Rabbis Steven Jacobs and Leonard Beerman from Los Angeles, along with six other clergy members traveling with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, had just left a meeting with Yasser Arafat and were on the way to see Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the head of Hamas, when they heard about the bombing at Hebrew University.
The bus continued on to the Erez crossing at Gaza, and it was there that the interfaith delegation decided to cancel the visit with the man whose group had orchestrated the attack. They headed instead to Jerusalem, where the delegation went to Hadassah Hospital to visit the wounded.
"We believe in principle that if you want to get people out of jail, you have to talk to the man who has the keys, and we felt that we had to talk to the man who is responsible for terror," said Beerman, rabbi emeritus of Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles and a longtime peace activist. "But we couldn't talk to him with our dead right before us."
The delegations' U-turn at Gaza signifies the tortured polarity of the weeklong mission: The group went to preach a message of nonviolence, to facilitate dialogue and to see to humanitarian issues, and at the same time was confronted with a grisly reality, meeting with Israelis and Palestinians whose lives have been shattered by the violence.
But it is just that reality which made the message much more urgent, Beerman told The Journal upon returning to Los Angeles.
"There are people who still cling to the possibility that there can be a diplomatic solution to this issue, and that Israelis and Palestinians are not condemned forever to slaughter one another or defend themselves against slaughter," Beerman said.
Beerman and Jacobs, the rabbi at Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills who has traveled before with Jackson, were the two Jewish representatives on the mission, which had the support of the both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. In addition to Arafat, the group met with Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and the Palestinian Authority Cabinet, which, thanks to the group's visit, had its first full meeting in months since travel is so restricted in the area.
"One of the highest challenges of religion is to meet with your enemy," Jacobs said. "We knew that we were meeting the declared enemies of the Jewish people, yet we felt that we could talk about nonviolence and help in this downward spiral of events. There is terror and anxiety which grips everyone everywhere, so they don't know where to turn."
Jacobs said the conversation with Arafat was "very tough, but very candid."
According to The Jerusalem Post, the group first listened to a prepared statement in which Arafat listed his grievances with America and Israel. Jackson helped Arafat and Erekat draft a statement, which Arafat read in Arabic and English, saying that he is "committed to peace through ending the Israeli occupation and establishing a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, next to the state of Israel." Arafat also condemned "violence, suicide, terrorism, bloodshed and confusion," as "not serving Palestinian interests."
Jacobs said he urged Arafat to resolve the issue of Israel's missing soldiers and civilians, including soldiers kidnapped in Lebanon and a businessman who was kidnapped while traveling in Europe.
Jackson took on the issues of malnourishment among Palestinian children, which was cited in a report while the delegation was there, and tried to get Israel to ease travel restrictions so students could take final exams.
"The only hope is the lingering possibility that each can bring themselves to see the humanity of the other," Beerman said.
Jacobs said that despite Israeli grief and Palestinian despair, he found reason to hope.
Intellectuals at Palestinian universities privately told him they were ready to live side by side with the Jewish state and that they were ready to see the violence end. Israelis spoke of a negotiated solution.
One of the most moving moments for Beerman came at the end of a meeting at the Ministry of Defense.
"We were meeting with this phalanx of officers in uniform, and at the end of the meeting, Jesse Jackson said, 'Let us pray.' And I winced, and I thought these are hardly dati'im [religious people], these generals and officers," Beerman said.
Then Jackson asked them all to hold hands.
"And there we stood, our delegation and generals and officers, and we held hands in this room in the ministry, and Jesse said, 'Rabbi Beerman, will you lead us in prayer?'"
As Beerman spoke the words, "Sim Shalom, Tovah U'vracha," he could hear many of the military men quietly join in.
Then he continued in English: "Grant us peace, Thy most precious gift, O Thou eternal source of peace, and enable Israel to be a messenger of peace unto all the peoples of the earth."