By SETH J. FRANTZMAN*
(*this article is based on a true story)
Jeffrey Mettleman sits in his office on the 20th floor of Tel Aviv’s beautiful Dalet building overlooking the Mediterranean. The sun is setting and he’s returned from a long day of meetings in Ramallah. He takes down a portrait on the wall that shows two elderly men embracing. “This is what inspires me. You see, my grandfather survived the Holocaust and here he is three years ago embracing the son of the German family that helped the Gestapo find him.” Mettleman’s family had been ball-bearing industrialists in Weimar Germany. They cared deeply for German culture. “I’ll never forget my grandpa’s flawless German and how he could quote Heine and Kant. Even to his dying day he used to keep the keys to our old estate near Hamburg.” He had refused to flee the Nazis and in 1940, while in hiding in a neighbor’s basement, the Gestapo had discovered him based on a tip. But this story that seems full of unforgivable actions informs Mettleman’s world view.
“My grandfather taught me forgiveness and the Jewish concept of tikkun olam. In 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, he set out to find what became of the man who had been responsible for his suffering and the destruction of his family. He found out they had passed away but met the son. And when they embraced he said it was like a whole weight was removed.” Now Mettleman, who immigrated to Israel last week, wants to save Israel from itself. “We are a divided society, but I believe the message of hope and peace can catch on. I’m a believer, I truly believe in the path of peace. People tell me it can’t be done, but I’m following in the footsteps of Gandhi and Martin Luther KIng, and as their stories show, when you believe in something, it is no dream.”
To accomplish his goals Mettleman has founded a dozen NGOs to promote peace. One of them brings together former IDF soldiers and Palestinian militants. Another works with women on peace initiatives. Another involves Palestinian and Jewish children “drawing peace.” Mettleman notes that most of the goals and missions of the NGOs he has founded already exist in other Israeli NGOs, but he seeks to “do it differently.” He has hired a group of well known Israeli PR agents and the sons and daughters of families with good names. “Basically we want to harness the start-up nation and well known authors and their children to show that peace can happen.” His latest initiative will bring together a former Israeli President and Israel’s most well known author and other celebrities to launch a bucket of Doves on Rabin square.
ON SATURDAY Mettleman takes a group of students on an American Jewish trip to Israel to see the West Bank. “You see, American Jewish values are liberal and into coexistence and community activism. It’s important for them to help Palestinians and not accept the views of many organizations that only show one side. So what we do is run a mission to Israel where Jewish youth work with Bedouin, African refugees and take a tour of Hebron to understand the other.” The convoy of large SUVs snakes its way into the bucolic hills near Jerusalem. These are the ancient landscapes of the Bible and they look the same today. Palestinian villagers toil the soil. The only thing that interrupts our trip is the Israeli checkpoints and the settlements where all the houses look the same.
Our guide is Ahmed, a resident of a refugee camp. A former Palestinian prisoner he has now turned his life towards peace, but that doesn’t mean he betrays the Palestinian struggle. For him Hamas is an organization that helps the poor and should be included in a final peace agreement. Ahmed’s family owns a modest house and most of his land has been confiscated by Israeli authorities. His uncle must wait 8 hours a day to get to his olive trees that have been put on the other side of Israel’s imposing concrete barrier. But Ahmed is hopeful. “Peace will come. We believe in peace. It’s all we have.”
Mettleman speaks passionately to his Jewish youth followers about his mission. “There is a story in the Bible about how we Jews were strangers in another land and it says we must not abuse the stranger. Jews have to hold themselves to a higher moral authority.” He draws inspiration from the story of Zionists like Ahad Ha’Am and Judah Magnes. “They understood that Zionism must first of all be moral and humane. What we have seen recently in Israel is a rise of brutal nationalism and xenophobia. But we can return Israel to its roots, to the 1950s when Israel was one of the most egalitarian states in the world and when there was no racism and it was a light unto the nations. That’s a Jewish concept, as Jews we must be a light, we must teach the nations; and Israel is where we can do that.” Mettleman was shocked by the recent Gaza war. “Many of my friends came to me and asked ‘how can you Jews treat people like that,’ and it hurt me. I realized, that Israel is fueling a lot of anti-semitism and if I don’t go fix it, then it won’t be fixed.” He began by founding a group called “Jews for human rights” and gathering together Jewish celebrities and academics in the US to sign a “Jewish statement for peace.” But that wasn’t enough. Now his dream is being fulfilled as he brings his first trips of young Jewish students to Israel to meet Ahmed.
In the West Bank Mettleman’s group meets with other Jewish led NGOs that are involved in helping Palestinians obtain their rights. A tour of an olive press, an olive vineyard, an olive orchard, an olive sapling greenhouse. “One of the initiatives we are doing is teaching Palestinians how to plant olive trees. We train Palestinians how to bottle the oil and then we sell it under our name ‘Peace Olive’ in America and we put that it is ‘made in Bethlehem’, because that shows people that through a modest investment they can save Palestinian society. Last year we planted 200 olive trees, can you believe that? 50 of them were destroyed by settler extremists. But we just keep on planting. We are hoping that next year we will increase our planting by 100%, so that’s 400 trees. That can support a family of, well, it doesn’t support a family, but we are doing our part. It’s like Gandhi said, even a pebble can move a mountain.”
Over the last few weeks the incredible achievements of this initiative have brought a lot of attention and Mettleman now is organizing a speaking tour of the US and EU. He has been invited to Davos and hopes to soon speak at several UN committees as an expert on Palestinian affairs. “I’ll be giving a lecture at Washington City University in September on how Palestinians live, and speaking about international law. I don’t have a degree in law, but I’m an expert.” He is also making a documentary about his work “Olives from peace: The coexistence initiative changing the world” and has been shortlisted for several major human rights prizes. “I’m thinking we may start an institute next year also called the Institute for Palestine Information and Studies which will further our essential work.” He has been invited to meet the US President and explain the Palestinian situation. He will also soon be ordained as a Rabbi for his work. “It’s an incredible honor, I’ve never actually studied to be a rabbi, but I’ll accept this honor because, like Abraham Heschel and Rav Hillel said ‘it’s not how knowledgeable one is in Torah, it’s how devoted they are.’ Like the story of learning Torah while standing on one foot. I’ve done that.”
As the sun sets on the golden hills near biblical Bethlehem, one can almost hear the bells tolling as they did in the time of Herod. It is a reminder of the ancient hatreds and conflicts of this ancient land. But if men like Mettleman and his dream succeed, those conflicts may finally be put to rest.