Love thy neighbor

Love thy neighbor

Isn’t it hopeless?

Here we go again, with Hamas attacking Israel from Gaza for the third time, just weeks after the kidnapping and tragic death of three Israeli youngsters and the horrendous act of burning a Palestinian boy alive by our own.

Who can bear it? And how will it ever end? Isn’t it hopeless?

There is a popular chasidic-style song with some significant words for times like these: “We are believers the children of believers….” Well, though it strains belief, in the midst of all this terror and bad blood between Israelis and Palestinians, there was a peace initiative that actually went viral.

A group of Gush Etzion settlers-yes, settlers-have been meeting with their Palestinian neighbors-yes, neighbors. They have created an organization called Choose Life. For several months before all this craziness began, a neighbor-to-neighbor dialogue began in houses and around campfires. These meetings have been pulled together by Eliaz Cohen, a poet from Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, and Ali Abu Awwad of Beit Oumar near Hevron. When Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrach were kidnapped, Abu Awwad reported to Choose Life that “…Palestinians weren’t sleeping at night, that they found themselves looking at their children, and thinking about the three boys.”

Abu Awwad asked whether the bereaved families would accept a shiva visit from Palestinians. Cohen inquired, and in her inimitably gracious and dignified fashion Rachel Fraenkel said “Yes.” The shiva call was made, and both the family and the Palestinians shared their grief over what was felt as a mutual loss-a family’s loss of its son and the further loss of trust between peoples.

When Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s burnt body was found, Ali said to Cohen, “Enough of talk. It’s time for action….Whether your right wing or left wing, no one is going to disappear. Everyone is trying to punish the other side for what he did and make excuses for the crimes each side committed to the other. But there is no other side. There is really only one side: the human side.”

The two decided to call for a joint fast for peace and understanding on the Jewish fast day of Tammuz 17, which was the Muslim fast day of Ramadan 18. Neighbor-to-neighbor conversations took place during the late afternoon of the joint fasts. As the day was coming to an end, the Jewish contingent went to say the special fast day Minchah afternoon service, followed by the Ma’ariv evening prayer, as the Muslims prayed ‘Asr and Maghrib and all prepared their break-fast and iftar.

All this while the rockets still flew in from Gaza and the Israeli air force pounded the Strip.

What was little known in Bergen County was that the Cohen-Awwad initiative had gone viral. Several hundred American and European congregations of Jews and Muslims brought their constituencies together for programs similar to Cohen’s and Awwad’s. There was even a fast for peace in Quwait, though only Muslims were represented since no Jews live there.

It was the outstanding effort of Hanan Schlesinger, a resident of the Gush Etzion bloc-yes, a “settler”-who made this program known worldwide. He is an educator who works in Israel and the United States. He used his excellent pedagogical skills to create programmatic materials for groups or congregations who wanted to join the Choose Life fast for peace.

We are now in the Three Week period of mourning that culminates in Tisha B’Av. During these three weeks the walls of Jerusalem were breached and slowly but surely the Roman troops made their way to the Temple. Once there, once they overcame Jewish resistance, the Romans hammered wooden stakes between the stones of the Temple, set them ablaze, and razed the most holy place of ancient Jewry to the ground.

The Talmud wonders how God could allow for the destruction of the place where His presence was felt most profoundly. Wasn’t the Second Temple period one of intense religious commitment and dedication to Torah study? The Talmud answers, “The Temple was destroyed because despite all the many wonderful characteristics of the generation there was baseless hatred among people.” In his famous comment, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-State Palestine, said that the Third Commonwealth would be re-established only when unconditional love was commonplace.

Well, here is Isaiah’s dream of that Third Commonwealth and its Temple: “In the days to come, The Mount of the Eternal One’s House shall stand firm above the mountains and tower above the hills; And all the nations shall gaze on it with joy. And the many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come, Let us go up to the Mount of the Eternal One, to the House of the God of Jacob; That He may instruct us in His ways, And that we may walk in His paths.’ For instruction shall come forth from Zion, and the word of the Eternal One from Jerusalem. Thus He will judge among the nations and arbitrate for the many peoples, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up sword against nation; and they shall never again know war” (Isaiah 2:2-4). But this vision is dependent on the granting of unconditional love, and on Tammuz 17, corresponding to Ramadan 18, that was present in Israel and around the world at the Choose Life fasts for peace.

In reporting the event, the Times of Israel cited Cohen as saying “From what I’m starting to hear from other gatherings that were held tonight around the country and world, I understand that we succeeded. With God’s help and Inshallah we will begin to see the image of God in thousands of good women and men, who are starting something new at this difficult time.”

For everyone’s sake, I hope he and Abu Awwad, who created the fast for peace and hosted the joint break-fast and iftar, will have God’s help. As the chasidic-style song I mentioned ends, “We have no one to rely on save our Father in Heaven, Who is beneficent to all and Whose mercy extends to all He has created” (Psalms 145:17).