Peace House expulsions show need for sensitivity

I understand there are rabbis who used their pulpits on Shabbat to criticize the brave Jewish heroes whom the government forcefully expelled from their homes in Hebron just a few days ago.

Hundreds of other brave Jews were with them in support of their right to stay at the home that was legally bought for them by Morris Abraham, a Syrian Jew living in New York. Abraham spent close to a million dollars purchasing this home from a local Arab, and the deal was legally consummated some 24 months ago. It was his wish that these families live there, and this wish was legally carried out.

Those of us who have had the privilege to visit these folks at the now-famous Peace House in Hebron know that it is a stone’s throw from the tomb of our forefathers and foremothers, where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried with their wives. This is Judaism’s second holiest site, being that Jacob is the Jewish forefather and as his 12 sons became the 12 tribes of Israel.

There has been a Jewish community in the area for thousands of years. Hebron was the first capital of the Jewish people under the reign of King David. Today, there is a community of about 8,000 Jews living in Kiryat Arba (City of Four). A 10-minute walk will take you to the old city of Hebron, right by the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, where 800 Jewish men, women and children live in an enclave protected by the brave soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces. For those who have not been to Hebron, it is about a 30-minute drive from the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.

Four weeks from now, the Torah portion will be Vayechi. One cannot read this beautiful narrative about Jacob imploring his son to bury him in the Land of Israel and not be moved.

More importantly, this is probably the single act in the whole Bible responsible for planting the seed that has so stubbornly grown into the tree we refer to as the Jewish people. It is my belief that it is this act that has brought back the Jewish people to their homeland after 2,000 years of exile, pogroms and the Holocaust. Because of Jacob’s insistence to be brought back to Israel, the Jewish generations after him always felt an inexplicable yearning to come back home, if for nothing else, just to pay their respects to him and their forefathers and foremothers.

I came to learn this through my own personal story. My own father (z”l’) on his deathbed made me and my family promise him that we would bury him in Israel. This was a longing that he had and throughout his horrific battle with cancer, which lasted 18 months, he would insist that we make him this promise. It was the last few words he uttered as we were weeping by his bedside that early evening in February 1988.

For years after we buried him in Israel — and having no real prior connection to my Jewish roots or tradition or, for that matter, the State of Israel — I still kept coming back every year for his memorial. There were times when frankly I had no idea what I was doing there or why he made this request and asked myself whether all the trouble that it took to get there was even necessary — to arrange for a memorial lunch or dinner, to find people to say the Kaddish by his gravesite, etc.

Was it all necessary or was I simply being a little nutty? After all, I had never been there with him while he was alive. Nevertheless, I kept coming back year after year, first as a bachelor and then later as a husband and now as a father.

One Shabbat, many years after that very first trip, I was sitting in our little synagogue in Beverly Hills and my rabbi gave a most beautiful lesson on the chapter Vayechi. He brought my attention to this beautiful narrative, and all of a sudden, everything became clear to me, and tears started rolling down my eyes.

For the first time, I understood my late father’s request. For the first time, I realized how much of an impact those trips to Israel had not only over my life but over all of my family’s lives.

I cannot tell you enough about all the profound experiences I had during these yearly trips. I cannot even begin to think of my life today without these visits. My whole family has found a purpose bigger than ourselves because of the experiences that we were blessed to have in Israel. We have grown to love the people and the land.

On one such visit last year, an old friend took me and a few of my friends from Los Angeles to the Beit Shalom (the Peace House). We met the families who lived there and spoke to their leader, a woman who had moved to Israel from England.

She had been living in Israel for many years, and when the house was bought, she decided to move to it with her husband and many children. My friends and I asked her many questions to try and understand how she could be as brave as she was to live there.

She was a very sensible and a well-educated woman in her 30s, very articulate. She explained that if it was not safe for her to live in her home in Hebron because of the dangers facing her, then it was just as unsafe for anyone to live in Israel because of the dangers facing it.

She made a compelling argument that Jews should have a moral and ethical right to live anywhere in Israel and for that matter, anywhere in the world without being persecuted. And her Peace House was the last stand, so to speak, to bring this point home.

The idea that an area — Hebron, Gaza, West Bank, whatever one might call it — must be devoid of any Jews living in it should be antithetical to modern-day Jewish thinking, she said. After all, this is what Hitler tried to achieve with his Judenrein concept — cleansing Europe and the world of all its Jews.

Last week, this woman and the other families living with her in the Peace House were dragged out by the Israeli government. Ironically, contrary to conventional knowledge, the courts did not order the evacuation of the House of Peace. They left it in the hands of the government to decide what to do until the legalities of the case were fully determined. Sadly, the Ehud Olmert government chose the most divisive and provocative option.

While these Jews were being expelled, Israel continues to have its southern cities bombed with rockets since the expulsion of the Jews of Gush Katif; Iran persists on its nuclear agenda, and Hezbollah and Hamas continue to arm themselves to the teeth. Episodes like the Peace House expulsion are an unfortunate distraction from the real issues and threats that Israel faces.

It is true that some of the actions of a few hot-headed Jews have crossed the line, and while I might understand their frustrations and pain, I do not condone those actions. But the acts of a handful of hotheads should not poison all 300,000 Jews living in Judea and Samaria who stand on the front lines with great sacrifice, and they should not obscure this fact: Just like Arabs have the right to live in Israel among a Jewish majority, Jews should have the right to live in any area they please, even if those areas have an Arab majority.

It is not my intention to offend anyone who does not share this perspective. We all know how diverse Jewish opinion can be, and this diversity is one of our strengths. My intention here is to implore all of us to show a little sensitivity and balance before making loud and sweeping condemnations of our fellow Jews.

Ultimately, if we can succeed in being sensitive toward each other, maybe it will lead to us understanding each other a little better — hence finding our commonalities on our own, rather than having them forced on us by other people with evil agendas.

This was our fate for 2,000 years before the creation of the State of Israel. It must not be allowed to remain our fate moving forward.

Sunny Sassoon is a businessman who lives with his family in Los Angeles.