How could a frail, 83-year-old Holocaust survivor battling leukemia have a deeper understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than some of the great minds of the Jewish world? I asked myself that question last Friday night, while listening to my good friend Eva Brown, a Holocaust survivor who's a regular guest at our Shabbat table.
Earlier in the day, I had received an e-mail petition that invited me to "take a stand in support of peace for Israel and her neighbors" and lend my name to "an important new statement titled 'For the Sake of Zion.' " The statement was endorsed by a 34-member organizing committee of prominent American Jews, many of whom I know and admire.
The list includes Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Irwin Kula, Sharon Brous, Ed Feinstein and David Saperstein, along with Michael Walzer, Theodore Bikel, Judge Abner Mikva, Peter Edelman, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Steven M. Cohen and Leonard Fein.
The statement is, essentially, a passionate appeal to advance the peace process that echoes the recent European "Call to Reason," initiated by French Jewish intellectuals. It declares: "We categorically condemn terrorism and we mourn the tragic loss of blood and treasure that has afflicted the region over the years. At the same time, we abhor the continuing occupation that has persisted for far too long; it cannot and should not be sustained."
The Americans quote the Europeans' text on the importance of ending the occupation -- "Israel will soon be faced with two equally disastrous choices: either to become a state in which Jews are a minority in their own country, or to establish a regime that would be a disgrace to Israel and lead to civil unrest" -- and adds that "recent and ongoing developments in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington give rise to a still extremely fragile hope that finally, both Israelis and Palestinians may be ready to revive the peace process and to engage in negotiations."
The statement declares that "advancing toward a two-state solution will require significant concessions and commitments by both sides," and it endorses "the American government's vigorous encouragement of the parties to make the concessions necessary for negotiations to advance."
The appeal didn't do much for me, not because I disagreed with it, but because it put me to sleep.
Such wasted genius, I thought. Here are some of the most brilliant intellectual and spiritual Jewish minds in America, and all they can come up with is the same stuff we've been hearing ad nauseam for years. Seriously, do the authors really expect that the zillionth repetition of the obvious will help longtime foes reconcile and revive the peace process? That all the peace process needs is more pushing?
I know, I'm a cynic. Or maybe I just yearn, after being burned by decades of peace process failures, to hear something really fresh that might make a difference.
All this ran through my mind as I listened to Eva Brown talk on Friday night about surviving a death march from the concentration camps in 1945, just hours before being rescued by American troops. Brown is a popular speaker at the Museum of Tolerance, where, when she's not fighting off the effects of her chemotherapy, she takes time to share her story of survival.
But here's the part of her story that I find so amazing: She talks about her enormous pain, yes, but she never sounds bitter. She believes in justice and in remembering, but not in revenge. As she reveals in her book, If You Save One Life, the horror of the Holocaust taught her more about life than it did about death.
Her big thing is forgiveness. Without forgiving her captors, she says, she would never have found the inner peace that helped her savor the infinite pleasures of life. This is her simple message: If you feel you have been aggrieved, and peace and life are important to you, you must learn how to forgive those who have aggrieved you, no matter how difficult.
As she spoke, I had this vision of President Obama inviting Eva Brown to join him in Ramallah and Jerusalem to speak to Jews and Palestinians about forgiveness. If she can forgive those who murdered 59 members of her family, she would tell them, can't Jews and Palestinians find it in their hearts to forgive one another?
With President Obama standing by her side, and her message broadcast on Al Jazeera, CNN and throughout the world, she would hold up her tiny body with her cane and tell her message of peace to both sides of the conflict: Nothing good can happen until you make mutual forgiveness the first step in the peace process.
The very freshness of this message -- not to mention the person delivering it -- would get the world's attention.
In fact, if the 34-member organizing committee of prominent American Jews are serious about advancing the peace process, they ought to make mutual forgiveness their main message, and Eva Brown their spokesperson. That would certainly awaken and disarm everyone.
More important, it would also make sense. No proximity talks or construction freeze can cure a hundred years of accumulated bitterness. No passionate statement pushing for a two-state solution can make enemies reconcile.
Eva Brown, by her example, can teach us all a lesson: If you don't learn how to forgive, you'll have nothing to give.