Miles to go for peace
Here's to our yearly promises to turn our hopes and dreams into reality. From the personal to the global, we pledge to exercise more, or to change our habits, or to create a better world, and last Sunday, Jan. 11, Islanders gathered at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center to talk about the steps they took to bring the "better world" part a little closer to reality.
This past November, organized to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding, Ali Berlow, the Reverends Vicky and Armen Hanjian, and Sarah Kominer, along with 33 other Americans, traveled on a human rights trip to Israel and the West Bank, visiting all the communities in the West Bank - Palestinian, Christian, and Jewish.
Sponsored by Rabbis for Human Rights - North America (RHR-NA), the trip was led by its executive director, Rabbi Brian Walt of West Tisbury. RHR-NA is a counterpart to Rabbis for Human Rights Israel, a group that was founded in 1987 in response to concerns about human rights violations in Israel, both for the Jews and the Palestinians.
Rabbi Walt explained, "Six years ago a group of rabbis from all over this country who were deeply connected to and inspired by the work that the rabbis were doing in Israel created RHR-North America, an organization that would both support their work in Israel and do work here."
And most mornings the rabbi (husband of Rabbi Caryn Broitman of the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center) can be found in his garage-converted office phoning, emailing with other activists, trying to raise both awareness and funds for RHR-NA causes.
The trip in November provided firsthand experiences on which understanding could be built.
"You know how you can have an idea about something, and then you're in the reality and then the idea is the palest notion of what is going on?" said Ms. Hanjian. "That's what happened."
Mr. Hanjian offered an example from an occasion when the group was invited to plant trees on a Palestinian farmer's land. "We arrived to plant the olive trees," he recalled, "and when we arrived, Israeli [West Bank] settlers spotted our bus and one of them came down in a vehicle. When he came down the police also arrived. And the settler challenged our right to plant on that land because it's land that Israeli settlers also claim as theirs. The police usually accept that, unless the Palestinian villagers have their ownership papers with them."
Land ownership in the West Bank has always been a highly charged issue. Fortunately, after several phone calls to various legal authorities, a settlement was reached. "It ended up that the policeman said, 'Finish up planting in a short time,'" explains Mr. Hanjian. "We did end up planting all of the trees - about 100."
The group also planted willow trees in Sderot, an Israeli city that has been the target of frequent rocket attacks from Gaza, not far from its perimeter.
While in Israel, they had reason to reconnect to Martha's Vineyard. Islander Gretchen Feldman had passed away while they were in Israel, and learning of her death, Rabbi Walt decided to have a short service in remembrance.
Ms. Berlow describes watching the sun set over Gaza as Rabbi Walt prepared to conduct a mourner's Kaddish (Jewish ritual mourning prayer) for Ms. Feldman. Before beginning, he called her husband, Sam Feldman in Chilmark, so that he could get on his speaker phone and participate. Mr. Feldman was at home in Chilmark observing Kaddish in a ceremony conducted by Rabbi Walt's wife, Rabbi Broitman.
Ms. Berlow recalled, "We said Kaddish, and while we were saying it we could hear gunfire in the background somewhere in the distance from where we stood."
The group sought to understand a wide range of views. They also saw that potential solutions for untangling the issues in Israel and Palestine are as complex as the problems.
"It was interesting to me," said Ms. Berlow. "As an outsider, as an American, as a tourist who was there in a moment of time, to see this - what's the solution. There was this constant two state solution, one state solution, back off, back in, break down the walls, build higher walls. [It was] constant searching."
Ms. Hanjian watched as Rabbi Walt and Rabbi Arik Asherman from RHR Israel, who accompanied them at times, worked on peaceful engagement with settlers and Palestinians as they discussed the issues. "Peace takes people on the ground talking to other people," she said. "You can't make peace if you're not willing to talk to the person that you're not at peace with. I watched it happen enough there - the way Brian and Arik used non-violent communication to see that a potential enemy, when engaged in conversation, becomes a human being and that things change."
Niki Patton is a freelance writer living in West Tisbury.