I was a young reporter in Morgantown, W.Va., on Feb. 25, 1994 — the day Baruch Goldstein, an American-born Israeli physician and right-wing extremist, committed the heinous Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre in Hebron.
Dressed in his army uniform, Goldstein, a devotee of Rabbi Meir Kahane and a member of the Jewish Defense League, entered the site holy to Jews and Muslims alike, walked into an area used as a mosque, then opened fire with his IMI Galil assault rifle, killing 29 worshippers and injuring many more before being beaten to death himself.
Days later in Morgantown, certain Arab residents of the city contacted my rabbi. They were going to protest the massacre downtown later that week, and they asked if the rabbi and members of his congregation would join him in what they said would be a solidarity demonstration against all terrorism. My rabbi agreed.
I joined the rabbi in that demonstration. All went as we expected. There was no anti-Israel chanting, no anti-Semitic gestures of any kind.
Or so we thought. The rabbi called me the next day in an upset state. During the demonstration, while my own paper interviewed him and a photographer took his picture, one of the demonstrators held up a poster behind the rabbi that showed the Star of David being equated to the swastika. That’s the shot that made the paper.
I thought of that incident this week when I read that Rabbi Yona Metzger, one of the chief rabbis of Israel, visited the West Bank village of Yasuf where vandals, believed to be Israeli settlers, entered the local mosque on Dec. 11, burned its furniture, prayer rugs and holy books, and defaced its walls.
Metzger, like my Morgantown rabbi, went to Yasuf to express his “revulsion” at the vandalism and to stand in solidarity with the villagers. He left as a victim himself. Palestinian protestors pelted Metzger with rocks.
It’s too easy to conclude from these stories that reaching out to Palestinians leads to trouble; that’s a knee-jerk reaction. I prefer to think Metzger and my rabbi were prepared to risk a few blows and insults if it could build bridges between two troubled communities.
Metzger, no fool he, must have known his visit to Yasuf would draw an angry response; the region is just too polarized. And my rabbi surely knew that not everyone at the Morgantown demonstration felt warmly to him and his congregants.
In both cases, these rabbis represented the enemy to the people to whom they reached out. Nevertheless, reach out they did.
After a year that has seen fighting in Gaza, a ramping up of nuclear tension with Iran and efforts to arrest Israeli leaders on war crimes charges, we need more leaders such as these rabbis to do likewise.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1005.)