It is not too often lately that groups of people who are pursuing peace get together here in Israel and share ideas, hopes, dreams, and best practices. It has become rather rare in recent years, since the War Process has replaced the Peace Process. This is why I was so pleased and privileged to have been invited to a special workshop with Jews and Palestinians who have not given up and are still seeking peace in Israel in new and creative ways.
It happened, at Bar Ilan University, the university of Religious Zionism in Israel, just outside of Tel Aviv. As part of an international conference on "Bridging Theory and Practice of Creative Conflict Engagement", I participated in a full morning of discussions for 30 theoreticians and practitioners (I am in the latter category) as part of a new track on "Religion and Conflict Resolution" that Bar Ilan has recently established, which is part of their interdisciplinary program on conflict management and negotiation.
The workshop was planned and implemented by Rabbi Dr. Daniel Roth and Dr. Alick Isaacs, who both teach at Bar Ilan and are also activists in the field of conflict resolution and peace studies. Not only do they teach and write about this issue, but they are seeking ways to bring the community of practitioners in the field into dialogue with the academics at the university. This is why they brought together a group of Jewish and Palestinian peace-builders who are struggling every day with the obstacles and challenges of dialogue, education and activism in the context of the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which does not seem to be going to be resolved very soon.
During the workshop, I had a chance to meet a Muslim Palestinian peace activist who believes and practices non-violence and is involved in intensive dialogue with Jews in the area of Gush Etzion in the West Bank, and some of his Jewish partners in dialogue who work in a new Jewish-Palestinian organization called Roots/Judor/Shorashim. These young people are doing back-channel, quiet, behind-the-scenes work in bringing people who live in the same area into dialogue in very difficult conditions of radical disagreement to see if somehow, despite everything, they can find ways to live together.
I also talked to the young leaders of Kids for Peace and their new American-based international director, an Anglican priest, who was here for the conference. Kids for Peace -- an organization that has been working with Palestinian and Israeli youth for many years -- is growing, despite the deteriorating political and security atmosphere in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Their energetic and enthusiastic young leaders told me that just the day before, over 400 graduates and members of families of their graduates, gathered for their annual event!
At the international conference, I listened to a fascinating presentation by Rabbi Dr. Daniel Roth, one of the founders of this new track on religion and conflict resolution, about his doctoral dissertation on the Biblical personality of Aaron (my favorite Biblical leader), and how rabbinic commentaries have turned him into the model of the Rodeph Shalom, the Jewish Pursuer of Peace. Roth explained that Aaron's method was not just dialogue, but also included "going to listen to other people's pain and trying to soothe it."
In addition, I participated in a small group discussion, led by one of the coordinators of the program, Dr. Alick Isaacs, who had participated in a weekend seminar several years ago organized by my organization, the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel ( now a department of Rabbis for Human Rights), which is also the Israel chapter of Religions for Peace. In addition to teaching at Bar Ilan and other universities in Israel, Isaacs is a peace activist through an organization called Siach Shalom, Talking Peace, which is doing pioneering "back-channel" dialogue work between Palestinian and Jewish religious leaders in new and creative ways.
In our discussion, Isaacs asked each person to reflect on a text that guides him or her in his work in peacebuilding. Different people offered interesting and inspiring texts. As the discussion progressed, I thought more about Aaron the Peacemaker, and wondered why his influence as a model for peacemaking is not felt more among so-called "religious" Jews in Israel and throughout the world.
When I was asked to point to a text that has guided me in my work, I was mindful of the text that my family and I chose to put on the headstone of the grave of my father, Rabbi Leon Kronish, of blessed memory (he was the Founding Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom [Hebrew for "House of Peace"] in Miami Beach, Florida):
Rabbi, Teacher, Leader, Friend. Pursuer of Peace. He loved Peace and pursued it. He loved people, and brought them closer to Torah.
All of a sudden, it became clear to me in this discussion, how much this text, based on the famous text in The Ethics of the Fathers, had become a foundational text for me in my life and in my professional work in interreligious peace-building.
In Psalm 43, verse 15 we find the famous version Bakesh Shalom v'Radfeihu, "Seek Peace and pursue it". According to the Midrash: "Seek peace, and pursue it means that you should seek it in your own place, and pursue it even to another place as well." (Leviticus Rabbah 9:9) Seeking peace is not enough; one has to be an activist in pursuing it all the time.
Too many people in our part of the world have given up on the idea of seeking peace. They live with a mixture of denial and apathy. But this won't work in the long run. More people will have to realize the benefits of peace, for both Israeli and Palestinian societies, as opposed to the dangers and delusions of ongoing war and violence.