When we had a high school class on Muslim-Jewish dialogue last year, I asked our Herzl-Ner Tamid students to agree or disagree with the following statement: “There will never be peace between Israel and the Palestinians.” Nine of the 10 students agreed. These are students who know that once America had slaves and now we have an African-American president. They know that women didn’t get the right to vote in this country until 1920. These things could change. But, Israeli-Arab hostility is permanent.
Of course, our students are not the only skeptics. Here are just a few of the good reasons to believe that Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are a waste of time:
• The rest of the Middle East is a mess. For all we know, we could soon end up with radical Muslim states in Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Is this any time to be making concessions?
• The last time Israel ceded territory, Hamas took over Gaza and began firing rockets at Israeli cities. If we give up the West Bank, and Hamas takes over there, radicals will be within easy missile range of Israel’s major population centers.
• How is Netanyahu going to negotiate a peace agreement when he doesn’t have the support of his own party? More and more Likudniks now reject a two-state solution and urge Israeli to annex the West Bank.
That’s the short list. So, why do I have hope? First, a brief Torah lesson. When God wanted to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Amorah, God said to Himself, “I cannot hide from Abraham what I’m about to do.” Why? “Because I want the children of Abraham to be change agents in the world.”
So what does God do at this moment? He engages Abraham in a conversation about right and wrong. It’s as if God is saying to Abraham, “Do you want to change the world? Learn how to have this conversation. Yes, Abraham, there are going to be some situations where right and wrong are crystal clear. But most of the time, there is going to be at least a little bit of right and a little bit of wrong on both sides. You are going to have to learn to have a conversation with each other where both of you will find a way to move toward each other.”
Not only that. God also models with Abraham how to have that conversation. When God first tells Abraham about Sodom, Abraham reacts with passion: “What if there are 50 righteous people in this city? How dare you!” he says. “Can the judge of all the earth be unjust!”
If I were God in this situation, I would have walked out of the room and said, “This conversation is over. I’m not going to stand here and be insulted.”
But God does not walk out. God stays in the conversation. Ultimately, Abraham was not able to save the people of Sodom. So was this conversation an exercise in futility? I don’t think so. Bill Clinton has an expression that I love. He says there are certain ethical challenges that have such a high likelihood of failure, it is tempting not to attempt them at all. But, he says, “I’d rather be caught trying” than give up before he starts.
This past summer, I traveled to Bethlehem with a group called Encounter. Encounter takes North American Jews on trips to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian peace activists. Why did I go? To be honest, I was skeptical. But my daughter Shani works for Encounter and she convinced me to try, and I had an experience that surprised me.
A young Palestinian named Hashem especially impressed all of us. He was thoughtful. He was open. He seemed to want to change things.
When it was time for questions, a member of our group asked Hashem, “What is your dream for the future?”
“A bi-national state,” he responded. It was like icicles had entered the room. A bi-national state is a recipe for the destruction of Israel. I felt even myself begin to shut down.
One member of our group struggled to respond to Hashem in a way that didn’t sound like an attack. He didn’t succeed. But, while Hashem was speaking, I noticed that he believed if there were two states, neither side could enter the other one. He, for example, would never be allowed to visit Jaffa.
So I asked Hashem: “What if it weren’t like that? What if there were two states, one with a clear Jewish identity and one with a clear Palestinian identity? You could visit Jaffa, and an Israeli Jew could visit Hebron. Would that be compatible with your dream of peace?”
Hashem thought for a second, and he said: “Yes, I think it could be.”
Nobody in the room had expected that answer. I was ready to give up on Hashem and walk away on the basis of two words he used in a sentence. But because I hung in there a little longer, I found out that our differences were not irreparable. Within a few minutes we had gone from turning away from each other to listening carefully to each other and finding common ground.
There is never a perfect time to reach out. We can spend our whole lives waiting for Sadat, whether we are talking about two nations, or two family members. Peace is not made between perfect people. If we were perfect, we would not have to make peace in the first place.
The sky didn’t open up when I visited Bethlehem. I didn’t fundamentally change my views on the Middle East. Nor did any Palestinian I met jump up and shout, “I will go to Jerusalem.”
But over the course of the two days I spent in Bethlehem, there were several times I felt a human being on the other side who was listening as well as speaking. Could that feeling be expanded? I don’t know. But, I’d like to be caught trying.