Israel

May you find yourself lost and stranded in a village of Palestinian Muslims

I haven’t revisited the Yiddish Curses for Republican Jews meme since its height during the US presidential elections last year, but an experience earlier this weekend prompted me to go back and scroll through them to find one in particular. On Friday morning, I boarded a bus and travelled deep into the West Bank for an olive picking and human rights tour with Rabbis for Human Rights.

Our first stop was the home of Jamil, a Palestinian olive farmer, who has had multiple interactions with the IDF and with settlers. Within moments of sitting down on the plush sofas in his living room, we were promptly served strong coffee and sweet tea, followed by pastries which his son described as “Palestinian pizza.”

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Drinking coffee at Jamil’s (second from right) house

We heard much that was distressing – stories of the over 30 legal complaints Jamil had to file in response to attacks on his settlers. Stories of how settlers have repeatedly cut down, burned, and poisoned Palestinian olive fields. Stories of how after Israeli courts ruled in favor of Palestinian claims, Israeli settlers came in the middle of the night and burned down entire olive orchards. Stories of how there are olive trees that were planted by Palestinians decades ago, but now exist within the bounds of Israeli settlements; trees that Palestinians can still see, but cannot harvest. It’s like having court-supervised visitation after a particularly messy divorce.

Later in the day, we would see with our own eyes an olive orchard that had recently been burned down by settlers from a nearby outpost. After running through the most recent offenses against his land, Jamil paused to reflect on the nature of his quotidian life, then shared: “When your enemy is the police and the judge, the system is stacked against you.” *

In response, our Rabbinic guide lamented: “It’s like seeing your family members cut down trees.”

We asked Jamil how he viewed the future. He responded: “No other country will accept us. We can’t leave.” His words struck me like a punch to the chest. They could just as easily have come from the mouth of a Jew around the time of the foundation of Israel.

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A view of the burned olive orchard near the illegal “Aish Kodesh” outpost

Lest I become too despondent, I should stop and say that my point is not to put forth a litany of the offenses we saw and heard off. Rather, it is to draw a sharp distinction between how one might suspect we would be treated by those we met in the West Bank, and the reality of our experiences there. Here we were, kippot-clad Jewish rabbinical students from Jerusalem, as good a symbol of the Other as possible. Jamil and his kinsmen had every reason to be suspicious of, offended by, even angry at us. The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Sitting in Jamil’s home, talking about the daily immense struggles his family faces with regards to accessing their land, freedom of movement, and threats from nearby settlers, I was struck by how warm, peaceful and welcoming our surrounding was. Which is why I was reminded of the modern yiddish curse:

“May you find yourself lost and stranded in a village of Palestinian Muslims, and may you be treated only with dignity, kindness and respect.”

One of the reasons the “curses” were so effectively humorous is that they brought to light many of the uncomfortable truths that we’re loathe to recognize in ourselves and others. Some of them were hilarious in their absurdity, while others cut a little too close to home. Consider this one as those of the latter disposition.

Later in the day, we trekked out into the orchards to help pick the last of this harvest’s olives. This was an un-arranged visit; we just dropped by a group of farmers and asked if we could help. While doing so, we were served more tea, along with fresh olives, pita, and olive oil. As we took a break to eat and drink, we played with some of the local Palestinian children. They, too, had every reason to fear our presence – the kippot on our heads symbols (unfairly so) of those people who have come to destroy their fields. To be sure, some stared from a distance, pointing at our heads with one hand while drawing a circle over their own heads. While much can be said about what stereotypes are being taught about the Other in both cultures and how this isn’t helping bring peace any closer, for now it was simply delightful to contribute to Jews and Palestinians having time to laugh with each other, clearly an important step on the path to dismantling some of these stereotypes.

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As we boarded our bus to head back to Jerusalem, another group of our Palestinian hosts came out of their house, asking us to come inside to drink coffee with them. Unfortunately we didn’t have time as we had to get back home before Shabbat. So – and here’s the best part – they ran back inside, and quickly returned with small paper cups, so they could serve us coffee for the ride home.

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Three times that day, we were welcomed in graciously as guests. Three times, our hosts went above and beyond what could be expected, in order to make us feel welcomed with dignity, kindness, and respect. For me, the juxtaposition between these acts of hachnasat orchim – welcoming the stranger – and the acts of sinat chinam – baseless hatred and cruelty we saw committed by our fellow Jews and Israelis – was the most impactful part of the day. Granted, what we saw and heard must be understood in terms of the larger context of the situation in the West Bank. Not all settlers burn down olive fields, and not all Palestinians are necessarily as welcoming as those we meet. That said, it was clear to me that the welcoming and openness we received was not an extreme example – it was the norm for these families. Yet this normative welcoming is being met with extremist violence by the settlers.

It is on that note that it must be asked: “Who wants to see these things? To believe that Jewish people are doing these things?”

Challenging us with this question, our guide prompted us to think about Sulam Ya’akov (Jacob’s Ladder) the famous episode in Genesis from that week’s parasha. After awaking from his dream at Beth El, Jacob declared “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!” Similarly, we must acknowledge that we must awake from our own dreams and acknowledge the truths that are around us, as challenging as that may be.

Faced with the prospect of such a jarring awakening, it seems that there are a few dominant responses: Some people just ignore the problems and pretend that they don’t exist – a response that the separation wall/fence/barrier is exacerbating (it’s so easy to pretend that the Other doesn’t exist when you don’t have to see them). At the other end of the extreme are those who respond with rejection and hostility towards Israel en masse. This response is equally harmful, in that it also distorts the entire picture by trying to paint a new picture of reality with broad strokes that ignore the nuances of Israel.

There is a middle road, and it is incumbent upon me to walk that road. At the end of the day, the settlers belong to my people and my Torah. For this reason, I believe I can’t be ignorant or rejectionist, since my lot is cast with them. I must help others acknowledge the middle road between ignorance and hostility, that permits access to the more realistic – albeit more challenging – understanding of reality. Far too often, it’s incredibly easy to live in Israel these days in a dreamlike state ignorant of the harsh reality mere kilometers away.

After awaking from his dream, Jacob goes on to wrestle with an angel God. Some commentators suggest that he is actually wrestling with himself. Most certainly, it is time again for Israel to wrestle with itself.

 

*These offenses are well documented. Just this year, over 2,000 trees have been cut down, poisoned, or burned. Flocks of sheep have been killed after grazing on the land and eating poisoned crops. We learned of the deliberate or de facto coordination between settlers and the IDF, as the army frequently declares nighttime curfews on Palestinians, which allows or enables settlers to come into Palestinian farmland in the night and commit offenses such as we saw. And we learned that the IDF and the Israeli police often cannot or do not help the Palestinians who live under their security control, as they are equally afraid of retribution against them from the settlers. Moreover, there is a sense amongst these Palestinian farmers that even the Palestinian Authority is lament to help them, since they are largely funded by the USA, which affects their priorities.

Crossposted at The Times of Israel here.

Israel, Politics

My friend, my friend she lights the fuse

Israel, my troubled friend, it seems you never miss the opportunity to tug at my heart in opposite directions. This week, you simultaneously shoot yourself in one foot, while strapping on an attractive new Naot sandal on the other.

So you’re going to construct 1,000 new homes in East Jerusalem? I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. It’s certainly in keeping with the way you’ve been acting lately.

Though even when you punch me in the gut like that, with your other hand you lift me up and caress my tear-streamed cheek. Yesterday it was announced that a group of prominent Israelis, including former chiefs of the IDF, Mossad, Shin Bet, are presenting a new straightforward peace plan, based in part on the Arab Peace Initiative. It seems this group of Israelis also intends to rile up support among the Israeli populous and push the government to act upon the plan.

At the end of the day, as complex and confounding as the Israeli/Palestinian situation may be, it can also be remarkably simple, at least for those who want Israel to exist as a respected Jewish Democracy. Watch the creatively produced video above for some insight along those lines.

The new Israeli peace plan could fail. It probably will. But hope is always better than despair. Sentiments too corny? Fair enough. For the emotionally detached, just watch the video above and root your opinion in the fast-approaching demographic reality.

Israel, Life, Peace, Politics

We both have truths, are yours the same as mine?

Yesterday, I responded to B’nai Brith Canada’s claim that they were in possession of “The truth” vis a vis the Israel/Palestine/Jewish/Muslim/Arab/Middle-East peace process, and that an anonymous “They” was trying to subvert access to this “truth.”

So let’s talk about “The Truth.”

In 2005, I was invited to speak at the URJ Biennial in Houston as a member of a panel on Israel Engagement. I was representing the university age group, and I was supposed to talk about Israel advocacy, Reform Zionism, and combating anti-Israel sentiments on campus.

Coming out of the Israel/Palestine/Jewish/Muslim/Arab/Middle-East climate at York University heavily affected my perspective. The topic was a particularly divisive one at York, and I had grown tired of the vitriol from both “sides” of the debate.

So the thesis of my panel presentation went something like this:

“If you’re going to talk about Israel on campus, you need to root yourself solidly and almost exclusively in factual truths. You need to avoid the emotionalization of the debate, and stay away from the impassioned yelling fits.”

Because that’s what the debate had become – a perpetual round of who-can-scream-louder-than-the-other-“side”.

Having just returned from Israel where I had some unique opportunities to engage with the Israeli Arab community, I find more than ever that the truth might actually be at the root of the problem – both in the Middle East and abroad.

Keeping your debate to truths is all fine and good, and may indeed circumvent some of the yelling and screaming and red faces and holier-than-thou shouting, but there’s just one problem…

Both “sides” have equally valid truths.

I’ll pause for a moment and explain the copious use of quotation marks around “sides”.

There really aren’t two sides to this issue, each with their own opposing history… it’s one large story, with intertwined narratives, facts, and truths. This is not Jew vs. Muslim, Arab vs. Non-Arab, Israeli vs. Palestinian, or any other false dichotomy. The longer we continue to view this as a polarized issue, the longer it will remain that way – polarized and unsolved. Certainly, at this point in world history, it’s clear that if you want to talk about Israel/Palestine/Jewish/Muslim/Arab/Middle-East, you should understand that it’s one vastly complex narrative, not two separate storybooks.

Back to the Truth… in this one, complex story, there are a number of equally valid truths. For example:

– It’s true that years of terrorism have led to Israel needing to take strong security measures.
– It’s true that the State of Israel has a long and valid connection to the Land of Israel.
– It’s true that many Palestinians were displaced because of the forming of the State of Israel.
– It’s true that life for non-Jewish Israelis is often much harder than life for Jewish Israelis.
– It’s true that Israel needs to defend itself against internal and external threats.
– It’s true that Israel bears responsibility for the actions it takes in the West Bank.
And so on…

It’s very convenient and easy for much of the pro-Israel community to just focus on the truths from the Israeli “side” of the narrative, because it makes it look like Israel is justified in all of its actions. Unfortunately, that leaves out half of the story.

The pro-Israel community as a whole needs to work on being less myopic, and start looking at the bigger picture, not just Israel’s “side” of it. This is why I’m so fond of J Street. Not because they’re “liberal,” “progressive,” or “pro-peace,” but because they engage in a holistic viewing of the situation Israel faces.

Compare their perspective with B’nai Brith Canada’s. When B’nai Brith claims to be in possession of the “Truth,” what they’re essentially doing is delegitimizing anyone whom they deem as being opposed to their view of the “Truth.” So the reality of daily life for non-Jewish Israelis is irrelevant, the reality of daily life for Palestinians is irrelevant, the future demographic realities Israel will face are irrelevant, and the realities that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are willing to confront are irrelevant because they are not “the Truth.”

The “truth” is all fine and good, but only if you’re open to other people’s truths as well.

Israel, Journalism

Is this really necessary?

MYTH: ‘The Palestinians are descendants of the Canaanites and were in Palestine long before the Jews

That’s the headline on a recent Jewish Tribune feature, which goes on to “prove” that the Palestinians have no ancestral heritage via the Canaanites. Whew! Glad we were finally able to get this myth out of the way. I’ve been worrying about it for so long, I’ve been thinking of sending it to the Mythbusters.

With slightly less sarcasm and incredulity… what can including this feature in a “news”paper possibly accomplish? There’s no academic legitimacy here, and whether it’s true or false is ultimately irrelevant at this point in history. All it does is serve to “other” the Palestinians and paint them en masse as an opposing group. It’s part of the “me first, ME first, ME FIRST!” line of arguing.

It’s simplistic, reductionist, xenophobic, and dumb.

Moreover, it appears that a regular “Myth” feature isn’t even a part of the Tribune. What on earth is this doing here?

Israel, Politics

An end to Cardboard Ideology

My body is back in New York. This afternoon, it will be in Toronto. My mind (and my internal body clock) are still in Israel. Along those lines, some thoughts for 5770, courtesy of my favourite journalist-cum-theologian, Bradley Burston:

Perhaps the time has come to ask, as the Talmud asks, “Who is a true hero?” The sage Ben Zoma responds that the true hero is the person who succeeds in conquering the basest of impulses, the worst of human instincts.

In an age of quietly tyrannical political correctness and instant-messaging, the complex heroism of individual Israelis may have no place. Israelis themselves have by and large learned to hide it, to dismiss it, to denigrate it…

…the secret heroism of Israelis is by no means confined to the military. Large numbers of Israelis work tirelessly, heroically, to help pave the way to a common future with the Palestinians. Many Israelis have opened their hearts to helping refugees from foreign genocides. Their stories go largely unnoticed abroad, in no small part because it takes work to make a people long marketed as villains, into flesh and blood fellow humans.

This is the truth. It is politically incorrect in the extreme. It muddies the colors of cardboard ideology and blanket support for one angelic side over the diabolical.

May 5770 be a year of truth, politically incorrectness, and an end to cardboard ideology.

See you next week, when I fire up Billboard Judaism.

Shana Tovah!