The seeds of peace in the ashes

It’s no secret that Israel and Syria don’t exactly get along. We have a long history. We have fought three wars in 65 years (1948, 1967, and 1973) as well as proxy wars in Lebanon (1982, 2006). When the Syrian civil war was just beginning, President Assad attempted to divert support away from the rebels by saying the one thing that could possibly unite all Syrians against the rebels: Israel is behind them.

It is also true that Israel has a lot to benefit from civil war in Syria. As the only standing army in a neighboring country still at war with us, the Syrian army was a conventional military threat (Jordan and Egypt have peace treaties with Israel since 1995 and 1979, respectively, and Lebanon’s army is used mainly for internal peace keeping). Three years of civil war have torn the Syrian army apart. Furthermore, Hizballah, the terrorist organization/militia in Lebanon which is backed and funded by Iran and Syria, has been suffering great losses while fighting alongside Assad in Syria, as well as losing the widespread support it once had in Lebanon as the only ones “resisting Israel”. With the crumbling of Hizballah’s power in Lebanon and Assad’s rule of Syria, the “Axis of evil” in the Middle East, Iran-Syria-Hizballah, is falling, allowing Israeli military chiefs a sigh of relief.

There is still a lot to worry about. Assad’s immense arsenal of surface to air missiles, the second densest air defense array in the world (second only to North Korea), may possibly fall into the wrong hands- Hizballah’s or Jabhat a-Nusra’s (the group of Syrian rebels affiliated with Al-Qaeda), as well as Assad’s large stockpile of chemical weapons. But as a country used to being constantly threatened by one Arab country or another, the prevailing philosophy used to be that if Arabs are killing each other instead of killing us, who are we to get in their way?

But that philosophy seems to have crumbled as well and Israelis, not all of them of course, are making attempts to reach out in support of their neighbors in need, even though, officially, Israel and Syria have been in a state of cease fire since 1974.

Rabbi Benny Perel is the head of the Yeshiva for arts and sciences in Tel-Aviv, the Orthodox equivalent of a boys’ high school. On June 14th he organized an extraordinary event: a prayer service for the well-being of the Syrian people. The plan was to gather at the lookout point towards the Syrian town of Kuneitra on Friday morning for prayer. He also succeeded in contacting people in Syria, through a third person, in order to hold a corresponding prayer service on the Syrian side of the border.

Anyone who is acquainted with the National Religious community in Israel will realize how unusual such a prayer service is. The National Religious community is known as usually very hawkish, perhaps the most hawkish community in Israel. That is what makes Rabbi Perel’s initiative so extraordinary.

The initiative was advertised through a Facebook post which became viral. He wrote [originally in Hebrew, my translation]:

perel status

Last week I posted a request: come to a joint prayer service for the well-being of the Syrian people on Friday, the 10th of Tamuz in the morning in the Golan Heights on the Syrian border. There is nothing ideological or political to this, it’s just because our heart aches for the people there, too much killing and pain.

Nahum Pachnik will try to coordinate with someone from Damascus for them to pray with us at the same time… maybe they’ll be able to come close to the border.

So come, I myself will be saying a regular Jewish Orthodox service, but Muslims and Christians, religious and secular people are also welcome.

We will pray together.

I hope to see two or three people other than myself… just human beings coming to pray for some good in this broken world.

I contacted Rabbi Perel for his comments. In an article he wrote in “Tzohar Lashabat”, one of the popular pamphlets circulated in synagogues every week, he explained the basis in Jewish tradition for his decision. He describes the dilemma before which Jonah stood, when he was sent to chastise the people of Nineveh for their sins. Nineveh was an Assyrian city and sometime later, Assyria destroyed the Kingdom of Israel. Jonah’s hesitancy is therefore understandable: why help save the people of Nineveh if they are only going to cause death and destruction for my own people in the future? But the message of the book of Jonah is that such calculations are irrelevant.

But all this has nothing to do with us or with the suffering and the compassion which must be shown towards those standing before us. The castor plant [in the story of Jonah] which appeared in a moment, benefited Jonah and that is why he was sad to see it go. In this, Jonah is exposed as someone looking out mostly for himself. God wants Jonah’s concern to expand and encompass other places as well…

Rabbi Benny Perel. From his Facebook page. Used with permission.

Rabbi Benny Perel. From his Facebook page. Used with permission.

Later on in the article, he answers questions that people posed to him, regarding the initiative to organize a special prayer service for the Syrian people.

Q: They’re our enemies, why should we pray for them?

A: Because they are hurting. (If this answer isn’t enough, read the book of Jonah again).

Q: But they hate us.

A: Yes, they were taught to hate us and we were taught to hate them. Maybe we should replace the teachers. But for now, they are hurting.

I asked Rabbi Perel:

In your article in the “Tzohar” newsletter you gave a rather calculated explanation about why we should pray for the people in Syria. Was your decision also a calculated one, or was it more of a ‘gut decision’?

It was a calculated move, but the prayers came from my gut.

Rabbi Perel received mixed reactions to his initiative, and although there were many positive responses, there were some less than enthusiastic ones.

One commenter on Facebook wrote:

I’m praying for the success of all sides [in Syria]. May God be with them and may they strike at their enemies until they achieve destruction and devastation… and peace be on Israel.

Another commenter on Facebook wrote:

Dear Benny! They aren’t interested in your prayers! You and I are apes and pigs [according to Muslim tradition]! So do yourself a favor and give them space and leave them alone!

To this Rabbi Benny replied:

There may be some of them who believe that we are descended from apes and pigs. To that I have two important and simple things to say: 1. I don’t think we are apes and pigs. 2. I don’t think that they are apes and pigs. As that is my position, I would like to pray for them not to suffer so much, they are just people.

A handful of people showed up for the special service at the northern corner of Israel. They added a “Mi Sheberach” to the regular morning service, a special prayer for the people suffering in Syria. They don’t know if the corresponding prayer service in Syria took place, because the contact in Damascus became worried that the authorities would find out that he had been communicating with Israelis and broke off the contact.

View of the Syrian border. Photo by Itamar Ohana, a student of Rabbi Perel who took part in the prayer service. Used with permission.

View of the Syrian border. Photo by Itamar Ohana, a student of Rabbi Perel who took part in the prayer service. Used with permission.

Do you have any plans for the future?

Rabbi Perel says that he hopes to organize another service in Tel-Aviv, because he believes that more people would be able to come to a more central location. Meanwhile, he is also looking for other organizations to work with.

Rabbi Perel’s initiative is a refreshing one, but he is definitely not alone. There are other organizations active in bringing relief to Syrian refugees in Jordan and other countries which are accessible to Israelis. I always say that if there is ever to be peace in the Middle East, it won’t come from politicians and governments. There are too many things on the negotiating table that our politicians and theirs just can’t give to the other side. Peace begins with us, the simple people, cooperating and living side by side. It begins with simple people, Muslims and Jews, praying together, on two sides of the border, but from one heart and to one God. For a few moments on June 14th, the 10th of the Hebrew month of Tamuz, a small ray of light shone through the dark clouds of the Syrian civil war and amidst the ashes and smoke, the seeds of peace were sown.

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