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Come with Me to Israel!

It is 20 years since the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin. It was the 12th of Heshvan, November 4, 1995. The Oslo accords had led to a heady, fraught and also promising peace process with the Palestinians. Prime Minister Rabin spoke to an enormous crowd in what is today named Rabin Square at a peace rally in Tel Aviv:

“For Israel, there is no path that is without pain. But the path of peace is preferable to the path of war. I say this to you as one who was a military man, someone who is today Minister of Defense and sees the pain of the families of the IDF soldiers. For them, for our children, in my case for our grandchildren, I want this government to exhaust every opening, every possibility, to promote and achieve a comprehensive peace.” (Read Prime Minister Rabin’s complete remarks here.)

The rally then ended with the singing of the popular Israeli song Shir L’shalom, A Song of Peace. A songwriter named Yaakov Rotblit wrote this song in 1969, in the wake of the Six-Day War, and at the height of the anti-war movement. In the song, the voices of the dead call to us from their graves:

No one can bring us back from the dead

Neither victory cheers nor songs of praise will help

Just sing a song of peace, don’t whisper a prayer

Just sing a song of peace out loud

 

…Don’t look back, let go of we who have departed

Lift your eyes with hope, not through the rifles’ sights

Sing a song of love, not war

 

Don’t say, “The day will come…”

Bring on that day!

Because it is not merely a dream

In every city square, shout out for peace!

Rabin, a famously reticent man, sang along heartily, lifted up by the energy of the crowd. As he left the stage, he was shot and killed by Yigal Amir, a young Israeli who virulently opposed the Oslo accords, and had determined that the best way to derail the peace process was to assassinate the Prime Minister. Amir proved correct in his strategy. Several months later, after a rash of horrific suicide bombings in Israel orchestrated by Hamas, support within Israel for the Oslo accords waned and Benjamin Netanyahu eked out an election victory, beginning his first term as Israel’s Prime Minister.

Much has changed in Israel and the Middle East over the past two decades. The United States dismantled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Arab nations have collapsed into chaos. Militantly evil Islamist ideologies have spawned violently intolerant extremist movements. Israel has non-state actors such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and, God forbid, ISIS, able to lob missiles into Israel from multiple borders. Palestinian leadership has become weakened and divided.

Meanwhile, Israel’s government, led once again by Benjamin Netanyahu, has hardened in its conviction and stated explicitly that a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians at this time is impossible. Netanyahu makes outrageous and patently false claims about the Palestinians in order to play to his base and further demonize his enemies. Clearly, there will be no movement towards limiting continued Israeli expansion into the towns and settlements of the West Bank, and the Palestinian and Israeli populations and infrastructures will entwine ever more inextricably.

This leaves Israelis and Palestinians in a limbo in which the Palestinian population of the West Bank, governed by the Palestinian Authority, lives under varying degrees of Israeli military rule; the Palestinians of Gaza, under the rule of Hamas, have no freedom of movement outside of their demolished enclave; and the vast majority of Palestinian Arabs who live in East Jerusalem, which is part of Israel, live in general and at best as second-class residents of Israel. Israel’s cherished democracy, unique and remarkable in the autocratic Middle East, shows troubling signs of wear and a steady rise in intolerance as it endlessly invests in the control of another people. Talk about a pot ready to boil over!

In recent weeks this pot has boiled over, as young Palestinians have begun stabbing and attacking innocent Israeli civilians in numerous and apparently unconnected incidents. Israel has been terrorized by this rash of random and deadly violence. But Palestinian hopelessness and rage is fueled and abetted not only by the actions of Israel. The systemic ways in which Palestinian textbooks and television shows raise their children on hatred of Israel and the Jews and on dreams of Israel’s destruction are well documented. The rise of radical Islamism continues to make inroads into Palestinian culture. Palestinian leaders condone false and inflammatory rumors claiming that Israel is trying to take over Islamic holy sites. The lightning speed of social media fans the flames of these rumors mercilessly.

The cycle of fear and hatred spirals upward.

And yet, and yet…can we still keep singing a song of peace? Can we sing that song so that, at the very least, we don’t forget the words? Twenty years after Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination and the apparent demise of the “peace process”, there are still countless organizations in Israel laboring for economic justice, human rights, equality for all under the law, tolerance, the health of the environment, the possibilities of coexistence. There are creative arts organizations, religious innovators, and social service entrepreneurs. There are brave Palestinians teaching non-violence, and seeking a path beyond revenge. There are good people everywhere.

So I invite you to come with me to Israel, even if you have been before. Let’s meet some of these folks, offer our encouragement and interest, and be inspired by them. Let’s transcend the two-dimensional flatness of our screens, and immerse ourselves in the invigorating complexity of real life in the Land of Israel. Traveling to Israel is the best antidote I know for the creeping despair that seems to be tailing us most of the time these days. Let’s see what is going on first hand, the good and the bad. Let’s go!

I am hoping to make our next trip to Israel happen in late 2016, a year from now. That will hopefully give those who want to travel with me enough time to plan their calendars and gather up their shekels for the trip, money well spent.

Please email me at rabbijonathan@wjcshul.org if you are interested in this possibility. I will choose dates to travel based on the feedback I receive from those interested. I look forward to hearing from you, and I look forward to planning this trip.

May Yitzchak Rabin’s memory be a blessing. May the seeds of peaceful coexistence be watered by our faithful efforts, so that someday they might sprout and blossom and spread over the land.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan