One does not necessarily associate the world of diplomacy with creativity or the language arts, let alone the Kabbalah.
But the holy land is the land of God, our Creator. And, as I have written before, there are Kabbalists, who believe that the Torah existed 1,000 years before the world.
God, of course, created the heavens and the earth in six days, and He may very well have done so with the very pictographs that open the Bible.
In the past few months, following the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, as well as other militants, civilians have weighed in with a number of imaginative and some not so imaginative approaches to defusing tensions in the area.
Jewish and Arab rappers in Israel engaged in a no-holds barred video. The video, which, as we all know, went viral, may have helped to air out issues, so that both Jews and Palestinians could hear and see the perspectives of their neighbors, not unlike characters from Spike Lee’s movie, Do the Right Thing, in which members of various racial and ethnic groups break the 4th wall, bash one another and gain insights into points of view that they might not have gained otherwise.
Then came ice cream politics, in which Ben & Jerry, who no longer own Ben & Jerry’s, stirred controversy, including with many of their erstwhile franchisees, by calling for removal of their ice cream business from the West Bank.
The BDS movement does not help Jews, Palestinians or anyone else in Israel, so I was delighted to read that other ice cream entrepreneurs in the holy land have tried to come together as business partners, as Roger Cohen noted in his long article last week in the New York Times.
There is no question that music and food are two of the most promising ways for Israelis and Palestinians to come together.
But, as I noted at the outset, Israel–and Jerusalem, in particular–is God’s home.
And God is not only our Creator; God is the Word, which is another way of saying that God is a writer, a point made by Bernard Henri-Levy, as I recall, in The Genius of Judaism.
As a result, nothing holds more promise for solving the Middle East peace process than the language arts. And, of all the recent reports from the holy land, nothing resonated more deeply with me than this quote from Tammy Hoffman, an education official, whom Cohen interviewed in his deep dive: “Arabs learn Hebrew from third grade. Jews need to learn Arabic from third grade, too. If we don’t know the language, how do we get past the stereotypes?”
I could not agree more.
Of course, literacy in the languages of others, by itself, will not guarantee that there is peace in the Middle East. But it is a start because when you read the language and literature of another people, you open yourself up more to the possibilities for empathy. By removing yourself from your own problems, you can, perhaps more than the rappers or ice cream partners, delve even more deeply into the humanity of another culture, as well as your own.
And those of us who do so might even become better lovers, as Amos Oz, the late Israeli novelist and peace activist, once quipped in a documentary.
If we can put aside love for a moment, a historic coalition, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, has run the Israeli government for a few months now. And it has done so with many partners, including Mansour Abbas of Raam, an Israeli Arab party.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the departed Israeli prime minister, had been in power too long.
The same is true of Mahmoud Abbas, who has run the P.A. for years and who shares a last name with the leader of Raam.
While it may seem like a platitude to point out that absolute power corrupts absolutely, it is almost always true.
This is at least partly why George Washington, who understood the potential tyranny of kings, refused to serve as president of the then-newly formed United States beyond two terms.
Washington recognized that, in order to preserve our fledgling democracy, he needed to ward off any temptation toward a cult of personality. He knew that, were he to give into such a cult, were he to allow his ego to run amok, he would be compromising the very ideals and principles for which Americans were fighting, our freedom from autocracy.
In spite of Washington’s honor and vision on these matters, it is also true that our nation’s first president, like many others in the early years of our republic, owned slaves, a painful truth but one from which we can learn.
Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, also owned slaves.
He enslaved the Israelites, the chosen people. And Pharaoh was beset with plagues as a result. The plagues included the slaying of the first-born in Egyptian families.
As we know from the Bible, it was God, who ordered these plagues.
At that time, roughly 4,000 years ago, Joseph, an Israelite slave, was promoted to viceroy by Pharaoh because he had the gift of interpreting dreams. And it was Joseph, who warned Pharaoh of the plagues that would (and did) come, if he failed to free the Israelites.
Joseph, of course, was one of the 12 sons of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, after he wrestled with and refused to give into the angel of death.
Jacob was not the first Israelite to be exalted with a name change.
It is worth reminding ourselves that Jews, Christians and Muslims, including Israelis and Palestinians, all trace back to Abraham, whose name originally was Abram.
As we all know from Genesis, Abram, a founder of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah.
It was only after Abram demonstrated his willingness to do this hideous deed, only after he had shown his extraordinary devotion to God, that God intervened and prevented Abram from sacrificing Isaac.
God then exalted Abram and gave him the name of Abraham, a word that is generally translated as meaning father of many nations.
Shalom, of course, is a well-known Hebrew word that means peace, as well as hello and goodbye. And while I have never studied Arabic, I believe that Salaam shares those three meanings.
As I understand it, the word, Islam, similarly derives from the root for peace.
When I was growing up in Connecticut, I never had too many close friends. At least, I felt that I did not.
I was very shy, but I did have a few friends in junior high and high school, and one of those friends was named Isam, a name that sounds like Shalom or Islam, except that it lacks an “L.”
When I was in 9th grade, Ayatollah Khomeini led the Islamic revolution in Iran, overthrew the Shah, and in the process took many Americans hostage.
OPEC clamped down on oil production. And much of the free world, including the U.S., was faced with the second oil crisis of the decade.
As was the case in 1973, at the time of the Yom Kippur War, my father, like many American adults in 1979, often woke up around 4 a.m., so that he could be at the front of the line for gasoline at a nearby station.
I believe that he would bring reading material with him in his jeep and wait for hours until the station received its shipment of gas and opened for business.
During the 1979-1980 school year, when I was in 9th grade, I can recall one of my classmates needling Isam and saying that he was Iranian.
Isam, who was a nice kid and soft-spoken, responded with a smile and said that he was not Iranian.
The teaser then looked at me.
And I said, “C’mon. Leave Isam alone. He’s not Iranian.”
I never knew about Isam’s heritage. I just knew that his family owned several stores in Connecticut that sold Arabian and/or Persian rugs.
One day, someone told me that Isam was of Palestinian descent.
That bit of possible information had no impact on me.
I just knew that Isam was a nice kid, very friendly and low-key. He had an easy smile, and he always showed good sportsmanship when we faced off against each other in intramural basketball.
In fact, when we were in 10th grade, Isam captained one intramural hoops team, and I captained another.
He was a good player, and he sometimes guarded me, though I was a very skinny kid and more of a point guard, while he was at the time somewhat stocky, built more like a power forward.
His team was seeded first in the playoffs, and my team was seeded second.
In the title game that season, my team came from behind in the first half and won in a reasonably close match.
After the game, all the players, Isam and I included, shook hands. We had a good match, and we were both good sports.
A few years later, when we were seniors, I did not think too much about my yearbook page.
But one day, I approached Isam and asked him if he would like to share a page with me.
He said sure, after which I proposed that we stage a recreation of a Michelob Light beer commercial that was then airing on TV. It revolved around a tennis match between two players.
On our yearbook page, we had a few cartoon-like clouds that featured dialogue from the TV commercial, in which one player challenges another to a final set in tennis. The other player declines.
Then the first player ups the ante and suggests that they play for a Michelob Light.
“You should have quit while you were ahead,” says the second player.
As Isam and I headed to the tennis courts one afternoon, with a couple of unopened beers and our tennis racquets, an underclassman took photos of us.
It did not concern me that much when Isam said with a smile that he wanted to be the one, who was depicted as prevailing in the tennis match for the Michelob Light.
At first, I figured that I should be the one who prevailed since I actually was on the J.V. tennis team that season, while Isam may have played softball.
(As a footnote, one of my teammates on the J.V. tennis squad, a kid who did not win a single match that season, decided not to inform me of our team photo, which is a polite way of saying that he, a member of the yearbook staff, intentionally excluded me from that picture in the yearbook. But that is another story and one not worth discussing further in this article, other than to serve as a reminder that some kids were quite cruel to me when I was younger.)
When I mentioned to Isam that I was actually on the J.V. tennis team, he again said with a gentle smile that he wanted to be the one who won the set for the Michelob Light.
I returned his smile, and I said that would be fine.
It did not really matter that much to me.
You might say that, in a very minor way, I decided to “sublimate my ego.”
That is how Thomas Friedman of the New York Times characterized what Yair Lapid did when he ceded the prime ministership (at least for the first two years) of the Israeli coalition government to Naftali Bennett, who had fewer supporters in the recent elections.
Roughly two years from now, the prime ministership of Israel will rotate, should the coalition hold. And we should all hope that it does.
There is much at stake geopolitically, unlike the decisions of high school kids dramatizing a beer commercial for a yearbook page.
It goes without saying that neither Isam nor I had to deal with attacks from outside and/or within that could threaten the existence of a nation.
Getting back to the Israeli coalition government, what might be most striking and hopeful for the future is, as I mentioned previously, that Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett joined forces with many diverse parties, including Raam, which has been dubbed by some as an Arab Islamist party.
Raam is led by Mansour Abbas, who again happens to share a surname with Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.
I take this too as a hopeful sign, a sign that perhaps shared language can help bring us to peace. If I am not mistaken, Abbas, like Abba, means father.
And, as we already know, Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, all descend from Abraham, the Ab or father of many nations.
I might note that when Barbara, my late wife, was asked by my late psychiatrist, Dr. Michael McGrail, what we had on common, Barbara did not hesitate.
“Language is where we meet,” said Barbara, my little angel, words that will always resonate with me.
And they resonate with love.
Language remains one of the most sublime ways where Barbara and I still meet almost two years after her passing. And it is where we can all meet when we elevate our dialogue.
Unfortunately, we have in recent years seen and heard far too many demagogues corrupt and debase language by claiming, for instance, that there is fraud in an election when there were no irregularities of any statistical significance.
The disgraced former chief executive of our own country has lied to the world, lies that have been amplified by social media and some reckless TV commentators and political lackeys.
In so doing, our solipsist in chief, a title he still holds, has not only threatened the future of our country and the future of democracy; he has threatened to lead us all to hell, where he is headed.
But I know that we can subdue this evil, and one of the ways that we can do so is by elevating our language, just as God did in the Torah and the Word.
All these years later, I am not in touch with too many people from high school.
I have not gone to a reunion in a while. And I can’t recall the last time I saw Isam.
Some years ago, I read in a Connecticut paper that Isam and his family helped to pay for security at a school attended by his children, in the years after 9/11 and after many of the mass shootings in our country.
I never asked Isam if he was in fact Palestinian. And it never mattered to me.
What I do know is that his name, Isam Kaoud, an Arabic name in origin, sounds very much like Shalom Kavod, a phrase that means “peace” and “respect” in Hebrew.
I suspect that Isam’s name has a similar meaning or set of roots in Arabic.
Isam may not contain an “L” sound, but that may reflect the inherent modesty of his name, since an “L” sound in both Hebrew and Arabic evokes the words, “El,” or “Al,” mystical terms that can mean God in both languages.
Of course, Kabbalists believe and often intuit that there is a holiness, even a godliness, in every one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the alphabet in which the Torah was originally chanted and written.
And those of us, who love the infinite and sacred nature of language, might point out that the “ou” or “aou” diphthong in Kaoud, Isam’s last name, could derive from a “v” sound.
This is likely true in Arabic as well as in Hebrew.
For example, the Hebrew word for uncle, “dod,” which is pronounced with a hard “d,” is in essence the same word structurally as the name, David. It is just that the “v” sound from the letter “vav,” a very holy letter that is part of the name of God, has been transformed into an “o” sound, just as “vav” sometimes transforms into a softer “u”, “ou” or “aou” sound, depending on if there is a vowel nearby.
If we nurture our brains and our souls with a little bit of imagination, if we give language and letters the love that they deserve, we can clearly hear and see the Hebrew word, kavod, in Kaoud.
Isam Kaoud. Salaam or Shalom Kavod.
Peace and respect.
I am thankful that diplomats from the U.S., Europe and Arab countries helped to bring about a cease-fire in the holy land after the recent war that pitted Israel against Hamas and others in Gaza.
This is not the space to discuss all of the nuanced and complex issues surrounding that recent war, or the shadow war between Israel and Iran that has been going on for some time.
But those wars clearly can have repercussions throughout the world.
Let me just say that the acts of violence that have targeted Jews in the U.S. and Europe, such as the attack not long ago at a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles, are hate crimes, just as the attacks that have targeted Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Latinos and Muslim-Americans are hate crimes.
All of these assaults must be denounced and called out for their evil. And they must be prosecuted as hate crimes, as civil rights violations, in addition to the other underlying felonies.
On a related point, I have been quite saddened to read that some activists in this country have tried to brand Israel as a white supremacist nation.
Beyond the fact that Jews, notably Jews in Israel, hail from all over the world, including Ethiopia, northern Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, it would be helpful for all of us to remember that Jews have had a presence in the region since Abram, a founder of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, arrived in Jerusalem more than 4,000 years ago.
It would also be helpful for some activists in our country to remember or to learn that Jews helped to found the NAACP, that young Jews named Schwerner and Goodman died in the South with a young Black man named Chaney, and that many Jews, including rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel, marched in the South and spent time in jail with Rev. Martin Luther King.
It goes without saying that no group of people has a monopoly on morality, intelligence or anything else.
But we might all open up our minds a little bit to love, show some humility and realize that we might not know all there is to know about the holy land or the history of activism in the United States.
And we are not helping humanity when we brand Jews, Arabs, Iranians or others as being monolithically good, bad, or anything else.
We all know that demagogues and hate-mongers live to stoke grievances, to poison minds, and to commit or encourage acts of violence.
It is in times like these, in particular, that we might return to the sacred nature of the original words of the Bible.
For it is in the mystical words from our past that we can sometimes find clues to a better future.
We might start out by remembering that, according to tradition, Mount Moriah, where Abram was prepared to sacrifice Isaac, is the very location that is known today as the Temple Mount to Jews or the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims.
It is where Al Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, is located.
It abuts the Western Wall, which is the holiest site in Judaism.
And it is situated just a few winding blocks away from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the holiest sites in Christianity.
The name, Moriah, may very well share a root with Moreh, or Morah, which are the masculine and feminine, singular forms of the word for teacher in Hebrew.
That is fitting because we can all benefit from learning more about our commonality and our shared humanity, which can sometimes be heard and seen in the roots of language, the origin of words, names and even the letters of the alphabet.
While Israelis and Palestinians, as well as other Arabs and Muslims, have fought many wars over the decades, and while the words for Hebrew and Arab may not sound or look alike in English, they bear more than a resemblance in the Hebrew language.
If we leave aside the vowels and focus on the consonants, a stumbling block for all Hebrew students, the word, Hebrew, consists of three letters in the Hebrew language, ayin, beit and reish.
The word, Arab, consists of those three Hebrew letters in a slightly different order, ayin, reish and beit.
(In both cases, the beit is actually pronounced as a veit, with a v, not a b, sound.)
One hopefully does not have to be a Scrabble whiz or a language artist to discern that the two words, Hebrew and Arab, are actually anagrams in the Hebrew language.
This is another way of saying that the two peoples, Jews and Arabs, or Israelis and Palestinians, are cousins, etymologically, as well as biologically, since Abram did found three religions, Judaism and Islam among them.
As I noted before, Amos Oz, the late Israeli novelist, pointed out in a documentary that, if we read the literature of other cultures, we might actually become better lovers.
I might add that the letters in our literature, the characters themselves, can generate sparks of attraction.
Consider that beit and reish, two of the letters in the words, Hebrew and Arab, have always been close to or kin to each other, going back to the beginning, to the opening words in the Torah.
Indeed, bereshit, which means “in the beginning” in Hebrew, starts with a beit and a reish, the first two letters in the Bible.
That phrase should be enshrined in our souls, even if there has been some negotiating, pleading or compromise, among all the letters, as Kabbalists might contend.
It is true that beit comes first.
It is also true that beit serves as a preposition in this case, while reish literally means the head, the top or the first.
No matter what, there is room for both letters, like both tennis players in a match, to claim a victory of a sort.
They are teammates in the opening phrase of Genesis, sacred letters in the history of the world.
It is also true that the words, Farsi and Persia, the ancient home of Iran, are not so far removed etymologically from Parashat, a Hebrew word that refers to the Torah portion of the week.
Yes, Farsi and Persia include the Hebrew letter, Samech, whereas Parashat includes a Shin, another Hebrew letter. But they both have essentially the same sound. And originally we all come from the oral tradition.
It would be hard to ignore the signs, auditory and otherwise, that a war might be coming in the Middle East.
In recent days, Hezbollah has launched rockets at Israel; and Israel has returned fire.
Intelligence has revealed that an Iranian drone killed two people when it struck a commercial ship, managed by an Israeli, as it voyaged in the Arabian Sea.
And Israel’s war a few months ago with Hamas and other militants has not been resolved.
Still, we might all keep in mind that Cyrus, an ancient leader of Persia, revered the chosen people and the Torah. Cyrus sent the Israelites back to the holy land after they had been exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the First Temple.
Of course, the Western Wall remains, as does the Temple Mount or the Noble Sanctuary on Mt. Moriah.
As Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid and other coalition partners, including Mansour Abbas of Raam, an Arab Israeli Party, confront challenges, some of an existential nature, we might try to recall the teachings of the Kabbalah and the Bible, which suggest that the secret to peace may reside in the most elevated forms of our language and our humanity, the very pictographs first uttered by God.
Just as the prime ministership of Israel can rotate, the letters of the alphabet can rotate, too. And they can do so to serve a higher purpose.
Shalom, Salaam, and col ha-kavod!
Peace, peace and all the respect!