Toward a Real Shalom

Rabbi Naomi Oren

Toward a Real Shalom

By Naomi Oren*

I wonder how many times a day an "observant" Jew chants, utters or sings the word "shalom". I recognize how glibly this word has rolled off my tongue.

As I sit down to write on the current Middle East situation, my words are coloured by a yearning for peace born from sounds of gunfire and artillery; from waking to the daily "blood count" of death and destruction; from constant exposure to the inhumanity of "man to man."

For human beings seeking to attain goals of statehood or security, this violence and conflict makes no sense. We end up where we began, but with many lives lost. Dayenu!

When I speak or write of peace, this treasured quality must be 100% genuine, intentional, mutual and committed. Anything less will return us to the present situation ... or worse.

With the election of Ehud Barak [May 1999] , a great many of us Israelis permitted ourselves to dream of the "turning of the tide." After 50-plus years of overt warfare, terrorism, threat and counter-threat, maybe peace was more than an illusion. There was talk of reducing the burden of army and military service. There were plans for diverting money to social programs, education, the environment.

In the face of so much hope, the subsequent reality of "peace partners" unable, unready, and ill-prepared to follow through on any process of genuine peace has hit us extra hard.

I recall the initiation of the present "Intifada", in May 2000, when Chairman Arafat declared the first of his "Days of Rage". Newspaper cuttings from those early days of violence document images prescient of all its later savagery: masked marches; stone throwers; faces contorted by hatred. The prolific arsenal of guns and mortars was not yet exposed. What was apparent was a thinly veiled scheme to pressure Israel to withdraw from the "territories" as it had just done, voluntarily, from South Lebanon.

We recall, of course, how this was followed [July 2000], by the refusal of Arafat to accept the offers — the surprising offerings — by Barak at Camp David. I understand the acceleration of violence dating from September 2000 as a strategy of deflection from this refusal. From then on, the prospect of peace has seemed increasingly distant.

Was peace was ever, truly, in the "offing"? The peace we seek can only be established on foundations of total honesty.

If the "occupied territories" claimed by our Palestinian neighbours pertain to the whole of Israel — as is the case on so many of their maps; if their ultimate aim remains the annihilation of Israel, is it not positive (though painful), that this has been made clear to us?

If the intent has been to use the garb of "sham peace talks" [Al-Ayubi, 1974] to achieve withdrawals and "return of refugees"; to shake Israel up from within and to leave her with less than defensible borders — then we may have avoided a lethal mistake.

We can not let our passion for peace blind us to a process which, in fact, would only jeopardize our security and any future hopes of mutual co-existence.

We must clear away years of consciously constructed mythology [Musa Alami, 1948]: the all-too-prevalent propaganda; the tragic mis-education of children and adults based on hatred and projection; the spread of mis-information through the media.

This clarification necessitates a rigorously honest, challenging and difficult process for us all — for me, a personal one. Living in Israel, I came to understand that certain ways of thinking and believing which fit so comfortably in North America, can be inapplicable — even dangerous — in the radically different realities of the Middle East.

By no means have I surrendered my beliefs in justice and human rights. I only acknowledge that the route to attain these can not be via any false trail.

Let me offer one example. There is a belief that return of all "territories" occupied by Israel in the 1967 war would automatically bring about the miracle of peace.

If only this could be true.

Yet, prior to 1967, I recall daily shelling, by the Syrians, of the kibbutzim at the foot of the Golan Heights; daily shootings across the Jordan at the Israeli Jordan valley settlements; fedayeen crossing from (Egyptian-occupied) Gaza to lay land-mines in Israeli fields; Jordanian snipers aiming at West Jerusalem from the Old City. I personally experienced that period of no peace... and no occupation. Have things really changed?

I have no desire to hang onto land that is not ours — and I now realize that acceptance of Barak's offerings could have been catastrophic. All of us "b'lev Yerushalayim, b'lev Israel" would have been in easy range of the rarely-silent Palestinian guns.

I often wonder if folks outside our region who speak so blithely of "Israeli aggression" can conceive of the minuteness of our space. Would their understanding be different if translated into their reality; into daily shootings from Niagara Falls, Canada into the suburbs of Niagara Falls, New York (or vice versa)?

Could they even conceive of the possibility of shootings and bombings every time they drove to work; entered a shopping mall, restaurant or place of entertainment; waited at a bus stop; entered public transportation; saw their children off to school; or went for a hike?

Each time Israel has lifted the "seger" (closure of the territories), Palestinian gunmen have responded with the slaughter of more civilians. What would you recommend if this happened close to your home?

Why is there such a Double Standard? Why is there so much criticism of acts of legitimate self-defence — not just the retaliations — of one side, without equal recognition and condemnation of continuous acts of aggression by the other?

There are days I would like nothing better than to be able to hide in the comfortable camouflage of denial. What I am writing is unpleasant: it makes me uneasy and queasy. It forces to me face the most difficult questions. I question this kind of Palestinian State, birthed out of terror targetting civilians: children and youth.

And I question what this is doing to the neshamot of my own people: 18 year old soldiers shooting at mobs of rock-throwing children; holding back Palestinian civilians at the barricades as well as those strapped with explosives.

I reflect on a recent poll which identified 76% of Palestinians who support ongoing terror. This leaves 24% who might believe in the possibility of peace ; might be willing to work honestly and earnestly towards this. Are these our true peace-partners?

We read in the Talmud:
"Great is peace since all the brachot are comprised thereon".

The birth of a child is viewed as a bracha; the death of a child as the most unbearable of tragedies.So many children on both sides of the Israel/Palestinian conflict have lost their lives. So many parents are in mourning. This has to end. It can be ended only through difficult questions and honest process.

This will take time, require considerable caution, demand great effort, necessitate g'vurah as well as chesed.

This is the peace to which I make my committment. There is nothing without peace; but peace which is not real is also nothing.

May our two peoples be blessed to find their pathway to Shalom.

*Rabbi Naomi Oren lives in Jerusalem, Israel. She was ordained by ALEPH in July 2001 and is a member of the ALEPH Board.