Back to Encounter in the News

Harvard Divinity Bulletin: Vol. 35, No. 1 (Winter 2007)

Sometimes Jerusalem is a city of knives
Even the hopes for peace are sharp, to cut through
the hard reality. After a while, they grow blunt or brittle.
Church bells keep trying to ring out a calm round tone
But they grow heavy, like a pestle in a mortar pounding
artillery shells—muffled, leaded, tram­pling sounds.
The Cantor and the muezzin want to sweeten their tune
But in the end, a piercing wail cuts through the din:
The Lord God of us all, the Lord God is
One, one, one. 

—Yehuda Amichai, “A Touch of Grace”

It is that act of memory, culti­vated in the present, in which past and future meet. Memory—as opposed to a mere cata­loguing of bygone episodes and doctrine—presumes a personal commit­ment, a sense of urgency, an implicit hope. Doing history is an act of personal and insti­tu­tional memory, and not merely as the repe­ti­tion of records of the reasser­tion of conven­tional inter­pre­ta­tions, is thus an act of respon­si­bility to the future.

—James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword

The roads to Bethlehem are closed. They’ve been blocked off by check­points, or have been destroyed. Before the start of the second intifada, in 2000, during Oslo, all of the roads in and out of Bethlehem were open, a metaphor for diplo­macy in the region. Not anymore. Fear of plain­clothes terror­ists, of suicide bombers and snipers, has left the roads blocked, the gift shops empty. We drive unpaved back streets into the city to our desti­na­tion, a school, and, when we are close, are dropped off next to a large hill of dirt.

You have to climb over this,” says our bus driver. “All the other ways into Bethlehem are blocked, and we don’t want to go through the check­point. We don’t want to draw atten­tion to ourselves.” From whom? I wondered. The Israeli soldiers? Or the Palestinians?

But Bethlehem is the end of this story, and perhaps it is best to start at the beginning.

On the day I visit Bethlehem, I have been living in Jerusalem for nine months. Back in high school, I lived in Jerusalem for another six-month period. The daughter of a Reform rabbi who hosted Peace Now meet­ings in his living room, I spent 11 consec­u­tive summers at a Jewish camp where Hebrew was the lingua franca, and where Israel was the Disney World of Judaism. Jerusalem is my home, liter­ally and figu­ra­tively. Zion. I know this like I know my mother’s voice, my own breath, the palms of my hands. I am Jewish and Israel is my home, the end of a 4,000-year journey.

This time in Jerusalem, I live with two Israeli men. Their names are Ron and Ron. They are known to their friends, and to me, as Ron Gadol (Big Ron) and Ron Katan (Little Ron). They are law students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Big Ron is also a pilot with the Israeli air force; the Israeli Army, Tzahal, pays his law school bills. Little Ron is a former para­trooper and a student. Both men are “liberals” by their friends’ esti­ma­tion. But, in Israel “liberal” is a rela­tive term. They voted for Rabin; they want peace, a two-state solu­tion. But utility has ensured that they are not paci­fi­cists; nor have they ever entered the West Bank in capac­i­ties that were not mili­tary. They are the ideal Israeli men: Zionists and patriots, smart, hand­some, and tough. They are also “secular Jews,” which, in Israel, is also a rela­tive term. Both men go home on Friday nights for Shabbat dinner, and fast on Yom Kippur. They are my room­mates, they are my friends, and they do not know that I’m in Bethlehem.

At Harvard Divinity School, for the two years before I entered rabbinical school and then arrived in Israel, I studied Christianity and Islam. I was at Harvard out of convic­tion, a commit­ment to feel-good reli­gious pluralism, inter­faith dialogue, and a tolerant liber­alism culti­vated by aging hippie parents. I believe in peace, but know nothing of war—which is why I am here, in the West Bank, against the advice of my room­mates, their friends, and many of my professors.

My visit to Bethlehem is part of an “Encounter Tour.” Composed largely of American rabbinical students, this tour has come to Bethlehem to meet with Palestinian peace activists, on an overtly nonpo­lit­ical trip. The trip’s orga­nizers, rabbinical students Melissa Weintraub and Miriam Margles, want us, the next gener­a­tion of American Jewish leaders, to know, to see, and to hear. Whatever conclu­sions we will draw from our time over the Green Line are our own; this trip is agenda-free. Its only concern is expo­sure, to see the other as human. Because of this, there are unlikely atten­dees: students from Yeshiva University (an Orthodox rabbinical school), Jewish Theological Seminary (the Conservative rabbinical school), the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Hebrew Union College (the Reform rabbinical school, where I am a student) are here together.

We are the future of Judaism in America, its young and ideal­istic leaders. We have been raised in post-Holocaust commu­ni­ties, haunted by a long sense of siege, the weight of anti-Semitism, and loss. We know that Judaism has, for centuries, been both blessing and curse, a life-threatening liability. We know that, in some parts of the world, it still is. Israel is, ideally, a haven from our sense of unease in the world, our onto­log­ical lone­li­ness, and our unending fear of anti-Semitism. Israel is the logical conclu­sion at the end of a long and torturous journey through history and toward Jewish autonomy. We love Israel. We love Israelis. What are we doing?

We are trying to talk to each other, and only some­times succeeding. We call this talking to each other “dialogue,” to make it sound as if we’re really listening, as if this is text­book dialectic, as if words can smooth the wrin­kles of this conflict. I have tried this before—and I will try it over and over again, filled with an idealism that is part opti­mism, part stupidity. It’s my Harvard educa­tion; it’s my American hope. My religio-political glass is always half full. It is my own naïveté.

I will speak with Israelis, my friends and room­mates, and I will speak with Palestinians, whom I barely know. Most of the year will be an exer­cise in listening, in learning how to listen. In the early months, I will walk into conver­sa­tions ideal­istic and hopeful and will be humbled by the persis­tence of hope, the honesty of people’s fear and rage. I will learn, quickly, that there are not good people and bad people, only wounded people and wounded people.

But Bethlehem is the last in a series of dialogues I will attend. The sepa­ra­tion wall is going up as, in October, I travel to a long weekend at a youth confer­ence in Neve Shalom, an inten­tional peace village in central Israel. In Neve Shalom, I will be the only American at a confer­ence attended by Palestinian Muslim men from Nablus, young Israelis, Muslim Arab Israelis, and Christian Palestinian women. The confer­ence aims to provide a forum for dialogue in an inter­faith setting. We will, the orga­nizers hope, leave our poli­tics at the door and bring only the wisdom and grace of our faith tradi­tions to the table. But this is an impos­sible task. You cannot have inter­faith dialogue without poli­tics. There is a history of blood in our language, and in our narra­tives. The wounds here are too deep to hope for anything else.

The first evening in neve shalom i sat in an ice-breaker group with two men, Muhanad and Amir. Muhanad, who is a Palestinian from Nablus, tried to explain to Amir, who is Israeli and from Haifa, why someone would blow them­selves up. Amir kept saying, over and over again, “Ani lo meveen. Ani lo meveen.” I don’t under­stand. I don’t under­stand. To which Muhanad replied, “Ani lo meveen lamah atah lo meveen.” I don’t under­stand why you don’t understand.

Muhanad explained to Amir that it had taken six hours for him to travel to Neve Shalom from Nablus that after­noon, although Nablus is 45 minutes away by car. So Amir under­stood, and so did I, that we are more than 45 minutes away. Much more.

Muhanad told Amir: “Israelis think we’re all terror­ists, all bombers, because they don’t know us. Not as people.” Amir said: “You’re right. I’ve never been to Nablus.”

You cannot roman­ti­cize this. If you’re lucky, you can have a conver­sa­tion that ends without anger, and without despair. But the truth is ugly and sharp and jagged.

At the end of the night, I asked Sa’ad, who is Palestinian, to draw me a map of Israel, so that I could see where he lived. Amir looked at Sa’ad’s map and said, “I think you’ve drawn it wrong.” And so he drew another. After both men had finished, I looked at the maps they had drawn me. They were identical.

Israeli and Palestinian senses of humor are also nearly iden­tical. On the Israeli side, centuries of hatred have left their mark in dry, dark Holocaust humor and irrev­erent, often blasé atti­tudes toward war and death. On the Palestinian side, the occu­pa­tion has created a similar irrev­er­ence, and an unen­vi­able dark­ness. The second night of the Neve Shalom confer­ence, I walked into a confer­ence room to find that the Palestinian men had blind­folded one of their friends, bound his hands, pushed him to his knees, and were taking pictures of him on cell phones and text-messaging them to friends in Nablus. That same night, a room full of Palestinians and Israelis decided that it would be a good idea to spend half an hour playing musical chairs with one another. Who won was irrel­e­vant. The jock­eying for chairs was not.

Late in the evening, the Palestinian men started to sing tradi­tional folk­songs in Arabic. At the end of one song, Tamar, who is Israeli, started laughing.

What?” I asked. “What’s so funny?”

I thought they were singing a deep polit­ical song about the occu­pa­tion,” he replied, “but the lyrics are: ‘His mother, his mother, his mother / I told her I don’t like onions, don’t want onions / But she keeps feeding me onions anyway.’ How Jewish is that?!”

We prayed, too. We watched the Palestinian men pray Jumma in the morning, bowing again and again, turned East, toward Mecca, saying the special prayer for Ramadan. As the sun set, we filed into a confer­ence room and performed Shabbat services. The Palestinians sat quietly and watched. When we were done there were tears in the eyes of Eeda, the Arab Israeli orga­nizer, and she said: “That was amazing. I have been to Shabbat services before, but never have I seen some­thing like this: the music, you all together.”

I walked back to my room that night and felt buoyed by some­thing, lighter, for the first time in months. If you’d asked me to name this feeling, the buoy­ancy, I’d only be able to choose one word. Just one: hope.

In a group discus­sion on the third morning, Majnad, who is Palestinian, talked about how the Qur’an predicts that there will always be war between Jews and Muslims—how, in fact, it predicts the wall. Ravit, who is Israeli, got so upset that she was about to cry. Eeda tried to trans­late the argu­ment that erupted, peace­fully, but couldn’t. So Majnad amended himself: “No, I meant the Surahs say there will always be war between Muslims and the Jewish State. Not Jews.”

I wanted to ask him, “Well then, why are you here?” But before I could ask the ques­tion, he said: “Listen. This is my story. I lost six friends in the first intifada. I have a bullet in my back. I was in jail from the time I was 16 to the time I was 19. Listen. I am still here because I believe in peace between people. Muslims and Jews as people. I believe this is possible. I believe in people.”

I asked, in all my American naïveté, in my faltering Hebrew: “I have read sections of the Qur’an. I have studied Surahs where it says that you are, we all are, obliged to live peace­fully with other reli­gions, c’mo achim, as brothers. What about this?”

Majnad answered: “When I am very angry, I choose to read Surahs about war. When I am filled with love and hope I read Surahs about peace.” I nod. This, I understand.

Still,” he said, “I believe that the world is moving toward more and more blood­shed. So this is where I put my hope. Between people. But I don’t believe in utopia. That’s not real. This is a war.”

I am American. All I have known of this conflict is what I have seen on CNN and read in the news­pa­pers. I had no idea it was this raw, this painful for everyone. I have never seen so many gaping wounds and breaking hearts in one room before. But also, imagine, I have never seen such hope—because we were all still there, together. This is the miracle.

At the conclu­sion of the weekend, in the wrap-up discus­sion, Eeda asked me to speak first, to say what I had learned over the weekend. I said, in my faulty Hebrew: “I never got it before. I always thought, if only everyone in the Middle East would sit down and talk to each other, peace would be easier. No. No. There is nothing easy about any of this. It has been very hard. But now I have seen more than the nega­tive TV images, about both sides. Now I feel some­thing I haven’t felt since I have been here. I have not had any hope. Now, I know how hard this is. But I have hope. I have some hope.”

This hope will come and go like the jerusalem sun, more often present, but too often not. I wake in the morn­ings after Arafat’s death to the sound of chop­pers circling, and gunshots in the distance. Terror seems inevitable, death a specter, always waiting, and not too far away.

I spend hours with my room­mates watching the news. The evening news is sacred time in the apart­ment, because it’s never clear just what the odds are, who the players are, and what might happen next. One of my room­mates, the pilot, who is never silent, rarely speaks when the news is on. It’s a sacro­sanct time of day. Waiting to hear what has happened, or what might. Always waiting.

And my room­mates, espe­cially in those first few months, phone me obses­sively if I don’t arrive home on time. They tell me where I should go, and where I shouldn’t. They will not speak of their expe­ri­ences in the army unless I ask, and even then, they are vague. One after­noon, as I am leaving to meet a friend for dinner, one of them walks out of his bedroom dressed in khakis— formal for Israel.

Where are you going?” I ask, “A wedding?”

A funeral.” He says flatly, avoiding my eyes.

A … ?”

Yes, a friend of mine was killed in Lebanon last week, by a sniper. His funeral, it’s today. I’m going with friends from the army.”

Oh. I’m sorry,” I whisper, and he eyes me strangely. The meaning of my words must be lost in the trans­la­tion to English. Or maybe he doesn’t want my cheap, American, unbled-for sympathy. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Sorry?”

I mean I’m sorry that your friend died. That’s hard.”

He smiles tightly, almost wryly.

That’s life. That’s life here.”

Life here, home from the dias­pora, remains a liability.

This country will wound you.

It does that. Once you have been here for long enough, you will wake up one day and realize that what you thought your heart was has become some­thing entirely different. At first, you will be angry. Then, you will be sad. Finally, you’ll resign your­self to it—you will realize that you will be remade by this place. What you thought was exhaus­tion was trans­for­ma­tion, what you thought was safety was just neatly pack­aged fear. You will be resolved.

You will go to Har Herzl, for your Israel Seminar Class. There will be a choice—you can choose to visit Har Herzl (the Israeli equiv­a­lent of Arlington National Cemetery) or Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum). They’re both ceme­teries, both set on the same moun­tain in West Jerusalem, and you will imagine that the least painful visit, the one that might not make you half mad with more reminders of our poten­tial for evil and mind­less violence, will be Har Herzl. You will think it will be easier.

You will be wrong.

It will not matter to you, that after­noon, where the bullets came from. It will seem totally, almost grossly, beside the point. You will stand there, at Rabin’s tomb, with its eternal flame, and then in the mili­tary ceme­teries. You will stand with your class­mates, 20 or 30 young adults in their mid-20s, and read the epitaphs on grave after grave of Israeli soldiers. Age 19, killed in Lebanon, fighting. Age 22, killed by friendly fire, on the way to an ambush. Age 20, killed in service. The graves go on and on and on. Some of them, covered with flowers planted by their fami­lies, others, with addi­tional plaques that say: “Our son. Our daughter. A good brother. A good nephew. A hero. Strong. An only child. Brave. Handsome. A hard worker. A general. He will always be with us.” You will note that one 22-year-old died on your birthday, just the year before. You will note that the 19-year-old soldier killed just the previous month in the bombing in Jerusalem is already here. You will try not to notice that fresh earth for (now empty) graves has been dug up beside the most recent grave (only a week old), and you will not allow your­self to consider the impli­ca­tions of this. An entire moun­tain, covered in bodies of 20-year-olds. And then, the sepa­rate areas for boats full of Jewish refugees sunk before they reached Israeli shores. For the 200,000 Russian Jews killed fighting for the Red Army. It goes on and on.

This is the only equa­tion of Israel that will remain simple for you. Death. Because there’s so much of it, and it’s always around. As you leave Har Herzl, as you walk out the back, there’s a place to ritu­ally wash your hands, as if by pouring cold water on them you will cleanse your­self of the morbidity, the banality, the weight of it all.

And it feels like it works, at least in that moment. But it doesn’t. Because when you leave, you know that the weight hasn’t gone anywhere. It is still with you. And you will go home to your Israeli room­mates, who were, who are, in elite fighting units, who are heroes, and you will look at them incred­u­lously, and you will not want them to leave the apart­ment ever again. You will wonder how it is possible that they made it here, so far, intact. You will look at their bodies, soft and vulner­able, and you will wonder at their reck­less­ness, their vitality, you will wonder if they are ever afraid, or if they have aban­doned that option entirely. You will want to apol­o­gize to them, for what, you don’t know. You will want to tell them that you don’t care if it’s recon­nais­sance, you don’t care if it’s neces­sary, you don’t care. They can’t go.

Bethlehem is a ghost town, but the ghosts are alive. They live in the struc­tures of what used to be a thriving tourist center but is now mostly deso­late. They work in hotels empty of visi­tors, with gift shops selling carved wooden camels and dusty Jesus and Mary figurines to no one. Men hawking rosary beads hang around entrances to empty hotels, desperate for cash. The only visi­tors, now, are peace activists and human rights workers: Europeans and Americans, Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Israelis can no longer enter Bethlehem.

Since the start of the second intifada, since the terrorism and violence of three years ago, Israel began limiting Palestinian entrance into and out of the terri­to­ries and Israeli cities. Unemployment skyrock­eted. Seventy percent of the resi­dents of Bethlehem are unemployed.

That first morning in Bethlehem, we left our bus and climbed through piles of dirt, past garbage-littered yards and barbed wire, to the Hope Flowers School, an elemen­tary school that teaches peace educa­tion, founded 25 years ago by a Palestinian peace activist. We sat with the prin­cipal, Ibrahim Issa, and looked at the army outpost that sits oppo­site the school. We learned that before the intifada, the school had 450 students. Today, because the Palestinians have such limited freedom of move­ment, many students can’t make it to Bethlehem, and there are only 180 students still attending. Fifty-six percent of them are malnour­ished, and so the school provides them with one hot meal a day, but the Israeli Army keeps threat­ening to bull­doze the cafe­teria, because it was built within two kilo­me­ters of an Israeli settlement—Efrat—which is tech­ni­cally illegal. The school is fighting to keep the cafe­teria, but it’s unclear what will happen. There is no heat in the building and the kids walk around wearing layers, to keep warm. After a few hours with Ibrahim and some of the kids, we left for lunch.

The Bethlehem Hotel is set in the center of the city, over­looking the West Bank. The views are punc­tu­ated by church spires, Israeli settle­ments, Palestinian villages, and olive trees. The land is hilly and terraced, and most of the popu­la­tion lives in sprawling white stone apart­ment build­ings and homes. There are almost no restau­rants, and very few busi­nesses. For a time, when the violence between the mili­tants and the army was really bad, it was illegal for civilian Israelis to enter Bethlehem, and for civilian Palestinians to leave it. The city was at a standstill.

After lunch, on that first day, we heard from three Palestinian peace activists: Sami Awad, the founder of the Holy Land Trust; Husam Jubran, coor­di­nator of the trust’s Peace and Reconciliation Program; and George, a parent who is a member of the Bereaved Parents Circle, an orga­ni­za­tion of Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost chil­dren in the conflict or in terrorist attacks which provides speakers who address schools, groups, visiting digni­taries, and even, occa­sion­ally, tourists.

George’s story made inter­na­tional head­lines three years ago: At 6:30 am, George’s family left their house to go grocery shop­ping. He was driving down one of the main streets in Bethlehem, with his wife in their car’s front seat and their two daugh­ters in the back when they were hit by a rain of bullets. Everyone was wounded, and 12-year-old Christina was killed. She died in a pool of blood in the back­seat of the car, on the floor.

Israeli soldiers had made a mistake—they were looking for a car the same model and make as George’s, which was supposed to have two Hamas members in it, on their way to commit a terrorist attack. Instead, the Israelis mistak­enly ambushed a family out buying groceries. Because of check­points, because of the general confu­sion, it took an hour after the shoot­ings to get Christina to a hospital, but she had died almost imme­di­ately, from a gunshot wound to the neck and another to the head. Her sister’s knee was destroyed by shrapnel. She used to be an athlete, at her school. Now, she’s in phys­ical therapy, and can’t play sports.

During our visit, one of the rabbinical students asked George how he moved from fury to forgive­ness. He said: “I am a Christian, and I believe in forgive­ness. I believe that God wants our forgive­ness, and that Christina is with Him now. So I had to forgive. As a Christian, I couldn’t do anything else. And now, I know that there are also Israelis that have lost chil­dren. Many of them.”

This is the truest form of heroism I have ever seen.

Sami and Husam spoke next. Husam was part of the first intifada, and ended up serving six months in an Israeli jail for throwing rocks at soldiers. He is in charge of the trust’s Peace and Reconciliation Program, but this at first seemed strange, because he trum­peted destruc­tive polit­ical rhetoric when he started to speak about Israel. But it’s hard to blame him, because he is married to a woman who lives in East Jerusalem. He lives in Bethlehem. All of their appeals to live together have been denied. She has Jerusalem resi­dent status, and he does not. If she gave up her resi­dency status, she would lose her freedom of move­ment, as well as her job, as a teacher. Husam cannot travel to Jerusalem at all, at least not without special permis­sion. So they see each other twice a week, if they’re lucky.

and of course, there are our own wounds. Ashkenazic scars—60 years old with a legacy that lives long after the trauma. And there is our own baggage.

Dinner in Bethlehem that evening was in one of the few tourist restau­rants that remain open, with tradi­tional Palestinian music and food. At my table was my friend Beth Kalisch (also a rabbinical student), the Palestinian family who hosted us that evening, and members of a Christian American and European peace­making group that is working to better the situ­a­tion of the Palestinians.

The mission of this group appears admirable, and the indi­vidual members may mean well. But their blanket condem­na­tion of Israel—and every­thing it does—is so one-sided, so non-nuanced that it makes their professed goal, dialogue, impos­sible. During dinner, a German woman around my grandmother’s age turned to me and said: “It’s very good that you’re here. It’s really impor­tant that you people listen to the Palestinians.” Then she turned to our Palestinian hosts and said, “I really hope they listen to you,” as if we were not there.

There was a long, uncom­fort­able silence at the table, as though a taboo had been broken, a line crossed. I wanted to speak, but couldn’t. Had I responded, I might have asked her why she chose to condemn Israel for human rights abuses, and not China, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I would have asked her to explain to me why she cast Israel, only and always Israel, as the villain, and why she didn’t take the time to meet and speak with Israelis, too? I would have asked if she had ever visited Tel Aviv, or Haifa. I would have asked her if she had ever spoken to parents who had had chil­dren blown up on buses in Be’er Sheva or Jerusalem. I would have asked why she spoke to me, and to the Palestinians around me, as if we were children.

And I might even have asked how her fervent self-righteousness fit so comfort­ably, like a well-worn coat—and how she had arrived at a place where this conflict was so black and white, and where blame came so easy. And, yes, for better or worse, I would have asked where she had been in Nazi-era Germany. Was she protesting then? Was she simi­larly outraged?

I wondered then, and I worry now, about European and American Christian peace­making groups in Israel. I wonder about the chris­to­log­ical baggage they bring to this work: centuries of baggage that perhaps they don’t even know they carry. I worry espe­cially about the projec­tion of this baggage onto Christian Palestinians, cast as Jesus on the cross, the Christian commu­nity charging Israelis with deicide.

But I said none of this. I kept silent, worried that if I spoke I would say things I might later regret.

We returned to Jerusalem on Friday night, Erev Shabbat. And as I walked home from the city center, my sense of shame was so deep, and so visceral, that I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. I skipped services that night, and not because I didn’t want to pray, but because I couldn’t. If I had gone to syna­gogue, I would have dropped to my knees and wept. I would have wished for a different world.

In my last month in israel, just before I left the country, I met an Israeli man who became my lover. His name is Rotem, and he is a Moroccan Jew from Be’er Sheva. He is an alpha male who rides a motor­cycle and wears aviator sunglasses—in Hebrew, a gever gever, a tough guy. He served three years in the Israeli army as a green beret.

The night after we first met, I told him I had studied Islam at Harvard, which led to a two-hour fight about poli­tics and Palestinians. He ended the conver­sa­tion with a trump card: he told me that a soldier he had served with, a Nigerian Jew named Shlomo, had been killed by a sniper in the Bethlehem area, four years earlier. He was two weeks away from his 20th birthday. “And,” said Rotem, “he was my best friend. I have never had a friend like that. We did every­thing together. We ate together. We slept on bunks next to each other. We told each other every­thing. He was my very best friend.” And when I turned to look at Rotem there were tears in his eyes, and pain etched across face. We didn’t talk about poli­tics, or war, again.

Days later, we were sitting on a Red Sea beach at sunset, watching hundreds of crabs crawl out of the sand at precisely the same moment, when a woman appeared down the beach, walking toward us. Rotem flinched, his whole body went rigid, and the blood drained from his face. The woman, who was our age, and whom I had never seen before, came over, and he jumped up and gave her a hug. They spoke in Hebrew for 10 or 20 minutes, and then she left. I stayed on the sand, worried that she was an ex-girlfriend, and heard her asking him in hushed tones how he was, how he had been. They hugged, long and hard, before she walked away, down the beach, back to a man I later learned was her fiancé.

Who was that?” I asked, warily.

Rotem replied: “When I found out that Shlomo had been killed—when they came to tell me—I was in the cheder ochel, the cafe­teria. I was eating dinner. And we knew some­thing had happened, we knew there’d been a sniper attack. But we did not know who had been killed. And she was there when they told me. She was one of our offi­cers, and she was … she was one of the people who told me. She helped me through it—it was a very hard time. She was very kind. It was a terribly hard time. I have not seen her since—this is the first time I have seen her since then.”

It sounded as if he was choking on his words, and then he stopped, and I didn’t ask him anything else, and we didn’t talk about war anymore. I knew every­thing I wanted to know. Rotem was, then, 25 years old.

Two years after the pullout from Gaza, Sharon’s stroke, and the construc­tion of the Separation Wall, back in New York City, I persist in wishing for a different world. Perhaps it is naïveté, or stupidity, or my American priv­i­lege, but I still believe in dialogue, and in peace. I believe in it with the sadness of someone who knows that language is the crudest medium for pain, loss, and hope. And I know that my own words cannot express enough: the love I have for Israelis, the pain I feel for Palestinians, and the fear that I carry for all of them.

This is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wicked­ness, and untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share our bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home. When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.

—Isaiah 58:6–7

Jordie Gerson, a student at Hebrew Union College in New York City, received a master of theo­log­ical studies degree from Harvard Divinity School in 2004.

Share This

Our Mission

Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moti­vated by the relent­less Jew­ish pur­suit of hokhma (wis­dom) and binah (under­stand­ing), Encounter cul­ti­vates informed Jew­ish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict by bring­ing…

Read More

Contact Encounter

Encounter welcomes all your ques­tions, comments, stories, and queries.

For general inquiries, including upcoming program infor­ma­tion and dates, please write to:

info@​encounterprograms.​org

– or –

Visit our Contact Us Page