My friends tell me that I'm the Jewish Forrest Gump, a man who unexpectedly finds himself in strange and surprising situations. But the place I find myself in now surprises even me. I've just discovered that Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi is going to be my neighbor. Quite literally. In about a month. In New Jersey.
I knew when I moved into our home ten years ago that the property adjoining ours was the residence of the Libyan ambassador to the United Nations. But for many years the large estate was derelict and neglected. Overgrown with grass and shrubbery, it was difficult to even stroll past it on the sidewalk. I endeavored to walk next door and greet my Muslim brothers who purportedly lived there, but we almost never saw any people. It seemed as if the property had been virtually abandoned. I had also heard from city officials that the property was millions of dollars in arrears in property taxes, with the Libyan government claiming immunity from local taxation, even though the same claim was being made on a property in New York and an exemption is provided for only one residence.
Then about three months ago, the property suddenly sprung to life with a massive construction project featuring a small army of workers laboring at a frenzied pace. I guessed that such a huge investment of millions of dollars into what had been a hovel could only mean one thing: a visit by Gaddafi. He had just appeared at the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, was greeted by US President Barack Obama, and there was speculation that he would appear at the opening of the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September.
Then, I awoke one morning to discover that my fence which separates the two properties - as well as many of the trees on the property boundary - had been cut down and removed. I walked next door and complained both to the city officials who were present as well as the Arab contractor in charge that if trees were being removed for security purposes, with the resulting intrusion into the privacy of my residence, I deserved to know. The contractor turned out to be a well-mannered gentleman. We talked some about the Middle East and established a rapport. I was assured that the damage would be fixed, the trees replanted.
Then, an article in Newsweek confirmed that Gaddafi would be travelling to New York to address the UN General Assembly. "The arrival of Gaddafi is already creating problems for New York security officials," the article said. "He travels with a massive, heated Beduin tent." The Libyans had applied to have the tent pitched in Central Park but had been turned down and Gaddafi would, in all probability therefore, being pitching his tent at his "New Jersey property."
So there it was, Gaddafi as my neighbor, the Libyan leader moving into one of America's premiere modern-orthodox communities, a community with strong political and philanthropic influence. How would he be received?
On the one hand, he deserves considerable credit for dismantling his WMD program, which included apparatus for building nuclear weapons. Whether this was due to a fear of the Bush administration in the wake of the invasion of Iraq or an effort to normalize relations with the West makes little difference to the important outcome.
It was also significant that Gaddafi agreed to pay $2.7 billion in restitution to the families of the savage Pan Am 103 terror attack of December 21, 1988, a day forever etched in my memory since my wife and I left that day to spend many years in Oxford, England. It was also significant that Gaddafi penned an Op-ed in The New York Times in January 2009 suggesting that Israelis and Palestinians move beyond their conflict and look to a unified future. In all these measures, Gaddafi appeared to be an Arab leader making serious overtures to America and the West.
But there is another side. Gaddafi continues to be a autocrat who has ruled his people for four decades. Amid his payment of restitution to the families of the Pan Am 103 attack, The Times of London just reported that Gaddafi was sending his personal Airbus 340 to transfer Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, the terrorist who planted the bomb and who was being released due a terminal illness, back to Libya. As far as his Op-ed is concerned, Gaddafi was arguing for a single state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which would effectively mean the end of the Jewish State of Israel.
In light of this extremely mixed legacy, the Obama administration should insist on certain parameters before welcoming Gaddafi to the United States.
First, Gaddafi should agree to meet with the families of the victims of Pan Am 103 and offer them a personal and public apology. Next, the Libyan leader should be called upon to make a public declaration of friendship to the Jewish people in general and the State of Israel in particular. Should he do so, I would be very happy to invite him next door to our home and offer him warm Jewish hospitality.
While I cannot extend anything as exotic as might be found in a Beduin tent, or even a shot of fine, single malt whiskey, out of respect for his Islamic faith, I can certainly offer him traditional Middle Eastern cooking, a legacy of my father's Iranian roots.
I believe that my local Jewish community should keep an open mind about Gaddafi. If he truly regrets his terror-financing past, then it will show in his actions.
Orthodox Jews account for a very large percentage of Englewood's tax revenue, and since Gaddafi's embassy refuses to pay a dime in taxation, it is our community which in no small measure finances the basic services of his mansion. Perhaps he will therefore see fit to extend the hospitality for which Arabs are justly famous and invite the local Jewish leadership to directly voice our continued reservations about his past and his need to go beyond words and sign a peace treaty with Israel. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be just across the river and a meeting can be easily arranged.
Judaism believes in repentance. But it says that a true penitent expresses himself in not only correcting the damage he has done but by committing to righteous action in the future. Words are not enough.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's upcoming book, The Blessing of Enough, will be released on September 8th. He is the founder of This World: The Values Network. www.shmuley.com