When Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb rose to speak before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad here last week, “You could hear a pin drop,” she said.
The only rabbi, and one of just a handful of Jews to attend a dinner dialogue between Ahmadinejad and a coalition of religious peace groups during his visit to address the UN last week, Gottlieb knew her words would weigh heavily in the air — not least with the Quakers, Mennonites and other peace churches that sponsored the gathering.
But how to say what she wanted to say to a leader who has questioned the very existence of the Holocaust; called for Israel’s liquidation; defied the UN Security Council’s call to halt the development of enrichment capabilities that could be used for nuclear weapons? His country has also sponsored groups such as the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas, which have rained rockets down on Israeli cities and claimed credit for terrorist attacks.
“I said what I had to say without insulting him,” said Rabbi Gottlieb, a Jewish Renewal rabbi in San Francisco. “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.”
And so, in a nine-minute speech at the Grand Hyatt last Thursday night, as religious peace activists and Ahmadinejad tucked into a Ramadan break-fast of salmon and salad, Rabbi Gottlieb affirmed the reality of the Holocaust. She spoke of anti-Semitism. And she touted her hope for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation “through the path of non-violence.”
But Rabbi Gottlieb, a peace activist who has visited Iran and hopes to do so again next year, saw the primary role of herself and the others present that night as promoters of dialogue in active protest of a U.S. administration that rejects this. She consequently took a much different tack that did Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, who last year hosted a lecture and dialogue with the controversial Iranian leader to intense protests — and then, in his own remarks, insulted him in his presence as a “petty and cruel dictator.”
“The Torah urges direct negotiations, acts of face-to-face reconciliation as the way to peace,” she told those gathered for the dinner. “I pray for this insight as it relates to the government of the United States and the government of Iran.”
Rabbi Gottlieb cited the first passage in Leviticus, which commands: “Do not … spread hate among people.”
“Hate speech is to be avoided because it often leads to acts of violence,” she lectured. “As you are well aware, I come from a community that has experienced the genocidal results of hate speech leading to hate action.”
Citing a much remarked-upon TV series Iran’s government television network broadcast earlier this year, about an Iranian diplomat who rescued Jews in France during the Holocaust, she said, “I know the country of Iran recognizes the Holocaust as I understand that there was a widely viewed television series dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust this past year in Iran, which was watched by millions of people.”
Then, mourning the death of those killed in war, she spoke of World War II, which saw the mass murder of “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,” she added.
“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,” said Rabbi Gottlieb. “I, like thousands of Jewish Americans, Israelis and Europeans have joined with other peace activists across the globe to work tirelessly for Palestinian human rights, an end to anti-Semitism, as well as Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation through the path of non-violence.”
Some critics might regard a speech that made no explicit demands on the Iranian leader as inadequate. Rabbi Gottlieb also appeared to embed the Nazis’ mass slaughter of Jews, with its many unique and unprecedented aspects, among the list of others the Nazis targeted. Indeed, some Jewish groups denounced the very holding of the dinner.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that breaking bread with a leader who “represents a rejection of everything these religious groups stand for” represented a “perversion of the search for peace and an appalling betrayal of religious values.”
But according to Rabbi Gottlieb, the effect of such diplomatic-phrased criticism was cumulative at the dinner as “every speaker challenged him.”
She cited, among others, Arly Klassen, the executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee, who, it appeared, was more blunt than Rabbi Gottlieb in making explicit demands on Ahmadinejad.
According to Charles London, a Jewish writer who attended the dinner, Klassen told Ahmadinejad, “We’ve got people of all faiths here tonight. We wish there were more Jews. But this was not seen as a safe place for them to come.”
London acknowledged, “She didn’t delve into the reasons why.” But she did go on to directly challenge the Iranian leader, telling him, “We are concerned about your statements that minimize or diminish the suffering of the Jewish people” regarding “the historical fact of the Holocaust.”
Klassen also told the Iranian leader, “Your rhetoric calling for destroying the state of Israel must change.” And she spoke of her church’s historic opposition to “nuclear arms for all nations.”
There is ample room to doubt this will have much immediate effect on Ahmadinejad. In making media rounds during his visit to New York, he stood behind his previous statement calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map” — but explained he was calling for its disappearance peacefully, just as “unjust regimes” such as apartheid South Africa and the Soviet Union had disappeared.
As for Ahmadinejad’s own speech to the crowd of peace activists gathered for the dinner that night, London said, “His replies to the areas where people challenged him reminded everyone he’s first and foremost a politician. He gave a politician’s answers. He spoke a lot. He skirted key issues. But it is a value, having him here. There is room for dialogue. … The details are a matter of patience.”