How to Talk to the Enemy

What would you say to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if you had the chance?  My friend and colleague Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb had this extraordinary opportunity last month at an Iftaar dinner in which Ahmadinejad met with several religious peace groups during his visit to the US. Rabbi Gottlieb was among the few Jews to attend the dinner, and the only one who addressed Ahmadinejad as a member of the American Jewish community.

As a long-time peace activist, Rabbi Gottlieb has been “walking the walk” for many years. She believes deeply in the sacred value of dialogue – even (perhaps especially) with one’s enemies. Still, this particular encounter truly put Rabbi Gottlieb’s ideals to the test. As she later mentioned in a subsequent Jewish Week article:

I wanted to isolate him but not insult him. It’s tricky. It’s a fine line … because I wanted to keep the channels open.

While most Jews clearly would have taken this opportunity to excoriate Ahmadinejad for his hateful statements about Israel and his odious denial of the Holocaust, Rabbi Gottlieb – a seasoned dialogue veteran – knew that simply meeting his angry rhetoric with more angry rhetoric would accomplish little. So instead, she did what any good rabbi would do. She taught Torah.

Here’s an excerpt of her remarks:

I would like to interpret Vayikra. The first verse of the passage states: “Do not become a talebearer or spread hate among people.” Hate speech is to be avoided because it often leads to acts of violence. As you are well aware, I come from a community that has experienced the genocidal results of hate speech leading to hate action…

I would like to remember for a blessing all those who have died in our world, on account of war.  I mourn the death of all young men and women sent to soldiering in conflicts not of their making.  I mourn one half a million Iranians who died in the Iran-Iraq war.  I mourn the millions of Iraqis who have been killed, injured and displaced by a war the United States initiated in Iraq.  I also mourn the forty million people who died in the Second World War, including two million Armenians, one million Roma, tens of thousands who died on account of sexual orientation as well as those who were targeted for murder based on special needs.

And of course, I mourn my own extended family, six million Jewish people who were murdered because European historical anti-Semitism made it acceptable to see us as less than human. Because of the Holocaust, I learned from the rabbis who ordained me and guide me, to be active in preventing further suffering of all human beings as a primary religious call to action.

With the “official” Jewish community tagging Ahmadinejad as the 21st century Hitler, it’s impossible to underestimate the enormous courage that motivated Rabbi Gottlieb to attend this dinner at all. But no less important is the brilliance of her pedagogy, which conveyed her message powerfully without surrendering her own spiritual values – or the moral upper hand. (I especially love her pointed inclusion of gays and lesbians in her litany of Holocaust victims). I don’t know that I would have had the courage to do what she did but if I had, I’d like to think I’d have done it with the same level of insight and grace.

As I’ve already written, I am honored to be accompanying Rabbi Gottlieb and several other Jews, Muslims and Christians on a Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation to Iran next month. Much, much more to follow…

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