state solution. At the same time most Israelis don’t believe a miracle is possible. So this summer rockets flared. Children had nightmares of terrorist coming out of the ground to snatch them. Although parents try to comfort their children, when they talked with their friends they were uneasy. They saw no miracle path to comfort-just ongoing tension as they muddle through and hope to avoid a meltdown.

My rabbi decided, despite the risks, that it would be “rabbinic malpractice” not to speak about Israel during these High Holiday. He also announced a series of programs about Israel to continue the conversation. As I listened to his High Holiday sermon I became uncomfortable. I am a co-chair of the Israel Zionist Book Group at the synagogue. It was time to pick a book. I read several books this summer. Each expanded my knowledge but they were too polarizing. I stand in the middle of most of these debates. I pride myself in wanting to understand both sides of an issue. With passions high, I just did not want to make a choice. In the end, I decided it would be Zionist malpractice not to pick a book. We are meeting November 3 to read Turning David into Goliath.

Tal Becker noted that Israelis audiences have become used to living with unresolved issues. In contrast he noted he has found that American audiences always wanted to be left with some hope. While his analysis was not particularly hopeful, his stance provided me with some hope. He talked about how important it was to listen and empathize with the other parties’ story and not to shout over it. It does not pay to ask Palestinians to “get over” their sense of loss from the events of 1948 anymore than it is reasonable to ask Israelis to forget 3000 years of persecution or the Holocaust. He said the effective diplomat needs to imagine how he would write his adversaries’ “victory speech.” Negotiators need to be able to see how their plan might provide a plausible path for the other side to accept a settlement.

I encourage leaders have to balance their stance of advocacy (winning the case) and inquiry (learning about the situation).In practice, I lean to the pole of inquiry, or as Steven Covey argues, to “seek first to understand before being understood.”

Becker noted that the Torah challenges us to “seek peace, not to “achieve peace. We are all challenged to be seekers of peace, even if – and when – the issues around the achievement of peace may be out of our control.

peace dovePeace, Becker argued, came when boundaries and resources were negotiated. The agreements were not made by people who loved or trusted each other. The peace accords created a structure that allowed the better actors in both communities to evolve. By taking a balanced stance for engaging Israel, my rabbi created a structure where members could stay engaged, continue to learn, and maintain some hope. He encouraged me to seize the opportunity to step up and engage my book group. That was an action within my control.