Saturday, June 18, 2011

Settlers in Hebron, Palestinians in the West Bank--Jerusalem Week 10

In case you can't read it, the Native American is saying:  "Ask me about land for peace."
Wow, what a week.  Ulpan ended, so I decided to take advantage of the free time by taking day trips to some of the more controversial places in Israel. Things are relatively calm now, and I wanted to take advantage of that. In order to maximize my understanding, I wanted to hear the stories from those who were most passionate about the land--the settlers and the Palestinians themselves.

I deliberately did not tell anyone outside of Israel that I would be heading to Hebron and Palestinians in the West Bank because I didn't want to worry them.  I'm safe and sound now, so I can tell the tale, though, honestly, never once did I feel endangered in any way.

Hebron is most famous as the very first piece of property the Jewish people acquired in Israel.  In Genesis, Abraham buys a field from Ephron the Hittite, insisting on paying full price, in order to bury his wife Sarah.  That cave, called the Cave of Machpela, is the traditional burial site not only of Sarah, but also of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca, and Leah.  As such, the Cave of Machpela and Hebron are sacred to Muslims.  Rachel is buried on the road to Ramallah, and we visited her grave as well.  Jews have lived in Hebron for centuries.  Built around the burial site is a massive structure built by King Herod the Great. The same Kabbalists I talked about last week in Safed in the 16th Century also established a thriving community in Hebron.  There was co-existence with the Muslims throughout the Middle Ages, but Jews were allowed only up to the 7th step leading to the grave.  They had no access to the actual tombs.  The early Zionists of the late 1800's and early 1900's also established a strong presence there.  Even the first Hadassah hospital was established there. In 1928, Jews were actually the majority in Hebron.  A massive pogrom in 1929, referred to by most Jews as the Hebron Massacre, which killed dozens of Jewish residents, drove most of the remaining members away.  Continued rioting in the 1930's caused the British to remove the remaining Jews from Hebron, not to return again until well after the Six Day War.  The history of violence there has continued, as sniper fire over the last 20 years has taken the lives of other Jewish residents of the city, including babies. Equally famous was a Jewish massacre at the Cave of Machpela, perpetrated in 1994 by Baruch Goldstein, who entered the cave and murdered 29 Muslims praying at the tomb.  Shortly afterward, the tomb was divided into separate sections for Jews and Muslims, as it is to this day.

Memorial for Jewish baby
 killed by sniper fire.
Coffee urn outside Jewish
home also hit by sniper fire.  
Today's Hebron is dark and depressing, though some light was provided by our tour guide, appropriately named Sarah, who is, as strange as this sounds, a slightly fanatical, but ever so cheerful settler herself. Because of the Jewish history there, after telling a story or visiting a site, she would ask:  "isn't it the most natural thing that a Jew would want to live here?"  Still, a Jew who does ultimately decide to live in this hardship has to be unbelievably dedicated, some might even say crazy.  Life is very hard and very dangerous there. Many Jewish residents there have been shot or stabbed, and many of the courtyards and mini streets are named after the victims.  

Hebron is divided into a Muslim area, which has about 30,000 residents and a mixed area, which has about 900 Jewish residents and several thousand Muslim residents.  Jews began coming back to Hebron in the late 1970's, but their building is restricted to essentially one street.  That street includes the first Hadassah hospital, which now houses a museum about Hebron, a visitor's center, a pre-school, and most of the Jewish residents.  It is illegal for Jews to expand there, even in buildings previously owned by and/or attached to Jewish homes.  From time to time they try to do so anyway, and they told us of one incident where, after moving  into a formerly Jewish owned and currently uninhabited house next door to a Jewish residence, the Israeli army evicted the family and took a sledgehammer to their home. There is a huge Israeli army presence there, as much to protect the settlers from Palestinians as to prevent them from expanding and provoking the Arab residents of the city.  What an incredibly painful task it is for the Israeli army to try and protect its citizens while trying to make sure some of those same citizens don't explode the tinderbox!

One moving story that our guide Sarah shared with us had to do with the riots/pogroms in the twenties and thirties.  During the last series of riots in the late 1930's the British came to evacuate the remaining Jewish residents, who were gathered in the synagogue in great fear.  The last to be evacuated was a teenage boy standing next to the ark.  The British soldier told him he must leave immediately, but the boy said that he needed to save the Torah, a Sephardic style Torah from Syria.  The soldier told him there was no room left on the truck.  Imagine long pregnant pause here.   Over 60 years later when the synagogue in Hebron was rededicated an old man showed up with a large duffel bag.  He announced to the assembled group that he had a story to tell.  He took the very same Torah from his bag, and it is housed in the Ark of the synagogue today.
The Torah with the story
Despite the pain and darkness of the day, praying at the tomb of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, and Leah was a very moving experience for me.  I'm not sure I will ever go back or if Jews will even be allowed to come back should the Messiah come and there be a peace settlement, but I am glad I went this week.
Structure surrounding Cave of Machpela, built by King Herod
Meetings with Palestinians in the West Bank
The next day I went on a semi private tour of some Palestinian areas of the West Bank with a rabbinic colleague named Rabbi Arik Asherman, who is one of the founders of the Rabbis for Human Rights.  I did not go to Ramallah or Jenin and meet with Hamas extremists or even members of the theoretically more moderate Fatah, but, rather, into tiny villages made up primarily of farmers and shepherds. RHR does work not only for Palestinian rights, but for a whole host of other human rights issues within Israel itself, from labor to health care to Bedouins.  In terms of the Palestinians in the West Bank, a major part of what RHR does is work through the Israeli courts to protect Palestinian villages, property and grazing land.  Though I certainly do not agree with much of Rabbi Asherman's politics, I respect and admire his passion and work, and it was a very meaningful, if somewhat disturbing day for me.

It is impossible to meet with these Palestinian shepherds and farmers and not be moved by their plight.  They get trampled upon from all directions.  The first village we went to was called Susia.  This tiny Palestinian village of maybe 20 families has been squeezed on all sides, first by archaeological excavations of an ancient synagogue and then by a Jewish settlement by the same name.  The families have been forced to move to a different hilltop on two occasions, and they are not even allowed to plug into the waterlines or power grid. Recently, settlers from the Jewish Susia have tried to plant a vineyard on land that the Palestinians use for grazing, and RHR has successfully challenged this in court.  Sadly, vines have been replanted, as the court rulings often prove more difficult to enforce.  As we  were leaving, United Nations vehicles were pulling in.  Apparently, this is a regular stop on the Palestinian sympathy trail.

Jewish Susia
Palestinian Susia

The next village was called Brir el-'Eid and is partially built into caves in the harsh Judean Desert.  There are only about 5 or 6 families who are sticking it out here, as harsh conditions combined with settler takeover of their grazing lands has made life next to impossible for these families.  Their tiny village is only accessible by foot and tractor, and nearby settlers have slashed the tires of said tractor to make life even more difficult for them.  They had equally unkind words for the Palestinian authority, who they called "useless," and they have also been disappointed by the lack of assistance from better off Arab towns to which they have appealed.  Despite all this, they showed us some of the famous Arab hospitality and served us tea.

Built right into the caves.
We also visited a village called Im el Khir, which has more livestock than people.  They were effusive in their praise for Rabbi Asherman, as they recently received a court order which stops the Jewish settlement of Karmel from expanding into their grazing land.  This was after one of the settlers killed one of Im el Khir's grazing goats.  I don't know how long the ruling will hold, but it was nice to see someone thankful for what was undoubtedly a hard fought case with a just outcome.  

We ended our day in the most controversial place of all, in East Jerusalem, in a highly publicized place called Sheikh Jarrah.  A number of Sephardic Jewish families lay claim to this neighborhood, as they were apparently living there just before the 1948 War of Independence.  When the Jordanians captured the territory in the War, they settled many of the Palestinian refugees from other parts of what then became Israel in this neighborhood.  Some of these Jewish families believe these homes should belong to them, and the housing authority uses almost any excuse they can to evict the Arab tenants--late rent payment, remodeling without a permit, etc.  We met with a man who had been evicted from his home.
            The Eye of the Beholder:  Historic Jewish Home or Palestinian Residence
I am very glad I got to hear these stories from the people who have been affected by them.  As I mentioned, one can not help but feel great sympathy for their plight.  These are not Hamas terrorists, but kind, working people who have gotten a terrible deal. 

At this point, after seeing such a strong military presence in Hebron to prevent Jewish building there, my thoughts turned to why that same logic doesn't seem to apply near these small, out-of-the way Palestinian villages next to Israeli settlements.  Is it because they are much more removed from the public eye?  That certainly is not the case in East Jerusalem, though it may be in Susia.  I'll have more to say about that in a moment.

The Third Day--West Bank Settlements of Nokdim, Tekoa, and an Unrecognized Outpost
After my day in the Palestinian West Bank I decided I wanted to hear from some of these settlers themselves, so I went on an organized tour called "Meet the Settlers."  The tour was led by a quirky, friendly man named Bruce Brill, a wind engineer/klezmer musician/feelance writer. At this point I should point out that while the West Bank is a geographic designation, Jewish residents who live there refer to the area not as the West Bank, but by their Biblical names of Judea and Samaria.  Much more than Tel Aviv and Haifa, this is truly the land of the Bible.
Wind Engineer/Musician/Settler/Tour Guide Bruce
Our first stop was Nokdim, now also called El David, renamed after two Jewish West Bank residents who were murdered by Palestinians.  We met with a soft-spoken social worker named Shmuel.  Though he believes Jews have every right to be there, he and his family live there less for ideological reasons than for practical ones.  It is 15 minutes from Jerusalem, and he could afford to buy a house there.  

We also stopped in Tekoa, which is famous Biblically for an unnamed "wise woman" who King David's General Yoav consults in 2nd Samuel.  I've always loved this Biblical story so I was quite happy to visit.  The modern Tekoa was established by Jews from the former Soviet Union in the late seventies.  The wise woman we consulted there was our tour guide's ex-wife.  She has lived there for 30 years and, similar to Shmuel, likes its proximity to Jerusalem as well as its diversity.   There are Anglos and native born Israelis there, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, religious and secular.  

The third place we visited has a name, though I don't remember it.  It is an illegal outpost, meaning that settlers have placed modular homes there, probably in the middle of the night, and they are not recognized by the Israeli government.  There is a soldier stationed there as well, similar to Hebron, as much to prevent expansion by the settlers as to protect the dozen or so families there.  We met with a man named Dan there.  He was brilliant, articulate, passionate, and somewhat frightening.  He is not religious, but most of  us would view him as a zealot.  He chooses to live there because he wants to be on the front lines of the war, both philosophically and materially.  Though his views are scary, talking to him he still comes across as a nice guy.  
All these places were fascinating and disturbing at the same time.  Bruce was an excellent guide who seems to be on a first name basis with everyone we met.  Ironically, many of these people were Palestinian residents of the West Bank, who are the contractors and laborers for the settlement building!

If you've read this far, I'm impressed.  This trip allowed me to sympathize with the people I met and "humanize" the problems, but it did not fundamentally change my pragmatist views on the Israel-Palestinian issue.  Now, imagine Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof.

On the one hand, I admire the passion, dedication, and love of the land of all these people.  I also have to say that all of them seem like nice human beings, whether or not I agree with their views on the Middle East, whether or not I believe they should be situated where they are.

On the other hand, I heard far too many words of dehumanization on all sides during these three days.  To the other side, they are Palestinians and Settlers rather than actual human beings.  One of the most disturbing things I heard was a comment from a person who joined me on my makeshift tour with Rabbis for Human Rights.  This person said to me:  "Oh, those settlers are truly evil."  I replied:  "Yes, some of them really are."  She responded:  "Some of them?  All of them are evil.  Why did you say some of them?"  I answered:  "My experience tells me that there are all kinds of people living in these settlements for all kinds of reasons.  It's really wrong to generalize anyone."  Yes, it's hard for Bay Area residents to say this, but "settlers" are people too.  I am still bothered by this person's remarks.  If they are not actual human beings in your mind's eye, it's far too easy to dismiss them.  I find this very dangerous.

Who owns what land and what are the statutes of limitations?  On the one hand,  you might say we should go back to the original owners of the land.  If a Jew owned a house in Hebron before the riots or in East Jerusalem before it was captured by the Jordanians, he should be able to reinhabit it.  

On the other hand, does the Palestinian from Haifa get to go back to his home too?  How far back do we go?  To 1966?  1947?  1928?  Biblical times?  Do we accept Israeli papers, British papers, Jordanian papers, or Ottoman papers?  These questions are incredibly complex in the Middle East, and there are no easy answers.  

On the one hand, the left wing in particular and most of the world in general believes that Palestinians have an absolute right to stay in areas where there is a vast Jewish majority.

On the other hand, the left wing in particular and most of the world in general believes that areas with a Palestinian majority should be Judenrein, completely free of Jews.  It is a very cruel irony.
A sign of cruel irony
On the one hand, human rights are paramount in a civilized society.

On the other hand, protecting a Palestinian's civil rights to the furthest extreme can actually be a stumbling block to peace almost as much as the settler trying to build right next to a primarily Palestinian area. Again, if the Messiah should ever come and enable peace to have a chance here, this peace necessitates some sort of physical separation between Palestinians and Israelis.  It only makes sense that, even in the West Bank, areas with a vast Jewish majority will have to remain a part of Israel and areas with a vast Palestinian majority will become part of the Palestinian State.  And that means some people are going to have to move.  

It's somewhat analogous to the one old man who owns the only property that the new road has to pass through.  It's not fair, but sometimes, he has to move.  He should be generously compensated for that move.  But if he is continually told he has an absolute right to stay there, or if he feels that God tells him he has to stay there, or if he feels like someone might kill him for selling his property, it's going to make things much more difficult.  Whether we're talking about the Israeli settler whose Biblical convictions tell him he can never leave the land or the Palestinian whose family has been there for decades and is also being threatened with his life for selling to a Jew, the end result is the same.  Tradeoffs are going to have to happen, and that is exactly why the Israeli government and the army station the soldiers where they do.  They don't want to give any incentive for anyone to move into or remain in areas that don't fit in with a workable future for two peoples and two states.

Ideology is admirable, but it can also be a stumbling block.  Sometimes great can get in the way of good.  In the end, I vote for peace over principle. 

All sides in the West Bank/Judea/Samaria seem to detest the Oslo accords and rail against both the  governments.  But it is much easier to be against something than to construct real solutions in one of the most intractable conflicts in the world.  We can only hope that the next generation will be able to make sacrifices that this one seemingly can't.

Synagogues of the Week
This week we ended up at a different synagogue on Saturday morning than we attended in the evening.  It had to do with the fact that I heard on Friday night that the Saturday service would run past Noon, and we were having guests.  In any case, on Friday night we went to Yakar, another spirited modern Orthodox synagogue with a lot of Anglos.  They actually have two separate services.  The first one, downstairs, is more meditation-oriented, though it's the loudest meditation I've ever experienced.  They sit rather still in their seats and sing many niggunim (songs without words) at the top of their lungs in multiple harmonies.  It is beautiful, though some of the songs drag on for quite a while.  Lecha Dodi was taking a very long time, when we suddenly heard the spirited Shlomo Carlebach tunes we have come to love emanating from somewhere else in the building.  So for the second half of the service we went upstairs and joined in there.  Lots of ruach, which Jonah tells me he personally hopes to bring back to Temple Beth Abraham.

On Saturday morning we went to Shir Chadash, not to be confused with Shira Chadasha where we spent our first Shabbat.  It was a little quieter than some of the places we've been, but it was very sweet, and there was a sermon in English.  They had a long-time Gabbai saying an emotional goodbye to the congregation that week, and it was very moving.  There were also two grooms this week, and they did a little dance around the Torah table with each of them.  Jonah joined in, as he seems to be some sort of good luck symbol to people.  Micah got to do Gelila (dressing the Torah), though he was disappointed that he didn't get to do Anim Zmirot.  Anim Zmirot is a very long, difficult hymn of glory that he has been working very hard on.  He knows it now, but this synagogue followed the not as common custom of reciting it early in the service rather than late, and we didn't get a chance to ask anyone if he could do it.  Thus it was led by the regular davener, and not all that well!

Wine of the Week--Yarden Syrah 2007
Yarden is widely available in the U.S., and is the top of the line brand of the Golan Heights Winery.  This one was smooth and drinkable, with a very pure Shiraz taste.  Very good, but not amazing, similar to the Dalton and Galil Mountain Shiraz'.  87

Just a few more days until the Temple Beth Abraham congregational trip arrives.  Yeah!  For a small preview, we got to see Marissa Halbrecht, daughter of Hildie Spritzer Satomi and Tzutomo Satomi, along with her two gorgeous children, this week.

1 comment:

  1. A well written, well thought out essay on today's realities, yesterday's influence and tomorrow's hopes.

    Thanks, Rabbi.