Recalling an influential rabbis insight on peace

In a touching eulogy at on Dec. 18, Rabbi Harold Schulweis was described by a colleague at Congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino as “the most successful and influential synagogue leader in his generation, a public intellectual who redefined what it is to be a Jew, an author and passionate orator who met injustices and suffering with action.”

Those who had the privilege of experiencing Rabbi Schulweis in Southern California, or during his 18-year tenure at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham that ended in 1970, remember his fearless moral example and principled leadership. And many of us who came of age with Rabbi Schulweis as our mentor were graced with a sense of his unflinching ethical stewardship and of his calling to treasure justice.

While his rich and thoughtful voice is now forever stilled, many of his writings and speeches are preserved in the Harold M. Schulweis Institute (

I recently came across a poignant and timely address delivered on Oct. 16, 1995, “Israel and the Peace Process.” At the time, Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister and Shimon Peres foreign minister. The “Interim agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip” (Oslo II) had been narrowly ratified by the Knesset on Oct. 5, and that evening there had been an angry rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square denouncing Rabin. This included a fiery speech by Benjamin Netanyahu promising that “we will bring the government down” and thousands of right-wing protesters carrying posters of Rabin wearing a Nazi SS uniform and chanting “Death to Rabin! Nazis! Judenrat!”

In his Oct. 16 address, Rabbi Schulweis made no allusion to these events, though he was clearly aware of the increasingly violent divide in Israel. He began by pointing out that “we are not listening to history and we are not listening to the instructions of our tradition” and concluded by saying that “there is within us a terrible division, a manifestation of incivility, of anger, and anger is death.”

Much of the rest of his speech reviewed events that had taken place over the preceding few months, events that “should horrify us … a group of rabbis meeting in New York who brand the prime minister of Israel and the foreign minister of Israel as ‘traitors’ and declare that it is accepted under Jewish law to assassinate them … rabbis who refuse to allow Israeli representatives to speak in the synagogue if they favor the Oslo peace process.”

He spoke of his horror and disbelief “that a group of settlers were joined by right-wing members of the Knesset who jointly called for armed resistance against the Israeli army should the government decide to remove the settlements.” Rabbi Schulweis suggested that these proclamations amounted to a “rejection of the legitimacy of a democratic government.”

He went on to observe an interesting contradiction in noting that when the Likud Party was in power, it was agreed there should be no interference by American Jews in the State of Israel, but “now that the Labor Party has received a mandate from the people, American Jews have lined up to lobby senators and congressmen and to insist that they vote to frustrate the peace process … despite the fact that the elected government of Israel pleads that the Palestinian Authority needs an infrastructure … without which Arabs will switch their loyalties to Muslim fundamentalists.”

It is well worth reading the entirety of Rabbi Schulweis’ remarks. Because despite the passage of 20 years since he spoke these words, the peace Rabin gave his life for, the peace that many Israeli and American Jews hoped for, remains elusive. It is also poignant and important to note that this speech was delivered a short 19 days before the ultimate act of partisan savagery: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. And with it, hopes for the longed-for peace largely destroyed.

But when Rabbi Schulweis gave this speech, Rabin was alive, as was the peace process. He therefore concluded in the hope that the process might continue: “we pray to open for us the gates to the future even as there are those who try to close the gates, those who are afraid of what lies behind. Open for us gates of light, gates of blessing, gates of redemption. Open for everyone gates of healing, gates of peace … Ptach lanu shaarei tikvah — open for us the gates of hope.”

Dr. Michael Cooper lives in Lafayette and is a clinical professor of pediatric cardiology at UCSF Medical Center.