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Encounters: Parshat Ki Tetze

by Rabbi Scott Perlo | Published on August 31, 2012 in Perlos of Wisdom

When I lived in Israel, I visited Bethlehem and the Palestinian side of Hevron with an outfit called Encounter.

It’s hard to get one’s head around what they do. They are dedi­cated to trans­forming the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but they do not advo­cate a polit­ical point of view. Encounter isn’t about debate, nor strategy, nor posi­tioning. The only task of an Encounter partic­i­pant is to listen. Palestinians from the area tell their personal stories, their history, their prior­i­ties, their beliefs. The partic­i­pants just sit and listen. That’s all.

Accordingly, Encounter is an incred­ibly frus­trating expe­ri­ence. Listening is aggra­vating – always wanting to speak up and contra­dict, to yell and to argue. Moreover, it’s not like these Palestinians are shining angels. They are people – prone to plenty of truth and delu­sion. One Hevron dweller said to me, “the Jews and the Arabs – we are one. We all agree that it’s the Zionists that are the problem.” Afterwards, he and I had a talk about that little gem.

But I will tell you that Encounter was one of the most powerful expe­ri­ences of my life, and for the better. I strangely came away more committed to Israel than ever, but with an appre­ci­a­tion for these enemies as full-blooded, life-sized people. There is a power to person­ally told stories that I cannot adequately artic­u­late. I did not become more or less of anything on Encounter, but it was as if my mind stepped half around a circle and sat down in a new vantage point. I will remember those stories till the day I die.

My colleagues and I take flack for going on trips like these. People natter about how such an expe­ri­ence is accom­mo­da­tion with the enemy. Some of them once had my respect, though it has since flick­ered out like a broken light bulb.

Whatever your polit­ical path, know that these people are wrong.

I had Azerbaijanis today. Religious scholars and jour­nal­ists from Azerbaijan visited Washington D.C. on a State Department program. They came for a tour of Sixth & I.

Most Azerbaijanis are Shia’a Muslims, as was this entire group. After they were done being polite, they asked about Israel. “Are you a Zionist?” I said I was. “Why do you believe you belong in Israel?” I paused.
This was the moment of truth. And there were a thou­sand ways to respond: I could have been aggres­sive, defen­sive, prin­ci­pled, or argu­men­ta­tive. But because I had been on Encounter, this time I chose a different path.

I told the story of our people. I talked about how we had been exiled, and still pray for Jerusalem three times a day and at every meal. I talked about what it was like for us among the nations: that in every place we had settled we had expe­ri­enced moments of peace and pros­perity, but that those moments were dwarfed by our pain. I talked about the Crusades, and how we have records from the survivors of parents killing their chil­dren and then them­selves, rather than be raped and tortured, or burned to death. I talked about how, in the Enlightenment, we had hope for a new kind of life. That in one place in partic­ular Jews felt so redeemed that they called their country a “new Zion.” That country was Germany. I said that after such expe­ri­ences we were no longer willing to surrender ourselves to the bitter kind­nesses of history.

This is not a new story. You’ve heard it – so much so that it might even be hack­neyed (though I believe it). But as I finished the woman who had asked the ques­tion shocked me.

She started to cry.

Now I am just a little rabbi from America. There is, in this vignette, no diplo­macy, no tikkun, no overblown expec­ta­tions that we’ll all just get along. There is no grand finale, nor seeds of peace. But this woman (and a number of her colleagues) under­stood. They got it. They under­stood why I and others care. They saw it through our eyes.

And when they asked me about Palestinians dying, and how could I support Israel’s poli­cies, I responded that I disagreed with certain of Israel’s poli­cies (housing demo­li­tions, check­point treat­ment), but that I had also been there in 2001 when some­thing exploded every single day, and how terri­fying it was. I explained that they needed to under­stand that a mutual solu­tion had to be found, or we were going to destroy each other. And then ques­tioner looked at me, and he nodded.*

Many will not under­stand, but today’s story meant some­thing. In a conflict that drags on with no appre­ciable end in sight, in times of proposals and coun­ter­pro­posals and counter-counterproposals that end in nothing, when facts volleyed back and forth only serve their expos­i­tors and never under­standing – the power of getting an enemy to under­stand one’s perspec­tive means some­thing. So before (or after) you arm your­self with all the facts, before you memo­rize all the talking points, before you paint the protest signs, figure out why you care and why Israel is impor­tant. And then go grab an enemy and tell your story. Maybe even listen in return.

*The Azerbaijanis did not speak English. I commu­ni­cated through an interpreter.

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Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moti­vated by the relent­less Jew­ish pur­suit of hokhma (wis­dom) and binah (under­stand­ing), Encounter cul­ti­vates informed Jew­ish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict by bring­ing…

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