October 22, 2019

Gathering for Peace

Last Sunday afternoon, I and about 30 other Angelenos accepted an invitation to gather at the Brentwood home of Joan and Rabbi Leonard Beerman to meet with Nafez and Laila Nazzal, two Palestinian professors who were visiting Los Angeles.

Of course, we knew what to expect. Beerman, rabbi emeritus at Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air, has been active in the Middle East peace movement for at least three decades. The grimmer the events, the more determined he seems to become. His is not a stance that is in favor in Jewish Los Angeles today; nor are there many gatherings and discussions between Palestinians and Jews, or even Muslims and Jews, taking place here these days.

At the Beerman home were what I would characterize as a standard, upscale West Coast mix: a couple of people from Hollywood; several political activists; two rabbis, both self-identified as peace activists; couples who were affiliated with Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee; and a number of people with friends in the Mideast. The median age was well-above 50.

The conflict and violence in the Mideast were far outside everyone’s life … except for one fact: They had friends, relatives or friends whose relatives were living in Israel. So they — we — came out of friendship and affection for Beerman, and in order to listen, somewhat critically, and in judgment, to a couple of Palestinian intellectuals.

Nafez Nazzal had met Beerman 25 years ago at a conference in Israel. The Palestinian had been in his mid-30s, proud and angry, and had challenged Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem, after Kollek had proclaimed that Arabs and Jews lived in peace and equality in Jerusalem. Nazzal had jumped up and declared loudly that while it was true they were better off economically, Arabs in Jerusalem did not live in freedom, nor were they treated equally. "We do not wish to live in a palace under Israeli rule," he had declaimed, and with that, stormed out of the conference, the Arab delegates behind him.

Ten years later, he and his wife, Laila, and their children turned up in Los Angeles as part of a group of Jewish and Arab professors planning to spend a month living together. During that period he and his family became friends with the Beermans. As Beerman recounts, the Nazzal children refused to believe the rabbi was Jewish. He had opened his home to them, and he did not carry a gun. How could he be a Jew?

Nazzal had been a guest of the Beermans a year ago, and many of the same people had come to meet him then and hear the story from "the Palestinian side." I had not been present at that gathering, but was told his reception had been frosty. He had been critical of Israel, but had seemed to harbor few doubts about the actions of Yasser Arafat or the PLO; at least he had not shared them with the group of Californians. The exchange had not been a success.

But something had occurred during the past year. Perhaps despair. Nazzal, who lives in Ramallah and teaches in the Jerusalem Center of Brigham Young University, has been trying in vain to establish a peace center in Jerusalem where Israelis and Palestinians — particularly young people and children — could come together and talk. However, there had been no moving forward, he explained, largely because the Palestinians were unwilling to participate; certainly, unwilling to help financially.

It was, he realized, a reflection of the hatred that had seized both sides, but, especially, Palestinians today. There was scarcely a family that had not been touched economically or physically, or by death. There was a pause in his account. And the children, of course, he said, are consumed by hatred. He hesitated for a moment. They expect to die; they are looking to die. And then, standing in the middle of this Brentwood living room, with its wonderful art on the walls, its French doors open to an intimate garden in the back, he began to weep.

No one moved or said a word.

Eventually, he went on. He was critical of Israel: in Jerusalem there were no equal services; children were suffering from malnutrition; a high percentage of pregnant women had been diagnosed as anemic; and curfews, in effect, shut Palestinians into home prisons.

But he was also quick to articulate the failures of Palestinians and the PLO. He saw no hope, no future for his people until Ariel Sharon or Arafat stepped from the scene, and only fear and desperation for Israelis. He counts many Jewish Israelis among his friends, and told a story that echoed the one Beerman had told me. In Israel, his friend’s children had refused to believe that he and his wife were Arabs. They can’t be, the children told their parents. They’re college professors, and they don’t carry bombs, so they can’t be Arabs.

A small group went off to dinner with the Nazzals. How can we help set up his dream, a house of peace and hope in Jerusalem? was the question that animated them. The next day, the telephone calls began.