The Years of Dialogue: A review of two memoirs

by Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi

The memoirs by Stephen P. Cohen and Debbie Weissman reconstruct an optimistic time when dialogue prevailed in political and religious spheres, and resolution of ancient grievances seemed just beyond the next handshake.

In America in the late 1950’s and into the 1960s, Judaism and Christianity would come to be defined in political space by Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, marching together in Selma; the image we carry of that day in late March, 1965, is now as iconic and out of reach as Norman Rockwell’s covers on the Saturday Evening Post. In the cultural sphere, the same spirit was reflected in early fictions by Philip Roth, Grace Paley and Saul Bellow celebrating what I call the “urban congregation,” where Jews and Christians came together to create something uniquely American: an amalgamation that respected difference by laughing lovingly at one’s own pretense while embracing the divine image as a progressive and collective human enterprise.

In Israel, in the meantime, from the 1960s through the mid-1990s, neither Christianity nor Islam was much on the radar since the emergence of Palestinian ethnic and national consciousness embraced both, and since most of the Jewish population was not yet gripped by messianic fervor and exclusive claims, even if they didn’t know or care much about the other “Abrahamic” religions (they still don’t). Indeed, what we refer to as “fundamentalist” or evangelical discourse was not yet—or not again—a powerful force in America, in Israel or in Palestine and the Arab world. The Cold War that defined the second half of the twentieth century had carved the world into competing forms of government and incompatible social contracts to which religious claims and sensibilities were subsidiary.

The years between the Six Day War and Menachem Begin’s ascent to power in Israel in 1977 would prove to be a lost decade for dialogue, negotiation and compromise. But even as Begin and his coalition partners reintroduced an antiquated discourse based on Jewish martyrdom and theological claims, leading inevitably to racist exclusions, they did not immediately colonize the minds of the majority of Jewish Israelis or preclude political compromise; the seesaw of our expectations for a peaceful resolution of what had become the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict” kept us buoyant until Rabin’s assassination in 1995.

That period, from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, filled with vision and hope, was also the time when many of us came of age and discovered our own vocations and passions. A few brave people, including Stephen P. Cohen and Debbie Weissman, put themselves into that middle space where dialogue can happen and compromise can be achieved. Disclosure: I count the authors of both books under review among my friends. The friendship with Steve was nurtured in our living rooms in Cambridge and Jerusalem; with Debbie in classrooms, conference halls and prayer spaces, in demonstrations on pavements and sidewalks in the (bleeding) heart of Jerusalem. Both writers recount their journeys and the opportunities they seized or created to help break down the barriers between separate political or faith communities. Neither of these authors is a professional writer—but both are individuals who have made a difference on the “ground.” It is for that reason that these volumes make for compelling reading.

The sadder of the two volumes is the story of the dialogues and negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, brokered for a time by one solitary American Jew. In a mere 96 pages, The Go-Between discloses what could have been, what almost happened, and what finally failed. Steve Cohen, who died last year, was an intrepid warrior for peace who always stayed in the shadow of the public stage where adversaries postured and sparred with each other and their own constituencies in the arduous and prolonged effort to find common ground. Steve’s narrative starts where so many of our stories began, as students or newly-minted academics: “I was a young professor at Harvard when the Yom Kippur war broke out in 1973.” Trained as a social psychologist, Steve boarded a plane to Israel, volunteered with the IDF and talked with terrified, traumatized soldiers at the front in the Sinai and on the Golan Heights.

For the next three decades, Steve used the skills he had learned and some he invented to bring political adversaries together and keep them in the same room until a compromise, or at least a pledge to have the next meeting, could be reached. His narrative is related in measured, even understated, prose. Forging relations with and then between the major parties to the Israel-Palestine conflict—from Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt to Arafat and Abu Mazen in the virtual and real spaces of Palestine, from King Hussein of Jordan to President Hafez al Assad of Syria, from Ezer Weizman to Peres, Dayan and Rabin in Israel, from American diplomats to State Department representatives in the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton --Steve quietly gained confidence as a nonpartisan outsider who had not only access to the warring parties, but also the wisdom to know what was possible at every stage and the professional skills to get there. It appears telling that the Arabs and Palestinians trusted him more readily than the Israelis did; although he doesn’t state this explicitly, one surmises that a kind of Israeli superciliousness accounts for initial skepticism about the political skills of a diaspora Jew. But Steve’s quiet persistence wins over even the most crusty member of the Shabak and the most intransigent Israeli politician—reaching as far as the inner circles of parties like Shas when they were still open to political compromise. He takes his reader to the unlikely places where clandestine meetings were convened, from cafes to covert apartments in Paris and Brussels, from Sadat’s summer palace in Alexandria to Arafat’s burned-out compound in the desert outside of Tunis.  He gives compelling portraits of some of the other players, such as Yossi Ginossar and Mohammed Rashid, bedeviled by their own internal politics as well as by the challenges of dialogue with the other side.

Steve knows his worth, but is meticulous in not taking credit for events and processes to which he didn’t contribute: “I did not play any part in the secret discussions in Oslo,” he admits, “but I knew about the talks from the start.” He shares with great candor the ethical dilemmas he wrestled with when prospects for economic development for the Palestinians would have also benefited him and his family. In addition to whatever ethical dilemmas he faced, he tells his reader that “our business projects …were, in a word, a failure.” Another failure with serious consequences was the result of Steve’s overreaching: a daring initiative and meeting with Hafez al-Assad (which might have led to a peace agreement between Israel and Syria) was followed instead by Assad’s fatal heart attack, and to a break with Danny Abraham, who had bankrolled many of Steve’s activities.

But the achievements were monumental, even if they have remained unsung until now. The cover of this memoir reveals Steve’s smiling face in the background of a promising embrace between Shimon Peres and Anwar Sadat; other photos punctuate the text with evidence of Steve’s secret meetings with—and, even more importantly, the meetings he brokered between—Arab, Palestinian, Jewish, Israeli, American and European politicians. The Israelis included leaders both within and outside of the various Israeli coalitions. One hilarious trace of a clandestine meeting between Osama el Baz, Arafat’s “principal interlocutor on the Arab side,… trusted to protect Palestinian interests in the Arab world, and in the world at large,” and Peres and Rabin at the Israeli Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem on February 27, 1985, is the caption under the photo taken by Israeli paparazzi that appeared on the front page of the daily newspaper Maariv and mis-identified Steve as Osama el Baz; the latter had quickly concealed his face as they left the Prime Minister’s residence so that Steve remained the only visible one. (Truth to tell, he did look a bit like an Egyptian politician.)

Actually, though, Steve usually managed to remain invisible to all but the participants themselves. He was always one who kept his counsel; in private conversation, one word from him was worth volumes from our more loquacious selves. Even his closest friends, who knew vaguely that he was engaged in dialogue and rapprochement, knew nothing of the details of his quest. We called him the “sphinx.”

This memoir leaves us with the strong impression that without Steve and a few other brave souls who planted the seeds of an idea, Sadat might not have made his heroic trip to Jerusalem in November, 1977, when he extended an olive branch directly to the war-weary Israeli people; that Arafat might not have opened the door to the Oslo process when he did and that Rabin and Peres might not have taken those first steps towards territorial compromise for peace. At great personal risk, and often with nothing but a briefcase and a half-promise from his contacts on both sides, Steve traveled the globe, meeting and convening meetings between all the players—until a bullet put an end to the process to which Rabin had become dedicated. “By developing relationships with the Arabs, Rabin had shown his country how to secure itself peace…The day Rabin was buried on Har Herzl, …was the sad realization that it would be hard—very hard, if not close to impossible—to maintain those relationships without him.”

Reading Debbie Weissman’s memoir leaves us with a bit more hope, especially since the present occupant of the Vatican (who is photographed on the book’s cover receiving a gift from Debbie in 2015) has, for the moment at least, invited us to keep that flame alive. Unlike Steve’s book, which discloses almost nothing of his personal life and private struggles, Memoirs of a Hopeful Pessimist is more of a memoir in the classical sense; it introduces the subject with an account of the author’s first experiences of interfaith dialogue, but then devotes several chapters to Debbie’s ancestors, immediate family and education. It also retrieves the cultural and religious forces that impelled her to get on a plane in 1972 and travel to Israel—where she continued her training as an educator and activist. She spent time in the early 1980s running educational programs in the IDF; her higher degrees in education led to a series of teaching and administrative positions at universities and institutes of higher learning in Israel and many teaching stints abroad. Her honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College was granted to an “innovative educator, sociologist and pioneer of orthodox feminism” whose teaching and writing in Israel and the Diaspora and commitment to dialogue between people of different faiths have had a world-wide impact.

Debbie’s dialogue work began in 1988 with an invitation to attend a conference in which sixty women with different religious affiliations met in Toronto, sponsored by the World Council of Churches. Traveling the world and engaging in dialogue under the umbrella of this and other interfaith organizations, Debbie would eventually rise to become president of the International Council of Christians and Jews (the ICCJ). Her partnerships and friendships extend to Palestinian Bishop Younan and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, confidant of Pope Francis. Among her most powerful narratives is the account of an interfaith dialogue in Hiroshima, “itself a testament to human resilience and desire for life” to which the Hiroshima memorial gives concrete testimony.

Those were indeed the Years of Dialogue. While official Israeli policy on political engagement with the enemy prevented open encounters, meetings were brokered by universities worldwide under the umbrella of academic conferences and workshops. Something similar happened in the religious sphere, where it wasn’t so much official policy as ignorance and some mutual suspicion that had kept the parties at arms’ length. Often these meetings were spearheaded by women and featured feminist agendas alongside the political and religious ones. Again, the 1960s in America had opened up new venues of communication and encounter between Christians and Jews, but other religious groups, including Muslims and Buddhists, Hindus, Jainists, Sikhs, members of the Bahai sect and others were still out of the ken of most of us.

The word “dialogue” is explicit in the subtitle of Debbie’s book and implicit in Steve’s. But what is meant by “dialogue” is significantly different. In the two decades since Rabin’s assassination, it seems that all the parties to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have returned to their intransigent positions, each community has turned in on itself and dialogue has given way to a series of hermetic monologues. So it may be said that in the political sphere, if dialogue does not produce results, then it has failed. In the interfaith area, on the other hand, dialogue proceeds for its own sake. The goal is not to move anyone’s boundaries or change anyone’s articles of faith, not to come to an agreement on theology or doxology, but to make the face of the other available to the self.

But when ethics and politics intersect in contemporary Jewish thought, the stakes are much higher. The dialogical principle with which Talmudic scholar and philosopher Emmanuel Levinas was heralded for decades, and whom Debbie mentions admiringly, actually unravels in political time, when, after the massacre at Sabra and Shatilla in 1982, Levinas himself was unable to commit without qualification to that principle… (The complex dilemmas presented by this for all who regarded him as a beacon of the dialogical imperative in ethics and politics were discussed in this magazine by Shaul Maggid this past year.

An insight into the principles by which Debbie guides her own behavior can be seen as she adopts a modified version of Levinas’ teaching that we should see the “face of God in the Other.” “It would be enough,” she says, “if we could just look at the Other and see a face no less human than our own.”

One of the things that brings like-minded people together while keeping “unlike-minded” people apart, creating what Mary Douglas called zones of “purity and danger,” is food. And one of the implicit themes of both books is the challenge of making the shared table a venue for dialogue and not mainly a display of difference or exclusion. In both narratives, food generates ingenious solutions that allow the authors to keep kosher while engaging with people of other faiths or ethnicities and avoiding giving offense to one’s hosts and fellow participants. Such dialogical moments entail Steve’s eating only cheese when his Arab and Israeli interlocutors are eating cheese and meat—and while all of them share the wine in an era when strict prohibitions or restrictions on wine consumption in the respective religious communities have not yet solidified. Debbie details similar encounters, as for instance when a well-meaning friend in Denmark who assumed she wouldn’t eat meat in her non-kosher home went out of her way to buy fish…more specifically, shrimp! But among the most touching moments in her memoir are the accounts of accommodations that Muslims, Jews and Christians made for each other’s customs—such as the interfaith Purim in Korea in 1990 and the visit to Arafat’s grave in Ramallah following an interfaith conference, after which Debbie recounts heading home to prepare gefilte fish. “How many people can say that in the same day they both visited Arafat’s grave and made gefilte fish? If there are such people, it’s likely that I know them!”

While recounting her own journey from being a nonobservant Jew to one who is both orthodox and liberal, Debbie also documents the path that her adopted country took. She writes: “I made Aliyah to a largely secular, left-leaning country where the kibbutz movement was disproportionately influential. I now live in a right-wing, religious and traditional society, where there are almost no traces left of socialism and where racism is on the rise.” As one who came a decade before her, and some five years before the Six Day war, I can attest to the modest dimensions of pre-67 Jerusalem--the “thin one,” in the words of Yehuda Amichai, whose armistice lines occluded the Temple Mount and what is peremptorily referred to by today’s politicians as the City of David. Over the years, as the city’s insatiable appetite grew along with its exclusivist claims to the sacred center, expanding in concentric circles deep into Palestinian east Jerusalem, came an erosion of the principles of dialogue and attentiveness to which Debbie continues to dedicate her life.

This can be seen in microcosm in the synagogue that Debbie helped to found. Kehilat Yedidya, located in the Baqa’a section of Jerusalem, functioned for many years as a center of dialogue: on the one hand, the internal halakhic dialogues that brought about changes in women’s status in synagogue life, in which Debbie was a guiding spirit; on the other, the kinds of interfaith dialogue that are the overriding theme of this volume. She writes that “the founders of Yedidya built a community in which women could be first-class citizens, non-Jews could be welcome guests, issues of democracy and human rights could be taken seriously and the pursuit of peace could be recognized as a religious imperative.”

For me the most significant implementation of those principles was the dialogues and activities in which members of Yedidya took part during and after the 1988 Intifada, to which Debbie contributed. These were activities in which I, then a member of the congregation, also took an active part, along with a number of other intrepid and compassionate women (and a few men!). We maintained a daily vigil against the Occupation in front of the Prime Minister’s residence for the better part of a year (our group, which grew out of Yedidya, and called itself “Israelis by Choice,” consisted mainly of new and old “olim” from the U.S., Canada, the UK, South Africa, and western Europe—with a sprinkling of Sabras). We also conducted an ongoing dialogue group with the adults and staged basketball games with the teenagers of Beit Sahour, a largely Christian Palestinian town east of Bethlehem. Two unforgettable events from that heady time are seared in my memory: the first being the Shabbat we celebrated in Beit Sahour, as guests of the local Palestinians. We and our families schlepped our cholent and our strollers from Jerusalem over bumpy side roads, circumventing the barriers and defying our soldiers (some of whom were our own sons and daughters!) to arrive at the place where our Palestinian hosts had arranged accommodations for us, and where we conducted Shabbat services with the respectful participation of our hosts; we prayed, broke bread and shared our food and our hopes for the future. The second was Christmas Eve, 1989, when South African Bishop and Nobel laureate Desmond M. Tutu came to address Israelis and Palestinians—Jews, Christians and Muslims—in Shepherd’s Field near Beit Sahour. We believed so fervently, as we stood in the very place where, some two thousand years ago, stars had guided three shepherds to the stable where baby Jesus lay, that, indeed, peace was at hand. [ ]

The Second Intifada was as devastating to the spirit of dialogue as the assassination of Rabin (and was clearly a consequence of the assassination and the forces unleashed by the change in government). Debbie exemplifies this by recalling the activities in which a number of us--including some of the founding members of Yedidya--participated in 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada, to support the residents of Jabel Mukaber, who were suffering dislocation and isolation from the placement of the insidious wall that snakes through the West Bank.  But when, in 2008 and again in 2014, murders were committed in West Jerusalem by residents of Jabel Mukaber, preceded and followed by violent acts by Jewish Israelis, it became harder for Debbie and many of her fellow travelers to maintain their faith and the energy necessary to keep working for change.

Debbie marks the waning of this spirit not only in the political and social realms, but also in the microcosm that is the religious community she helped to establish. She does not dwell on the political activities, or what she calls the “social-political” dimension, but notes that by the turn of the century, new immigrants coming from the west who began to join the community “tend[ed] to be far more right-wing than those who came in the 60s and 70s.” This phenomenon has meant that some “old-timers” like myself left the community in search of a more progressive incarnation of what Yedidya, and Conservative Judaism generally, once represented in the political and moral spheres in Israel, and in America.

Indeed, both memoirs reflect a more sanguine time, when Netanyahu was not yet a major player and Donald Trump was presenting problems mainly for New York’s city planners and his own construction workers. But Debbie’s story is ongoing while Steve’s story has been buried under the recalcitrant forces that prevail in Israeli –and to some extent also in Palestinian—circles. Given the narrowing prospects for peace that have survived into the second decade of the twenty-first century, Steve’s life’s project can be viewed in retrospect as a serious version of Emil Habibi’s satiric portrait of Saeed, the “Pessoptimist” (1974), a kind of Don Quixote who converted the enmities of those around him into goodwill gestures but was bound to be slapped down by reality. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian diplomat who became the sixth UN Secretary General of the United Nations, refuses to capitulate to pessimism, writing in the Afterword: “Today the need for a new generation of Steve Cohens—individuals outside the traditional positions of power who are willing to commit themselves to efforts that moderate hostility and engender dialogue—is as great, and arguably greater, than it was in the years before we [Egyptians] reached peace with Israel.”

By contrast, Debbie, the “hopeful pessimist,” has more wind in her sails, at least for now, with Pope Francis steering the Catholic ship, even as the seas plowed by Christian evangelicals, radical Jews and radical Muslims threaten to capsize the ship at any moment. But our mandate is to retain the hope that somewhere there are brave souls with a strong compass and strong stomachs—the generation of the grandchildren to whom Steve dedicates his little book, in the hopes that the “future [may] hold manifold opportunities for your unique contributions to make the world a better place.” 

Embraced: For My Father
by Tamara Cohen

Midnight at a rest stop restaurant on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem or maybe on the way back from Rafah in Gaza. You stop with Eli, your driver, and order falafel with chips and ful and they put too much spicy sauce on it because you nodded yes, yes, and the pita is wet with salad and tehina and it drips oil stains on your already sweaty monogrammed button-down shirt and you ask the waiter to bring more water and something sweet and he brings baklava and Turkish coffee in shot glasses and under the huge dome of night you laugh at a dirty joke with Eli and you tell him about the olives and the coffee at the place you just came from how it was better than this mud… And if he knows it was in front of the home of a suspected terrorist he idled his car outside of for your two-hour meeting, he doesn't let on, and you don't tell him. Instead you tell him you are ready to return to your hotel to sleep, and what you mean, in that moment anyway, is that you are ready to be back in a New Jersey suburb in a quiet house with a lawn and your wife and daughters but then midnight melts into early morning and a warm breeze blows dust in a circle at your feet and you know you will never find life as alive as it is here at this gas station restaurant between a refugee camp and an ancient walled city of broken covenants still clung to, so you ask for another baklava and drink another shot of mud, this one for the God of huddled war-weary men eager to share with you their midnight tales, small moments when, with their guns and knives resting at the feet of their beds, they dare to imagine a way out. 


Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi is professor Emerita of comparative literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature and Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination. In 2007, she became a Guggenheim Fellow for her current project on “Jerusalem and the Poetics of Return.”

Rabbi Tamara R. Cohen is the Chief of Innovation at Moving Traditions, with a focus on Jewish identity, feminist education and youth development. In addition to writing about her father, z"l, she writes creative liturgy, and tries to continue his legacy of bravely doing good in the world.


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