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.