As we prepare to observe Memorial Day and Independence Day during the next 2 days in Israel, I am mindful of the many things we ought to remember. In addition to commemorating the lives of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs who have been killed in too many wars and acts of violence and counter-violence, I believe that we ought to remember that seeking peace is also part of our religious and national heritage.
In the inspirational Declaration of Independence of 1948, the call for peace could not have been louder or clearer:
WE APPEAL – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.
WE EXTEND our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.
(from the Declaration of Independence of the state of Israel, 1948)
In recent decades, this seems to have been mostly forgotten or largely ignored.
In my research for a book that I have written this year (The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, A View from Jerusalem, to be published by Hamilton Books in August 2017), I re-read some of the texts of the peace accords of the early 1990’s, called the “Oslo Accords” since the preparations for these treaties were done during 10 months in conferences that took place in and around Oslo, in Norway. Unfortunately, most people have never read these texts, (which does not inhibit them from attacking them!) which are far-reaching and inspirational in outlining principles for the peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
One of the people who knew these texts well was former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who gave the go-ahead for these “back channel talks” with representatives of the PLO in 1993, and who unfortunately was assassinated by a Jewish terrorist, who had been influenced by some his orthodox rabbis, to murder Israel’s leader at that time, in November 1995, two years after the signing of the Oslo Accords. At the signing of the agreement on the White House Lawn on September 13, 1993, Rabin gave one of the shortest and most important speeches of his life. I remember listening to it and shedding some tears, as did so many other people in Israel and around the world. This is what he said:
We have come to try and put an end to the hostilities, so that our children, our children’s children, will no longer experience the painful cost of war, violence and terror. We have come to secure their lives and to ease the sorrow and the painful memories of the past to hope and pray for peace.
Let me say to you, the Palestinians: We are destined to live together on the same soil, in the same land. We, the soldiers who have returned from battle stained with blood, we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes, we who have attended their funerals and cannot look into the eyes of their parents, we who have come from a land where parents bury their children,
We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, We say to you today in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance, and saying again to you: Enough. Let us pray that a day will come when we all will say: Farewell to the arms.
(Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at the signing of the Oslo Accord on September 13, 1993, in Washington D.C.)
I well remember the euphoria in Israel after the signing of this peace accord. In fact, I wrote an article in September of that year for a Jewish newspaper in the USA in which I talked about this feeling of excitement and anticipation at the time.. However, this great hope for peace and the end of war between Israelis and Palestinians was not to become a reality. So many rejectionists—on both the Israeli side and the Palestinian side of the conflict—have preferred war and violence to peace for all these years since the signing of the Oslo Accords over 23 years ago. What a pity.
Where are the courageous leaders of the likes of Yitzhak Rabin, who recognized that we have had enough of wars and “sacrifice” on the battlefield and that it is time, as Rabin said quite clearly and bravely “to give peace a chance” ? Where are the “religious” and cultural leaders in our society, who are saying what Rabin said so poignantly: “Enough of blood and tears. Enough!”?
On the eve of this year’s Memorial Day commemorations and Independence Day celebrations, I wish that more of our “leaders” would focus on the imperative of peace-seeking and not only on the heroism in battle and the need to remain strong against future threats.
It is time to return to the path of peace, as mandated not only by our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, but also by some of the wisdom that emerged from one of our greatest leaders who made the transformation from a military man and mindset to a courageous and responsible diplomat and political leader. May his memory be for a blessing.