Intifada united Israeli public, says key pluralism advocate

The Oslo accords may have been a failure, but they were a blessing in one sense — creating a unity among Israelis. So much so that Rabbi Donniel Hartman referred to the phenomenon as "the gift of Oslo."

"People think it was a horrific mistake in that it didn't succeed," said the Jerusalem-based co-director of the Shalom Hartman Institute. "But it created a unified Jewish people. No one was blaming each other, no one was calling each other traitors as had happened five or six years ago."

The fact that "they said no" — that the Palestinians turned down such a generous offer — meant that Israelis could not blame one other for the intifada, said Hartman, repeating this point emphatically throughout an interview May 28.

The rabbi, in the Bay Area last week for a series of meetings, gave a lecture the evening of May 27 as part of the Madeleine Haas Russell Institute of Jewish Learning series at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El.

During the interview, he spoke about the mission of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem — which was founded by his father, David — as well as the moral challenges facing modern Israel.

The institute is a pluralistic think tank devoted to training rabbis and educators, who in turn will train the next generation of Jewish leaders. "If you can teach one rabbi, you can affect 1,000 families," Hartman said.

The institute is the only place in Israel where Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis all study together, he said. Two Bay Area rabbis, Peretz Wolf-Prusan of Emanu-El, and Yoel Kahn, former rabbi of Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco, are currently enrolled in one of its programs.

The institute has also developed a curriculum used by several Jewish high schools in the area, as well as a curriculum for secular Israeli teachers to teach secular Israeli students about Judaism.

The institute's Center for Religious Pluralism, which is funded by San Francisco philanthropists Bernard and Barbro Osher, has been a pioneer in giving interfaith clergy in Israel an opportunity to study together. "The reason is not to talk politics or dialogue; if they are coming, they obviously believe in dialogue already," he said.

Turning to Israel current affairs, Hartman complimented the resilience of his fellow citizens.

In addition to the intifada creating a strengthened, unified people, Hartman said that the Israelis are winning the war with the Palestinians. Calling terrorism a psychological weapon more than anything else, he said the Palestinians have been unsuccessful in breaking the will of the Israeli people. Using his daughter and her friends as an example, he said they are always out dancing, and the clubs are always packed.

Tourists may not be coming to Israel, but Israelis are traveling within the country, he said. It was impossible to get a hotel room in Eilat during Passover, he added, because, despite the danger, Israelis refused to stay home. "We refuse to let the Palestinians redefine our national agenda."

That so many Israelis voted for the Shinui Party in the January elections — a party that deals solely with religious pluralism and has no foreign policy whatsoever — is proof that the security situation is not the only concern of Israeli citizens.

Hartman called Israel "the most exciting and important experiment in Jewish society-building in the history of the Jewish people," and said its very existence gave Jews around the world a common cause and reason to care about one another.

There's a difference between what he calls a "crisis moment" and a "defining moment." If Israel were experiencing a crisis moment, its very existence would be threatened, he said, with everything else suspended until it's resolved.

That is not the case, he said. Instead, the country is experiencing a defining moment, which is when new ideas are introduced, he said, and they must be reflected upon before they can be assimilated.

"World Jewry has been treating Israel as if it's another potential Auschwitz," he said. "There is a crisis here, but if that's all you see, then you're robbing Jews of one of their most significant assets.

"We don't live in crises, we live despite them."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."