Friday, January 16, 2009

Shalom, Salaam, Peace...

"Together, the peace-seeking majority of each of our communities can call forth the deeper wisdom of its own tradition and the deep anguish each feels for the death and destruction among our kinfolk in the region of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah."

From Rabbi Waskow of the Shalom Center:

Wednesday afternoon I got a phone call: Would I come to Washington on Thursday to stand outside the Israeli Embassy to mourn the dead of Israel and Gaza, and call for a ceasefire?

Groooan. Yes.

So that's where I was yesterday, along with about 50 other people of many different religious and cultural communities -- ranging in age from 22 to 84, all dressed in black -- all mourning the dead both in Gaza and in Israel, all calling for a ceasefire and an end of the Israeli embargo/blockade of Gaza.

The vigil was called by Code Pink, a women's antiwar group founded to oppose the Iraq War. They often use whimsy and humor to oppose war; on this occasion, they were solemn, in mourning, some of them in tears.

Before the vigil actually formed, there was an odd and almost funny encounter. Almost.

About 80 college-student tourists were standing in line at the Embassy door, waiting for a tour and talk with the Ambassador. Most of the vigilers had not yet arrived; so I walked up to the students and just started talking. I explained who we were, what we were doing - Some of them asked questions. One teacher-age man came out of the group to argue with me.

And then...out from the Embassy came a security officer. He walked up to me and said, "This sidewalk is part of the Embassy, part of Israeli territory. Move."

I said, "The American police say we are fine here on this sidewalk."

"It is Israeli territory. Move, or I will arrest you."

I laughed: "Do you really want the Embassy of Israel to arrest an American rabbi on an American sidewalk?"

"I will arrest you."

This time I just looked at him. I shrugged. I stayed put where I was. He walked over to the police officer nearby, spoke with him a minute -- turned and walked back into the Embassy.

Funny -- almost. I thought: "Because you have annexed large parts of the West Bank, you think you can annex a strip of American sidewalk?"

Hours later I learned that one of our vigilers had walked into the Embassy with the students, waited toll the Ambassador was speaking, and interrupted to give him a white rose of peace and urge him to support a ceasefire.

When the vigil itself began, I spoke; so did a former US colonel and foreign service officer who quit over the Iraq war; an aid worker who had spent years on the West Bank; and a Catholic nun in her 8os who was aboard one of the "ship-in" boats to Gaza that brought medicine and baby food past the blockade before the Israeli attack on Gaza began.

Since the attack, let me note, two more of the ship-in boats were forced to turn back. One was rammed by an Israeli Navy vessel and limped back to Cyprus. The other, just yesterday, certified as weapons-free by Cyprus officials, carrying desperately needed medicines for Gaza hospitals, was surrounded by Israeli Navy ships and threatened with being fired on. It too finally sailed back to Cyprus.

I began with the blessing over learning Torah, added one for "livakesh u'lirdof hashalom: to seek peace and pursue it." Then I mentioned the passage in Joshua where - after crossing the Jordan into Canaan, believing he is on a Divine mission to make Canaan the Land of Israel - he is confronted by a mysterious messenger from God - an angel.

Joshua demands, :Are you for us or for our enemies?" The angel answers: "No."


God's vision of reality was deeper, higher. And we were vigiling not on behalf of the Palestinian government or the Israeli government, not supporting either one's use of military force. We were here out of grief and compassion for the dead and the traumatized of both peoples. Thirteen dead Israelis, and tens of thousands traumatized, forced to leave their homes by the rockets. And more than a thousand Palestinians dead, thousands wounded with no hospitals able to heal them, tens of thousands with no home to flee from or return to -- homes blown up.

There had been alternatives, I said. Hamas could have responded to the blockade by asking for hundreds of small boats to break it nonviolently , creating an impossible political problem for the Israeli government. They could have asked Palestinians in Israel and East Jerusalem to create a general strike, a sit-down in Israeli roads, on behalf of ending the embargo.

And Israel, which certainly is obligated to protect its citizens from rocket attacks, could have done so in other ways. Most simply, it could have ended the blockade, as Hamas was demanding. It could have begun negotiating with Hamas, the de facto government of Gaza.

So we had come like God's messenger's "No!" -- to demand an immediate ceasefire, an end to firing rockets from Gaza into Israel, an end to the Israeli invasion and attacks on Gaza, an end to the violence of the Israeli blockade and embargo. If there had been a Hamas office in Washington, we would be there too.

And then I recalled the passage in last week's Torah portion where Jacob blesses his two grandsons Manasseh and Ephraim. In every other brother-struggle story in the Book of Genesis, it takes decades for estranged and hostile brothers to be reconciled. Here it happens instantly that any conflict between the younger and older is dissolved at once --- because there is a third party with greater power and great moral authority.

The Israeli and Palestinian peoples are now so devoured by fear and rage that only a third party can bring both power and moral authority to bear to make a decent peace. That only power is the new Obama administration. It must insist on a regional international emergency peace conference out of which there must come a peace treaty between Israel, a new Palestinian state with its own choice of government, all the Arab states, and Iran.

Why, you might ask, did I draw on Torah, rather than just using secular language to the same end? Because I am trying to heal Torah from the poisonous hate-filled interpretations of it that right-wing Jews and Christians have thrust upon it. Jews chant about the Torah that "all her paths are peace." It is time to make that so.

And because I look toward a grand alliance of American Jews, Muslims, and Christians to get the new American government to take this stand. Otherwise it will not; it will fall into the old habits. Together, the peace-seeking majority of each of our communities can call forth the deeper wisdom of its own tradition and the deep anguish each feels for the death and destruction among our kinfolk in the region of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah.

In every corner of America, we need new "Tents of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah," ready to share deeply with each other and then to act together for peace. Already in many communities groups like the one that created the Abrahamic Call for Peace that came from Boston just a few days ago are springing up. And three years ago, I worked with a Benedictine nun and a Sufi Muslim scholar to create a study guide and handbook for such a Grand Religious Alliance, The Tent of Abraham. In it there is also an essay by Rabbi Phyllis Berman on how to "pitch this Tent." The book is available at a discount with free delivery by going to (When the website asks for a discount code, type in the word "tent" 9with no quote marks).

With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace -

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