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Rosh Hashanah: Living Up to Our Name

by Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson | Published on September 1, 2007

While esti­mates vary, medical experts conclude that 75% of Americans suffer from back pain, an ailment from which I had been spared until about two months ago on the 4th of July. Given my ability to pinpoint the time and date of my first serious bout with back pain it would be reason­able to expect that I was engaged in some kind of rigorous phys­ical activity. Hardly. My back­ache followed a long day of sitting in uncom­fort­able seats, of engaging in clumsy conver­sa­tion, of bus touring through foreign neigh­bor­hoods, of looking through tinted windows at the faces of strangers passing an eerily quiet summer after­noon in clus­ters of molded plastic chairs on the stoops of small, over stuffed, under-trafficked shops and dusty businesses.

My back­ache followed a daylong excur­sion to Bethlehem spon­sored by Encounter, an orga­ni­za­tion that brings American Jews to meet with Palestinians. Encounter was created by two dynamic young rabbis. I was in Israel coor­di­nating a ten day Institute for the Wexner Heritage Program, a program for volun­teer leaders that currently has a cohort here in Chicago including your imme­diate past pres­i­dent, Alec Harris. On a day of tour options, 35 partic­i­pants boarded a bus for the short trek from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, a desti­na­tion not currently avail­able to Israelis. Though only a 15-minute drive from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, the two cities are worlds apart. In autonomous Palestinian terri­tory, Bethlehem is nostalgic for its pre-Intifada boom and bustle. One report details the reality: since 2000, 28 hotels, 240 olive-wood and mother-of-pearl work­shops, and 50 restau­rants have closed. The Encounter program included lunch with Palestinians, followed by some mixers and discus­sion groups. It also featured an up close tour of the sepa­ra­tion barrier which winds around Bethlehem like a bleak-graffiti concrete ribbon. Only 5 – 6% of the sepa­ra­tion fence is a solid wall like this, but most of that 5–6% skirts the northern, eastern and southern sides of Jerusalem. From a vantage point over­looking Israel’s capital city, while unat­trac­tive, the wall looks like a larger version of the safety barriers on a highway. From a distance, far from the villages and the homes and the people, its impact is hard to measure. But the closer one gets to it, the sight of the 24-foot tall cement parti­tion is in a word, terri­fying. The closer one gets to it, the more one real­izes what a powerful secu­rity state­ment it is, and, how unat­trac­tive and incon­ve­nient it is to good citi­zens who live but a few feet from the imposing slabs. We Jews asso­ciate walls with ghettos, the repug­nant prisons in which we were barri­caded during our 2000-year exile. The closer one gets to the secu­rity barrier and sees first-hand its impact, the more confu­sion, emotion, conflict, and unset­tling pain. I was unprepared.

I imag­ined an after­noon of sweet tea, hot pita and conver­sa­tion about path­ways to recon­cil­i­a­tion through personal connec­tion. Though too rational and likely too old for such naïve visions, my head blos­somed with summer of love cele­bra­tion spirit, when peace would guide the planets and love would rule the stars. Those dreams hit the wall. The roots of this conflict are deep and twisting and after a day exploring the reality on the ground, finding reso­lu­tion felt as insur­mount­able as the cement fence that sepa­rates, defines, contains and protects — all at the same time.

In a breezy canvas tented cafe, we feasted on flat breads and an array of yummy middle eastern dips as we awkwardly made choppy conver­sa­tion, conducted in English, between Americans and a group of mostly twenty some­thing Palestinians. Next we met up at the Bethlehem Hotel for the formal encounter portion of the program. Gathered in a linoleum tiled meeting room deco­rated only with a framed photo­graph of Yassir Arafat, we formed one large circle and were invited to respond publicly to a series of state­ments. Agreement would be demon­strated by step­ping into the center of the large circle. The game began with harm­less state­ments such as “I like choco­late,” and progressed toward more thorny ones like, “I have lost a family member in this conflict.” That’s when the levity was drained from the room. Many of the Palestinians stepped inside to form an inner circle joined only by two or three Americans. Then the following sentence was, like all the others, read aloud in English and in Arabic: “I support the creation of a Palestinian state.” Everyone stepped inside the circle in a hokey pokey motion of swift agree­ment. And next this: “I support the sepa­ra­tion barrier.” One American took a grand, delib­erate step into the center. I admired his clarity. In warp speed I reviewed the reasons I ought to join him, if less flam­boy­antly.
• June 21, 2001, the Dolphinarium Club in Tel Aviv…21 killed and 120 wounded.
• March 27, 2002, Passover night at Netanya’s seaside Park Hotel…30 murdered and 140 wounded.
• March 29, 2003, a 23 year old woman from a village near Bethlehem killed 2 shop­pers and injured 22 when she blew herself up at a super­market in a quiet Jerusalem neigh­bor­hood.
• April 30, 2003, Mike’s Place Café in Tel Aviv…3 killed, over 50 wounded.
• June 11, 2003, Egged bus #14A in Jerusalem…17 dead 100 wounded.
• August 19, 2003, Egged bus #2 in Jerusalem…23 dead, 130 wounded.
• September 9, 2003, Café Hillel coffee shop on Emek Refaim…7 murdered and over 50 wounded.
• March 12, 2004, a terrorist deto­nated her explo­sives belt at the entrance of Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda open market. She killed four Israelis, two foreign workers and injured more than 60.
A horri­fying list…between 2000 and 2004, 900 Israelis were killed in19,000 terror attacks. The sepa­ra­tion barrier has reduced that number by 90%.

I don’t blame these Palestinians for terrorism but I cannot blame Israel for doing every­thing possible to stop it. So I stepped into the circle; hesi­tantly; my eyes demon­strating true human­i­tarian concerns beneath my agree­ment. It didn’t matter to the Palestinians; they stood firmly in outer circle of soli­darity. They only saw many American Jews step­ping forward to support a dividing wall that has in ways undig­ni­fied and in some cases unnec­es­sarily, disrupted their lives. We spent the day in its giant, dark shadow. With the next state­ment I moved from discom­fort to disbe­lief. In two languages we heard, “I believe in the exis­tence of a Jewish state.” A deci­sive step toward the center was taken by all of the Americans and we cautiously perused the outer circle. We waited a bit, willing our newly made friends to join us. But the majority of our Bethlehem hosts held fast to their posi­tions. Polls report that three-quarters of Palestinian Arabs do not think that Israel has a right to exist, and a majority continues to support suicide attacks against Israeli citi­zens. Is that true? Can that be true?

Political theo­rist Yaron Ezrahi uses the secu­rity barrier as a prism for under­standing the compli­cated nature of standing with, and of loving Israel. He writes: “The [fence] project itself is a bundle of contra­dic­tory impulses, an embod­i­ment of the Israeli dilemma. It expresses the idea of a two state solu­tion yet implies the failure of the Israeli left’s historic desire to end the occu­pa­tion through nego­ti­a­tion. At the same time, it reflects the bank­ruptcy of the right’s idea that the Palestinians can be defeated by force. It’s the cutting apart of Siamese twins – by one twin – to save himself.”

Theory may help us under­stand the polit­ical and psycho-social nature of Israel’s dilemma. But last summer, in real time, demon­strated by real people who shared lunch and photos of their chil­dren, statis­tics and theory came to life. Many since that July day have asked me about my expe­ri­ence and artic­u­lating an answer was a summer pastime. While peace-making bubbles can burst in mid-air, falling hard in the silence of a circle divided, and the encounter with the other is diffi­cult, awkward, and confounding, it is worth­while. Thirty five American Jews demon­strated a will­ing­ness to talk, an eager­ness to seek common ground, and a sensi­tivity to seeing the humanity on the other side of a great divide. It is a gloomy view from Bethlehem, this I know for certain. The majority of Israelis agree that the secu­rity fence between Israel and the Palestinian people is the most imme­diate and least aggres­sive way Israel can defend her citi­zens from those who want to kill them. Israel did not invent the idea. Walls sepa­rating warring peoples exist between Malaysia and Thailand, between India and Kashmir, between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and under consid­er­a­tion a wall between Russia and Chechnya. I know less about each of them and about the people who stand on either side of those walls.

But this is what I know about Israel:I know that the reality of the modern state of Israel is mirac­u­lous and glorious. I know that Israel is singled out for crit­i­cism and boycott, widely misun­der­stood as she longs for calm and co-existence even if the road that will take her there is long and uncer­tain. I know that Israelis disagree about resolving differ­ences and they share those disagree­ments openly, loudly, dramat­i­cally and frequently. Its people openly rebuke their lead­er­ship when it fails them. It is a land of commis­sions and inquiries, imper­fect but persis­tent. It is a country with a free press and is home to a robust diver­sity of opin­ions. The Israeli Supreme court takes upon itself the job of exam­ining the fence section by section, even in places where it has already been completed. Israeli human rights orga­ni­za­tions such as Rabbis for Human Rights and B’tzelem labor to advo­cate for Palestinian rights. Jewish attor­neys argue on behalf of Palestinian villages in courts. Israel has budgeted $540 million to ease the lives of Palestinians affected by the fence by building extra roads, passage­ways, and tunnels. I know that Israel has a mind-blowing high-tech entre­pre­neurial culture and the economy is growing at an amazing annual rate of 6.6%. I know that on a warm summer after­noon, Jerusalem lives up to its image, it is a city of gold and in July, there was not one vacant hotel room in Tel Aviv or in Jerusalem. I also know that only about 44% of American Reform Jews have visited Israel, the smallest percentage among the reli­gious denom­i­na­tions. Close observers of American Jewry report that Jewish engage­ment with Israel has declined steadily over the last twenty years.

I know that we need to re-engage, to show up, to cele­brate Israel’s stun­ning accom­plish­ments of 60 years, to support those who are laboring for a just society, to stand in circles of same­ness and in circles of some­times seem­ingly insur­mount­able diver­sity. I know that American Jews [thank God] respond to Israel in her time of great need, when crisis boils over, but at this season of truth telling, let us admit that we are guilty of the sin of indif­fer­ence at times of merely simmering concern and igno­rant when it comes to care­fully studied opin­ions about Israel’s current real­i­ties and complex­i­ties. With Iran’s ascen­dancy and pursuit of nuclear weapons the greatest threat of all, we must pay close atten­tion and be Israel’s knowl­edge­able advo­cates at every oppor­tu­nity. At the end of the day, a long day, with all of its compli­cating factors and factions, just treat­ment of all Israeli citi­zens and her inno­cent neigh­bors must matter. Few American Jews will visit a city like Bethlehem, but let this new year’s shofar blast be a wake up call to expand — at the very least, your encounter with Israel’s history, its chal­lenges, its people, its neigh­bors and [even] its enemies.

Open your heart to the suffering on both sides, advises Yossi Klein Ha-levi, but do so without accepting simplistic expla­na­tions, such as ‘both sides are respon­sible for the current situ­a­tion.’ It is easy, he notes, to accept the Palestinian charge that the world has ignored them when, in reality, they have had more support than almost any other people in the world. Touring through Bethlehem one cannot help but wonder, what has been done with that aid? Where are new hospi­tals, new schools, parks and play­grounds? Where is the aid to ordi­nary people? Why are the lifestyles of corrupt leaders and terror­ists well funded? And at the end of the day, the Americans asked, “what respon­si­bility do you take for this conflict? We are unsat­is­fied with the responses, frus­trated in our quest for dialogue and unyielding in our call for Palestinian leaders to dismantle terrorist networks, to confis­cate illegal weapons, and to accept Israel’s right to exist in secure and recog­nized borders.” That mean­dering, complex barrier is built on the rubble of failed nego­ti­a­tions, mistrust and a mounting toll of Israeli civilian casu­al­ties. The man who is respon­sible for its routing, Col. Danny Tirza tells us in his quiet but firm manner, “Only after putting up the fence will it be possible to take it down,”…and, he adds with a longing grin, “I want to put the first hammer to it when that day comes.”

On this Rosh Hashana morning, we read in Torah the trou­bling Akedah narra­tive, the binding of Isaac upon Mt. Moriah, the legendary site of King Solomon’s Temple. There, upon its peak, Abraham was poised to offer his son as a gift to God. But at the last moment, he saw a ram, caught in the thicket and upon the advice of the Holy One, Abraham substi­tuted the ram and saved his own son from death.

In the Torah, the child is Isaac, a patri­arch of Israel. The Koran, the central reli­gious text of Islam, like­wise states that Abraham was commanded to sacri­fice his son upon a moun­tain, the legendary site from which the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. Islam teaches that the son was Ishmael, the son of Hagar, hand­maiden of Sarah. Ishmael is Abraham’s first born, Isaac’s half brother, and in Arab tradi­tion, an ances­tral father.

The final speaker we heard in Bethlehem was George Sa’adeh, the Deputy Mayor. Three years ago his wife Najwa and their two daugh­ters were driving home from the super­market. Israeli soldiers, targeting terror­ists, mistak­enly opened fire on their car, killing twelve-year-old Christine. Ten years before that, teenager Arik Frankenthal was returning home from his Israeli army base on a weekend pass. Arik was kidnapped and killed by terror­ists. Arik’s father, heart­broken, angered, but deter­mined, estab­lished an orga­ni­za­tion of grieving parents, Israeli and Palestinian, who have lost chil­dren to violence. They call it The Parents’ Circle. George and Yitzhak sit together, mourn together, weep together in a circle we pray will not grow, even as we suspect it will. Like Abraham upon the moun­tain, they wait for the ram, for a long, piercing blast to signal an era of peaceful co-existence, of no more mourning parents. Until that day, George and Yitzhak continue their climb, squinting between tears to make real their vision.

Israel’s secu­rity barrier, writes jour­nalist Isabel Kershner “has created a seam, a thin line between peace and war that has the poten­tial of becoming either a melding struc­ture or a stub­born angry scar. To turn this seam into a junc­ture of healing and not hostility will take people of good will, spirt, courage and conscience…on both sides”. I learned on July 4th that the only direc­tion, still, is up that moun­tain, from anger to resolve, from despair to deter­mi­na­tion, from confu­sion to clarity, from igno­rance to knowing, from fear to faith. It is the season of clean slates, apolo­gies, admis­sions and fence mending. On the blank pages of the book of 5768, I inscribe this simple prayer: May every Jew and those concerned about the Jewish future fully engage with Israel…our home­land, our sacred land. May you be among those with the courage and tenacity to turn this seam into a junc­ture of healing. Let us vigor­ously support Israel in its pursuit of justice and peace, and never give up on the quest for leaders with the wisdom, tenacity and guts to resolve differ­ences. It is the back-breaking oblig­a­tion of being Yisrael…which means the ones who struggle. Please God, may we live up to our name.

Rabbi Elka B. Abrahamson serves as President-Elect of The Wexner Foundation.

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