A RABBI WALKS INTO A SUK…, or, why you matter to the state of the world

Arab suk Rabbi Marc Gopin, who lives in America, often works between Washington and Middle East capitals as a seasoned practitioner of citizen diplomacy. I first met him around 2003 in Philadelphia at a conference on diplomacy and international relations. We were breakfasting in a noisy restaurant before the conference began that day, and I felt nervous and out of my depth. In the early stages of research for The Wisdom Project, I wanted to know what Marc, a rabbi familiar with the wisdom tradition and seasoned with years of diplomatic experience, thought about my thesis.

I was asking how he, Marc, thought that religious leaders and political actors in Washington and the Middle East – negotiators, mediators, policy advisers, relevant others – could benefit from the wisdom tradition. And how do you yourself do it, Marc, when at times it is like struggling in quicksand? To this veteran peacemaker I must have sounded like a babbling brook trying to explain my inchoate ideas about wisdom as a vital agency for creating peaceable Jewish / Muslim / Christian relations. But Marc patiently prodded, asked questions, and shared moving personal stories.

And I listened, hard. High-level initiatives of citizen diplomacy are hugely important to the crucial field of Track 2 diplomacy, which includes dialogue and problem-solving activities aimed at building relationships and encouraging new thinking that can inform Track 1, or official state to state diplomacy. In the best of both worlds, Track 1 and Track 2 initiatives and their diplomats intersect, talk to each other, and join their considerable resources to resolve adversarial relations, conflicts, and wars. At the conference I had already heard Marc speak about initiatives he had been engaged in at this intersection. Amid the bustle of waiters, the clatter of dishes, and the voices of other customers it struck me that I was hearing from someone whom Jesus meant when he spoke of blessed peacemakers.

Open, honest, and self-effacing, Gopin shares candidly in his talks and books about the personal struggles he has faced as a change agent in the Middle East, such as in dealing with the moral ambiguities involved in reaching peaceable agreements, the slow progress (when there is progress), the unexpected setbacks, the still unresolved issues. He has been a personal inspiration to me for the promise and potential of wisdom and resilience that people can draw on from deep within to overcome obstacles to peacemaking. Mind you, he wasn’t born that way. He had to get there, had to work hard at it, which for him included overcoming some a very real fear.

Arab sukSo, a rabbi walks into an Arab suk. It is the early 1980s, and this “newly-minted rabbi,” as Gopin calls himself in this story, is strolling through Jerusalem’s Old City to the Wailing Wall, when he enters the Arab suk (or souq), which looks like an old-world bizarre. There, he became fascinated with a small, alleyway shop that sold statues of Moses, Abraham, and other patriarchs. Those days, Gopin writes in Holy War, Holy Peace, he was at times “terrified, around Arabs,” so when the Arab shop owner approached him, hoping to make a sale, Marc wouldn’t speak to the man.

But Marc did not leave either. While he was handling an olive wood statue of Abraham, the elderly shop owner greeted him. Although he felt extremely nervous, Gopin “looked hard” into the elderly man’s smiling eyes and

saw something disarmingly familiar there, and it pained me in its gentleness. First I could not take my eyes off him, but then I refocused on the statues. I saw Moses. My name is Moses. I saw Abraham. And then I looked back at him intensely. The Arab man clearly could barely speak English but seemed not to value speaking very much anyway. I think he sensed I was in pain.

And then he did something that will stay with me for the rest of my life. He looked at me, just as I caressed the statue of Abraham, and he pointed up with his finger, and he said, with a heavy accent, “One father?” I nodded, feeling strangely commanded to do so, and I said quietly to him, “One father.” Overcome with emotion, and unable to speak, I said good-bye and walked on. I never saw him again.

Gopin later concluded that the powerful symbolic gesture broke down the wall of othering between them (Holy War, Holy Peace, pp. 25-26, for this and other stories). What we hold in our hearts about others is going to show up in our words, gestures, and deeds. As Jesus himself said, underlying attitudes will come out.

Marc’s poignant experience is just one of countless reasons why you and I matter to the shapes and conditions of of international life, including the foreign policies of our nations that we support or oppose. We’ll pick this up in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer