In September 2000, just after the second intifada broke out, I wrote a prayer for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. We have been reciting the prayer at my synagogue ever since.
I was prompted to write the prayer for two reasons. First, praying for a just peace was my natural response to events that finally spelt the end of the peace process. Second, because the Israeli poet, Yehudah Amichai, had just died and feeling a deep sadness at the loss of this unique personality, whose poetry spoke so lyrically of the anguish and joy of being an Israeli, I was reminded of his poem, ‘I, may I rest in peace’.
When Rabbi Lea Mühlstein and I as co-editors of the new Liberal Judaism siddur were working on the first draft and decided to include my prayer for peace, we realised that it was a new departure, but we did not think it would be controversial. But then, at that time, President Trump had not decided to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, sparking mass protests amongst the Palestinians, in particular, in Gaza – and large sections of the Jewish community in the UK, already perturbed by the ongoing issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, had not reacted with outrage in response to young Liberal and Reform Jews participating in the Kaddish for Gaza event that followed the killing of 70 Gazans by the Israeli army.
Why were so many Jews from across the denominational spectrum outraged about the fact that those young Jews had participated in the Kaddish for Gaza?
Of course, Hamas holds sway in Gaza, and many people felt that Israel was simply responding to the threat posed by what was regarded as Hamas-incited mass demonstrations at the Gaza-Israel border, the site for many years of rocket attacks into Israel. Hamas fighters were amongst those killed. How could young Jews say Kaddish for Hamas militants?
I think there was a deeper reason for the outcry. How could young Jews show solidarity with those considered to be ‘our enemies’? How could the Kaddish, ‘our’ prayer for the dead, be recited for ‘them’?
Further, so many of those young Jews, were involved in Zionist youth movements. They had been on Israel Tour; they had spent their gap year on Shnat. But as Liberal and Reform participants, they had also been imbued with ethical values concerning justice and equality and had spent time meeting groups fostering reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
Quite simply, committed Zionists, those young Jews felt compassion for the people of Gaza, and that’s why they participated in the Kaddish for Gaza.
The first draft of the new siddur was used at the end of June Liberal Judaism biennial. Although it wasn’t official LJ policy, I was warned off reciting my prayer for peace during the Shabbat morning service.
Given that there can’t be a single Jew anywhere who doesn’t hope that there will be peace, how could anyone object to reciting a prayer for peace between Israelis and Palestinians?
Perhaps, the problem lies in the presentation of equivalence between Israelis and Palestinians. The prayer is non-partisan because peace can only be achieved if the needs of both peoples for peace are acknowledged. The prayer also appeals to the One God of us all, the One who teaches every human being the values of compassion, righteousness, justice and peace.
I chose the wording very carefully, beginning each paragraph with an appeal: to the God of Compassion to stir feelings of compassion amongst both Israelis and Palestinians, to the Source of Life to send blessings into every home, Israeli and Palestinian, so that new hope may overcome old fears, to the Righteous One, that a spirit of righteousness may prevail, so that both peoples find the courage to reach a just settlement of their differences, to the One who teaches us to be seekers of peace to spread a tabernacle of peace over all the inhabitants of the land, and to support the peacemakers among both peoples in their efforts to walk the path of reconciliation.
Significantly, many of the Israelis and the Palestinians who are devoted to reconciliation are those who have been bereaved in the conflict. The Parents Circle Family Forum (http://theparentscircle.org), which facilitates dialogue meetings between bereaved Israelis and Palestinians, demonstrates that when opportunities are created for people to speak about their pain and loss and be heard by those whom they regard as responsible for their pain and loss, even those who are most divided from one another can be brought together.
A just peace between Israelis and Palestinians will only be achieved when both Israelis and Palestinians feel able to acknowledge each other’s suffering. 70 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, without any hope of peace in sight, hasn’t the time come for Jews across the world to recognise the needs of Palestinians alongside the needs of Israelis, and pray for peace between Israelis and Palestinians?
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue