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(photo credit: Courtesy)
For the first time, an American rabbi will be traveling to Iran Tuesday on a mission of interfaith dialogue and understanding.
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, one of the early forces behind the Jewish Renewal movement in America, will co-lead a delegation of 21 peace activists to the Islamic Republic on a mission "to humanize the face of Iran, lest we end up with a disaster of global proportions we cannot imagine," she told The Jerusalem Post by phone on Monday.
Gottlieb, a longtime peace activist and recent cofounder of the Shomer Shalom Institute for Jewish Non-Violence, said her participation in the mission came out of Tuesday's threat by Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton that an Iranian assault on Israel would be met with an American response that would "obliterate" Iran.
"It is important to negotiate and not threaten obliteration," Gottlieb believes, "in particular because there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Jewish people living in Iran, the oldest extant Jewish community in the Middle East, which has been there since the first exile in 586 BCE."
The mission, the fifth "friendship and solidarity delegation" to Iran of the New York-based Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), is coordinated on the Iranian side with the Iranian Center for Interfaith Dialogue, described by FOR as "an official entity committed to supporting interaction between different religious communities."
The itinerary of the trip, which returns to New York on May 13, includes Teheran, where the group will meet at least one representative of the Iranian government, according to Gottlieb, as well as the sacred Shi'ite city of Qom, and historic Esfehan and Shiraz.
For Gottlieb, the Iranian Jewish community is an important factor in opening an interfaith dialogue with Iran.
"Most world Jewry does not realize that the community is still there, and we have not asked ourselves how we can best protect and nourish that community. These are people who have chosen not to leave, because they have a deep connection to that place," she said.
While the group will meet an government official, "our purpose is to meet civilian groups in the religious community, in arts and culture, students, women's groups." It's all part of an effort at "civilian diplomacy," which Gottlieb describes as "people-to-people [connections] to create a more positive environment on the ground for people to exchange productive dialogue and to create more understanding, to humanize the face of the enemy on both sides."
Gottlieb rejects the idea that her participation on the mission may help legitimize a regime that publicly supports Holocaust denial.
"Of course not. That [position] doesn't characterize me. FOR is very committed to the Jewish people and its well-being all around the world." Rather, "in every society there are people who represent hateful and unpopular positions that do not cultivate peace."
What about the threat to Israel? "I don't think Iran is going to attack Israel; I think it's a chimera. Iran has never initiated a war. And the fact that Israel has never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that it has nuclear weapons, is one of the reasons Iran wants nuclear weapons. Israel has already bombed Iraq and Syria. It is not [unreasonable] for Iran to think it will also be a target. Maybe we should be pressuring everybody to sign the NPT. We should be [backing] the forces of peace, not the forces advocating war."
Gottlieb also disagrees with those who argue that a persuasive threat of force is necessary for diplomacy to be successful.
"I think the American public accepts certain conventional ideas which are not borne out in history," she believes. "For instance, in the last 50 years there have been 72 nonviolent revolutions all around the world. If you ask the Iranian people, they are pleading with us not to go to war, saying to us, 'Let us solve our own problems, and let us work in our societies to make the changes we desire.'"
One of the problems, she believes, is ignorance.
"The history of Iran is not understood by the people of the US," she says. "If the American public cared to inform itself about the [American-supported] overthrow of [Iranian prime minister Mohammed] Mossadegh in 1953 and the politics we've engaged in towards Iran," they would see the situation differently.
For Gottlieb, "unless we know the history, we'll be very vulnerable to the sound-bytes of our politicians. I'm traveling to better inform myself of what Iranians on the ground have to say, how they feel, what kind of support they want from us."
Just three days after her return, Gottlieb will attend the Founders Conference in Chicago of Shomer Shalom. "I'm hoping to create a movement of Jewish people to study nonviolence both as a strategy and a way of life, to create seeds of peace, to build and nourish peace and understanding. That's what we're called to do in our tradition. I'm fulfilling a mitzva, and that's what a rabbi is supposed to do."
She insists she is not naÃ¯ve - "I've been at this for a long time, and I'm a student of history" - but simply has "great faith in the goodness of people, and I want to encourage that. I don't want to sit back passively while violence increases."
She expects to face criticism for the trip, but criticism "can't stop us from thinking generations ahead. I'm doing this for my children and my grandchildren."