The lonely man of peace

This week, Orthodox American rabbi Marc Gopin saw his coexistence work in Syria bear fruit. What turns a Soloveitchik disciple into an unofficial diplomat to the Arab...

Marc Gopin 311 (photo credit:  Uriel Messa)
Marc Gopin 311
(photo credit: Uriel Messa)
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 forWorld Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution in Arlington,Virginia, he is not waiting for a peace treaty to cause change. Gopingets on a plane and heads for trouble spots wherever he can findopenings. He meets with sheikhs, heads of state and business peopleacross the Arab world, especially in Syria.
In the US, he consults on conflict resolution for internationalintelligence officers and trains Pentagon officials and army chaplainson their way to Afghanistan. In 27 years studying conflict resolutionand meeting as an unpaid ambassador with Jews and Arabs, he hasdiscovered that enemies can often be quickly made into allies. Issuesof respect, civility, honor, tolerance and respecting cultural normscan have transformative and sometimes immediate effects, he says.
The offspring of Eastern European hassidim, he grew up inBoston in the 1960s. During his youth, he rarely met non-Jews ornon-Orthodox Jews and studied Torah seven days a week. Shabbat wasspent in synagogue, praying in the shadow of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik,the scholar and leader of American Modern Orthodoxy who believed thatJews should be pious and learned in rabbinic studies, science, math andsecular philosophy. At Gopin's bar mitzva, Soloveitchik publiclydeclared his adoration of the boy. Gopin replied that he hoped to livethe rest of his life studying at the heels of his great, holy andbeloved master. Their friendship continued until Soloveitchik died in1993.
His mentor is remembered as "The Lonely Man ofFaith," the title of one of his major essays on the ontologicalstruggle to mix duties of religious piety with observing Jewish law ina modern world. Gopin feels he is walking in Soloveitchik's footstepsas he travels the region, connecting with people many in the West wouldconsider 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 theProphet Muhammad had asked me to deem Christians or Jews heretics, Iwould have deemed Muhammad himself a heretic... If Muhammad hadcommanded us to kill people, I would have told him he was not aprophet... Before you got American citizenship, and I got Syriancitizenship, we were all brothers under the dome of God."
Gopin has met with the mufti on severaloccasions, which perhaps paved the way for these ground-breaking wordsfrom Syria's foremost religious leader. But Gopin's ideas and practiceshave isolated him in the Orthodox world and in the conflict resolutionworld.
While visiting Israel to teach classes on religion and conflictresolution, on his way to Syria with 20 citizen diplomacy doctoral andmaster'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 Forumin 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 thatall people and regimes will commit to human rights for all people inthe region. I was shocked because I expected her to say somethingagainst Israel. So I said to myself, [maybe] she was a partner that Ihad been looking for in the Arab world. We met later and talked a longtime.
A few months later I sent her an e-mail that I was going to bein the region. She invited me. I went because I had an opportunity todo something in citizen diplomacy. Since 2003, I have been to Syria sixor seven times. Hind and I now have a partnership. We are trainingprofessionals in conflict resolution and negotiations. Tens of millionsin the Arab world saw televised debates that gathered the grand muftiof Syria [and] secular representatives to model a culture of debate - away 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 saferin Syria than Jordan or Egypt because the government is much more incontrol. Hind drove four hours from Damascus to pick me up in Jordan. Icrossed the border in the middle of vast plains at midnight. It wasvery dark and I could [imagine] all the armies and prophets [ofhistory] passing through, back and forth.
I went to the VIP lounge on the border. A wonderful young manfrom the government came to drink bitter coffee with me and I saw thatas a good sign. He said, "Our president has been trying to contact theIsraeli prime minister for three years to talk about peace. He iswondering when there may be a reply." I was in shock and clarified thatI am not an Israeli ambassador, but that I would tell everybody.
My life was never in danger and I was treated like an honoredguest everywhere I went. For me, going to Syria is a straight linebetween rabbinic texts that were part of my soul, to ancestral landsimportant to Abraham, such as Aram, 3,000 years later. It felt like Iwas coming home. I told the Syrians that on my first visit, when theyhonored me by having me speak at the Assad Library. They were verymoved.
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 theSecond Lebanon War and while the US was weighing an attack againstSyria, it was a terrible time to be there, and all the refugees fromIraq were outraged at the US for creating four million refugees and 1.5million orphans, which could have been avoided.
I sat with the grand mufti of Syria on several panels and therewere amazing public ceremonies and conversations, but the war in Iraqwas so close and the mufti was beside himself about the number ofShi'ites and Sunnis killing each other. He invited me to Aleppo, afour-hour trip from Damascus. It was nerve-racking driving around thecountry. 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'sspeech. I could not help myself. The whole room goes silent; everyonegets uncomfortable. My translator rises and comes with me and I ask theman what his name is, and he tells me his brother is still missing andwhere they were taken from by the American forces. I say that I want toapologize in the name of the American people. I held his hand and askedfor his info and his brother's info to send it to anyone I know. Themufti was very moved and continued his sermon.
Then he goes to the main ceremony and has me goto the balcony. I see 3,000 people. The mufti does his ceremony andprayers and then he starts crying. "Politicians and leaders are goingto destroy the world," he says. And then he announces, "Now we willhear from a man of God from America. This man apologized, why can't weapologize when we do something wrong?" He puts me up front and I speakfor two minutes about how grateful I am for their saintly mufti and Iquoted from the Torah about forgiveness and nonviolence; I said it wasfrom "the Bible." The crowd - half were refugees from Iraq - objected,asking, "Why did you bring him here? He voted for Bush." I was shakinglike 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. Itheadlined the news across the country - "American apologizes for AbuGhraib."
I was told through indirect means that [President Bashar] Assadsaid: "What happened in the mosque means more to me than anything theAmerican president can say." I went back to Damascus but heard that themufti was very happy and later told the crowd that I was a Jewishrabbi. The mufti is not a pacifist, but is against the jihadis and allpeople who always want war - he demonstrated that apology is a wayforward 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. Itdoesn'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 theenvironment. On a panel with a Sunni, a Shi'ite, and a Protestant, Iwas "the rabbi." It meant a lot to them.
[On the first trip, Hind and I] met with Shi'ite SheikhShehadeh Jahdai. She didn't tell him I was Jewish, but we had such a[good] conversation, we were finishing each other's sentences. I feltclose enough in the end and said, "I have to tell you that I am arabbi." 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 onlegal disputes all over the region.
People ask, do you know this family from Brooklyn? At the sametime as being anti-Zionist, they felt a deep sense of loss of theSyrian Jewish community that was part of a brighter time when thingswere 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 thatreligious clerics could be helpful in the peace process and he wantedArafat's blessing. After 20 minutes talking about the spiritual andbeauty and the future of Jerusalem, I said, "I know how many childrenhave died since the intifada and I wanted to apologize, because inJudaism it is a halachic obligation to comfort mourners." His eyesmoistened.
In traditional cultures you speak through text; this is true inIslam and traditional Judaism. So I told Arafat, "I want to share frommy tradition, which says that the world stands on three things - truth,peace and justice. [But] without justice, there is no peace; and wherethere is no peace there can be no justice."
He was very sharp; he knew that the Jewish community talkedabout peace, not justice. He also knew I was commenting on his choiceof using violence by how I phrased the rabbinic text and how I lookedinto his eyes. We were practically eyeball to eyeball. He was silentand then said: "When I was a young man, I used to pray at the Wall withthe old men."
Why is that significant? It doesn't matter if he was reallythere, but he was saying to me as a rabbi that he considered the Wall aholy place.
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 camewith 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 Arafatleft the room because the behavior was insulting. What Israelis,Americans, must understand is that people take revenge when you don'tgive them respect. Arafat lied with ease when he felt there wasn'trespect. I won't say you could have gotten him to change, but I'msaying 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 answeringmachine. Rabbi Froman had left me a message: Be ready to meet Arafat at11. A room full of very Orthodox people - their mouths dropped. Mycousin said, "I don't know or understand what you are doing, but Itrust you." He trusted me because I had shown so much respect for theirJudaism 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. Issuesof civility, patience, respect and honor are at the core of what can goright or wrong in a negotiation. It's not everything, it can't replacebargaining, but negotiating without values of cultures and spiritualtraditions amounts to nothing. Other respected scholar practitioners,like John Paul Lederach, also came to the same conclusions, and this iswhat most leaders have not understood when sitting with thePalestinians.
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. Ican't tell you how many officials in the Arab world have told me -ambassadors, former ministers - that everything is about respect. Iused to think it sounded like a platitude, but now that I've seen it inaction, I understand it is a different way of negotiating.
The problem is that everyone in the Jewish andArab world thinks being soft creates the impression of weakness. Thething is that in the history of human relations, there are differentapproaches to win over enemies. In the [Far East] being soft is the wayto 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 easilybe broken.
Do these values have a place in a military?
In the late '90s, general Nasir Yussef was in charge of one ofthe security services; he was the only one in the PA who was areligious Muslim. We crossed Erez to Gaza City. [Yussef] knew it wasn'teasy 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 itcreates incredible gratitude. We met to brainstorm how to enforce lawwith understanding and appreciation of culture and religion, againstcompeting Palestinian forces. [Yussef] was excited. Then the intifadabroke out and the opportunity was gone - he was out of power.
Militaries needs to be greater attuned to maximize savinglives, build relations with locals and minimize civilian casualties. Iperiodically lecture Congress [and] have a lot of students from thePentagon, intelligence agencies and military, and in turn interestingdevelopments are happening in strategy. Military chaplains arecontracted to study in my program and then go to the field and advicemilitary commanders. For example, a senior fellow at my center was aformer mujahadin in Afghanistan; now he is on contract with theAmerican military. One American Air Force chaplain asked me, "Why planto serve 'American' interests? Why not say to serve humanity'sinterests?"
These people are high up and their level of military strategyis revolutionizing the battlefield in Afghanistan. They will work withlocal religious leaders to rebuild. [This kind of training is] where myhopes 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 andcountermoves. If Israel wanted to commit to repair and build mosquesthat have been destroyed, this could be negotiated - first Israelrebuilds two mosques, then Palestine honors or beautifies Jewish spotsin Palestine. [Or] you can propose at about five checkpoints, forexample, that Palestinians will have oversight and commit to overseepeople'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 offriendship, as some gestures speak to the Jewish heart and cause peopleto think differently.
At the same time, Israel has to prepare the people. If weengage, we can guarantee people in the Arab world would try to stopthis. There will be casualties and we will respond in turn. We have toexpect and prepare for bombers, but discredit them - that's whathappened in Ireland. If George Mitchell was allowed, he would come witha series of steps.
The ambassador from Syria is moving in the right direction byinviting Syrian Jews. If they had taken [Rabbi Eliahu] Bakshi-Doron'ssuggestion to visit holy graves in Syria, it would not be official butwould be a welcome gesture of tolerance and then we could, for example,welcome Syrians to visit their relatives on the Golan. There are allsorts of possibilities.
[And] if we made peaceful Muslim clerics into partners to buildArab-Israeli society, to create new relations by embracing highestvalues that mean something to Christians, Muslims and Jews, this wouldbe a remedy.
The big problem is that the culture of diplomacy finds nothingpositive or relevant in religious cultures. In Syria, when you outdopeople in their customs, they are shocked and amazed; you become alliesin a second.
What would prevent Israel from using the diplomatic strategies you suggest?
The right-wing lobby is extremely powerful in Congress toprevent really bold steps and there are forces dead set against aPalestinian state. There was no effective lobby against Irish peace.
You have suggestions for diplomats and military and governmentofficials; any words of wisdom for liberals who support the peaceprocess?
If everybody in Tel Aviv had an Arab person for dinner, wewouldn't have these problems. These people who voted liberal have notfound their way to the Arabs. This is about human relations, and therabbis 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 Timesof soldiers beating unarmed Palestinian kids. I called a meeting withthe Jewish community. Extremists in Brooklyn threatened me six times,with things like "I'll make your wife a widow." Clerics in generaldon't have the role of being teachers as they used to because they areat the mercy of their congregants. I have learned over the years thatpeacemaking has to be positive, as Martin Luther King did it. Thepositive way would have been to build relations between my communityand Arabs and Muslims and then if we were attacked, we would beattacked 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 ifthey shoot, you have to shoot too, but there is no escaping RabbiSoloveitchik's basic position. You have to calculate what is going tosave 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 notintelligence that is in charge, but political leaders looking forvotes. Really winning involves winning over people, and you cannot dothat with brutality. [During the escalation] was not the time to askwhy are they bombing; the time to ask if you have outsmarted Hamas isbefore putting them on the defensive. How to win against Hamas is toask what is its source of its strength. And the answer is not badlymade weapons, but despair of the people [and] that mothers have daycare and social services funded by Hamas.
In the Middle East radicalization grows wheresocial services don't exist. So if you want to win, start city by citycreating alternatives and see what happens. I would show Hamas asoppressors [and] make [Palestinians] jealous of the West Bank. Whatlooks hard is actually smart. It's easier to smash heads but harder tomake people love you.
Israel has to compete for Palestinian love?
We created an amazing home for Jewish people but also madeterrible mistakes. It doesn't mean that we know that Arab leaders wouldnot have made the same mistakes; we can think about them and moveforward from the tragedies of the past. Is Israel responsible for theIranian 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 noquestion 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 beautifulpeople in Palestine, Israel and Syria, and every time there is anotherwar, they are under the bombs and I can feel their pain and theirchildren's pain. During Lebanon, I was getting calls from Rabbi Fromansaying, "People from northern Israel are in my house, please help." Hethinks I can talk to the president; holds the phone so I can hear theshooting. Hind, my Syrian partner, calls me from Damascus saying, "Ihave people in my house from Lebanon, you have to do something." SheikhBhukari's daughter was caught in her house in Gaza and afraid to closethe 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 andliterature, with respected rabbis and professors. You were ordained asan Orthodox rabbi and observe kashrut and Shabbat and study and teachTorah. But many Jews consider your ideas about Judaism and conflictresolution unorthodox. Why?
I don't affiliate with movements. I think Judaism's mostimportant spiritual values involve social justice. I find comfort intexts that show that in halachic Judaism. I have a problem with thepeople who made the details of ritual and outer symbols the essence. Iam concerned with the commandments of love they neighbor, save lives,pursue justice and pursue peace. These are the hardest and mostall-consuming life tasks.
So if I have time left over after that to figure out what isthe exact ingredient necessary to make the blue thread on a tzitzit,that is interesting, but I don't have time. How does anyone? How doesanyone have time to figure out anything except how Jews can stopkilling and be killed?
In 1987, after seven years of studying sources of peace intalmudic Judaism, I was, as an Orthodox rabbi, speaking in Palo Altoabout a section in the Jewish laws of civility, that is not studiedanymore today, but are the backbone of Pirkei Avot, and that I wantedto revive. I'm talking about rabbinic sources, and an Orthodox Stanfordprofessor there, a PhD, whispers loud enough for me to hear, "He soundslike a Christian." This was a turning point in my life - I understoodthat the universe that I'd grown up in was gone and that this was thenew universe of militant Orthodoxy.
In DC, with an assimilated Israeli who had written book aboutChechnya, I talked about "love your neighbor," according to RabbiAkiva, the highest mitzva. He says, "No, that's in the New Testament."This proves how successfully this sick culture destroyed the idea thatlove was a Jewish value, so much so that an intelligent, kind Israeliwriter could believe that an idea from Torah, in Leviticus, is notJewish.
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 asacred thing, it was a real struggle. There were no prayers for Israelwhen I was growing up. We talked about "the Yishuv," and "love of theLand of Israel" not "the state" or Jewish sovereignty.
In the 1970s there was pressure, the hermeneutics I had grownup with evolved from Rabbi Soloveitchik, Hermann Cohen, [SamsonRaphael] Hirsch and the chief rabbis of England, who make ethics thecentral component of Judaism. I spent my lifetime figuring out what arethe meanings of apology, repentance, forgiveness. How to follow therabbis' definition of heroism is how to make someone who hates you loveyou.
I've seen it being done and those who do it are the mostdisrespected people in Israeli culture and in Orthodox Judaism, so Idon't know what is Orthodox Judaism anymore. Suddenly ethics and pietyare translated into the suckers who walked into ovens, the loser Jews.The focus is on the overwhelming power of the Jewish state. The mostpowerful army overtook Judaism, first the Orthodox, but later also theReform and Conservative. So much so that when someone wants to be apacifist, he turns to Buddhism or Unitarianism.
It is written that "he who returns evil for evil, evil willnever pass from his house." That text will disgust [the new Jew]because it sounds like sucker Jews who went to their death. When I saythat a strong man can make his enemy love him, he will reply that it'sgot to be a quote from Christianity. I became alienated from thisincreasingly militant Orthodox Judaism and with the secret world ofRabbi Soloveitchik's ethical humanism disappearing. Judaism has beentaken over by a state, and Jews, who after 2,000 years that Judaism wasabout piety and righteousness, are unprepared for the shocking power ofthe state to recreate a religion. The point is that considering themilitary or the state as sacred is idolatry. Only God is supposed to besacred.
Are there other Orthodox rabbis or leaders who think like you?
There are a number of others, but extremely fewof them have made the journey past hate of their Palestinian and Arabneighbors to their enemies to understand the full extent of thetragedy. The vast majority of Jewish liberals have not done it. In thelast 10 years there has been a resurgence of interest in socialjustice, for example at Yeshiva University. I spoke at Stern [College,YU's school for women] last year. But there is no replacing the agonyof meeting enemies and then thinking about it. The last 10 years Istarted collecting texts on peace and war - what does Judaism have tosay about anger, love, hate, repentance and thousands of [related]things. People don't study this anymore or they do and keep it in aracial context of what do we owe to fellow Jews.
Judaism was changing all the time based on how people werebehaving and how the community was judging this behavior, which meansthat everything is dynamic. This realization is hopeful and scary.Judaism can become saintly and heroic or diabolic and genocidal. Allreligions can be saintly beacons for the world and can produce the bestpeacemakers or the worst criminals, all of whom believed that what theywere doing was right. We have to face this.
What is misunderstood?
In Tosafot, the grandchildren of Rashi, commentary andEcclesiastes, God seeks those who are chased. It doesn't say God sideswith the righteous or poor, but the persecuted and the pursued. It'sclear: It is better to be among the persecuted than the persecutors.
I knew that the Rambam and Rabbi Soloveitchik intentionallystudied math, science and literature to reach the highest understandingof God, but in America I saw this secularized into ambition andmaterialism. I started becoming more attached to [philosopher] SamuelDavid Luzzatto. In 1847, [he] trained 50 years of Padua rabbis inItaly, and talks about "love your neighbor," and the mitzva to teachthat 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 translatorsaid "all Jews" not "all humans" are part of one family.
I looked at all the versions in rabbinic Judaismof Aaron the high priest, the supreme peacemaker, according to themidrashim. He was the most beloved and tells neighbors that the otheris sorry and apologizes. This is similar to the contemporary theory of"appreciative inquiry" that never says a negative word. I discoveredthat this is a good way to deal with violent people and situations.
We in conflict resolution find that when you emphasize thepositives, you can build something remarkable with even the mostdifficult people. That's what Aaron did; he reminded the warringparties that there is something to love about each other. We remindJews that from Iraq to Morocco, rabbis and imams used to work with eachother, take care of each other, even study together.
On one hand this is selective perception, choosing only thegood memories. But wars [have been perpetuated] with Arabs by onlyselecting the worst memories. We need to face the good and bad ofhistory and try to build on the good to restore it. If you study thesources of how humans tick, you can't get to the reasonable discussionuntil you face the emotion. Rabbis understand that. It takes a lifetimeto realize that 90 percent of conflict resolution is the ability toarticulate 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; myfather loved me intensely but wasn't a man of words. The Rav wasuncomfortable with the idea of being a holy man. His ideal man was alearned teacher; he did not worship other people or want to beworshiped, but did worship our capacity to think. In the study of thesacred, the irony is that you get attached to people who liberate youand cause you to think for yourself.
We were Eastern European Jews in an isolated community inBoston. Most of the children were children of professors, doctors,lawyers. I came from a simple, pious family. There was tension betweenthe spiritual ideal of study for study's sake versus ruthlesscompetition to get into Harvard. What Rabbi Soloveitchik's ethicalmonotheism was teaching me was not being practiced.
What changed to pull you away from this world?
When Menachem Begin became prime minister, Rabbi Soloveitchikwas shocked. He refused to go hear him when he came to speak 100 feetaway at Yeshiva University. I asked why? He looked at me cautiously andsaid, "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 [in1946].
We had similar values and it was a turning point for me when hesaid that. It also made me a little crazy. I felt like the word fromthis inner sanctum was that everything outside was a problem. He and Iunderstood that sometimes war was necessary to defend life. But I alsounderstood at that moment that a man building on the philosophies ofHermann Cohen could not support Lehi.
In 1982, when I heard about Sabra and Shatilla in Lebanon, itwas also a turning point. It was right before Yom Kippur. RabbiSoloveitchik called Menachem Begin and insisted on an investigation. Iwas still taking care of him. I wrote a poem at the time to thiseffect: "I looked around everywhere and in the halls of the kollel andsaw bullet holes and all were oozing blood." I couldn't get it out ofmy mind. I could always feel [the pain of tragedies] even if I wasn'tphysically present. The Holocaust is inside of me all the time. Butthis is different - [allowed to happen] by a Jewish army. It was asecret place of pain that left me and Rabbi Soloveitchik feelingbetrayed.
I also read about Deir Yassin. It started toalienate me that Jews debate these things among themselves as if theyare being rational, but it is not rational to talk only with people whowere not there. I realized I was hearing only half the story. Peoplethink they are scientific because they read newspapers but have nevermet a survivor. I made a decision to understand the reality of Israel'swars from more than one perspective. Doing this, I started to lose mycommunity, but all I was doing was fulfilling my obligations to mycommunity by engaging in honest investigation.
Rabbi Soloveitchik said if you are afraid ofknowledge, the problem is with you, not with the knowledge. I appliedthese words to my study of conflict, after deciding there was a blackhole in the study of Jewish conflicts with Arabs. From the 1980s untiltoday, 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 newbusiness; Palestinians say, oh my God a Jew caring this much aboutPalestinians? Syrians are in awe that I'm bringing a group from thecapital of the United States, when a few years ago there were leaderswho wanted to destroy Syria.
In the middle of the suicide bombings period, Jerusalem was aghost 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 willtake generations to change them, the others. But I'm sitting in theback and I ask myself, how many words do I need to connect with thisdriver? I say to him, The situation must be very difficult here for youand your family."
You should have heard what poured out. Not angerat 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 ofmy Palestinian colleagues. It does take a lot of emotional, physicaland spiritual practice, [and] there are criminals and damaged peoplewho are not going to change, but it does not take generations;sometimes it takes seconds.