Albuquerque is about to host the first-ever Sabeel Conference on Sept. 28 and 29. This was no small feat. Under pressure from the Jewish establishment that accused Sabeel of being anti-Israeli, the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. John, the original venue for the conference, rescinded their invitation. Fortunately the Immanuel Presbyterian Church opened up their doors. Sabeel’s stated mission is to create a just peace based on moral and legal principles. They are a grassroots, interfaith, international ecumenical group started by Christian Palestinians in Jerusalem. Twice, I was the only Jew traveling with an American Sabeel delegation in Israel and the West Bank and learned that when your common focus is human rights, religion does not and cannot separate us.
It was a snowy day last winter when a friend and I met the rabbi from the neighborhood synagogue to tell him about the upcoming conference. We went in good faith. Previously, the rabbi had the grace and wisdom to encourage his congregation to hear the voice of an individual they might never have met. In 1997, Abdessalam Najjar was visiting the U.S. as an emissary for the Oasis of Peace / Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salaam. This unique place, located midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, has Jews, Muslims and Christians living as neighbors. Their children attend the country’s first bilingual and bicultural school located in the heart of the village. The only religious edifice was a white domed structure that welcomed prayer in silence. When asked the reason for his optimism about coexistence, Abdessalam responded, “I have no other choice.”
This Muslim-Palestinian Israeli was invited to speak from the pulpit at a Friday night service. It was sukkot. Having grown up in the Galilee, Abdessalam was fluent in Hebrew and knew many of the prayers. After the service, everyone went into the sukkah for refreshments. Spirit was palpable—the stranger was invited into our tent—and then he was no longer a stranger. Abdessalam, whose name means "servant of peace," died this year but his family and his legacy live on in the Oasis of Peace, a village he helped to found.
On another occasion, Jeff Halper, a Jewish-American Israeli, spoke with the rabbi in the sanctuary of B’nai Shalom. That was the day I learned about René Cassin, a French Jew who helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 in response to the Holocaust that had decimated over five million lives. Jeff, an anthropologist by profession, made aliyah to Israel as a young man. As a peace activist, he speaks out against the horrors of occupation and has founded the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, a group that rebuilds destroyed Palestinian homes in the West Bank. Jeff was not anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic. He was a Jewish Cassandra, warning us that Israel’s survival as a democracy and a Jewish sanctuary depends on making a just peace with their non-Jewish neighbors. Jeff Halper will be delivering the keynote address at the Sabeel Conference, "From Two States to Apartheid to Warehousing: Where Do We Go From Here?"
I was there when the rabbi from Temple Albert met with Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the co-founder of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), who said the occupation was corrupting the Jewish soul. Political jargon would describe it another way. The policies of the government of Israel are hurting all of us. Rabbi Ascherman regularly protects Palestinians harvesting their olives, and intercedes when they are arrested trying to protect their homes and land during nonviolent protests. Rabbi Ascherman unequivocally stated that the heart of Judaism was to treat your fellow humans as you want to be treated.
Since rabbis in Albuquerque have shown such wisdom in the past, we did not expect a hostile response when we invited them to the Sabeel Conference with the possibility of speaking. We, the organizers of the conference, want to make it clear: All local rabbis, cantors, Federation and Hillel leaders are welcome to participate and attend.
That many Jews believe boycott, divestment and sanctions (or BDS, a non-violent movement promoted by Palestinian civil society) to be anti-Israeli and possibly anti-Semitic is less important than the possibility of an open dialogue. Without solutions, Israelis and Palestinians are condemned to ongoing violence, war, death and the destruction of the natural environment.
In 1998, when I visited the Oasis of Peace for the first time, Abdessalam welcomed me at the airport in Tel Aviv. Walking through the village one afternoon, we passed the home of a Jewish neighbor with paper-cut lanterns flickering in a window. Two doves flew towards each other under a banner of Hebrew and Arabic words. I asked what the words meant and was told: "It won’t be over until we sit down and talk." That was the case in 1998, and it is still the case in 2012.