February 28, 2020

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Israel and the peace process

In a touching eulogy in the JJ (Dec 18, 2014), Rabbi Harold Schulweis was aptly described by Rabbi Ed Feinstein, his friend and successor as senior rabbi at Congregation Valley Beth Shalom as “the most successful and influential synagogue leader in his generation, a public intellectual who redefined what it is to be a Jew, an author and passionate orator who met injustices and suffering with action.

Those who had the privilege of experiencing Rabbi Schulweis in Southern California, or during his years at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham, remember his fearless moral example. And many of us who came of age with Rabbi Schulweis as our mentor, were graced with a sense of his unflinching ethical stewardship and of his calling to treasure justice. This collective imprimatur is a part of his living legacy.

While his rich and thoughtful voice is now forever stilled, we may yet avail ourselves of his beautifully woven thoughts in his books and in the Harold M. Schulweis Institute (http://www.hmsi.info/) where many of his writings and speeches are preserved.

I recently came across a particularly poignant and timely address Rabbi Schulweis delivered on October 16, 1995 entitled, “Israel and the Peace Process” (http://www.vbs.org/page.cfm?p=674). At that time Yitzhak Rabin was Israel’s prime minister and Shimon Peres, foreign minister. The hotly debated “Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip” (known as Oslo II) had been narrowly ratified by the Knesset on October 5th, and that evening there had been an angry rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square denouncing Rabin. This included a fiery speech by Benjamin Netanyahu promising that “… we will bring the government down.” And among the thousands of right-wing protesters gathered in the square, were those carrying posters of Rabin wearing a Nazi SS uniform, and those chanting, “Death to Rabin! Nazis! Judenrat!” 

In his address on October 16th, Rabbi Schulweis made no allusion to the events of October 5th, though he was clearly aware of an increasingly violent divide in Israel. He stated that “we are not listening to history and we are not listening to the instructions of our tradition.” He pointed out that the Talmud alluded to the fact that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, not for lack of observance of the Torah’s laws, but because of “sinat chinam”—causeless hatred among the people. He recounted the importance of a range of opinions coexisting together using the metaphor of the lulav, stating that our rabbinic traditions teach us “that one must have all four species of plants…if one is missing the entire mitzvah is invalid.” He concluded this introduction by saying that “…there is within us a terrible division, a manifestation of incivility, of anger, and anger is death.”

Much of the rest of his speech reviewed events that had taken place over the preceding few months, events that “should horrify us… a group of rabbis meeting in New York who brand the Prime Minister of Israel and the Foreign Minister of Israel as ‘traitors,’ and declare that it is accepted under Jewish law to assassinate them…rabbis who refuse to allow Israeli representatives to speak in the synagogue if they favor the Oslo peace process.” 

He spoke of his feelings of horror and disbelief “that a group of settlers were joined by right wing members of the Knesset who jointly called for armed resistance against the Israeli army should the government decide to remove the settlements.” Rabbi Schulweis suggested that these proclamations amounted to a “rejection of the legitimacy of a democratic government.”

He went on to observe an interesting contradiction in noting that when the Likud Party was in power, it was agreed there should be no interference by American Jews in the State of Israel, but “now that the Labor Party has received a mandate from the people, American Jews have lined up to lobby senators and congressmen and to insist that they vote to frustrate the peace process … despite the fact that the elected government of Israel pleads that the Palestinian Authority needs an infrastructure … without which Arabs will switch their loyalties to Muslim fundamentalists.”

It is well worth reading the entirety of Rabbi Schulweis’ remarks. Because, despite the twenty years since he spoke these words, the peace Rabin gave his life for, the peace that many Israeli and American Jews hoped for, remains elusive. It is also poignant and important to note that this speech was delivered a short 19 days before the ultimate act of partisan savagery: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. And with it, hopes for the longed-for peace largely destroyed.

But when Rabbi Schulweis gave this speech, Rabin was alive, as was the peace process. He therefore concluded in the hope that the process might continue; “we pray to open for us the gates to the future even as there are those who try to close the gates, those who are afraid of what lies behind. Open for us gates of light, gates of blessing, gates of redemption. Open for everyone gates of healing, gates of peace…Ptach lanu shaarei tikvah—open for us the gates of hope.”

Dr. Michael J. Cooper is a professor of pediatric cardiology at UCSF Medical Center and author of Foxes in the Vineyard, historical fiction set in 1948 Jerusalem.

A second novel, The Rabbi's Knight, set in the Holy Land during the 13th century comes out this summer.