Yakir Englander receives award for work with Kids4Peace

Ms. Rula Saleh, Mr. Yakir Englander, Fr. Josh Thomas, Ms. Reeham Subhi, representing the three faiths of Kids4Peace at the awards ceremony.

Ms. Rula Saleh, Mr. Yakir Englander, Fr. Josh Thomas, Ms. Reeham Subhi, representing the three faiths of Kids4Peace at the awards ceremony.

The Council of Higher Education in Israel bestowed the “Shosh Berlinsky-Sheinfeld Award” on Mr. Yakir Englander, Kids4Peace Jerusalem Director and PhD student at Hebrew University, for his work with Kids4Peace.  He was chosen from among all the universities in Israel as the researcher making the greatest contribution to Israeli society.

Acceptance Speech

Mr. Yakir Englander, June 14, 2011 

We in “Kids4Peace” believe, that here in Jerusalem, of all places, in a city everyone fights over, a city that seems sometimes to be an obstacle to peace, that here, we have the ability to do things differently. We refuse to abandon the prayer and the dream.

Honorable Director of the Israel Council of Higher Education; Members of the Council; Members of the Awards Committee; fellow Lecturers and Researchers; fellow Recipients of the Award, my dear family members, and my dear friends:

At first glance, granting an award for academic engagement and service in the social community might seem surprising. The usual image of the academic researcher is of someone devoted full time to his or her research – very often in the “inner chambers” and cut off from everyday experience. Intellectual research requires the ability to engage in an internal and intimate dialogue with texts and with subjects and realms that are not usually busy with the here and now.

And yet, if we look more closer at the role of the academic, we see that this role is essentially engaged with the community. The greatest of thinkers have been those who believed that daily life both directs and defines the way of thinking and the questions raised by the researcher. They also believed that the responses and insights that arise in the process of academic research have the power to forge a better society, or at least a society more aware of its choices.

So it was with Socrates sitting in the streets of Athens, engaging the citizens of that city in conversations, and with the Rambam (Maimonides) who served actively as the leader of the Jewish community in Egypt, and with the Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd Al-Qurtubi (known in the West as Averroes) who governed the city of Cordoba and became a judge in Morocco, and with the French philosopher and thinker Michel Foucault, to name just a few.

All this is descriptively interesting, but I think there is also a deeper philosophical point. The beginning of philosophy is a sense of wonder inspired by the world we live in. Wonder requires a sort of “stepping back”; we look at the world, at its phenomena and events, before we engage in any intuitive judgment. Our duty as researchers is first and foremost to allow the world to appear to us just as it is, to be attentive precisely to those statements that may be regarded by society as clear and even banal – for example, the statement that we are right and others are wrong. The researcher allows the phenomena of the world to speak, to express themselves; it is an act of grace, but also a duty. In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Metzia, it is written: “Jerusalem was destroyed simply because the judges there judged according to the Torah.” In other words, a society that judges only by the letter of the law cannot be an ethical society. A society, and a society’s judicial system, have the obligation to judge by guidelines that transcend law, that go beyond even “the truth” as each society understands it, and to thus give a voice to those regarded by society as “wrong,” a voice to those whose suffering society cannot see.

Our point of departure is precisely our difference, that calls us to listen to voices other than our own.

The organization “Kids4Peace” which I have directed in Jerusalem for the last four years is dedicated to creating a new discourse in Jerusalem and in the Israeli and Palestinian communities of the Jerusalem area. Formally, “Kids4Peace” is an a-political movement, precisely in order to allow the development of dialogue precisely among people who cannot even imagine dialogue to be possible. This movement appeals to the cultural and religious identities of each of us, identities that differ according to our national and social contexts, and bridges between them. Our point of departure is precisely our difference, that calls us to listen to voices other than our own.

Members of “Kids4Peace” are first of all children – who begin their encounters with each other at the age of 11 and continue with the hard work of dialogue through High School. The parents of these children are also fully engaged throughout the program, and of course we have professional adult staff, Interfaith Advisors, Interfaith Coordinators – Jews, Christians and Muslims – who devote themselves to the skills of respectful listening and learning from each other. All of these together embark on that philosophical imperative of “stepping back” to allow the other to speak.

As an organization, “Kids4Peace” may not offer new and unheard of solutions to the conflict we are stuck in. It does, however, create a new culture with different questions.

As an organization, “Kids4Peace” may not offer new and unheard of solutions to the conflict we are stuck in. It does, however, create a new culture with different questions. The new culture of “Kids4Peace” is forging a new language with a different music to it, a language that seeks different answers. The movement turns to all members of our society, and especially to those who do not have the means for luxuries.  We in “Kids4Peace” believe, that here in Jerusalem, of all places, in a city everyone fights over, a city that seems sometimes to be an obstacle to peace, that here, we have the ability to do things differently. We refuse to abandon the prayer and the dream.

“Kids4Peace” has members who have lost loved ones violently in this conflict, on both sides, and members who have lost their homes or their livelihood, and are struggling for the good of themselves and their children.

There are so many such peacemakers – our job is simply to allow them to realize their heart’s desire.

This Award that you have bestowed on me today is not mine; it belongs to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim members of “Kids4Peace” in Jerusalem and in the nearby Palestinian and Israeli communities.  It belongs also to our sister organization in the United States, “Kids4Peace USA”, that has done everything to make our dream possible, knowing that whoever cannot dream can never effect social change. This award belongs to the Muslim girl from the Qalandia Refugee Camp who explains in her school that not all the Jews are intent on harming them. To the Jewish boy who is a fan of the Beitar Yerushalayim soccer team, but refuses to join the shouts of “Death to the Arabs” during the soccer game, and convinces his friends also to stop. To another child who joined “Kids4Peace” to find a way to grapple with feelings of fear upon seeing women wearing the hijab.  I accept this award in the name of every person who cannot stop praying, working, struggling for peace. There are so many such peacemakers – our job is simply to allow them to realize their heart’s desire.

It was my privilege to be raised in a Hassidic home, among a family of loving kindness and deep faith. When I was a child, I would walk with my father on some Sabbaths to pray in the synagogue of the Vishnitz Rabbi. As we walked along, my father told me stories of the Tzadikim – the Jewish sages and saints, who would give their lives to help others. I would like to share with you, in closing, one of these stories. It is a tale that has given me strength in moments of stress and crisis, which in my work directing “Kids4Peace” are all the more frequent as our work touches more closely on the roots of the conflict and its suffering.

As one of the Tzadikim lay dying, his most beloved disciple came to him, and asked that after the Tzadik arrived in heaven, he would come in a dream to the disciple, and tell him what heaven is like. The Tzadik agreed; but, three days after he had died, the disciple still had received no dream visitation. This disciple, who was a great saint  himself, began to be concerned for the welfare of his departed teacher. He decided to go himself up to heaven to find out what had happened.

Once arrived in the Higher Realms, the disciple asked the angels for news of his Rabbi. Yes, the angels replied, the Tzadik’s day of judgment had gone very well, and the Holy One Blessed Be He had Himself invited the Tzadik to join Him in a Heavenly havruta, studying together the sacred texts in Paradise. The Tzadik, however, chose rather to go into a great forest, filled with the dark powers of Evil. The disciple, who had always followed his teacher faithfully in life, decided to go after the Tzadik into the dark forest to find him. After three days walking in the darkness, he saw a light at the edge of the forest. Coming out in the open, the disciple found his old Rabbi, the Tzadik, standing on the bank of a great river, leaning on his stick and gazing sadly into the turbulent waters as they rushed by.

The disciple approached his teacher. “Rabbi,” he said, “Why are you standing here alone by this river, when God is waiting for you in Paradise?”

The Tzadik replied: “My beloved disciple, the water in this river is all the tears that are shed by people who are suffering in our world. When, on my judgment day, I heard that my lot was to enter Paradise, I said to God: ‘As long as You do not stop this flow of tears, I will remain here by this river, and will not enter Paradise with You.’”

It is our wish, our prayer, that our sacred work in dialogue in “Kids4Peace” will be able to lessen, even by a few drops, the flow of tears in this river of suffering.

Thank You.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Henry R. Carse, June 16 2011]