I recently returned from a trip to Israel where I had the opportunity to perform a wedding in Tel Aviv for one of my synagogue’s member families. I also led an initiative to pair North American and Israeli rabbis, so that we can learn from each other’s work and more deeply connect our communities. We hope to create new paradigms for how North American Jews visit Israel and how Israelis visit Canada. We want to create means by which we see Israel not through tour guides, but through people like ourselves – to meet each other and to share in one another’s communities.
As part of this initiative, I served as a scholar in residence for Shabbat in the northern Israeli town of Hatzor HaGlilit, as a guest of Rabbi Moshe Shilat. (Rabbi Shilat will return the favour by visiting us in May.) I had the opportunity to speak on Friday night to more than 35 high school students at the local Bnei Akiva. I asked how many of those present had ever spoken to a North American Jew – three raised their hands. I asked them what they felt about the anti-Semitic attacks in Jersey City and Monsey, N.Y. They said that it did not really register for them – in fact, they wondered why Jews live in North America at all. They asked if I am afraid to live in Canada. “Don’t you know that the only solution to anti-Semitism is aliyah?” they said. I tried to explain the vibrancy of Jewish life in Canada, and our hope that Jews will make aliyah out of love and not fear.
I also participated in a rabbinic leadership delegation with the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, under the leadership of former Florida Congressman Robert Wexler. We met with Israeli and Palestinian religious and political leaders, in addition to security experts and scholars on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. We travelled from Jerusalem to Beth Lechem, Chevron, and Ramallah, passing those scary signs warning Israelis to stay out. We met with Sheikh Raed Bader, a decider of Islamic law who has advocated for the legal basis for peace within Islam, Mansour Abbas, the head of Israel’s Arab Party Ra’am, and the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Mohammed Shtayyeh, in his Ramallah office.
One of the focuses of our delegation was to learn about the prospect for “shrinking the conflict” through the help of religious leadership. Much of the so-called peace process has been intentionally secular, attempting to avoid religion as much as possible. In meetings with prominent religious Zionist rabbis and Palestinian Sheikhs, we studied the potential for faith-based relationships to ease — if not solve — the conflict. Rabbi Re’em Hacohen, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Otniel, spoke to us about his relationship with local Palestinians and his efforts to limit bloodshed and improve the lives of those on all sides of the conflict. He spoke about the Jewish people as having a purpose to serve all humanity – as a mamlechet kohanim (a kingdom of priests) – including and perhaps especially the Arabs who are under Israeli control.
None of this is simple. Our attitude toward who we are within the Arab-Israeli conflict must never fall victim to fate, and we must never lose sight of our Torah’s call to be vehicles for human freedom and goodness. But for us to best do so, we must not fall pray to the trap that the Jews fell into when they were in Egypt. Nachmanides explains that when the Pharoah who initiated their slavery died, the Jews cried out in despair. Why? They had hoped for the day of Pharaoh’s death. They had put all their dreams in his successor behaving differently. When he did not. They said “avdah tikvateinu” – our hope is lost we might as well choose death over life.
Naftali Herz Imber, the author of hatikvah, referred to this source when he wrote the words “od lo avda tikvateinu” – “our hope is still not lost.” In a culture where we have been made to want everything now, we can fall prey to losing hope when these dreams remain so far beyond our grasp. We – in Israel and in Canada – can never allow this to happen. We must be resilient in our efforts to improve an imperfect world.