‘Hello, Rabbi’ – Yedioth Ahronoth Article About Donniel Hartman’s, ‘Letter to the Egyptian People’
By AKIVA NOVICK
February 22, 2011
While most Israelis passively watch our neighbors changing history, Donniel Hartman from Jerusalem decided to take action. The rabbi’s recent letter to the Egyptian people has received dozens of excited talk backs, and has started a dialogue with young Egyptians.
Along with the rest of the world, Rabbi Donniel Hartman has been following recent historical events in our neighboring countries anxiously, but with no real way to influence what has been happening.
Last week, though, he decided to do something about it. Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute, was inspired by the role that the Internet and social networks have played in the Egyptian uprising. He used the SHI website to publish an open letter
to the Egyptian people. In his letter he pleaded with our southern neighbors to uphold the peaceful status-quo that has developed over the course of 30 years.
"We don’t [really] know… who you are," he wrote. "We[‘ve] spoke[n] with your leaders, but… they don’t speak for you… For nearly 35 years now, we have lived in peace with each other… It hasn’t been the warmest peace, but as we say in the Jewish tradition, ‘dayenu.’ It was enough… We Israelis, while always aspiring for more, deeply valued it nonetheless… [This peace] must become the rule instead of the exception…
“I hope we do not need to relive the experiences of our grandparents and parents in order to learn yet again that war is not a solution. I pray that we will use the change in the status quo as a catalyst to move us forward… We… have a unique opportunity to change the rules of the game, to speak… and even push each other to find a new… status quo."
"I am… writing to you to again say, hello," he wrote, "and that we look forward to speaking with you soon. Until then, we wish that your transition to freedom be a peaceful and beneficial one to all your citizens and that your freedom be a blessing to you, and to the whole world. Amen." The letter makes it clear that its writer is not just a peace lover but probably a hopeless optimist as well.
But even Rabbi Hartman, a philosopher in his free time, could not predict what the letter would lead to.
"I wrote this letter on a very personal note," he says. "I was not even sure whether anyone would read it, or whether I was just talking to myself. I thought I’d be rewarded if a single Egyptian surfer changed his mind after reading my appeal."
The first response came from American Deborah Harris, who expressed regret over the presumed fact "that the people who are directly involved, in this case the Egyptian people, never get to hear these thoughts directly." The following comments, though, soon dispelled that notion and proved that the Egyptian people could indeed hear Rabbi Hartman loud and clear.
"Thank you so much for the message," wrote Abdell from Algeria. "I think all the Arabs and Jews need to reach out to each other and talk, and that’s possible only within democratic systems. Because Dictators and Islammists are blackening Israel and the Jews’ image to stay or achieve a long stay in power. I hope Jews and Arabs will live in peace forever, they deserve it."
Rabbi Hartman was pleasantly surprised when dozens of comments flowed into the site. Most were actual letters rather than offhand replies. His heartfelt appeal had found its way, it seems, to an Egyptian discussion forum, and was read by numerous surfers from all around the Arab world, many of whom decided to respond. Most letters came from Arab countries – Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and even Lebanon; but some were written by Arabs living in Europe and in the US.
Rabbi Hartman found that overall traffic at the Institute’s website got a serious boost after his letter was published; not surprisingly, this was largely thanks to surfers from the Arab world. His simple call for peace started an exciting debate spanning more than 10 countries. And this discussion revealed a seldom-seen side of the Arab world.
"I agree with (almost) every thing you said," wrote Hisham – the first commenter from Egypt. "We have plenty of work to do internally here in Egypt… As for our relations with you and the general Israeli populace, I cannot agree more. We have much work to do. This is not the time to exchange charges or succumb to age old feelings of resentment but the time to reach out to one another like you did to us and begin a new relationship. A relationship rooted in respect and in a positive vision for the future. A future that affords our children a life free of fear, hatred, suspicion or anger. I too remember the feeling of loss and the anxiety associated with past Egyptian-Israeli wars…You may be surprised at how much we have in common. The internet now facilitates a dialogue between nations. Perhaps our new dialogue can help us both get over the ideological paralysis that has kept us from making real progress on peace in the region. Thanks Donniel for this letter. I appreciate your wishes for us. Let’s keep in touch." True to the spirit of the uprising, Hisham signed his letter, "An Egyptian."
The comments which accumulated under the letter of the rabbi from Jerusalem opened an important window into feelings which seem to be not unusual among Egyptians – protesters included.
"I was one of the young men in Tahrir square," wrote Ramy Hussein, "and I promise you to fight as much as I can against anyone who tries to turn this peaceful noble act into a private agenda leading to war. I have always acknowledged Israel as a wonderful state who would – one day in the future – be an essential element for development of the Middle East… I am sure that the future has more joy to both of our nations in more warm peace. Cold peace isn’t enough for me anymore." Ramy even closed his letter with the words "Shalom from Egypt."
The letters revealed true emotion. Many commenters applauded Rabbi Hartman and joined his call for peace. Some comments have not been as appreciative, though, and show that the peace Hartman prays for is still a while away.
"Israel has gone to war every few years," noted an Egyptian surfer who lives in Germany and calls himself "Benjamin." "There are 500,000 Palestinians from Gaza living in Egypt. Shouldn’t they have the human right to travel back and forth to their homes unhindered? And the Gaza war was not a war, but a massacre. Just look at the numbers dead on each side… You will have to change your ways before any civilized democracy will make true peace with you."
Rabbi Hartman does not take to heart such comments, and would rather see the glass as half full and focus on the positive comments. In the meantime, letters keep getting posted to the site, and from his office at the center of Israel’s capital, Hartman drafts his excited answers and sends them at a press of the button to his newly found friends from the Arab world. Oh, the wonders of technology.
"Who knows," he says, optimistic as ever, "perhaps my letter will start a chain effect, ultimately leading to true peace between our peoples."
– Translated from the Hebrew. Reprinted by permission.