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Parashat Hukkat

by Sarah Bassin | Published on July 1, 2007

I stood in a circle of 50 plus Jews of all denom­i­na­tions with Christian and Muslim Palestinians.

Our group leader reads from a sheet of paper: “Me and all my neigh­bors are wearing blue jeans,” she says. All of us wearing blue jeans, Jew, Christian, and Muslim alike, stepped into the circle. We smiled, connected to our newly-found friends with similar fash­ions, then stepped back out. “Me and all my neigh­bors have had a refugee in our family over the last 100 years.” Only a handful of people did not take a step into the circle. “Me and all of my neigh­bors support the sepa­ra­tion barrier.” This one was harder. The sepa­ra­tion barrier is a struc­ture built by the Israeli govern­ment around and in the West Bank for the stated purpose of preventing suicide bombers from entering into Israel. A few Jews nervously stepped in, and all eyes studied them. I was too para­lyzed to move.

The Jews partic­i­pating in that group had just taken a tour of the sepa­ra­tion barrier earlier that day, learning of its impact on the daily life of Palestinians, and of its diver­sion from its intended secu­rity purpose – some­times unnec­es­sarily cutting through streets and fields that are the foun­da­tion of liveli­hood for these people. Before the tour, I had ascribed to the increas­ingly moderate liberal Israeli stance of “hating the pres­ence of the wall with every moral fiber of my body, but grateful that I could ride a bus without fear of a piguah – a suicide bombing.”

After the tour, I theo­ret­i­cally held the same stance, albeit with a new outrage that Israel’s legit­i­mate secu­rity needs had been used as an excuse to expand its borders. But after a full day of chal­lenged real­i­ties and assump­tions, I wasn’t ready to make a decla­ra­tion of any kind. And when discus­sion ensued among the partic­i­pants after the game of “Me and all my neigh­bors” was over, I was glad I didn’t. Palestinians chided Jews. Jews chided Palestinians. People had trouble hearing anyone but them­selves. They could under­stand no narra­tive but their own.

This week’s Torah portion reminded me of that conver­sa­tion. In Hukkat, after the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the Israelites are ready to continue in their travels to the promised land. They come upon the borders of the Edomites… distant rela­tives – descen­dants of Jacob’s brother Esau. And as we read tonight, Moses sends messen­gers to their king, making a familial plea. “We, your brothers, have suffered. Alleviate our suffering. Let us pass through your land. We won’t touch a thing, we promise.” The king of Edom simply says, “no” and threatens the Israelites with phys­ical force if they do attempt to cross.

While the king provides no reasoning for his rejec­tion of the plea, it’s not diffi­cult to spec­u­late why he responds the way he does. The Edomite collec­tive memory of Jacob’s cheating Esau out of his birthright and blessing make this people under­stand­ably distrustful of the Israelites. “Your ancestor lied,” they might be thinking, “how do I know that you’re not? What’s to stop you from attacking us from within if we let you into our borders?” But the Israelites don’t consider such poten­tial concerns of the Edomites. They repeat their plea and proclaim that what they ask is “rak ayn d’var” – it’s nothing. But the Edomites disagree. They back their threat and prepare for battle. The Israelites say nothing more and turn away to find another route.

The conver­sa­tion is over.

Neither side was able to hear the needs of the other and so they just walked away. Israel was so consumed by its narra­tive of slavery, suffering, and wandering, that there was no room to consider the situ­a­tion of the Edomites. Likewise, the Edomites were so consumed by a collec­tive memory of decep­tion that they refused to even engage in conver­sa­tion about the Israelites’ needs or their own.

Some Palestinians today are making the same mistake that the Israelites did with Edom. They are so consumed by their suffering, that they are unable to hear the secu­rity needs of Israel. “Get rid of this wall. It is unjust,” one Palestinian in my group cried out. “But how do we prevent suicide bombers from killing us?” asked a colleague of mine. “That’s just a risk you’ll have to live with.” replies the Palestinian. “But that’s the point,” says the Jew, “I may not live with that risk.”

And some Israelis and Jews are guilty of the same mistake. Consumed by fear, they are unable to see the suffering that the sepa­ra­tion barrier inflicts upon the Palestinians. “I cannot reach my olive trees. They are my liveli­hood,” one Palestinian man pleaded. “If there weren’t suicide bomb­ings, there wouldn’t be a wall sepa­rating you from them,” replies a Jew.

Neither has anything more to say.

This is not to say that no progress has been made. The Zionist narra­tive has reached a point where it is able to acknowl­edge the narra­tive of the Palestinians. We are certainly not at the same point we were in the 1970’s when Golda Meir claimed, “There is no Palestinian people.” But hearing the narra­tive doesn’t ensure that we pay atten­tion to it. When we feel threat­ened, we push that narra­tive out of our minds and concen­trate on our own.

Palestinians, too, have made progress, acknowl­edging the reality of Israel’s exis­tence. But they aren’t able to hear the entire Jewish narra­tive… the Jewish story. They start the story in 1948 with the birth of the state, maybe in the early 1900’s with the first waves of Jewish immi­gra­tion to Israel. But for Jews, this same story starts 1900 years earlier. And Palestinians don’t know that story.

It’s hard. It is very hard to hear some­body else’s needs and reality that are in tension with your own. I am not auda­cious enough to offer a solu­tion of how to bring peace to the Middle East.

I only know this. It would be a step back­ward for us to stop trying to under­stand the narra­tive of the other… to give up and say, they’re not willing to hear me.

We Jews are a hearing people… “shema Yisrael.” Right now, that’s all we have. It may not seem like much. But I assure you, it’s more than the alter­na­tive we sought with Edom… vayet yisrael me’ahlahv… and Israel turned away from them. Turning away is not a choice we have today. We must try to hear and listen… and hope that even­tu­ally, we will hear each other.

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