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A Jewish response to Israeli checkpoints

by Rabbi Yehoshua Looks | Published on April 8, 2014 in Haaretz

The Israeli army restricts Palestinians’ freedom of move­ment for the sake of secu­rity. How can we strike a balance between serving one people’s freedom at the cost of another’s?

When I, as an Israeli Jew, approach a check­point in a vehicle, I may have to wait, I may have to answer some ques­tions, I may have to open the trunk for inspec­tion; all before I pass through on my way to my desti­na­tion. The feeling I have is of minor incon­ve­nience balanced by accep­tance of a reason­able price to pay for security.

That is not the case for Palestinians living outside the 1967 borders.

I met Sam Bahour last month whilst on an Encounter trip to Bethlehem, where he related his story. Bahour was born in Youngstown, Ohio, to a Lebanese-American mother and a Palestinian father who immi­grated to the United States in 1957. His father and gener­a­tions before in his family were born in Palestine, on land in Al-Bireh, next to Ramallah. Bahour has a degree in computer tech­nology from Youngstown State and an MBA from a joint program between Northwestern University and Tel Aviv University.

Since relo­cating back to his ances­tral home, he has been part of a group that founded Palestine Telecommunications Company. As a busi­nessman coor­di­nating telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions networks in the region, Bahour depends on face-to-face meet­ings with clients and contacts, trav­eling back and forth between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Initially and for 15 years, as an American citizen, Bahour trav­eled in and out of Israel on his U.S. pass­port with a tourist visa. He would peri­od­i­cally have to leave the country and return to renew his status. He married a Palestinian woman and they built a home in Al-Bireh, where they have two daugh­ters. In 2006, his pass­port was stamped with “last permit” which left him with an impos­sible choice: leave or over­stay his visa. With the help of Israeli friends, Bahour joined the Campaign for the Right to Enter and succeeded in making his case for perma­nent resi­dency, which the Israel Defense Forces ulti­mately granted.

In an article for Cleveland​.com, Bahour writes:

[A]s a U.S. citizen who for 15 years trav­eled at will, I was now, for Israeli purposes, clas­si­fied as a Palestinian. The day I was given my ID card, I lost my freedom of move­ment. Today, the only way to get to Jerusalem, Israel or my Israeli alma mater, Tel Aviv University, is to make a request to the Israeli mili­tary for a permit, which is rarely granted.”

Bahour told us he has diabetes, the side effects of which make waiting in line for up to several hours under cramped condi­tions partic­u­larly uncom­fort­able. After he crosses the check­point by foot, someone has to wait to pick him up or he has to take public transportation.

As Bahour finished relating his story, he expressed his frus­tra­tion with the marathon of just living. In conclu­sion, he chal­lenged the group I was with to “be Jewish.”

What did he mean?

Palestinians and Israelis are bound by reli­gion, history and fate to live on the same land,” he explained to me in a phone conver­sa­tion after the trip. “That ‘living’ must be decou­pled from the notion that either side has the exclu­sive right to domi­nate the other. It is in this spirit that I work day in and day out to help my people see the future through a lens free from occu­pa­tion and to help Jews whom I cross paths with to see the present as insep­a­rable from Judaism’s pillar of social justice.”

My wife Debbie, our three chil­dren and I arrived in Israel in 1996, within a year of when a Jew had assas­si­nated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. This was also a time when Palestinian suicide bombers were regu­larly blowing them­selves up on buses along with inno­cent bystanders. Our family knew people who were killed in attacks. Our girls’ school­mates and imme­diate family members of their class­mates were murdered.

With the comple­tion of the secu­rity fence sepa­rating Jerusalem from the West Bank, our lives regained a sense of normalcy, which we highly value and for which we have much gratitude.

From a Jewish perspec­tive, how are we to balance the competing values of protecting ourselves and safe­guarding the needs and rights of the other who dwells among us? Where does reason­able secu­rity end and the degree to which we can restrict the move­ment of another people begin?

The prin­ciple of din rodef, as presented in the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, allows for preventing and even in extreme cases killing someone who is pursuing you. The Rambam, Maimonodes, is firm that to take the life of someone who could have been stopped with lesser means is murder. Even without a Sanhedrin (Supreme Court from Temple times) to enforce din rodef, from a Jewish values perspec­tive, the impli­ca­tion is very clear: We are respon­sible to only do what is required to protect ourselves – and no more.

We are reminded and enjoined many times in the Torah, and with partic­ular rele­vance as Passover approaches, to love the ger, the other, to look after the needs of widows and orphans, those less fortu­nate than us, because we know in our kishkes, deep in our innards, what it feels like to be oppressed. It is our oblig­a­tion. Nowhere is it written that the ger has to love us.

I am trou­bled that I do not have satis­fac­tory answers to my ques­tions. However, as at our Passover Seders, some­times the ques­tions are more impor­tant than the answers.

For a moment though, think about approaching a check­point. Imagine what it might feel like not to be in one’s car but on foot, to wait, be inter­ro­gated, perhaps wait some more, all the time wondering when or even if you will come out the other side. And then, contem­plate whether this is really what we need to live securely.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a free­lance consul­tant to non-profit organizations.

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