NEWS STORY: Building Mideast Peace in America, One Step at a Time

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ More than 30 years after Israeli artillery blew up his home and killed his father on the second day of the 1967 Six-Day War, Palestinian writer Hassan Khader dined with a Jewish congregation after their Sabbath services on a recent Friday (Feb. 4) night, hoping, as he said earlier, to begin a conversation with American Jews about the “inevitability” of peace.

That a synagogue would offer a Palestinian its hospitality and attention on any subject could be seen as remarkable in itself. A few years ago, Rabbi David Goldstein told his congregation at Touro Synagogue, the idea would have been unthinkable.

But with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat groping warily toward an uncertain peace in the Middle East, it is appropriate his congregation attempt a similar understanding, Goldstein said.

Moreover, after a second war between Arabs and Jews in 1973 and the bruising, six-year Palestinian “intifada” of the late 1980s, Israelis and Palestinians must recognize that they are still locked together, Khader said in an interview before the dinner.

Generally speaking, many American Jews lag their Israeli counterparts in their willingness to engage the Palestinians, said Rabbi Jonathan Glass of Congregation Beth Israel, head of the New Orleans Rabbinical Association.

“So I think it’s a courageous move for Touro, and I think it may turn out to be an important tool. It shows the community that if we want to have peace in Israel, we have to be willing to work toward it here.”

Glass said he even might have offered his Orthodox synagogue as an avenue for conversation with Khader as long as he could be sure his guest did not advocate violence and was aware of the complexities of Jewish as well as Palestinian, hopes.

A writer and intellectual, Khader is a member of the ministry of culture in Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, the young, self-governing territory on the West Bank of the Jordan and Gaza. His special interest is Jewish literature, especially its insights into Jewish identity.

“They are there whether we like it our not,” Hassan said of the Israelis. “Whether we are going to fall in love with them or fight them forever, in both cases we need to understand them.

“They are there, everywhere. They are around you. And you can’t escape that reality, you have to understand it.”

Although a member of the Palestinian Authority, Khader said he does not see himself as a politician or a diplomat, but as a writer and critic.

He would impose on his Touro hosts no Palestinian agenda, nor present a particular policy view, he said.

In fact, as he learned from the study of Talmudic literature and an early 19th century rabbi, Nahman of Bratslav, sometimes the intellectual engagement turns out to be surprisingly more valuable _ richer and more enduring _ than the original reason for the contact.

“So the point is to just talk,” he said. “And to emphasize one thing: that I believe the compromise between the Palestinians and the Israelis is inevitable.

“It will come one day. It will not be tomorrow. And (it will come) if, with enough effort, we can avoid wasting a lot of time, which you should understand in terms of human suffering and stupidity and all that.”

Goldstein said he offered Hassan the hospitality of his Reform synagogue after being approached by Rodger Kamenetz, a Touro member who appeared with Khader at a Loyola conference last month.

Kamenetz, a New Orleans writer and director of the Jewish Studies program at Louisiana State University, found Khader thoughtful and engaging.

“I have my own memories of the Six-Day War,” Kamenetz said. “I remember the fear that Israel might be wiped out, and then the joy of victory.”

Having heard Khader’s memories of the same period, “Now I have a different sense of it. And that’s what the conversation ought to be about.”

Kamenetz arranged for Goldstein and Khader to meet. Goldstein’s invitation flowed from that.

“I think David has shown courage and clear vision,” Kamenetz said. “That’s not to say that we agree with everything that he has to say, but it’s important to hear it. And I think this is the beginning of a lot of similar conversations we should be having.”DEA END NOLAN

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