A Gesture, From Heart and Soul

Rabbi Avi Weiss
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Rabbi Avi Weiss

My rabbinical colleague Yair Silverman was in a cab in Jerusalem when I phoned last week, asking him to join me on a visit to Yasuf, the village in Samaria where a mosque was desecrated by still-unidentified vandals on December 11. His Palestinian driver, Iyad, offered to take us there, and promised: "No one will hurt you, I'll see to it you'll be safe." As it turned out, Iyad was our savior.

We drove north from Jerusalem, past the breathtaking landscape, where we saw farmers, both Arab and Jewish, working the fertile land nourished by the recent rains. As we approached the outskirts of Nablus and passed the communities of Shiloh and Eli, I thought of my many close friends living there. My daughter, her husband and their large family as well have also made their home in the West Bank, in Efrat.

When we neared Yasuf, Yair put in a call to the regional governor, Munir Abbushi. We expected to meet him at the entrance to the village, where the Israeli army has an outpost, express our sorrow and then leave. We were taken by surprise when the governor, speaking with Iyad in Arabic, told him we could meet him at the mosque. By surprise, since, two days earlier, a delegation of left-wing Israeli rabbis were stopped by Israel Defense Forces soldiers at the entrance to Yasuf. And a day later, when Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and his entourage arrived at the mosque, a curfew was imposed and Yasuf was on lockdown. As Metzger left, stones were reportedly hurled at his group.

And here we arrived, unarmed, without cameras, with residents of Yasuf in the streets - children scurrying home from school, cars and mules filling the narrow lanes, laborers at work on some building sites. We continued on, deep into this village of some 2,000, until we reached the mosque, where workers were inside rebuilding.

Iyad stepped out and we followed. As we stood before the mosque, a few workers emerged. Seeing the kippot on our heads and realizing that we were Jewish, they grew obviously agitated. I reached out to shake hands and no one responded. As word quickly spread of our arrival, some 50 people materialized, seemingly out of nowhere. Clearly offended by our presence, some gestured that we remove our kippot. We indicated that we could not.

A tense moment ensued. I knew the governor would soon arrive, but he seemed to be taking forever. I said to Yair, "Perhaps we should try to leave. We're upsetting people, not comforting them."

Iyad reacted strongly to the belligerent people around us. As he explained later, he told them: "A few rabbis from America have come unarmed, they've placed themselves in danger, and this is your reaction?"

I had begun speaking in English - expressing sympathy and hope for peace - when governor Abbushi finally arrived. Our words were translated into Arabic: Yair and I spoke of the pain we felt at what had occurred. We, members of a people who had too often been the victims of such attacks throughout history, could not but empathize with our Arab brethren.

I thought for a moment of mentioning the destruction of Joseph's Tomb by Palestinians in nearby Nablus several years ago and of synagogues in Gush Katif in Gaza in 2005, where I had spent the final week before the disengagement, but I decided it wasn't the time or place to bring up those incidents. Perhaps it was cowardly, but I had the feeling that we would be exposed to serious danger. Moreover, I felt that destruction by one side does not justify similar acts by the other. For there to be real peace, voices on both sides need to speak out against such acts of desecration.

By now, a Palestinian TV crew had arrived. The reporter asked our reaction to a statement made by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, that all Muslims are "less than human." It was not an easy moment. It's hard to criticize Rabbi Yosef, whom I regard as a great Torah scholar. Nevertheless, he has made similar harmful comments in the past. I responded that I categorically reject such comments. "This is not Torah, it is not Jewish, it is not the Jewish belief," I said.

Those around us seemed to calm down and begin to connect to us. I gave a traditional embrace to the governor, kissing him on both cheeks, invited him to my home and synagogue in New York, and turned to those assembled and offered a prayer - in the spirit of Hanukkah, which we were then celebrating - saying that I hoped that light might emerge from this despicable act of defiling a house of worship.

And then something wondrous occurred. As we left, many who at first had refused to shake our hands reached out. We shook hands, made our way into Iyad's taxi, and slowly pulled away.

We had been in Yasuf for a relatively short period, yet we felt drained. What had potentially been an explosive situation, which could have spiraled out of control, turned out to be a meaningful and perhaps healing experience.

Our visit was a simple gesture, from the heart and soul, that fortunately turned out positively. I am hopeful that it will make a difference for people who were there and perhaps, in its own tiny way, have an impact on the larger geopolitical quest for peace - a real peace that all of humanity so desperately needs.

Rabbi Avi Weiss is founder and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, and senior rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.