Somewhere between the shtetls of Eastern Europe and sites across the Levant, Rabbi Dr. Marc Gopin, 52, has found his calling.
Heading the George Mason University Center for
World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution in Arlington,
Virginia, he is not waiting for a peace treaty to cause change. Gopin
gets on a plane and heads for trouble spots wherever he can find
openings. He meets with sheikhs, heads of state and business people
across the Arab world, especially in Syria.
In the US, he consults on conflict resolution for international
intelligence officers and trains Pentagon officials and army chaplains
on their way to Afghanistan. In 27 years studying conflict resolution
and meeting as an unpaid ambassador with Jews and Arabs, he has
discovered that enemies can often be quickly made into allies. Issues
of respect, civility, honor, tolerance and respecting cultural norms
can have transformative and sometimes immediate effects, he says.
The offspring of Eastern European hassidim, he grew up in
Boston in the 1960s. During his youth, he rarely met non-Jews or
non-Orthodox Jews and studied Torah seven days a week. Shabbat was
spent in synagogue, praying in the shadow of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik,
the scholar and leader of American Modern Orthodoxy who believed that
Jews should be pious and learned in rabbinic studies, science, math and
secular philosophy. At Gopin's bar mitzva, Soloveitchik publicly
declared his adoration of the boy. Gopin replied that he hoped to live
the rest of his life studying at the heels of his great, holy and
beloved master. Their friendship continued until Soloveitchik died in
His mentor is remembered as "The Lonely Man of
Faith," the title of one of his major essays on the ontological
struggle to mix duties of religious piety with observing Jewish law in
a modern world. Gopin feels he is walking in Soloveitchik's footsteps
as he travels the region, connecting with people many in the West would
consider his enemy.
One such "enemy" is Syria's grand mufti, Sheikh Ahmed Hassoun,
who on Tuesday addressed a "delegation of American academics" (read:
Gopin and his cohorts) and was quoted by Army Radio as stating, "If the
Prophet Muhammad had asked me to deem Christians or Jews heretics, I
would have deemed Muhammad himself a heretic... If Muhammad had
commanded us to kill people, I would have told him he was not a
prophet... Before you got American citizenship, and I got Syrian
citizenship, we were all brothers under the dome of God."
Gopin has met with the mufti on several
occasions, which perhaps paved the way for these ground-breaking words
from Syria's foremost religious leader. But Gopin's ideas and practices
have isolated him in the Orthodox world and in the conflict resolution
While visiting Israel to teach classes on religion and conflict
resolution, on his way to Syria with 20 citizen diplomacy doctoral and
master's students who have since met with the mufti, Gopin told The Jerusalem Post
how to improve prospects for peace and what that has to do with Judaism.
What takes an Orthodox rabbi to Syria?
I met [Syrian lawyer] Hind Kabawat at the World Economic Forum
in 2002 in Jordan. She is this tall woman in a room full of mostly Arab
[men] and raises her hand and wants to know what can be done so that
all people and regimes will commit to human rights for all people in
the region. I was shocked because I expected her to say something
against Israel. So I said to myself, [maybe] she was a partner that I
had been looking for in the Arab world. We met later and talked a long
A few months later I sent her an e-mail that I was going to be
in the region. She invited me. I went because I had an opportunity to
do something in citizen diplomacy. Since 2003, I have been to Syria six
or seven times. Hind and I now have a partnership. We are training
professionals in conflict resolution and negotiations. Tens of millions
in the Arab world saw televised debates that gathered the grand mufti
of Syria [and] secular representatives to model a culture of debate - a
way for civil society to grow while addressing difficult issues.
How did you feel when you first stepped foot on Syrian soil?
I was absolutely terrified. I had no idea that things were safer
in Syria than Jordan or Egypt because the government is much more in
control. Hind drove four hours from Damascus to pick me up in Jordan. I
crossed the border in the middle of vast plains at midnight. It was
very dark and I could [imagine] all the armies and prophets [of
history] passing through, back and forth.
I went to the VIP lounge on the border. A wonderful young man
from the government came to drink bitter coffee with me and I saw that
as a good sign. He said, "Our president has been trying to contact the
Israeli prime minister for three years to talk about peace. He is
wondering when there may be a reply." I was in shock and clarified that
I am not an Israeli ambassador, but that I would tell everybody.
My life was never in danger and I was treated like an honored
guest everywhere I went. For me, going to Syria is a straight line
between rabbinic texts that were part of my soul, to ancestral lands
important to Abraham, such as Aram, 3,000 years later. It felt like I
was coming home. I told the Syrians that on my first visit, when they
honored me by having me speak at the Assad Library. They were very
When you go to places and you make yourself vulnerable and listen, you learn much more than you can learn in books.
What was the most dramatic moment during your Syria trips?
Two or three years into my work in Syria in 2006, during the
Second Lebanon War and while the US was weighing an attack against
Syria, it was a terrible time to be there, and all the refugees from
Iraq were outraged at the US for creating four million refugees and 1.5
million orphans, which could have been avoided.
I sat with the grand mufti of Syria on several panels and there
were amazing public ceremonies and conversations, but the war in Iraq
was so close and the mufti was beside himself about the number of
Shi'ites and Sunnis killing each other. He invited me to Aleppo, a
four-hour trip from Damascus. It was nerve-racking driving around the
country. He brings me to a room in a mosque with a few hundred people -
one was in Abu Ghraib for four months [and had been tortured]. Suddenly I stood up and interrupted the mufti's
speech. I could not help myself. The whole room goes silent; everyone
gets uncomfortable. My translator rises and comes with me and I ask the
man what his name is, and he tells me his brother is still missing and
where they were taken from by the American forces. I say that I want to
apologize in the name of the American people. I held his hand and asked
for his info and his brother's info to send it to anyone I know. The
mufti was very moved and continued his sermon.
Then he goes to the main ceremony and has me go
to the balcony. I see 3,000 people. The mufti does his ceremony and
prayers and then he starts crying. "Politicians and leaders are going
to destroy the world," he says. And then he announces, "Now we will
hear from a man of God from America. This man apologized, why can't we
apologize when we do something wrong?" He puts me up front and I speak
for two minutes about how grateful I am for their saintly mufti and I
quoted from the Torah about forgiveness and nonviolence; I said it was
from "the Bible." The crowd - half were refugees from Iraq - objected,
asking, "Why did you bring him here? He voted for Bush." I was shaking
like a leaf. I said, "I didn't vote for torture."
The mufti said, "Tell the people what we've done here today,"
and about 10 people took out their cellphones and took snapshots. It
headlined the news across the country - "American apologizes for Abu
I was told through indirect means that [President Bashar] Assad
said: "What happened in the mosque means more to me than anything the
American president can say." I went back to Damascus but heard that the
mufti was very happy and later told the crowd that I was a Jewish
rabbi. The mufti is not a pacifist, but is against the jihadis and all
people who always want war - he demonstrated that apology is a way
forward and not just war and revenge.
Is it okay to say sorry if you don't think you are the only one to blame?
In Judaism, the capacity to say sorry is a supreme mitzva. It
doesn't say only if you are the only one who has done anything wrong.
Are you ever introduced or embraced as a Jewish person or rabbi?
I've been introduced as a rabbi many times, depending on the
environment. On a panel with a Sunni, a Shi'ite, and a Protestant, I
was "the rabbi." It meant a lot to them.
[On the first trip, Hind and I] met with Shi'ite Sheikh
Shehadeh Jahdai. She didn't tell him I was Jewish, but we had such a
[good] conversation, we were finishing each other's sentences. I felt
close enough in the end and said, "I have to tell you that I am a
rabbi." His eyes lit up. "There is no peace without rabbis," he said.
Since then I've learned that rabbis and imams used to work together on
legal disputes all over the region.
People ask, do you know this family from Brooklyn? At the same
time as being anti-Zionist, they felt a deep sense of loss of the
Syrian Jewish community that was part of a brighter time when things
were more pluralistic.
How did Yasser Arafat, in his day, react to your citizen diplomacy efforts?
Rabbi Menahem Froman had been trying to persuade the sides that
religious clerics could be helpful in the peace process and he wanted
Arafat's blessing. After 20 minutes talking about the spiritual and
beauty and the future of Jerusalem, I said, "I know how many children
have died since the intifada and I wanted to apologize, because in
Judaism it is a halachic obligation to comfort mourners." His eyes
In traditional cultures you speak through text; this is true in
Islam and traditional Judaism. So I told Arafat, "I want to share from
my tradition, which says that the world stands on three things - truth,
peace and justice. [But] without justice, there is no peace; and where
there is no peace there can be no justice."
He was very sharp; he knew that the Jewish community talked
about peace, not justice. He also knew I was commenting on his choice
of using violence by how I phrased the rabbinic text and how I looked
into his eyes. We were practically eyeball to eyeball. He was silent
and then said: "When I was a young man, I used to pray at the Wall with
the old men."
Why is that significant? It doesn't matter if he was really
there, but he was saying to me as a rabbi that he considered the Wall a
How do you square that with when he had said in Camp David a few months later that there was no Temple?
This is how I see it: The reports from Camp David were [that]
Arafat and Barak didn't speak most of the time. I heard that Barak came
with a plan, threw it on the table in front of Arafat and said, "Here.
This is what I'll say and this is what you'll say," and that Arafat
left the room because the behavior was insulting. What Israelis,
Americans, must understand is that people take revenge when you don't
give them respect. Arafat lied with ease when he felt there wasn't
respect. I won't say you could have gotten him to change, but I'm
saying that how he was treated influenced how he behaved.
How did your family feel about you visiting Arafat?
One Saturday night, I was at havdala at my sister's apartment
[in Jerusalem], and after she hits the button to play the answering
machine. Rabbi Froman had left me a message: Be ready to meet Arafat at
11. A room full of very Orthodox people - their mouths dropped. My
cousin said, "I don't know or understand what you are doing, but I
trust you." He trusted me because I had shown so much respect for their
Judaism all those years.
What role does respect play in conflict resolution?
In the Talmud, it says, "Who is honored? He who honors others."
The act of honoring allows people to get past wounds and rage. Issues
of civility, patience, respect and honor are at the core of what can go
right or wrong in a negotiation. It's not everything, it can't replace
bargaining, but negotiating without values of cultures and spiritual
traditions amounts to nothing. Other respected scholar practitioners,
like John Paul Lederach, also came to the same conclusions, and this is
what most leaders have not understood when sitting with the
Palestinians. I'm convinced that we must train the Border Police,
courts, diplomats - everyone that has to do with Palestinian relations
- to figure out respectful ways to deal with complicated situations. I
can't tell you how many officials in the Arab world have told me -
ambassadors, former ministers - that everything is about respect. I
used to think it sounded like a platitude, but now that I've seen it in
action, I understand it is a different way of negotiating.
The problem is that everyone in the Jewish and
Arab world thinks being soft creates the impression of weakness. The
thing is that in the history of human relations, there are different
approaches to win over enemies. In the [Far East] being soft is the way
to victory, as seen for example in The Art of War by Sun Tsu and the Tao Te Ching.
In Eastern philosophy the argument is that what looks weak is strong -
water breaks rocks over centuries, but rocks look strong but can easily
Do these values have a place in a military?
In the late '90s, general Nasir Yussef was in charge of one of
the security services; he was the only one in the PA who was a
religious Muslim. We crossed Erez to Gaza City. [Yussef] knew it wasn't
easy for us to come. Woody Allen says 99 percent of life is showing up.
That's true with Arab partners, they know how difficult it is and it
creates incredible gratitude. We met to brainstorm how to enforce law
with understanding and appreciation of culture and religion, against
competing Palestinian forces. [Yussef] was excited. Then the intifada
broke out and the opportunity was gone - he was out of power.
Militaries needs to be greater attuned to maximize saving
lives, build relations with locals and minimize civilian casualties. I
periodically lecture Congress [and] have a lot of students from the
Pentagon, intelligence agencies and military, and in turn interesting
developments are happening in strategy. Military chaplains are
contracted to study in my program and then go to the field and advice
military commanders. For example, a senior fellow at my center was a
former mujahadin in Afghanistan; now he is on contract with the
American military. One American Air Force chaplain asked me, "Why plan
to serve 'American' interests? Why not say to serve humanity's
These people are high up and their level of military strategy
is revolutionizing the battlefield in Afghanistan. They will work with
local religious leaders to rebuild. [This kind of training is] where my
hopes lie for Israeli and Palestinian militaries.
What is your hope for diplomacy?
The real peace work is a chess game; it's all about moves and
countermoves. If Israel wanted to commit to repair and build mosques
that have been destroyed, this could be negotiated - first Israel
rebuilds two mosques, then Palestine honors or beautifies Jewish spots
in Palestine. [Or] you can propose at about five checkpoints, for
example, that Palestinians will have oversight and commit to oversee
people's needs, and ask what would you do in return? Israel can ask,
for example, for one bus a month to Joseph's Tomb as a gesture of
friendship, as some gestures speak to the Jewish heart and cause people
to think differently.
At the same time, Israel has to prepare the people. If we
engage, we can guarantee people in the Arab world would try to stop
this. There will be casualties and we will respond in turn. We have to
expect and prepare for bombers, but discredit them - that's what
happened in Ireland. If George Mitchell was allowed, he would come with
a series of steps.
The ambassador from Syria is moving in the right direction by
inviting Syrian Jews. If they had taken [Rabbi Eliahu] Bakshi-Doron's
suggestion to visit holy graves in Syria, it would not be official but
would be a welcome gesture of tolerance and then we could, for example,
welcome Syrians to visit their relatives on the Golan. There are all
sorts of possibilities.
[And] if we made peaceful Muslim clerics into partners to build
Arab-Israeli society, to create new relations by embracing highest
values that mean something to Christians, Muslims and Jews, this would
be a remedy.
The big problem is that the culture of diplomacy finds nothing
positive or relevant in religious cultures. In Syria, when you outdo
people in their customs, they are shocked and amazed; you become allies
in a second.
What would prevent Israel from using the diplomatic strategies you suggest?
The right-wing lobby is extremely powerful in Congress to
prevent really bold steps and there are forces dead set against a
Palestinian state. There was no effective lobby against Irish peace.
You have suggestions for diplomats and military and government
officials; any words of wisdom for liberals who support the peace
If everybody in Tel Aviv had an Arab person for dinner, we
wouldn't have these problems. These people who voted liberal have not
found their way to the Arabs. This is about human relations, and the
rabbis understood this 2,000 years ago.
What have you learned about conflict resolution that surprised you?
I was a rabbi in Berkeley when the first intifada broke out. There was a picture in The New York Times
of soldiers beating unarmed Palestinian kids. I called a meeting with
the Jewish community. Extremists in Brooklyn threatened me six times,
with things like "I'll make your wife a widow." Clerics in general
don't have the role of being teachers as they used to because they are
at the mercy of their congregants. I have learned over the years that
peacemaking has to be positive, as Martin Luther King did it. The
positive way would have been to build relations between my community
and Arabs and Muslims and then if we were attacked, we would be
attacked for being loving; not for humiliating.
How would this slow process of giving honor and taking turns making steps work in emergency situations, say Sderot and Gaza?
You can't say to your people I'm not going to do anything, so if
they shoot, you have to shoot too, but there is no escaping Rabbi
Soloveitchik's basic position. You have to calculate what is going to
save the most lives; you can't just say how to return a Grad rocket.
You have to consult a wide variety of experts. The problem with policy is that it is not
intelligence that is in charge, but political leaders looking for
votes. Really winning involves winning over people, and you cannot do
that with brutality. [During the escalation] was not the time to ask
why are they bombing; the time to ask if you have outsmarted Hamas is
before putting them on the defensive. How to win against Hamas is to
ask what is its source of its strength. And the answer is not badly
made weapons, but despair of the people [and] that mothers have day
care and social services funded by Hamas.
In the Middle East radicalization grows where
social services don't exist. So if you want to win, start city by city
creating alternatives and see what happens. I would show Hamas as
oppressors [and] make [Palestinians] jealous of the West Bank. What
looks hard is actually smart. It's easier to smash heads but harder to
make people love you.
Israel has to compete for Palestinian love?
We created an amazing home for Jewish people but also made
terrible mistakes. It doesn't mean that we know that Arab leaders would
not have made the same mistakes; we can think about them and move
forward from the tragedies of the past. Is Israel responsible for the
Iranian Revolutionary Guards and clerics in Riyadh and al-Qaida?
Absolutely not. But 90 percent of the sick suicide bombers are Muslim,
so if Israel becomes a champion of Palestinian rights, there is no
question where people will affiliate. If the PA builds social services,
there is no question where people will affiliate.
What is the hardest part of diplomatic work?
The hardest part of my work is that I meet all these beautiful
people in Palestine, Israel and Syria, and every time there is another
war, they are under the bombs and I can feel their pain and their
children's pain. During Lebanon, I was getting calls from Rabbi Froman
saying, "People from northern Israel are in my house, please help." He
thinks I can talk to the president; holds the phone so I can hear the
shooting. Hind, my Syrian partner, calls me from Damascus saying, "I
have people in my house from Lebanon, you have to do something." Sheikh
Bhukari's daughter was caught in her house in Gaza and afraid to close
the windows, that the glass will shatter and tear her children apart.
Everyone is suffering and I can't do a thing.
You spent your life studying Jewish law and
literature, with respected rabbis and professors. You were ordained as
an Orthodox rabbi and observe kashrut and Shabbat and study and teach
Torah. But many Jews consider your ideas about Judaism and conflict
resolution unorthodox. Why?
I don't affiliate with movements. I think Judaism's most
important spiritual values involve social justice. I find comfort in
texts that show that in halachic Judaism. I have a problem with the
people who made the details of ritual and outer symbols the essence. I
am concerned with the commandments of love they neighbor, save lives,
pursue justice and pursue peace. These are the hardest and most
all-consuming life tasks.
So if I have time left over after that to figure out what is
the exact ingredient necessary to make the blue thread on a tzitzit,
that is interesting, but I don't have time. How does anyone? How does
anyone have time to figure out anything except how Jews can stop
killing and be killed?
In 1987, after seven years of studying sources of peace in
talmudic Judaism, I was, as an Orthodox rabbi, speaking in Palo Alto
about a section in the Jewish laws of civility, that is not studied
anymore today, but are the backbone of Pirkei Avot, and that I wanted
to revive. I'm talking about rabbinic sources, and an Orthodox Stanford
professor there, a PhD, whispers loud enough for me to hear, "He sounds
like a Christian." This was a turning point in my life - I understood
that the universe that I'd grown up in was gone and that this was the
new universe of militant Orthodoxy.
In DC, with an assimilated Israeli who had written book about
Chechnya, I talked about "love your neighbor," according to Rabbi
Akiva, the highest mitzva. He says, "No, that's in the New Testament."
This proves how successfully this sick culture destroyed the idea that
love was a Jewish value, so much so that an intelligent, kind Israeli
writer could believe that an idea from Torah, in Leviticus, is not
In 1967, mainstream Judaism changed. The word bitahon
[security] used to mean trust in God; now in modern parlance it means "national security."
When Rabbi Soloveitchik embraced - after 1967 - Israel as a
sacred thing, it was a real struggle. There were no prayers for Israel
when I was growing up. We talked about "the Yishuv," and "love of the
Land of Israel" not "the state" or Jewish sovereignty.
In the 1970s there was pressure, the hermeneutics I had grown
up with evolved from Rabbi Soloveitchik, Hermann Cohen, [Samson
Raphael] Hirsch and the chief rabbis of England, who make ethics the
central component of Judaism. I spent my lifetime figuring out what are
the meanings of apology, repentance, forgiveness. How to follow the
rabbis' definition of heroism is how to make someone who hates you love
I've seen it being done and those who do it are the most
disrespected people in Israeli culture and in Orthodox Judaism, so I
don't know what is Orthodox Judaism anymore. Suddenly ethics and piety
are translated into the suckers who walked into ovens, the loser Jews.
The focus is on the overwhelming power of the Jewish state. The most
powerful army overtook Judaism, first the Orthodox, but later also the
Reform and Conservative. So much so that when someone wants to be a
pacifist, he turns to Buddhism or Unitarianism.
It is written that "he who returns evil for evil, evil will
never pass from his house." That text will disgust [the new Jew]
because it sounds like sucker Jews who went to their death. When I say
that a strong man can make his enemy love him, he will reply that it's
got to be a quote from Christianity. I became alienated from this
increasingly militant Orthodox Judaism and with the secret world of
Rabbi Soloveitchik's ethical humanism disappearing. Judaism has been
taken over by a state, and Jews, who after 2,000 years that Judaism was
about piety and righteousness, are unprepared for the shocking power of
the state to recreate a religion. The point is that considering the
military or the state as sacred is idolatry. Only God is supposed to be
sacred. Are there other Orthodox rabbis or leaders who think like you?
There are a number of others, but extremely few
of them have made the journey past hate of their Palestinian and Arab
neighbors to their enemies to understand the full extent of the
tragedy. The vast majority of Jewish liberals have not done it. In the
last 10 years there has been a resurgence of interest in social
justice, for example at Yeshiva University. I spoke at Stern [College,
YU's school for women] last year. But there is no replacing the agony
of meeting enemies and then thinking about it. The last 10 years I
started collecting texts on peace and war - what does Judaism have to
say about anger, love, hate, repentance and thousands of [related]
things. People don't study this anymore or they do and keep it in a
racial context of what do we owe to fellow Jews.
Judaism was changing all the time based on how people were
behaving and how the community was judging this behavior, which means
that everything is dynamic. This realization is hopeful and scary.
Judaism can become saintly and heroic or diabolic and genocidal. All
religions can be saintly beacons for the world and can produce the best
peacemakers or the worst criminals, all of whom believed that what they
were doing was right. We have to face this.
What is misunderstood?
In Tosafot, the grandchildren of Rashi, commentary and
Ecclesiastes, God seeks those who are chased. It doesn't say God sides
with the righteous or poor, but the persecuted and the pursued. It's
clear: It is better to be among the persecuted than the persecutors.
I knew that the Rambam and Rabbi Soloveitchik intentionally
studied math, science and literature to reach the highest understanding
of God, but in America I saw this secularized into ambition and
materialism. I started becoming more attached to [philosopher] Samuel
David Luzzatto. In 1847, [he] trained 50 years of Padua rabbis in
Italy, and talks about "love your neighbor," and the mitzva to teach
that all humans are brothers of same family. I'm reading in Italian,
and then I read it in Hebrew and oh my God, a 1957 Hebrew translator
said "all Jews" not "all humans" are part of one family.
I looked at all the versions in rabbinic Judaism
of Aaron the high priest, the supreme peacemaker, according to the
midrashim. He was the most beloved and tells neighbors that the other
is sorry and apologizes. This is similar to the contemporary theory of
"appreciative inquiry" that never says a negative word. I discovered
that this is a good way to deal with violent people and situations.
We in conflict resolution find that when you emphasize the
positives, you can build something remarkable with even the most
difficult people. That's what Aaron did; he reminded the warring
parties that there is something to love about each other. We remind
Jews that from Iraq to Morocco, rabbis and imams used to work with each
other, take care of each other, even study together.
On one hand this is selective perception, choosing only the
good memories. But wars [have been perpetuated] with Arabs by only
selecting the worst memories. We need to face the good and bad of
history and try to build on the good to restore it. If you study the
sources of how humans tick, you can't get to the reasonable discussion
until you face the emotion. Rabbis understand that. It takes a lifetime
to realize that 90 percent of conflict resolution is the ability to
articulate the different things people have inside - the fancy,
intellectual term for this is "reframing."
What was it like growing up in the shadow of Rabbi Soloveitchik?
I miss that Orthodox piety so much, it's gone. My hassidic family attached itself to a holy man who was a mitnaged
Rabbi Soloveitchik was my life. My father gave me over to him; my
father loved me intensely but wasn't a man of words. The Rav was
uncomfortable with the idea of being a holy man. His ideal man was a
learned teacher; he did not worship other people or want to be
worshiped, but did worship our capacity to think. In the study of the
sacred, the irony is that you get attached to people who liberate you
and cause you to think for yourself.
We were Eastern European Jews in an isolated community in
Boston. Most of the children were children of professors, doctors,
lawyers. I came from a simple, pious family. There was tension between
the spiritual ideal of study for study's sake versus ruthless
competition to get into Harvard. What Rabbi Soloveitchik's ethical
monotheism was teaching me was not being practiced.
What changed to pull you away from this world?
When Menachem Begin became prime minister, Rabbi Soloveitchik
was shocked. He refused to go hear him when he came to speak 100 feet
away at Yeshiva University. I asked why? He looked at me cautiously and
said, "Why should I listen to a person who blew up people in a hotel?"
referring to Menachem Begin's blowing up the King David Hotel [in
We had similar values and it was a turning point for me when he
said that. It also made me a little crazy. I felt like the word from
this inner sanctum was that everything outside was a problem. He and I
understood that sometimes war was necessary to defend life. But I also
understood at that moment that a man building on the philosophies of
Hermann Cohen could not support Lehi.
In 1982, when I heard about Sabra and Shatilla in Lebanon, it
was also a turning point. It was right before Yom Kippur. Rabbi
Soloveitchik called Menachem Begin and insisted on an investigation. I
was still taking care of him. I wrote a poem at the time to this
effect: "I looked around everywhere and in the halls of the kollel and
saw bullet holes and all were oozing blood." I couldn't get it out of
my mind. I could always feel [the pain of tragedies] even if I wasn't
physically present. The Holocaust is inside of me all the time. But
this is different - [allowed to happen] by a Jewish army. It was a
secret place of pain that left me and Rabbi Soloveitchik feeling
betrayed. I also read about Deir Yassin. It started to
alienate me that Jews debate these things among themselves as if they
are being rational, but it is not rational to talk only with people who
were not there. I realized I was hearing only half the story. People
think they are scientific because they read newspapers but have never
met a survivor. I made a decision to understand the reality of Israel's
wars from more than one perspective. Doing this, I started to lose my
community, but all I was doing was fulfilling my obligations to my
community by engaging in honest investigation.
Rabbi Soloveitchik said if you are afraid of
knowledge, the problem is with you, not with the knowledge. I applied
these words to my study of conflict, after deciding there was a black
hole in the study of Jewish conflicts with Arabs. From the 1980s until
today, I have been on a journey to discover my enemies.
It sounds like a hard path. What are the moments of inspiration?
I sell Palestinian products at fair wages as part of my new
business; Palestinians say, oh my God a Jew caring this much about
Palestinians? Syrians are in awe that I'm bringing a group from the
capital of the United States, when a few years ago there were leaders
who wanted to destroy Syria.
In the middle of the suicide bombings period, Jerusalem was a
ghost town. At my hotel, a taxi driver says don't go with the Arab
[driver], so I [intentionally] went to the Arab. People say it will
take generations to change them, the others. But I'm sitting in the
back and I ask myself, how many words do I need to connect with this
driver? I say to him, The situation must be very difficult here for you
and your family."
You should have heard what poured out. Not anger
at Jews but at Arafat. Do you know how honest and courageous that was?
In 30 seconds we had a deeper conversation than I've had with some of
my Palestinian colleagues. It does take a lot of emotional, physical
and spiritual practice, [and] there are criminals and damaged people
who are not going to change, but it does not take generations;
sometimes it takes seconds.