The world stands on justice, truth, and peace

The Hebrew Bible is full of powerful statements about shalom, peace.  Both Jews and Christians often quote the text found in the Book of Isaiah (2:2-4), and also in the Book of Micah (4:1-3), which looks to a time in the future when ‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and they shall learn war no more.’  These famous words express an ideal state – but they also say something very real about what it takes to create peace:   That, like making war, it demands energy and effort – all that beating of metal – and involves learning the ways of peace.    And Micah adds something else – a vision of the peaceful life that is also very instructive: ‘Rather, everyone shall sit under their vine and under their fig-tree and none shall terrorise them’ (Micah 4:4a).  Creating peace involves making it possible for everyone to create prosperity and to live in security.  Peace is not an end but a new beginning.


Significantly, many of the references to peace in the Bible connect peace to justice.  Several passages in the biblical Book of Isaiah, for example, indicate that peace and justice are inextricably linked.  We read, for example, in Isaiah chapter 32, verse 17:

For the work of justice shall be peace; and the service of justice, quietness and security forever

hayah ma’aseh ha-tz’dakah shalom; va’avodat ha-tz’dakah hashkeit va-vetach ad olam


And so, working for peace involves working for justice – and indeed, pursuing both:  In the Torah, in the Book of Deuteronomy, in a section dealing with the laws of justice, we read at chapter 16, verse 20: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – ‘Justice, justice, you shall pursue’.  And the Psalmist declares in Psalm 34, verse 15:  Sur mei-ra va-aseih-tov; bakeish shalom v’rodfeihu – ‘Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.’   In Hebrew, nouns, adjectives and verbs are all derived from three-letter roots:  That is, each word is rooted in three consonants.  The word ‘pursue’ in Hebrew, indicated by the three consonants, Reish Dalet Pei, conveys a sense of urgency, as it does in English.  In Hebrew syntax, it is usual for the verb to come first, and so, in the verse, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – ‘Justice, justice, you shall pursue’, the tone of urgency is heightened, not only by the repetition of the word, tzedek, Justice, but also by the word order:  Justice, justice, you shall pursue.’   Meanwhile, the repetition of ‘justice’ suggests something else, impartiality: where two parties are involved, pursuing justice for the one also necessitates pursuing justice for the other.


So, peace cannot be separated from justice – and both require us to actively pursue them.  To understand the relationship between the two more deeply, and the conditions necessary for people to make peace, I would like to share with you a paragraph found in rabbinic literature.  It is a quotation from the Mishnah, the first post-biblical code of Jewish law reflecting the deliberations of the early rabbis, who gave themselves the task of interpreting the teachings of the Torah.  One section of the six ‘orders’ of the Mishnah, Pirkey Avot, The Chapters of the Sages, is devoted to the rabbis’ philosophical teachings.  This particular teaching is attributed to Simeon ben Gamliel II, Principal of the Rabbinic Academy in Usha, in the lower Galilee, from 140-170 CE, whose son, known as ‘Judah the Prince’ (Y’hudah Ha-Nasi), was responsible for editing the Mishnah around the year 200 CE.


Here is the text from Mishnah Avot 1:18:

Al sh’loshah d’varim ha-olam omeid:  al ha-din, v’al ha-emet, v’al ha-shalom.

The world stands on three things:  on justice, and on truth and on peace.

This brief statement reminds us that from a Jewish perspective, the Bible was not the last word on the subject of peace; it also deepens our awareness of the connection between peace and justice, while making another powerful assertion: both peace and justice are inextricably connected with truth; indeed, the world stands on all three together – conjuring up an image of pillars, which suggests that if just one pillar were removed, the world would collapse…


‘The world stands on three things:  on justice, and on truth and on peace’ – and so, there can be no justice without truth and peace; no truth without justice and peace; no peace without justice and truth.  That is the challenge before all of us; before all humanity.  To understand the challenge more fully, it helps to have a sense of the Hebrew meanings of these three pillars of the world.


There are four words for justice in the Bible and rabbinic literature.  The text before us speaks of ‘din’.  In biblical Hebrew din means ‘judgement’, and the early rabbis extended this meaning of the word, by using it denote ‘law’, a law-suit’ and a ‘claim’, as well as ‘justice’.  Din conveys justice in the sense of the legal system for executing justice, and in the Bible we also find another word that plays a similar role, mishpat – based on the three consonants, Shin Pei Tet, meaning to judge; the ‘judges’ of the Bible were the shof’tim.   The Bible also uses two other related words for justice:  tzedek and tz’dakah, which are both based on the three-letter root: Tzadi Dalet Kuf.  And so, as I indicated a moment ago, we read in Deuteronomy chapter 16, verse 20, in the context of a passage dealing with how the system of justice is to be administered:  Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – ‘Justice, Justice you shall pursue’.  And then, in Deuteronomy chapter 24, in a section dealing with economic justice, we read that when giving a loan, returning a garment taken as a pledge before sunset is an act of tz’dakah – justice (:13). While the words tzedek and tz’dakah relate to the individual’s responsibility to act justly, the words din and mishpat focus on the legal system that creates a framework governed by rules of impartiality, which regulates the conduct of individuals, and attempts to ensure that the stronger members of the society come to the aid of the more vulnerable and dependent members of the society – designated in the Torah, in particular, as ‘the stranger, the orphan and the widow’ (Deuteronomy 24: 17) (in that order).

In British society we speak of a ‘fair’ system of justice.  From a Jewish legal point of view, fairness is not only about impartiality – for example, as it says in the Torah, not favouring the rich on the one hand or the poor on the other (Deuteronomy 16:19; Leviticus 19:15) – it is also about correcting inequalities.  And so the pursuit of justice, tzedek, involves what we now call ‘redistributive justice’.  While charity – from the Latin word caritas – suggests an act of kindness that expresses our loving feelings towards others, the Hebrew equivalent, tz’dakah, connotes an act of justice that we are obligated to perform in favour of the poor and the needy.  The point about tz’dakah is that we are supposed to do it even when we don’t feel charitable.


And what of truth?  As soon as we use the word truth in our post-modern society, we are aware that truth is not quite as absolute as it once seemed.  In a British Court of Law, a witness must speak ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ – but nevertheless truth is subjective as well as objective, and the witness speaks the truth as she or he understands it.  The Hebrew word for truth – and, interestingly, there is only one word – is emet.   Emet is based on the same root from which we derive the word ‘Amen’ – pronounced ‘Amein’ in Hebrew.   The three-letter root, in question – Alef Mem Nun – means to confirm or support.  And so, when we respond to a prayer with the word ‘Amen’, we are basically indicating our support or affirmation for the sentiments expressed – as if we were saying:  ‘I agree!’  Or: ‘So may it be!’ – with an exclamation mark.  Similarly, the word emet has a sense of affirmation about it.  Truth becomes firm and solid when we affirm it. Just as justice requires action and a system of regulation, so truth requires acknowledgement.   And so, where there are competing truths, the challenge becomes:  How can I affirm my own truth and also, acknowledge the truth of the other person?    Justice is not possible while we remain unable or unwilling to acknowledge that we are not the sole guardians of ‘The Truth’.


Like truth and justice, peace is a much-used word that carries with it a significant, additional freight of meaning in Hebrew.   The word we translate as ‘peace’ – shalom – is based on a three-letter Hebrew root, Shin Lamed Mem – meaning to be complete or sound.  And so, a related word, shaleim, means ‘wholeness.’   Peace is not the same as ‘tranquillity’, shalvah, or ‘quiet’, sheket; and peace is not simply the absence of war or violence:  Peace is a state of completeness.  A passage in Leviticus chapter 5 (:16) speaks of a person committing a wrong, being obliged to make restitution, or reparation, using a verbal form of the root – y’shalleim.  And so making peace involves putting right what is wrong, in order that that what is broken may be repaired and become whole again.


The notion of ‘making whole’, reinforces the connection between peace and justice. In the Torah, in the Book of Books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the rules of justice, encompass all aspects of society, including economic behaviour.  Interestingly, in this regard, while Leviticus chapter 19 speaks of the need for ‘just’ balances, weights and measures – using the word tzedek; Deuteronomy chapter 25, expresses the same teaching, emphasising the requirement of justice, by adding the word, sh’leimah, ‘whole’:  And so we read at verse 15:  ‘You shall have whole and just weights; whole and just measures’ – Even sh’leimah va-tzedek yihyeh lach; eifah sh’leimah va-tzedek yihyeh lach.  Incidentally, the verb to ‘have’ doesn’t exist in Hebrew, so the literal translation of the verse is:  ‘a weight whole and just [there] shall be to you; a measure whole and just [there] shall be to you.’


So, peace, shalom, suggests, ‘wholeness’, shaleim – and so, also, ‘well-being’ and ‘welfare’.  That is why the Hebrew greeting, when people meet is ‘Shalom’.  There is a telling example in the Torah that centres on the greeting of ‘Peace’, which illustrates beautifully the potential for peaceful relationships of respect and integrity between different peoples.   When Moses is about to leave Midian and return to Egypt on a mission to persuade Pharaoh to liberate the slaves, his father-in-law, Jethro, the Priest of Midian, says to him, lech l’shalom – ‘go in peace’ (Exodus 4:18) – or, rather, more literally, ‘go for peace’ l’shalom – that is, for the sake of peace.  Later, after the slaves have made their grand Exodus, Jethro comes to Sinai – the site of the impending Revelation – to wish Moses well, before returning again to his own land.   We read that when ‘Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, he bowed low, and kissed him; and each man enquired about his friend’s welfare’ (18:7) – Va-yishalu ish-l’rei’eihu l’shalom – or, rather, more literally, ‘They enquired, each man of his friend, for the sake of peace’.


Yes, Moses and Jethro were ‘friends’.  But more than this: the word rei’a friend, also means ‘neighbour’ – as in, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ – in Leviticus chapter 19 (:18).  And even more significantly: Jethro – as all the references to him emphasise – was Moses’ father-in-law.  When Moses became the ‘groom’ – chatan – of Tzipporah; Jethro became his ‘father-in-law’, chotein.  Both words chatan, ‘groom’, and chotein, ‘father-in-law’, are based on the root, Cheit Tav Nun, which means to ‘make an alliance’.  When Moses married Tzipporah the Israelites and the Midianites entered an alliance; a relationship rooted in establishing peace between them.  Indeed, the Israelites and Midianites entered a covenant – as the curious tale of Tzipporah circumcising her second son on the journey back to Egypt suggests:  ‘A bridegroom of blood, you are to me!’  Tzipporah proclaims to Moses – adding:  ‘A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision’ (Exodus 4:25-26).  The root Cheit Tav Nun meaning to ‘make an alliance’ is also related to an Arabic root meaning to ‘circumcise.’


Of course, marriage is not the only way to build bridges between peoples and alliances need not be sealed in blood.  What this narrative about Moses, Jethro and Tzipporah teaches us, above all, is that it is possible to forge relationships of respect and integrity across the cultural, religious, ethnic and racial divide and so create the conditions for justice, truth and peace to flourish.


It is possible – but it is also a tall order!   We only have to think about the major conflicts raging in the world today.  But nevertheless, the Hebrew meanings of justice, truth and peace, both help us to identify the connections between these three pillars of the world, and also suggest the steps we need to take to be in a position to make peace – or, rather, suggest how we might go about hewing the stones for the pillars and setting them in place.


Israel and Palestine: A personal perspective

So, how does this all connect with the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?  I’ll address this question directly in a moment – but first, a short detour.  I spent my student days at LSE in the mid-seventies as a Marxist activist turned Radical Feminist.  I then visited Israel for a month’s holiday in July 1978, after a year at the Institute of Education, and fell in love with the place.  So much so, that I returned in November to work as a volunteer on a very small secular, radical kibbutz called Adamit in the Western Galilee, very close to the border, where my sister-in-law lived.  Having been an eternal student, I loved being immersed in agricultural tasks that included long hours in the citrus and avocado groves.  It was wonderful working the land, but I also got a bit of a feel for life underground:  At that time, k’tushah rocket attacks from Lebanon were quite frequent, so I became quite familiar with the kibbutz bomb shelters – although most of the missiles went over the top of us and landed on the kibbutzim in the valley below.  While I was living on Adamit, Israel signed a peace-treaty with Egypt and Jordan, which involved leaving the Sinai desert occupied after the Six Day War in 1967 and evacuating the settlements there – but meanwhile, the rockets from the North kept coming.


I left the kibbutz after seven months to try and get on with my life and decide what I was going to do – all I knew was I didn’t want to teach.  And then the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 changed my life.  Strange as it may seem, living on the kibbutz had not really impinged on my sense of Jewish identity because although most of that small community were Jewish, like me they expressed their Jewishness by being passionate about socialism.  When I returned to the kibbutz four years later in 1983, I felt a new atmosphere – a certain tension:  All Israeli men do a month’s Reserve Duty in the Army every year until they are fifty or so – but for those who had served in Lebanon over the past year, the experience felt very different; they did not want to participate in a new occupation.  Everyone was pleased that the rocket attacks had ceased, but meanwhile relations with the Israeli Arab villages close by, formerly very genial, had cooled.  Perched on the top of a rugged hill, facing Israel to the South and Lebanon to the North, the place really felt like it was on an edge.


The Israeli incursion into Lebanon forced me to take responsibility for my Jewish identity.  After I got back from my holiday I struggled with two choices:  Should I go and live in Israel and participate in the burgeoning Peace movement, Shalom Achshav – Peace Now – which had burst onto the political scene following a massive rally in Tel Aviv, involving hundreds of thousands of people, or should I start learning more about my Jewish heritage, so I could begin to understand what Judaism was about; what Jewish life was about – and, more importantly for me at the time, why Israel?   Not to mention, why the Diaspora?


I decided to become a student again.  In one sense it wasn’t a hard choice for an eternal student, but in other ways it was the most challenging of the two options:   I had left cheder – synagogue classes for children – at the age of eight, when my elder brother became Bar Mitzvah.  I knew nothing and had to begin right at the beginning with the Alef-Beit – the Hebrew equivalent of ABC.  What is more, I had no experience of Jewish communal life because my parents had chosen not to participate in it – which meant that I’d have to venture into an entirely new terrain.  And, there were two other key factors involved that other people thought might create a few difficulties:  I was a lesbian; and rather than simply pursue a little Jewish study in my spare time, I felt what I really needed to do was become a rabbi.


Much has happened since then.  I’ve been a full-time professional Jew now for twenty-seven years – including five years rabbinic training – and I’ve visited Israel many times. During the past five years, my experience of Israel has been particularly intensive: In February 2005, I was part of a delegation of rabbis involved in a Liberal Judaism/Rabbis for Human Rights Mission, meeting with Jewish and Arab Israelis and with Palestinians who are working for peace. Then for four months, from December 2006 to March 2007 I spent my sabbatical there. I returned again for three-week-long trips in January 2008 and January 2009, and, shortly, in mid-October I will be co-leading a Liberal Judaism tour. The purpose of this little meander into my beginnings as a Socialist Radical Feminist Jew choosing to live Jewishly, is to enable you to get some idea of who I am and where I’m coming from when I engage with the painful conflict between my people and the Palestinian people:  I am involved and I can’t give up because it’s my problem.


Israel and Palestine: A case for Justice, Truth and Peace

So, if, as Simeon ben Gamliel says, ‘The world stands on Justice, Truth and Peace’, then perhaps, the same might be said about the resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?


Let us first explore the issue of Justice.   Earlier I mentioned the short verse in Deuteronomy Chapter 16 – verse 20:  ‘Justice, Justice you shall pursue’ – Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof. It is clear to me that for there to be peace between Israelis and Palestinians, both sides of the conflict deserve Justice and both sides must pursue Justice – not only for themselves but for the other people.  In 1939, before the outbreak of the Second World War, Martin Buber, best known for his philosophical work, I and Thou, wrote a letter to Mahatma Gandhi – yes, in 1939; before the Nazi regime had transformed its evil vision of a ‘Jew-free’ Europe into gruesome reality, and the Jewish quest for a nation-state on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean became an issue of Jewish survival. Buber wrote (1985):

I belong to a group of people who from the time Britain conquered Palestine have not ceased to strive for the concluding of a genuine peace between Jew and Arab.

By a genuine peace we inferred and still infer that both peoples together should develop the land without the one imposing its will on the other. In view of the international usages of our generation, this appeared to us to be very difficult but not impossible. We were and still are aware that in this unusual – yes, unprecedented case, it is a question of seeking new ways of understanding and cordial agreement between the nations. Here again we stood and still stand under the sway of a commandment.

We considered it a fundamental point that in this case two vital claims are opposed to each other, two claims of a different nature and a different origin which cannot objectively be pitted against one another and between which no objective decision can be made as to which is just, which unjust. We considered and still consider it our duty to understand and to honour the claim which is opposed to ours and to endeavour to reconcile both claims. We could not and cannot renounce the Jewish claim; something even higher than the life of our people is bound up with this land, namely its work, its divine mission. But we have been and still are convinced that it must be possible to find some compromise between this claim and the other; for we love this land and we believe in its future; since such love and such faith are surely present on the other side as well, a union in the common service of the land must be within the range of possibility. Where there is faith and love, a solution may be found even to what appears to be a tragic opposition.


Martin Buber was a member of the German chapter of B’rit Shalom, a Jewish organisation founded in 1921, which argued for a bi-national state (Mendes-Flohr, 1983, p.73). For the past 17 years, since President Clinton facilitated a handshake between Yitzchak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel at that time, and Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinians, on the White House lawn in September 1993, the hope for a two state solution has been dashed again and again. And yet, despite the fact that many have given up that hope and some are arguing, once more, for a bi-national state, the majority of Israelis and Palestinians remain committed to the goal of two states for two peoples. The basic issue is one of Justice. To repeat what Buber said way back in 1939: ‘… two vital claims are opposed to each other, two claims of a different nature and a different origin which cannot objectively be pitted against one another and between which no objective decision can be made as to which is just, which unjust.’   And still today: there can be no peace between Israelis and Palestinians without Justice for both peoples.  Perhaps one day, both peoples will choose to share one nation together.   For the time being, securing peace depends on an equitable division of the land into two sovereign states.


But there is still something missing from the equation…  In order for there to be Peace, both peoples must acknowledge each other’s cause – and to do this both Israelis and Palestinians must find a way of acknowledging the other’s experience and way of making sense of that experience – the Truth as each people knows it.


For Israelis that means recognising, not only that the land was not empty and that it had been inhabited by another people for hundreds of years, but also the particularity of the connection between each Palestinian and Palestinian family, with their particular piece of the land – their house, their field, their olive grove.   This is not a nationalist issue. 20% of the population of Israel today are Arabs – often referred to as Israeli Arabs, but more accurately, they are Palestinian Israelis, who continue to live in the particular places where their families have lived for generations and have no intention of moving to another place – not even to the State of Palestine once it is founded.  When I visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in February 2005, our whirl-wind tour took us to the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace, established in 1963 at Givat Haviva, the Institute for Advanced Studies of the Kibbutz Artzi Federation, which is situated just a couple of miles from the Green Line, in the narrow strip, south east of Haifa. There we met three people – two Jewish and one Palestinian Israeli – who talked to us about a variety of different projects that bring Palestinian Israelis and Jewish Israelis together, encompassing encounter groups, peace education, teacher training, community leadership programmes, Arabic Studies, a bi-monthly young people’s magazine, called ‘Crossing Borders’ and a twenty-four hour Internet Radio Station, called ‘All for Peace’.  It was fascinating, inspirational and challenging.  Mohammad Darawshe the main Spokesperson for the Centre, responsible for Public Relations, summed up the challenge:  ‘We want Israel to be a state for all of its citizens.  Of course, Israel must be the Jewish homeland.  Every Jew must be able to come here.  But once here, we must all be treated as equal citizens with equal rights and responsibilities.’


Because the Zionist enterprise was imposed on the Palestinians without consultation we might conclude that as an oppressed people, they cannot be expected to acknowledge either the Jewish need for a homeland or the Jewish claim to this particular land.  But such acknowledgement is essential for there to be Peace.   The notion that the Zionists were and are western imperialists, intent on gaining a foothold in the Middle East simply does not concur with how Jewish Israelis understand Zionism as a movement for national determination that developed in the 19th century in response to European anti-Semitism.  From a Jewish Israeli point of view, Jews needed – and still need – a home of our own, free from persecution, and the most obvious place for the Jewish people to be at home is in our own ancestral homeland.  From a Jewish Israeli point of view, the Shoah – the Nazi Holocaust – an outcome of centuries of Jew-hatred, has since proved the Zionist case for a Jewish refuge.


So, how do both peoples begin to acknowledge each other’s Truths?  Surely, acknowledging each other’s Truths, must eventually involve accommodating each other’s Truths, making space for the other, not only physically, but also psychologically.  But for this to happen, first there must be Justice:  As Simeon ben Gamliel said:  ‘The world stands on three pillars: Justice, Truth and Peace’ – in that order.   Justice demands that the Israeli and Palestinian leadership negotiate together concerning the withdrawal of Israel from the Palestinian territories occupied following the Six Day War in 1967 in Gaza and the land on the West Bank of the Jordan.  Justice demands that following withdrawal, Palestinian militants who continue to launch attacks against Israel are pursued and brought to Justice by the Palestinian leadership.  Justice demands that the Palestinian Territories become a sovereign state, with a democratic system of government, guaranteeing equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens – including lesbian and gay people.  Likewise, Justice demands that Israel undergoes a process of democratic reform in order to ensure that each and every Israeli citizen, regardless of religion or ethnicity, enjoys equal rights and equal opportunities.


‘The world stands three pillars: Justice, Truth and Peace’.  Later on in the same text, Pirkey Avot, The Chapters of the Sages, we read:  ‘The sword comes into the world because of Justice [haDin] delayed and Justice denied’ (Mishnah 5:8, Blackman, 1983, p.530).  There is no doubt that when it comes to the issue of the establishment of a Palestinian state, Justice has been delayed and denied – and that there has been much violence directed by Palestinians against Israel and Israeli citizens as a consequence.  But how can we be sure that once there is Justice, violence will cease and peace will be possible?  It comes back to the question of both peoples acknowledging each other’s Truths – and also something else that I learned when I participated in the Human Rights mission in February 2005.


I arrived in that troubled strip of land filled with despair and I saw much that echoed my worse fears – but also much that gave me cause for hope:  Meeting with Rabbi Arik Asherman, Director of Rabbis for Human Rights, who makes a habit of standing in front of Army bulldozers intent on destroying Palestinian houses, which don’t have building permits, and spends his days not only advocating the cause of Palestinians, but taking action on their behalf; meeting with Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israel Religious Action Centre, which challenges discrimination in every place across the religious and ethnic spectrum; meeting with Saab Erekat, the Chief Palestinian Negotiator, at his Headquarters in the free atmosphere of the pleasant Palestinian-controlled town of Jericho, and listening to him speak about his unshakable commitment to the peace process; meeting with Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Head of the Palestinian Peace Coalition in the midst of conflict-battered Ramallah, and hearing about the on-going Palestinian effort to achieve an independent Palestinian state by peaceful means.


Meeting with these two Palestinians leaders, in particular, showed me how Peace was a real possibility, despite all the obstacles:  Both men were furious about the way in which the recently constructed ‘Separation Barrier’ deviates from the Green Line and cuts into swathes of Palestinian territory. At that time, Ariel Sharon was Prime Minister of Israel, and both men were angry about Ariel Sharon’s unilateral, patronising approach and the way he delivered ultimata without entering into negotiation.  Both men were frustrated by the reluctance of the Israeli authorities to change some of the ‘facts on the ground’ to make the life of ordinary Palestinians a little easier.  Both men were well aware that in deciding to withdraw from Gaza, Sharon was planning to hold onto as much land in the West Bank as possible.  And yet both men remained totally committed to a peaceful solution.  As Saab Erekat put it:  ‘It’s a win, win, or it’s a lose, lose situation; either: both Israelis and Palestinians have a chance to live, or: both Israelis and Palestinians continue to die.’


To live or to die – yes, that’s the heart of the matter. As we read in the Torah, in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 30 (:19): ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I set before you life and death, the blessing and a curse; therefore choose life – u’varchata ba-chayyim – that you may live, you and your descendants’. As it happens, the Jewish toast is L’Chayyim! – ‘To Life!’ Courage; tenacity; commitment to humanitarian values – these were the qualities I have encountered among both Israelis – Jewish and Palestinian – and Palestinians.   And more than this:  the determination that both peoples should live.  Ultimately, it is that determination that is enabling all those involved in working for Peace to hew the stone for the pillars, and do everything in their power to put them in place, despite the back-breaking labour and the shattering setbacks.


But even more than determination is needed if there is to be a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The central prayer of Jewish thrice-daily worship – called, simply, ‘The Prayer’, Ha-T’fillah, by the rabbis of old – ends with a blessing for peace, followed by a passage of personal meditation, which concludes with a prayer that speaks of ‘making peace’.  It is traditional to take three steps back as one recites these final words.  I remember one of my teachers, Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, former Principal of the Leo Baeck College, where I trained to be a rabbi, telling us about an insight into this practice that he had learned from one of his teachers:  In order to make peace between people or peoples, it is essential to step back from one’s own position to make space for the other.  This insight seems counter-intuitive – doesn’t making peace with others involve moving towards them?  When we step forward, towards another or others, justice requires that we must also step back to allow space for she, he or them to speak and express their truth. This is what it takes to begin to make peace. So, what is needed more than anything else in the tragic conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples is for both sides to take at least one step back from their positions, to make space for the other.


Creating Justice and Peace is very hard work – not least because it involves both sides in the conflict recognising that they cannot have everything they want, and that compromise between them is essential. The hard relentless work creating a just peace continues, and will continue – even after the establishment of the State of Palestine.  Again, as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed (32:17): ‘The work of Justice [Tz’dakah] shall be Peace; and the service of Justice, quietness and security forever.’   So, what can we do?  Very little, except support the efforts of the peacemakers, and add our voices to the call for a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict that fulfils the needs of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples – and does not promote the needs of one at the expense of the other.  In September 2000, as a new Palestinian Intifada began, I wrote a prayer for our High Holy Day services, which I have included in every Sabbath morning service that I’ve led since.  I would like to end with my prayer – in the hope that it might be our prayer today; our prayer for a just peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples:

El Malei Rachamim, God Full of Compassion, who heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds, we ask You to show all Your children the way of love and compassion, so that hatred ceases to scar their lives.

Ein Chayyim, Source of Life, we call upon You to send Your abundant blessings into every home, Israeli and Palestinian, so that new hope may overcome old fears.

Adonai Tzadik, Righteous One, who exhorts us to pursue Justice, we fervently pray that a spirit of righteousness may prevail, so that both peoples find the courage to reach a just settlement of their differences.

Oseh Shalom, Maker of Peace, who teaches us to be seekers of peace, we entreat You now to spread Your tabernacle of shalom over all the inhabitants of Your land, and to support the peacemakers among both peoples in their efforts to walk the path of reconciliation, so that a just peace may reign supreme at last – bimheirah b’yameinu, speedily in our own day.

And let us say:  Amen.



Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah,

Worthing Theological Society, 28th September 2010




Blackman, Philip. Ed. 1983.  Mishnayot.  Vol. 4:  Nezikin.  Judaica Press, Gateshead.

Mendes-Flohr.  Paul R.  Ed. 1983.  A Land of Two Peoples.  Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs.

Oxford University Press, New York.