Memoriam for Zalman, Mourning for Israel

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July 3rd, 2014, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi left his body, dying after a long, deep, and rich life. I consider Reb Zalman a teacher of mine…a master able to impart knowledge of an authentic Jewish tradition and practice.
Reb Zalman escaped the Holocaust in Nazi Europe and joined the Chabad Lubavitch movement in the United States. The Lubavitcher Rebbe chose Zalman to become a shliach, a messenger and “pied piper” to the great number of unaffiliated young American Jews in my generation.
He was the perfect messenger, an open hearted, open minded man who dropped acid with Timothy Leary, prayed with all others who prayed, and eventually was recognized by the Muslim community as a Sheikh, in addition to being world renowned as a Jew. His sweet, laughing, knowing soul shares a light-filled gaze with the Dalai Lama, in one of my favorite photographs of him.
My sense of Zalman was that he didn’t hate – ever. He’d been there and seen the Holocaust, lost most of his own loved ones. He even requested to be buried with ashes from Auschwitz – the notorious Nazi concentration camp and crematorium – because most of his family never got a proper burial. But he never expressed hatred or desire for revenge. In fact, this great soul had fled the flames and strengthened in reverence for life, love, and forgiveness. May the memory of his blessing take us all there as well.

An image of reconciliation: Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen and Sheik Ibrahim Abu-el Hawa at a peace manifestation called Jerusalem Hug in June 2013.

These large thoughts, somewhat abstract to many, were made quite real to me at a farbrengen – a teaching session – that Zalman gave in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1994. There he spoke of a tour group he’d led to the Middle East. He recalled that he took the group to Hebron for a day-long visit to the Me’arat ha Machpelah, the cave of the ancestors where Abraham, Sarah and other ancestors of both Jews and Muslims are buried.
This was an important pilgrimage on the itinerary, a key station in the group’s Jewish experience. And they were having trouble getting admission into the Ibrahim mosque, built around the cave. Zalman asked the group to wait outside while he went in to see the Sheikh in charge of the tombs.
The Sheikh was in a small office in the mosque, and Zalman said to him: “May I speak to you a moment?”
“What can I do for you?” asked the Sheikh.
“I’ve come to ask your permission to do our pilgrimage here,” Zalman replied.
“You need my permission?!” the Sheikh asked, surprised and not a little bitter. He pointed to the Israeli soldiers holding Uzis, standing near his office.
Zalman said to the Sheikh, “You and your family and your ancestors have been the keepers of this sacred tomb for all these years, and it isn’t fitting that I should ignore that…”
The Sheikh stood up from his seat, came out from behind his desk, hugged Zalman and kissed him on both cheeks, and then escorted the group around the tomb himself.
Reflecting on this incident, Zalman mused, “What a difference there is in the approach! How important it is not to forget that.”
Listening to Zalman that evening, I was gripped by his story. That very month, I was on my way to Israel/Palestine to produce a documentary movie about grassroots peacemakers there, Israelis and Palestinians. His story felt like a blessing on my efforts.
During and after production of my peacemakers documentary – titled If You Make it Possible – I spent a good deal of time in Hebron working on a peace-building project I developed in cooperation with Israeli and Palestinian nonviolence activists. We taught nonviolent communication and other peace building techniques, to Israeli settlers from Kiryat Arba and to Palestinian citizens of Hebron.
I recount some of my experiences of working and talking with Israeli settlers and soldiers in the Hebron area. I know that all people, Israelis and Palestinians included, can and do speak of one another with hatred and vitriol in their hearts. But I consistently witnessed, in the behavior and words of Israeli settlers, either a bewildering obliviousness to the presence of Palestinians around them or an open, menacing hostility.
As I stood in a hallway being painted by a Palestinian worker, for example, a woman settler told me – I closely paraphrase her words – “I don’t want to have to worry about Ahmed. I am not concerned about Ahmed’s rights.”
By “Ahmed” she meant all “Arabs”. She was generalizing, dissing an entire ethnic group, loudly and brashly, in a five minute tirade, while the Palestinian behind her tried to disappear into the wall he was painting.
Settlers from nearby Israeli settlements had taken to spray painting graffiti on the doors of Palestinian homes all over Hebron. There were daily incidents of open hostility in the streets of Hebron. And while I stood as a witness with the Christian Peacemaker Teams, I saw the hostility with which IDF soldiers treated Palestinian citizens of Hebron.
This in 1997 and 1998, when Palestinian Hebronites numbered in the hundreds of thousands and Israeli settlers in Hebron proper numbered about 600 – with about 1200 soldiers to protect them.
I am not the only witness to Israeli settlers’ threats and attacks. I am not the only one to note the underlying hatred expressed by Israeli settlers toward Palestinians. Much documentation of this has been done by Middle East human rights groups, such as B’Tselem. Micah Peled’s documentary movie Inside God’s Bunker told an alarming story of young settler children singing on a school bus, about killing Arabs and doing something with their blood (!)…And there have been many other witnesses to Israeli settler violence – not the least of which has been the burning, stealing and bulldozing of Palestinian olive groves.
The Israeli legal system has gone into agreement with this hatred – in a systematic discrimination against Palestinians in housing, sanitation, water rights, human rights. This has escalated to the point of violent rebellion from Palestinians and massive, cruel reprisals on the ground and in the air from Israel.
All this in spite of voices of righteous settlers like Rabbi Menachem Fruman z”l – at one time the presiding Rabbi of the West Bank. He dialogued and prayed with Muslims and Christians, and made cooperative efforts between his settlement at Tekoa and the nearby Arab town of Teqoa. I viewed him as a role model for settlers, and he is profiled in my peacemakers documentary. Sadly, he appears to have been a rare bird.
How far Israel has strayed from the approach of Rebbe Zalman Schachter Shalomi – really from open minded love and respect to their precise opposites of closed mindedness and hatred. And how much damage this hatred has done! How far Israel has fallen in its hatred.
The nadir of this fall occurred recently when, in revenge for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens, a mob kidnapped a sixteen-year-old Palestinian boy and burned him alive. Difficult for me to write those words, but by all accounts it happened.
Israeli commentator Uri Avnery reports that this horrific deed was incited by the public response of Israeli leaders to the deaths of the Israeli teens. Uri reports the words of those leaders:

The public uproar was surely justified. But it soon degenerated into an orgy of racist incitement, which intensified from day to day. Newspapers, radio stations and TV networks competed with each other in unabashed racist diatribes…Jewish Home faction leader Ayelet Shaked: ‘With a people whose heroes are child murderers we must deal accordingly’ and Binyamin Netanyahu himself, speaking about the entire Palestinian people: ‘They are not like us. We sanctify life, they sanctify death.’
Except for a few lonely voices, it seemed that all Israel had turned into a soccer mob, shouting ‘Death to Arabs’. The six arrested until now for the bestial murder of the Arab boy had come straight from one of these ‘Death to the Arabs’ demonstrations…This abominable atrocity took place in Jerusalem. A Palestinian boy was abducted and burned alive. No racist crime in Israel ever came close to it…Burning people alive is an abomination everywhere. In a state that claims to be ‘Jewish’, it is even worse.

With that last statement, Avnery comes to the heart of the matter, to the culmination of the trouble sown by hatred in the settlements, and normalized in Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Some readers may, at this juncture, think that I am forgetting or ignoring the violent acts of Palestinians, including the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens. I am not. What I am concerned about is the far-reaching implications of the violence of my own people. And before I am accused of expecting too much from either Israelis or Palestinians let me remind my readers that for 600 years – yes, 600 years prior to 1929 –Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together in deep harmony in Hebron. It is written that Jewish, Muslim,and Christian mothers would nurse each others’ children…think about that a moment. Think about real history.
Might that 600 years of harmony and peace in Hebron have been attributable to the approach, that crucial approach that Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi epitomized at the Me’arat ha Machpelah? Might that approach be at the very heart of the matter? The heart to which Uri Avnery has also pointed?
Let us take a stethoscope to the heart of the question here. Let us consult one of our Jewish sages, a healer of hearts, Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Liadi, a founder of the Chabad hasidic Jewish tradition.
The name in common with our own Zalman doesn’t escape me– and as most Jews do, I enjoy serendipitous connections. I like this one particularly in light of the way Rebbe Schneur Zalman draws insight from the phrase in Kedoshim, “You shall love your fellow as yourself…”
I ask you, Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Liadi, what is it to be a Jew and to be commanded by God to “love your fellow as yourself”?
Rebbe Schneur Zalman answers:

As long as one regards the physical self as the true “I” and the soul as something this I “has” one will never truly love the other “as oneself”. But if the soul is the “I” and the body but its tool and extension, one can come to recognize that “self” and “fellow” are but two expressions of a singular essence, so that all that one desires for oneself, one equally desires for one’s fellow.
Otherwise stated, the endeavor to love one’s fellow as oneself is the endeavor to cultivate one’s own spiritual identity, to see the soul and spirit as the true and ultimate reality, and the body and the material as …subservient to it. This is the entire Torah.

So. Blessings and thanks to Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Now to meditate on this a moment, to consider what he’s said in the context of our concerns: If our task as a Torah Jew is to discover, reveal, our soulness, then we will see our fellow, the other, as one with our self – when we are truly being Jewish. Yes?
What could keep us from the revelation of that soulness, that oneness with our fellow? Hatred. So in the Torah portion titled Kedoshim, where this love of our fellow is first detailed, God cautions us a second time about this matter of loving our fellow: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” We are all brothers of the soul.
If in fact this matter of loving one’s fellow is the heart of Judaism, then why have we hundreds of thousands of settlers who express hatred in different ways toward Palestinians? Why do they scrawl graffiti on the doors of Palestinians living in the same town as they? Why do they burn and steal olive trees from them? Why do the Jews I met in Hebron speak such vitriolic words about Palestinians? Why are they not Jewish settlers, but only settlers?
This anger, this vitriol, surely it has taken us off the path of being Jews. If to be Jewish is to become more and more aware of the commonality between oneself and one’s fellow, one’s neighbor, one’s brother, how is it these settlers claim to be Jewish?
They are not Jewish. This may seem an alarming thing to say, but we must adhere to what the Torah says about being Jewish. They have veered far afield of that.
If those who hate have come to dominate policies, programs and behavior as regards Israel and Palestine, then it should come as no surprise that their hatred could lead them to burn a child alive…to make a vengeful sacrifice to Moloch, to idolatry. Hatred itself is categorized by many a sage as nothing but idolatry.
What if we see this massive departure from Jewishness, from Judaism, in the shadow of the Knesset considering re-defining Israel as the state of the Jewish people. No longer as a democracy AND the state of the Jewish people.
Who are these Jewish people? Do they support a state that hates and discriminates? That takes cruel vengeance on its “fellow”…? Is that Jewish?
Who is to keep hatred from taking over the core of that Jewish state? Who will stop Israel on the road to fascism, and remind her: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart,” “You shall love your fellow as yourself”..?
If Israel is not on the path to being truly Jewish, to embracing the entire Torah, well then, as God called out to Adam, “Ayechah?!” Where are you? What in Heaven’s name are you doing? If you kill the baby trying to save it, what is the point?
We know that our ancient and very famous sage Rabbi Hillel framed the same phrase a bit differently, but also said it was the entire Torah: “Don’t do to another what you would not have done to you.” Well, we Jews have made it clear what we don’t want others doing to us. We don’t want them to say bad things about Jews. We don’t want their evil words to turn into violence against us.
So we must not do that to them. It begins with understanding even small things such as a tendency to generalize about “Arabs” – so we must take Israel back to the origins, back to what it truly is to be a Jew. To be part of the Clal Israel that deserves a nation state.
If we as Israel have the goal, as Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Liadi said, to “cultivate one’s own spiritual identity”, we are surely in an emergent situation, not because we are in danger of being pushed into the sea – but because we are wallowing in a sea of hatred, and have lost our true faith.
“What does it profit a person if he/she gain the entire world, and lose his/her soul?”
How will you, Israel, your soul, manage to rise from the ashes of that boy, if there is no soul searching? How if, as Uri Avnery reports, most of your media have ignored the event – or have hidden the details on the back pages?
Where is the public outcry? Ayechah?!