Sorry to Interrupt This Peace Conference, but a Rocket Siren's Sounding

Should we have been talking about peace while the Gaza front was burning?

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Conference goers evacuate the plenum of the Israel Conference for Peace during a rocket alert siren, Tel Aviv, July 8, 2014. Only former head of the Shin Bet Yuval Diskin remains seated.
Conference goers evacuate the plenum of the Israel Conference for Peace during a rocket alert siren, Tel Aviv, July 8, 2014. Only former head of the Shin Bet Yuval Diskin remains seated.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It could not have been more ironic. Thousands of people crammed into a Tel Aviv hotel to hear uplifting presentations from priests of peace; politicians and journalists who dedicate their lives to the search for a path to coexistence all in the middle of heightened fighting between Hamas and Israel. It was day one of Operation Protective Edge.

But talking peace proved harder than expected; so many of the "partners for peace" refused to play ball. At the last minute, Palestinian speakers withdrew, refusing to talk peace days after a Palestinian youth had been murdered; Economy Minister Naftali Bennett came, baited the audience and then berated the people for responding with "uncultured heckling;" and one of the most prominent and successful Israeli Arabs, Sayed Kashua, bitterly declared that, "Life in Israel has become unbearable, so I am emigrating." If the conference was meant to be his swan song, it turned out to be an unfinished symphony when he walked out in protest at some of the most extreme and offensive comments.

Our conference was looking decidedly bloody. Then came the announcement: Don't panic, but a missile is heading toward Tel Aviv, please evacuate the peace conference plenum immediately, and head to the safe zone.

The path to peace was being overwhelmed by the realities of war and the pessimism of the warriors.

For decades, extreme religious-Zionists have dominated the agenda with their obsessive messianism. They used quasi-religious language to claim divine sanction for everything they did and to assert nationalist agendas at the expense of any other peoples' rights or narratives. In his new biography of Rav Kook (p.231), Yehuda Mirsky points out that in recent years, they have quietly dropped the extreme messianic language; "one hears much less talk of imminent redemption." With good reason. They are discovering that their messianic belief that they could hold on to a whole land of Israel is illusory. These "messianists" have now turned "messianic" into a dirty word, taunting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with it as he labored valiantly to make a better world.

Despite everything, the conference was an incredible success because, if only for a few hours, it enabled Jewish people to do what we are meant to do. It allowed us to dream and to affirm the importance of a vision. It helped us put aside our poisonous discourse about enemies, war and the impossibility of reaching a settlement, replacing it with a celebration of the security, tranquility and financial boons of ending conflict and making peace. It was almost messianic.

Messianism may been turned into a dangerous, delusional idea, but it stands at the peak of the Jewish vision because when used appropriately, it offers us ideals for which to strive. The stunning images offered by the prophets Isaiah and Micah enable us to conceive a world of justice and loving kindness for all. Images of wolves and lambs, leopards and goats lying down together are all allegories for Israel and her neighbors living in harmony side by side. These are worthy goals and they are the goals of peace.

Former British Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks puts it beautifully:

". . . as this century unfolds, we're going to need not just military strength, but also spiritual courage to reach out hand of friendship across boundaries, to recognize the integrity of ways of life unlike our own, to listen to other people's stories and to see the trace of God in the face of a stranger". (From Optimism to Hope p.46)

My teacher Rabbi Shlomo Riskin points out that Jews celebrate the spring festival of Tu Bishvat midway through the winter, when it is still dark, cold and gloomy and the only traces of spring are the first buds of almond blossom. Likewise, we light candles at Hanukkah in the middle of winter when the days are so dark and so short that, according to tradition, Adam feared the newly-created world was heading to destruction. (Talmud, Avoda Zara 8a)

To be a Jew means never to stop looking forward to better times. This idea is celebrated in the Jerusalem Talmud which describes two rabbis walking through the night in the Arbel Valley. When they saw the very first rays of dawn, one turned to the other and said: "This is how Israel’s redemption will be. First, it will come very slowly and as it progresses its light increases” (Yerushalmi, Brachot 1:1 and Yoma 3:2).

The rabbis spoke in darkness, but they knew that eventually the world would be bathed in the light of goodness, justice and loving kindness.

When our enemies start wars, we have no choice but to fight them and win. But we are the people who developed the concept of pushing away with one hand, while beckoning with the other. While fighting hard, we must never stop searching for peace.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Israel Rabbi and the Senior Rabbinic Educator for T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He writes in a personal capacity.

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