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Peace in Our Times

by Rabbi Avi Shafran

This article first appeared in The Providence Journal-Bulletin, which serves the citizenry of southern New England - on September 14, 1993. That was one day after the famous Clinton-Rabin handshake on the White House lawn.

Modern Jews are often, and not entirely wrongly, seen as somewhat more, well, sensitive than the general population, at times even bordering on paranoid; there are, unfortunately, considerable historical grounds for Jewish caution.

Paradoxically, though, the modern Jewish mindset is pointedly, eternally hopeful as well. Just as the ancient Jewish prophets introduced the world to the concept of utopia, their descendants in our own time are similarly obsessed with one or another variation of the idea. Even as many of us fear what others might do if we should dare turn our backs, we Jews still somehow trust deeply in the inherent goodness of humanity. In the depths of the Jewish heart, holocausts and hope somehow coexist.

And so, with some of Israel and part of the PLO yesterday signing a peace agreement, Jews in general - and Israeli Jews in particular - are experiencing the strangest of feelings, a joyful giddiness intermingled with dark trepidation. It's pleasurable and discomforting at the same time - the Mother, one might say, of All Ambivalence.

We hope, to be sure, and we desperately want to trust. But we can't help but remember, either.

When I first read of the likelihood of a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, an episode from my youth - objectively insignificant but highly symbolic in a personal sense - returned to haunt me, 2 ˝ decades after the event. I attended a private Jewish high school in Baltimore back in those days, and the memory is of a beautiful early spring day when a few classmates and I were playing baseball.

A group of scruffy but smiling strangers about our own age suddenly appeared on the vacant lot that served as our field. They seemed pleasant enough, if different from us in dress and demeanor, and asked to play; we were more than happy to be able to fully stock the outfield and to make new friends in the deal. It was home team against visitors.

After flipping a coin, we went to bat first. I don't remember if there was any score at the bottom of the first, only that the visitors, once in possession of the bats, suddenly lost all interest in the ball. They came straight into the outfield at us, shouting obscenities liberally peppered with the word "Jew," their smiles suddenly turned predatory. That was the first time I ever heard the sickening sound of wood coming down on bone, and I know I'll never forget it.

We all survived the Tuesday Afternoon Massacre, less only a little blood and several bats; our innocence, though, had been dealt a decisive mortal wound. My friends and I had always been taught both to be trustworthy and to trust in others, in the essential holiness of all those created in G-d's image. Our new experience, though, had taught us a different lesson: There are those who choose, even for no discernible reason, to hate. And a corollary: Haters, all too often, choose Jews.

The Arab world, , to be sure, hasn't always hated Jews. Though Mohammed became upset at the Arabian Jews of his day for not abandoning their faith for his, the Middle Ages saw great cultural, scientific and human cooperation between, for instance, the dominant Muslim society in Spain and its Jewish subjects. However, since the fairly recent assertion of Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish ancestral land (the return to which Jews the world over have prayed for thrice daily for nearly two millennia), Jews - not only Israelis - have been vilified, attacked and slandered by their biblical cousins.

Anti-Semitism, generally unfashionable if not exactly uncommon since Hitler's day, became the eagerly adopted demon of much of the Arab world. Under the guise of "anti-Zionism," Jews have been portrayed there - and treated - as sub-human and treacherous. What had once been Greek and Roman canards, then Christian and German ones, became the cherished property of a new world of rabid Jew-haters. Innocent lives were blasted to bloody bits and the vilest racism was seared into the impressionable minds of little Arab boys and girls, all in the purported cause of Palestinian nationalism. A cause now reconciled, or about to be reconciled, with the reality of the Jewish State.

The hope: Just as Christian anti-Semitism eventually yielded up its ghost to the righteousness of such men as Pope John XXIII and Lutheran leaders who had the moral vision to disown part of Luther's legacy, so might the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world choose the path of reason, empathy and sincere desire for peace..

The fear: They might not.

Put aside the fact that Yasser Arafat seems to be having great difficulty convincing even the most "moderate" faction of the PLO, Al Fatah, of the wisdom of making peace with Israel. Put aside, as well, the fact that other factions within that erstwhile terrorist organization, such as the Palestine Liberation Front, have made clear their total opposition to any peace plan. Put aside even the critical fact that Arafat's leadership is rejected by what is probably the most determinedly violent player on the scene: the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.

To feel the fear, a Jew need look no further than the 1964 charter of the PLO itself, the one calling for the destruction of Israel. It has never been abandoned nor modified. On the contrary, Mr. Arafat is still on record defending it, and even as he pushed his peace plan to the world he spoke to his own people about it being the first step on the road toward "our Jerusalem." Jewish ears did not hear those words as very reassuring, not when the prospect of a Palestinian-controlled country in the very heart of Israel was what was being roundly celebrated by all concerned.

Still, though, even we paranoiacs hope. We must, for the sake of justice and peace. But we cannot afford to be naive. It is wonderful to hear good news, but Jews no longer swallow good news without smelling it carefully first. We've learned the hard way about the dangers of indiscriminately digesting goodwill.

The same year of our half-inning baseball game, I played the part of Monceau, a French actor being held by the Nazis, in Arthur Miller's play Incident at Vichy, our high school performance. The Jewish Frenchman, hearing his fellow detainees repeat rumors of forced Jewish labor and death camps, resists the information, insisting that it is unbelievable nonsense. He smugly tells the others about a relative of his who was sent by the Germans to a camp in Poland.

"I have several letters from him," Monceau informs his listeners, "saying he's fine."

"They've even taught him bricklaying," the trusting fellow concludes, happy for and proud of his cousin in Auschwitz.

Millions of Monceaus would be much wiser today, had they survived. So while politicians, journalists and commentators across the political spectrum gush at all the pleasant purring emanating from the Mideast, and while many Jews themselves gratefully breathe deep the cool, refreshing winds of change, others among us, while still hopeful as always, cannot help but wonder whether we're just imagining it or if the breeze might just be carrying the faintest echo of wood striking bone, the merest odor of burning flesh.

We pray fervently, hopefully and with all of our hearts that it's only our imagination.


Rabbi Shafran is currently director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. When the article above was written, he was a religious studies teacher in a Jewish high school in Providence, RI.

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