Examining Peace, Remembering Rabin: Some Reflections on the J-Street Conference

November 4, 1995 was a Saturday. We were living in Jerusalem at the time during my rabbinical school year in Israel. That night, we were sitting around our apartment, talking, reading and relaxing. Around 10pm, our phone rang, which was odd because nobody ever called us. It was the days before cell phones and the internet was spotty in our apartment. I answered the phone and found my buddy from California on the other end. "Did you hear? Is your TV on?" To begin with, this particular friend was known in our circle as the one who always had information first, and he prided himself on that fact. But this one took the cake! From 10,000 miles away, he was the first to tell me that Prime Minister Yitzkak Rabin had been shot at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv, which was just an hour away. We quickly turned on our small, portable television and began to try and decipher the fast-talking, emotion-laden Hebrew of the newscaster, as we watched live video of the tragedy. I will never forget that night, beginning with the shaken newscaster announcing that Rabin was dead, and the next three days, where Israel came to a halt, silence falling over the normally frenetic energy pulsing through the country. Those three days, which included waiting in silence with millions of others to walk past Rabin's casket lying in state, and watching the world leaders, including Arab leaders who had never been in Israel, land at Ben Gurion airport for the funeral, changed my life. The pain, the tears, the silence, the fear and the hope: all were swirling around me. President Clinton and King Hussein gave historic and emotionally searing eulogies for Rabin. This past Wednesday was 14 years since that fateful night when a Jewish extremist gunned down one of Israel's founding fathers. And yet, my experience with working for Middle East peace didn't begin with that fateful night. It began a few months earlier, during the first week we were in Israel.

Wandering around the Old City, Franci and I saw a flier for a free tour of Hebron. Not having any real experience in Israel, not having grown up in a Zionist household or synagogue, I was pretty unaware of the biblical, historical and political history of Israel. This tour was my first lesson, and it was a hard one. We showed up for the tour early the next morning and found ourselves on a small bus with about 20 other folks. It was not until we got to Hebron, and were met by our tour guide, that the education began. Our leader was a rabbi and he was armed with an M-16 and a pistol, for our protection. It quickly became clear, even without much prior knowledge, that we were being led on an extremist tour, for our guide began the day by standing in the middle of the Arab marketplace in Hebron and yelling, at the top of his lungs, about how filthy the Arabs were, that they were animals and then, raising his gun and pointing it at the back of a merchant who had just passed by, said we need to shoot them before they shoot us. Then he laughed, and so did many in the group. Needless to say, the day didn't get much better. We were trapped with this group, which included about 10 baby-faced boys, probably 18-19, who had just arrived from the states and were studying with this rabbi. The day came to an apex when, after visiting a settler family and hearing how God commanded us to be in all of this land, we were brought before the statue of Baruch Goldstein, a hero in this community. If you remember, Goldstein was the Jewish doctor from Brooklyn who had made aliyah and entered a mosque in Hebron on Purim a few years earlier and shot 29 Palestinians to death while they prayed. It was here that I lost it and began to argue with one of these young men. He proceeded to remind me that in the Torah that week we read about Pinchas, the Biblical hero who, in his zeal and passion for God, had killed two people engaged in public sexual immorality. Goldstein was Pinchas and I was not a true Jew if I didn't believe that, he screamed. We had to be separated and the guide tried to calm us all down for the rest of the trip. Finally, after 12 hours, this nightmare came to an end and we returned to Jerusalem. I was shaken and angry. What had just happened? I never saw those people or that rabbi again, but their message has driven me every day since to work for peace.

I tell you these stories because they are the indelible chards of life that propelled me onto a path dedicated in large part to making peace between Israelis and Palestinians. That summer saw the ramp up to Rabin's assassination, with Jerusalem covered in posters showing Rabin dressed in a Nazi uniform, dressed as an Arab, with hateful rhetoric and rallies taking place every Friday. Sadly, 14 years later, without another leader to fill his enormous shoes, and after coming painfully close in 2000, we continue to find peace eluding us. But, the tenacity of Yitzhak Rabin, his ability to transform himself from general to diplomat, inspires those of us working to keep his dream alive.

While my experiences in Israel during 1995 and subsequent trips have propelled my work for peace, my grounding and sustainability come from the Torah and our tradition. From the prophets of Israel, who call for justice, peace, equity and compassion, to this week's Torah portion, where Abraham argues with God for the plight of innocents in Sodom and Gemorrah, our people know what it means to stand up to authority, even God. We know what it means to seriously analyze situations and question outcomes; we know what it means to ask questions and challenges assumptions. And we do this, not out of spite or revenge, but out of our genuine love of God, Torah and Israel. And so, from this place, I went to the J-Street conference, a gathering of pro-Israel, pro-peace activists, and I sought to learn, listen, speak and engage. By all measures, the conference was a wild success. 1000 registered and 1500 attended. Media was well-represented. All the sessions I attended, and the ones I heard about, were all at a high-level intellectually, and provided a diverse range of opinions. There were heated conversations in the hallways and corridors in between sessions. And, there were over 250 college students representing dozens of campuses, which was the most exciting for me, as the campus is where we need to have knowledgeable, articulate, pro-Israel, pro-peace voices to counter both the right, who say that Israel is under siege without any recognition of its actions in the conflict, and the left, who say that Israel is the pariah and shouldn't exist. Both of these extremes are counterproductive and unhealthy, whether on campus, in our synagogues, in our press or in our conversations. J-Street sought to present a middle path, a moderate path, one that supports, loves and stands with Israel, while also asking hard questions about some of the policies of the government, primarily maintaining the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Jews have the right and responsibility to speak out, from a place of respect and concern, and the conference sought to give us a place to do this in a safe, pro-Israel environment.

We heard from major voices in Israel, Palestine and in America, including a highlight for me, General James Jones, current National Security Advisor to President Obama. 180 members of Congress co-sponsored our Gala Dinner and over 40 came in person, including Representatives and Senators. The keynote speaker of the dinner was former Senator Chuck Hagel, who articulated a message of strong support of Israel, financially and militarily, while also saying that making peace with the Palestinians is crucial for Israel's future and the peace prospects of the region. Both General Jones and Senator Hagel said that ending the occupation and reaching final status agreements with the Palestinians would be the most effective tool in dealing with Iran. That was a huge statement, in my mind, for how diplomacy and engagement for peace will be more effective than any military action. And this was coming from a general and a decorated Marine, not two peaceniks with flowers in their hair. There was a feeling of authenticity for the position of peace, a feeling that has long been absent in the discourse of our community. To me, that was the greatest success of the J-Street conference.

While there was a great feeling of energy and strength, there were some areas for improvement. I was not alone in feeling that a stronger sense of Jewishness was needed throughout the conference. While I know that J-Street is trying to reach out to a broad swath of the American Jewish community, and to a lesser extent, the non-Jewish community, the secular nature of the three days left me feeling a bit alienated as a rabbi and Jewish leader. There were over 50 rabbis in attendance, but other than a small, self-organized panel, we didn't play a major role in any of the plenaries or significantly attended sessions. One of the reasons that J-Street has recently merged with Brit Tzedek V'shalom, effective January 1, is for the incredible Rabbinic Cabinet that we have formed, enlisting over 1000 rabbis around the country. I hope we are better utilized next year. In addition, there were no blessings, invocations, benedictions or words of Torah as part of the flow of the conference, let alone any organized minyans or other distinctly Jewish rituals. The one rabbi who spoke as part of the Gala dinner, under the heading of "kavannah," meaning intention or focus, actually just gave another speech. It was a good speech, but not what I would call a kavannah. And, as one of my colleagues noted, there was not the denominational diversity that you might hope to see in a pro-Israel conference, namely that the Jews in attendance were mostly progressive, liberal or secular. We need to do a better job reaching out to the moderates in the Conservative and Orthodox movements. Of the 50 rabbis, I believe that there were only six Conservative rabbis, and only 2 of us were in pulpits. Lastly, and perhaps most disturbing, the group in attendance seemed hesitant to applaud and stand up for strong pro-Israel lines in the speeches we heard. This will need to change as we go forward. We can empathize and call for justice in Gaza and for Palestinians, but we must also stand loudly and proudly for Israel and her safety and security. I was disturbed by some of the silences I heard and know that they play into the misperceptions that J-Street followers are not truly pro-Israel.

And yet, despite the drawbacks, which can be overcome and improved upon, J-Street launched onto the Washington scene with a bang. My hope is that our message, that Jews have a wide range of opinions on how to support and love Israel, and that there is not one, monolithic voice speaking for all of us, will spread from the halls of Congress, where I was one of 600 people lobbying on the last day of the conference, to the streets, synagogues, JCCs and communities of our country, offering another voice to this important discussion. I spoke on a panel of rabbis and shared my experience of growing into this conversation, making mistakes over the years, and learning from those mistakes to bring me to Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center ready to lead by both speaking my mind and listening to others, by sharing my perspective and allowing other views to be heard. The legacy of the Torah portion this week, both that of Abraham standing for justice and the relationship between Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, need to inform our path as we go forward. As Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and executive director of J-Street, reminded us over and over again at the conference: being pro-Israel doesn't necessitate us being anti-something. To water the seeds of peace, we need to recognize the humanity on all sides of this conflict and work to create a framework of peace that acknowledges the truths of two distinct narratives without disregarding the pains of the other. This needs to happen on both sides, to be sure, but as Jews, we are responsible for each other and our voice. I was extremely proud to be at the conference and hope that many more folks from my congregation join me next year.

I close in honor of Yitzhak Rabin, and share some of his final words, delivered at the peace rally, November 4, 1995.

Permit me to say that I am deeply moved. I wish to thank each and every one of you, who have come here today to take a stand against violence and for peace.

I was a military man for 27 years. I fought so long as there was no chance for peace. I believe that there is now a chance for peace, a great chance. We must take advantage of it for the sake of those standing here, and for those who are not here -- and they are many.

I have always believed that the majority of the people want peace and are ready to take risks for peace. In coming here today, you demonstrate, together with many others who did not come, that the people truly desire peace and oppose violence. Violence erodes the basis of Israeli democracy. It must be condemned and isolated. This is not the way of the State of Israel.

But, more than anything, in the more than three years of this Government's existence, the Israeli people has proven that it is possible to make peace, that peace opens the door to a better economy and society; that peace is not just a prayer. Peace is first of all in our prayers, but it is also the aspiration of the Jewish people, a genuine aspiration for peace.

This is a course which is fraught with difficulties and pain. For Israel, there is no path that is without pain. But the path of peace is preferable to the path of war.

This rally must send a message to the Israeli people, to the Jewish people around the world, to the many people in the Arab world, and indeed to the entire world, that the Israeli people want peace, support peace. For this, I thank you.

May the memory of Prime Minister Rabin be for a blessing and may our work for peace reflect the tireless spirit of his legacy.