A friend of mine tells the story about how one cold, wet, winter day he was late leaving home for work. There was a knock on his front door and there standing in the cold and rain stood two Jehovah’s Witnesses. Of course usually when that happened he just told them “No thanks I’m Jewish” and closed the door. But looking at them standing there damp and shivering in the rain my friend felt sorry for them so when they asked if they could come inside he opened the door and said, “OK.”
He brought them into his living room and offered them a chair and something to drink. They were quiet for a long time, so after a long pause he asked, “What happens now?” The older one looked at the younger then back at my friend and finally said, “We don’t know. We never got this far before.”
We never got this far before either. Israel will celebrate it’s 60 th birthday this year, 40 years since the miraculous Six Day War and the unification of Jerusalem – 40 years since the war ended and Moshe Dayan famously said that he was “waiting for the phone to ring” – waiting for an Arab peace offer.
40 years since the infamous Khartoum Conference in which the leaders of eight Arab countries responded to the Israeli victory of the 6 Day War with their famous three “NOs” – No peace with Israel, No recognition of Israel, No negotiations with Israel.
Ten years later the world turned again and Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem as the first Arab leader to take a bold step for peace with Israel. And ever since offers of peace have in fact been extended numerous times even as bombs have fallen, busses have exploded, and the extremists continued to do all they could to successfully divert attention from any genuine desire for peace so that violence itself would set the agenda.
The most recent Arab peace offer came once again from a conference of Arab states at Khartoum, first articulated 5 years ago in 2002 and now placed squarely back on the diplomatic table just a few months ago. It’s called the Saudi Peace Initiative in which Israel has been offered recognition by all the Arab countries and full-fledged diplomatic relations with them, putting an end to the conflict and to any further claims backed by international cooperation to the refugee problem. Recognition by all the Arab countries and full-fledged diplomatic relations with them.
Yes, of course the plan is problematic for Israel – and of course they will have to debate the particulars as with any proposal. The Saudi Peace Initiative calls for full withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines, a “just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194” and a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.
For a host of political reasons successive Israeli governments have refused to seriously consider this plan or negotiate its contents – that is until now. Yet through the intifada, the horrific acts of violence and suicide bombing and the war in Lebanon, no Arab state has backed down from the offer and just last month an Arab league delegation paid an historic visit to Jerusalem on behalf of the Arab world.
This marked the first time in history that the 22-member group has sent representatives to Israel to meet with Israel’s President. “We are extending a hand of peace on behalf of the whole region to you,” Jordan’s foreign minister said at a news conference at the home of the President of the State of Israel in Jerusalem.
Naturally disbelief, skepticism, fundamental distrust and wariness mark the attitudes of most Israelis both inside and outside the government. They have been disappointed already too many times over the past 60 years and have watched as the radicals and fundamentalists of Islam seem to be continually gaining sway over more and more of the Arab world. Still, it was Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of Israel’s Knesset who recently said out loud what nearly everyone in Israel believes in their hearts - “The need for Israel to maintain a democratic state with a Jewish majority will only be achieved through the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.”
Most Israelis across the political spectrum now advocate the creation of a Palestinian state. T hey know that ending Israel’s 40 years of occupation in the West Bank and the implementation of a two-state solution is the best way – no, the only way to bolster Israel’s survival as a democratic Jewish state and the best way to provide Israelis with the long-term economic and social well being they so desperately need and deserve.
Last year I stood here on the High Holy Days and reminded you of the fundamental truth that to most of the world, and certainly to the enemies of Israel, when you are a Jew you are an Israeli and when you are an Israeli you are a Jew. Period. And I still believe that is true for some – but I also know it’s not the whole story. It’s just the most dramatic story, the most emotionally powerful and disturbing story, the story that most easily lends itself to a Yom Kippur sermon that will stir a rallying cry of Jewish solidarity. It’s the classic Jewish telegram – “ Start worrying, details to follow.”
But in my quiet moments of self-reflection. In my most authentic rabbi moments I know for sure, it is not the most important story. Life is far too complex for that. Israel and its 60 year search for peace is much too important for that.
Here is the truth: it is easier to inflame people than reason with them. It’s easier to stir people up, especially Jews by using the same powerful, frightening deck of cards we have been forced to play with for the past 2,000 years – turn over the first card – “they see us as evil and the source of evil in the world”; the second card – “they don’t hate just Israelis as oppressors, they hate all Jews everywhere just because we are Jews”; the third card – “they want to drive us into the sea and wipe Israel off the map”; the fourth card, “they want to kill us all”; the fifth card – “there’s no one to talk to on the other side”;…and on and on and on.
It works, because much of it is true. Many of “ them” do feel exactly that way. It’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. Many of them do, but most of them don’t. And what about us? I have been to a Palestinian check point and seen how young Israeli soldiers treat the Palestinians. How humiliating and oppressive it really is. I have been to a Palestinian refugee camp and seen the hungry faces of the children in the street, the furtive glances, the fearful eyes, the filth, the despair. And it broke my heart.
Of course it’s not Israel’s fault. Not all of it – but some of it. In 1967 it was no less a towering figure than David Ben Gurion himself, Israel’s first Prime Minister who predicted that ruling over a recalcitrant Arab civilian population would “ corrupt the Israeli people if it cast them into the role of occupiers.” Prescient words.
40 years of occupation has had a devastating effect on the Israeli military and transformed nearly every Israeli 18 year old overnight into a perceived oppressor – it has left a trail of abuse and persecution, of house demolitions and late night searches, of random detentions and arrests, of barbed wire and checkpoints, of land confiscations and torture, of curfews and illegal settlements and helped create a new generation of Arabs that finds it so easy to hate Israel and all it stands for.
It has stoked the fires of violence and become a moral catastrophe as day after day it inures Israelis to the humiliation and dehumanization of another people flying in the face of 4,000 years of a Jewish tradition that sees every human being as created in the image of God. And yes it has even led some Jews to promote and carry out murder in the name of the God of our ancestors to whom we pray this very day throughout the world.
After 40 years of occupation and 60 years of searching for peace, do I believe that we must remain vigilant and do all we can to keep Israel strong? Yes. But I also believe that it is time to support a political end to the occupation. To sit down with the Saudis and the Syrians, with Fatah and Hamas, with Jordan and Egypt, with friends andenemies alike. To encourage the United States to take the leading role in peace-making that only we can do. To bring into the political realm the same idealism, and the same realism that has inspired Jews and Arabs, everyday Israelis and Palestinians to create their own quiet peace from the ground up in a thousand different ways every single day.
“Peace From the Ground Up” is the name of the sermon that Rabbi Lewart is giving on Israel today, right now, in KI’s sanctuary. And so I’ve taken the name of her sermon for this sermon as well: “Peace from the Ground Up.” Our sermons are different, because we are different. But the name is the same, because the essential message that we both want to convey to our entire congregation on this Yom Kippur is the same – in spite of all our fears, of all that we see and hear and read, - peace is not only possible it is already happening every single day throughout Israel. In Rabbi Lewart’s poignant phrase - “from the ground up.”
So my friends, let me tell you about the Israel I am proud of – the Israel filled with hope for tomorrow, the Israel that every single day fulfills the promise of the ancient Israelite prophets who declared: “My house shall be a house of peace for all peoples.” Here is the real Israel between the headlines, under the radar, the Israel that is living peace one day at a time, one relationship at a time, one child at a time. Peace from the ground up.
There are literally hundreds of joint Jewish-Arab cooperative ventures of every kind taking place throughout Israel every day. After all most Israelis and most Palestinians want the same thing – peace, safety, to raise their children free of violence and hatred and discrimination and fear. To live in a just, compassionate society with mutual respect, where each recognizes the fundamental humanity of the other.
That is why thousands of Israelis and Palestinians have put aside the world of politics and accusation and fear and hatred. They have said “Enough, we are no longer waiting for the politicians to catch up to what the people on both sides already know – that we can only do this if we do this together.” So ordinary Israelis and ordinary Palestinians are simply creating peace from the ground up – and here are just five quick examples of what it looks like:
A group of Jewish and Arab businesspeople got together and created The Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development. Arabs comprise 20% of Israel's six and a half million citizens but 45% of Arab families are poor, in contrast to 15% of Jewish families and only 17% of Arab women in Israel are employed in comparison to 54% of Jewish women.
The Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development promotes Jewish-Arab economic cooperation and joint ventures. It also empowers Israeli-Arab women to take an active part in forming the business leadership of the Arab community.
As a result there are now 1,800 small women-owned businesses that employ over 4,000 women. There are also over thirty women’s networks throughout the country where Arab and Jewish businesswomen meet regularly and provide continuous support and advice to one another.
My current favorite is ” The Galilee Circus of Moshav Shorashim. As D r. Marc Rosenstein, Director of the Galilee Foundation for Value Education tells us: “The late Australian circus artist Reg Bolton has written movingly about "circus to save the world." When you see the child of Russian immigrants from Karmiel balancing on the shoulders of his Arab peer from Dir El Assad - you know exactly what he means. When the kids stop the music at the curtain call of their first show to say - in Hebrew and in Arabic - "The Galilee Circus family thanks you..." you understand that this not just another after-school activity. When, after the show, the audience of parents, friends, and siblings is invited to step up and try out the stilts and the juggling paraphernalia, and you notice the Arab unicyclist helping the little brother of her Jewish colleague - you realize that this is not "just" circus. This is a unique opportunity in Israel for voluntary, symmetrical, equal, apolitical, truly shared cultural participation. These kids come on their own time (from different communities, different religions, speaking different languages), they commit themselves, and they understand that they have to do what they do in complete cooperation with The Other - or they will do nothing at all.
There are over 50 participants aged 10-16. It is a demonstration site. It is a symbol. It is a metaphor. It is a lot of fun to be in and to watch. And it just might save the world.”
Ten years ago Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education was founded to build peace between Jews and Arabs through development of bilingual and multi-cultural schools. Elementary schools have been founded in Jerusalem , the Galilee , and the Negev under the unique Hand in Hand Education model , where each school is co-directed by Arab and Jewish co-Principals; and each classroom is co-taught by Jewish and Arab teachers.
Children at all grade levels are taught in both Hebrew and Arabic, learning to treasure their own culture and language while understanding the difference of others around them. Currently more than 1,000 children are enrolled in pre-school through 9 th grade and the demand is surging.
"I want to learn Hebrew so that I can play with my Jewish classmates," said Lana, 8. "I already know 11 words in Arabic," boasted her classmate, Noa, who visited Lana at home last month.
“There is already a waiting list for next year,” said one of the Arab co-Principals. "Most Jewish adults know nothing about their Arab neighbors. Real friendships can flourish from a young age. This is the basis for a new Middle East. While the politicians talk, we are realizing this vision."
In 2001 The Abraham Fund created the Mirkam in the Galilee Initiative as a model for cooperation and coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Today the initiative covers 46 Jewish and Arab communities with 155,000 people who meet together, work together and support each other’s social, educational and economic development. They have created shelters for individuals with special needs together, joint projects to clean the environment together, paved roads to connect each other’s communities and brought together Jewish and Arab citizens to live the values of understanding, tolerance and acceptance and demonstrate that Jewish-Arab cooperation is an attainable reality. And all we see every night on TV are the rockets and the walls.
Then there is Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (Oasis of Peace) –which is home to 52 families, 26 of them Jewish and 26 Arab. Although there are plenty of other cities where Arabs and Jews live together, Neve Shalom is the only place where they choose to do so with the goal of equality, coexistence and mutual respect.
Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam is also home to the School for Peace, a conflict management institute whose workshops bring together Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel, as well as Palestinians living in the West Bank. Its residents demonstrate daily that Arabs and Jews can live together with equality, understanding and peace. Over 35,000 Jews and Arabs have attended their programs since its inception.
And there are a host of smaller everyday miracles as well – real peace from the ground up like The Maxim Restaurant in Haifa tragically destroyed by a Palestinian suicide bomber four years ago which was jointly owned for 40 years by two families – one Arab and one Jewish.
Or the Jewish-Arab Orchestra, the Compassionate Listening Project, Combatants for Peace, Dialogue for Peace and Development, Women at the Center, the Interfaith Encounter Association, Beyond Words, the Peace Camp and many, many others we just never hear about.
Yes it’s 2007, 5768 and it’s still tough to be a Jew in the world. We still have far too few friends and Israel is still a tiny country living in a really bad neighborhood.
But despair has never been the Jewish way. That is why the national anthem of Israel, indeed the national anthem of the Jewish people is called HATIKVAH – THE HOPE.
So instead of despair, instead of constantly seeing only the anger and hatred, the Kassem rockets and the fears that haunt the headlines – we have a different message today that is equally true. In fact it is a much more important message about the reality of life in Israel today – real life between Jews and Arabs who live side by side taking one step at a time to create a world of peace and not a world in pieces.
How do we help Israel to bring peace to its people? First by being there. By joining KI’s family Israel trip next summer. Or by supporting any one of the hundreds of organizations that help bring peace one step closer every day. By buying Israel bonds and strengthening the infrastructure of the country. By supporting Hebrew University or any other Israeli institution of higher learning that helps to bring Arabs and Jews together in cooperation. And finally by urging our own government to stay the course for peace and bring all the parties together until it happens.
Let me end with Rami, an Israeli whose daughter was murdered in Jerusalem by a suicide bomber as she ate pizza with a friend. Over time he joined the Bereaved Families Forum, a group of Palestinians and Jews whose loved ones were murdered during these many years of no peace. Rami speaks out against the occupation daily, and stands hand in hand with ordinary Jews and Palestinians to choose a different path.
“There is no wall so high that can prevent people who want to kill each other from doing so,” he said. “and there is no wall so thick that it can prevent those who choose to, from loving each other. I choose to love.”
And perhaps seeing every “other” as a precious being created in the image of God and worthy of respect, of dignity and of love is ultimately the only way for any of us to truly make peace from the ground up.