D’var Torah: Shabbat Mikketz – Rabbi Ron Kronish

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 10 January 2017

In my sermon on Shabbat morning, December 31st, on the eve of the of Hanukkah, I related some amazing anecdotes to 3 major themes of Hanukkah that have guided me in my work in interreligious dialogue in Israel  during the past quarter century:

1) The need for “miracles”, and our human role in helping to bring them about,

2) The importance of spreading light, especially in the context of so much darkness seemingly consuming our world lately, and

3) The need to rededicate ourselves to the values we cherish and believe in, foremost among them the search for peace.

One of my most meaningful encounters in my career related to the theme of miracles. It took place several years ago at an interreligious conference in Palermo, the capital of Sicily, in southern Italy. It was the annual meeting of People and Religions, sponsored by the Community of Sant’ Egidio.  At this conference, there was a morning plenum on “Religions and Peace” which offered wonderful presentations by Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders from Israel and elsewhere. I thought that it was a challenging and uplifting symposium.

But over lunch I was engaged in a discussion with an American journalist and Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, who is a distinguished scholar of Islamic thought and culture, and at that time was president of Al Quds University in Jerusalem. He is a well-known cultural figure, who, among other things is known for his secular/cultural outlook on life, but he is not a “religious” person, at least not in the sense of religious observance.

At lunch, the journalist asked Professor Nusseibeh what he thought about the lectures by religious leaders in the morning. He surprised him by responding negatively and saying that he did not like their speeches and he went on to ask — what have they really done for peace in our region? The journalist, who was a bit taken aback, nevertheless persisted and asked, “So, what do YOU think is the solution for peace in the Middle East?” Prof. Nusseibeh thought for a moment, then gave a wink and a smile and responded ironically: “We need a miracle!”

What did he mean by a miracle? Certainly not a supernatural event! Rather, I think that he was talking about something of extraordinary human dimensions that would radically surprise us.

When Sadat came to Jerusalem, this was perceived by most people in Israel and around the world to be a miracle. It was a great surprise. No one would have predicted it, even days or weeks before it happened. Who could imagine this man of war, the architect of the October War of 1973 which shook Israel l to its foundations, coming to Israel to announce that he wanted to make peace with Israel? It led to the peace treaty with Egypt which has lasted more than 30 years!

Another great example of a political “miracle” took place in 1993. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993–and gave one of the most inspiring speeches of his life, sharing hopes and dreams for peace for the Jewish People in Israel and worldwide – this too was a miracle since it was totally unexpected, and this became the beginning of the Peace Process in our region. Here were two men of war who decided to change course, to embark on a peace track, rather than a war track, in a courageous attempt (which unfortunately has not yet fully succeeded) to create a new reality of peace for their peoples.

I have often said and I say it again here that I agree with Prof. Nusseibeh. It is time for a miracle! It is time for our leaders on both sides to seize the courage and creativity to make peace, for us and our grandchildren and for the future. Not just a “piece of paper,” i.e. a formal treaty between us and the Palestinian people, but a sustainable peace, which will include ways and means of learning to live together in peace, now and for the decades to come.

One should not read the daily news to look for this miracle. Rather, one must believe in the creative power of human beings to make miracles, as has been done in the past.

No one in Northern Ireland ever believed that their conflict would be resolved; nor in South Africa, nor in Bosnia Herzegovina. But conflicts do get resolved, and not always in predicable ways.

The second theme–the existential need of spreading the light in the world, especially in the context of very dark scary trends towards the fundamentalist radical extremist right in many countries, including Israel– is another one that has dominated my consciousness and my activism in recent years. That is why I joined the Tag Meir (Light Tag) Forum[1] 5 years ago, on Hanukkah, and became a member of its steering committee for 5 years.  In so doing, I was involved personally and directly in many solidarity visits to Christian and Muslim institutions and communities and homes inside Israel and the West Bank which had been vandalized by Jewish “religious” extremists, who distorted Judaism beyond belief, so that they could burn and attack innocent people without any moral qualms.

The most significant solidarity visit that I was involved in was in the summer of 2015, when I and two busloads of Jewish Israelis from organizations affiliated with the Tag Meir Forum, travelled to the home of a Palestinian family in the village of Duma in the West Bank, which had been burned to the core during the night, killing a mother, father and child in that family. We went to pay a condolence call, which was coordinated in advance with members of the family and leaders of the village. After this I wrote some reflections on my blog for The Times of Israel:

”I am worried, very worried, at this point in our history. It is time for the silent majority in Israel to wake up! A few thousand people of good will attended    demonstrations against racism and violence last night in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other parts of the country. We need hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets and say “Maspik!” (Hebrew for ‘Enough’)”.[2]

I am still worried. But I believe that just to worry is not enough. Rather,  I feel the need to constantly re-dedicate myself to action, to healing the world, to taking whatever steps are possible to mitigate violence and hatred in our country and region, which are the results of the ongoing unresolved, not-likely-to-be-resolved very soon, conflict in which we continue to live.

The third anecdote concerns the need to constantly resist despair and to continually re-dedicate oneself to the pursuit of political peace and peaceful coexistence among the peoples of the region.  The constant delays in seriously pursuing the diplomatic path to peace has led to  the lack of belief in the peace process during last several years among both Israelis and Palestinians, , leading to what I have called “political despair”, i.e. the belief that our particular conflict is irresolvable and that we are somehow destined to live with it forever.

I was invited, several years ago, to give a talk at a “Rector’s Forum” at St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church on Park Avenue in New York City. When I arrived about 15 minutes early, I greeted the rector, who was busy greeting some of his congregants at the end of the Sunday morning worship services. As I said hello, he introduced me to Senator George Mitchell, the former senator from Maine, who had successfully concluded the famous “Good Friday Agreement” between Protestants and Catholics in April 1998.[3] After I met him briefly, the rector and I adjourned to a special room, where my lecture on interreligious dialogue as a form of peace-building in Israel and Palestine would take place in the form of an interview. Toward the end of the interview, when I was discussing the problematics of political despair in Israel and Palestine, Senator Mitchell, who was in attendance for the whole presentation, raised his hand to make a very important comment. He told us that when he went to Northern Ireland for the final time to negotiate an agreement with the Protestants and the Catholics who had been in conflict for so many decades, a poll was released on the day he arrived which said that 84% of the Protestants and the same number of Catholics said that there will never be a peace agreement! And five days later, they were all proved wrong when the agreement, mediated by Mitchell, was actually signed!

I have told this story dozens of times to many audiences around the world.  I retell the story here because I do not accept the notion that we will live by the sword forever (as the Prime Minister of Israel said in an interview in 2015!) and that our conflict will never end. This is the notion of the pessimists who have given up on peace. I do not share their view, and I never will. Our conflict — the one hundred year-old one between the Jewish national movement and the Palestinian national movement — can and will be resolved one day. It is not divinely ordained that this conflict will go on forever. I simply do not accept this.

I am often accused of being too optimistic or too hopeful. I accept the accusation. I prefer to see our cup half full in Israel, rather than half empty.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] Tag Meir (Light Tag) is a grass-roots organization founded in 2011 which works against racism in Israel. Wherever there is racism, and in particular religiously motivated racism, Tag Meir seeks to expose and counteract it. Tag Meir seeks to transcend religious divides, enlisting support from across the Israeli spectrum, from secular through Reform and Conservative to Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox. Tag Meir seeks to highlight and publicize the outstanding anti-racism work undertaken every day in Israel by a multitude of organizations and individuals. In addition, Tag Meir sees the battle against racism as also a part of a campaign to support democratic values, and the very traditional Jewish values of loving our neighbors and justice for all.

[2] Ronald Kronish. “An Emergency Situation–It is Time for Action” blog post for The Times of Israel, August 2, 2015.  http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/an-emergency-situation-it-is-time-for-action-2/

[3] The Belfast/ Good Friday AgreementThe Belfast Agreement is also known as the Good Friday Agreement, because it was reached on Good Friday, 10 April 1998. It was an agreement, between the British and Irish governments and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland, about how Northern Ireland should be governed. See http://education.niassembly.gov.uk/post_16/snapshots_of_devolution/gfa

By Rabbi Ron Kronish

Senior Adviser, The Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, the interreligious department of Rabbis for Human Rights