Friday, August 31, 2012


Parshat Ki Tetze
13 Elul, 5772
August 31st, 2012

When I lived in Israel, I visited Bethlehem and the Palestinian side of Hevron with an outfit called Encounter

It’s hard to get one’s head around what they do. They are dedicated to transforming the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but they do not advocate a political point of view. Encounter isn’t about debate, nor strategy, nor positioning. The only task of an Encounter participant is to listen. Palestinians from the area tell their personal stories, their history, their priorities, their beliefs. The participants just sit and listen. That’s all.

Accordingly, Encounter is an incredibly frustrating experience. Listening is aggravating – always wanting to speak up and contradict, to yell and to argue. Moreover, it’s not like these Palestinians are shining angels. They are people – prone to plenty of truth and delusion. One Hevron dweller said to me, “the Jews and the Arabs – we are one. We all agree that it’s the Zionists that are the problem.” Afterwards, he and I had a talk about that little gem.

But I will tell you that Encounter was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, and for the better. I strangely came away more committed to Israel than ever, but with an appreciation for these enemies as full-blooded, life-sized people. There is a power to personally told stories that I cannot adequately articulate. I did not become more or less of anything on Encounter, but it was as if my mind stepped half around a circle and sat down in a new vantage point. I will remember those stories till the day I die.

My colleagues and I take flack for going on trips like these. People natter about how such an experience is accommodation with the enemy. Some of them once had my respect, though it has since flickered out like a broken light bulb.

Whatever your political path, know that these people are wrong.

I had Azerbaijanis today. Religious scholars and journalists from Azerbaijan visited Washington D.C. on a State Department program. They came for a tour of Sixth & I.

Most Azerbaijanis are Shia’a Muslims, as was this entire group. After they were done being polite, they asked about Israel. “Are you a Zionist?” I said I was. “Why do you believe you belong in Israel?” I paused.

This was the moment of truth. And there were a thousand ways to respond: I could have been aggressive, defensive, principled, or argumentative. But because I had been on Encounter, this time I chose a different path.

I told the story of our people. I talked about how we had been exiled, and still pray for Jerusalem three times a day and at every meal. I talked about what it was like for us among the nations: that in every place we had settled we had experienced moments of peace and prosperity, but that those moments were dwarfed by our pain. I talked about the Crusades, and how we have records from the survivors of parents killing their children and then themselves, rather than be raped and tortured, or burned to death. I talked about how, in the Enlightenment, we had hope for a new kind of life. That in one place in particular Jews felt so redeemed that they called their country a “new Zion.” That country was Germany. I said that after such experiences we were no longer willing to surrender ourselves to the bitter kindnesses of history.

This is not a new story. You’ve heard it – so much so that it might even be hackneyed (though I believe it). But as I finished the woman who had asked the question shocked me.

She started to cry.

Now I am just a little rabbi from America. There is, in this vignette, no diplomacy, no tikkun, no overblown expectations that we’ll all just get along. There is no grand finale, nor seeds of peace. But this woman (and a number of her colleagues) understood. They got it. They understood why I and others care. They saw it through our eyes.

And when they asked me about Palestinians dying, and how could I support Israel’s policies, I responded that I disagreed with certain of Israel’s policies (housing demolitions, checkpoint treatment), but that I had also been there in 2001 when something exploded every single day, and how terrifying it was. I explained that they needed to understand that a mutual solution had to be found, or we were going to destroy each other. And then questioner looked at me, and he nodded.*

Many will not understand, but today’s story meant something. In a conflict that drags on with no appreciable end in sight, in times of proposals and counterproposals and counter-counterproposals that end in nothing, when facts volleyed back and forth only serve their expositors and never understanding – the power of getting an enemy to understand one’s perspective means something. So before (or after) you arm yourself with all the facts, before you memorize all the talking points, before you paint the protest signs, figure out why you care and why Israel is important. And then go grab an enemy and tell your story. Maybe even listen in return.

*The Azerbaijanis did not speak English. I communicated through an interpreter.


  1. Wow, this is incredible. You have so beautifully and eloquently told our story in such a way that even an "enemy" was able to hear it and have compassion. I am not so naive as to think that this will always change people's minds, but I do believe that you have achieved here a measure of Tikkun Olam. Encounters like this, multiplied by a thousand, or by ten thousand, have the capacity for changing the world we live in, by increments. Your increments, as a rabbi, will undoubtedly be much bigger than my increments, and that's a good thing :)

  2. Dear Rabbi, You didn't exactly answer Mrs. "Azerbaijani"s
    question. You explained why you thought the Jewish people have a right to live in Eretz Yisrael. I ask you. As a Jew, do you believe YOU belong in Israel? Please come and join the rest of us in Eretz Yisrael. When we take the extremes away from both sides. Then maybe the middle folk can sit down and live together in some kind of quiet balance.