may you be free

Today was Hebron, a place I’ve been hearing about for a long time. It’s cited as one of the worst examples of the effects of the occupation on the Palestinians. And that’s just the everyday conditions: When parshat Hayei Sarah comes around each fall, it is somehow able to get worse, when thousands of right-wing, fanatically religious Jews make pilgrimage to the area and there are inevitably clashes between and among the settlers, visitors, Palestinian residents, and Israeli security forces. In response, a couple of friends started Project Hayei Sarah, using the Torah cycle to raise awareness about what is happening in the city that is the supposed burial place of Avraham, Sarah, and their descendants. 

The trip started with visits to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Ibrahimi Mosque. I decided not to enter either: The latter because Jews aren’t allowed inside (I could have entered by lying or under cover of the rest of the delgation, whom the guide identified as “a Christian tour group,” but didn’t want to do either) — and the former because I don’t want to ascribe holiness to a place that has been violently wrest from the Palestinians and used to justify military and settler violence. (Plus, I’m pretty sure that “the patriarchs” aren’t buried there.) I am clear about my reasons, but it was a hard decision to make, and I was feeling overwhelmed with emotion. So while most others visited both places, I sat on a bench in the sun and meditated, doing a blessing practice I learned from one of my teachers. I repeated in my head, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you be free,” sending the mantra to all the residents of Hebron. 

It came into my head while I was meditating last week: “There is enough compassion.” So I’ve been trying to remember and to act in ways that illustrate that compassion (particularly in myself) is not a finite resource. Compassion for the occupied does not preclude compassion for the occupier, and vice versa. That’s been hard to hold on to these past eight days.

Then began the walk with Issa, our Palestinian guide, who is from Hebron. He led us through about 10 blocks of what used to be a Palestinian occupied neighborhood. Well, not all 10 blocks: He had to leave us for about 3 or 4, to go around another way to meet us on the other side. As a Palestinian, he is not allowed in this part of the city, where he was born and grew up

The streets were almost completely empty of . . . everything. Empty apartment buildings, shuttered businesses, deserted roads, abandoned mosques and schools. There were only paths of egress blocked with stones and graffiti like מות לערבים, “death to Arabs.” Indeed, the Arab presence has been exterminated. 

Two Israeli soldiers asked to look at our passports as we continued. There’s no official checkpoint — just two kids with enormous guns blocking the street. As the delegate in front of me passed by, the soldier, recognizing his typical Jewish name and seeing that he was born in Ohio, asked him in perfect, American-accented English, where he grew up. He explained, “I’m from Columbus.” As he handed the passport back he added softly, “Don’t believe everything you hear.”

When we met up with our guide after walking down the three empty blocks that merited a passport check, the soldiers who just stood and listened as we began the tour were replaced by soldiers who followed us as we walked. They were a few feet behind, guns at the ready, talking on the phone or writing on their hands (?). I did not feel safer — which I guess was the point.

hebron: four jews, two very different purposes; photo by david kerr


Also following us were small kids (and not-so-small kids), begging for money and trying to sell “Palestine” bracelets and small embroidered bags. This hasn’t happened anywhere else we’ve traveled in the West Bank or East Jerusalem. Our guide noted, “I don’t approve of what they are doing, but families rely on them for income. The unemployment rate for Palestinians in Hebron is over 70%.” This was the first time in a really long while that I actually didn’t give change when asked for money on the street. I always give at least something when asked in the U.S. But I didn’t have any coins, and I was scared that I would be overwhelmed by kids. I sure didn’t hold on to that compassion for very long.

After our guide was harassed by the police and we were all turned away from continuing up the street, we entered the Old City of Hebron through a huge grey metal gate structure with turnstiles controlled by a guard. It completely filled the tight space that was the entrance to the narrow paths and low ceilings of the Old City, and it was completely incongruous with the dirt road that led us into it and the smooth cobblestones that met us as we exited. And that’s when the permanence of the occupation — and my complicitness in it — really hit me. It felt like walking into a prison in the U.S., and those seem to me immoveable. They only expand, never contract. For the first time on this trip, I began to despair about whether any of this can be undone. I think it’s a bell that can’t be unrung; for me it’s certainly something I can’t unsee. The destruction seems irrevocable. I heard in my head the question full of anguish: How can we ever make this right?

And what I’m terrified of is the possibility that Hebron, in all its extremity, is actually the logical result of the occupation. If Zionism is about the displacement of one people with another, then Hebron is a success story (albeit an incohate one). It is not an aberration. In Hebron, the state is doing exactly what its ideology dictates.

When we met with the IDF refusniks on Friday afternoon, the woman who spoke to us said something that was so revelatory and also so obvious: “The point of having a Jewish state,” she said, “is to have a Jewish army.” And so we do. And so here we are.

the sound of occupation

Every morning I was in East Jerusalem last week, I woke up, brushed my teeth, and then took a cushion and a blanket out to the balcony for half an hour of meditation. I recently entered the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training (JMMTT), and I’ve been especially focused on my practice since our week-long silent retreat a few weeks ago. One morning I opened my iPhone meditation app, Insight, and the subtitle for the first time caught my eye: “Peace in Our Timer.”

I first missed the pun and read it as “Peace in Our Time,” but what strikes me as the naïveté of it stands, especially in this place. When I applied for JMMTT, I think I wrote in my application about how I thought mindfulness could lead to change in the world. But right now, to me, “peace in our time” seems very far off. After I finished meditating, I checked one of the features of the application, which allows me to see who else is practicing “with” me at the same time. A blank screen appeared: “There is no one else meditating nearby.” So much for mindfulness.

As I’ve meditated in the mornings, I’ve been concentrating on hearing, one of the techniques suggested by my teacher Jeff Roth. Paying attention to senses, a common practice in meditation, often leads people to turn inwards. But try focusing outward sometimes, he urges. That morning I heard birds chirping, and a cat meowing, and hotel workers speaking to each other in Arabic, and cars driving on the nearby street.

On this delegation, I’ve heard the microphone-inhanced voice of our Palestinian guide passionately declaim about the occupation; the squeal of the tires of a car racing around in circles on the constrained roads of the Aida refugee camp; young Palestinian men celebrating on the roof of a car the release from prison of one of their friends; the smack of a young Palestinian boy suddenly hitting an Orthodox Jew on the back of the head in the Old City; the construction of settlements in historically Palestinian neighborhoods; the scream of Palestinian women on videos showing their children being beaten by the IDF.

One of the trip participants recently had treatment for melanoma and has to almost entirely cover her face while she’s outside, impairing her ability to see. In Bethlehem last week she took me by the arm as I led her from the city center back to our bus. “You know, for a moment this street sounds like it could be in New York, or Rome, or Mumbai.” She paused. “Except it’s not. This place still sounds different.”

In this hub of Abrahamic religions I’ve also often heard the muezzin (the person who calls Muslims to prayer) and church bells. But I haven’t heard public evidence of Jewish practice. What does Judaism sound like here? I’m afraid to wonder. During our visit to the refugee camp, our guide told the story of taking his children on a trip to Haifa. As they ran around the beach, they came to him in confusion, “There are kids here speaking Hebrew!” Yes, he replied, they are Jewish children. For his children, “Jewish” is a soldier. 

palace in time

On Friday evening, I left the delegation on for Shabbat: The group was traveling and spending money the next day, neither of which fits into my practice. Plus, to be honest, I felt like I needed Shabbat (even more than I normally do). This past week has been so, so hard

I took a cab from our East Jerusalem hotel into West Jerusalem, to the neighborhood of Baka, where I’ll be living for the rest of the summer with two other rabbinical students. Before I joyfully reunited with them (I hadn’t seen either in about a year, since they’ve been in Jerusalem these past two semesters), I watched the scenery change outside of the window. The tight, crowded streets with buildings and business smashed up against one another gave way to wide roads with white stone buildings, tall green trees, and freestanding restaurants and coffee shops. 

After dropping off my suitcase, I ran a few blocks to meet a friend I also hadn’t seen in a long time (from another rabbinical school). We then walked just a few more blocks to the Baka Community Center, where the independent minyan Zion was meeting for Kabbalat Shabbat services. Later, after services, we walked about 15 minutes to dinner at the apartment of a friend of hers on the top of the hill in Talpiot. The next morning, I went to morning services at Sod Siach, another independent minyan about 15 minutes away from my apartment. Afterwards I went to lunch in Talpiot at the apartment of another rabbinical school classmate, and then it was back home for a havdallah/melavah malkah celebration at my apartment. 

photo by salem pearce

This is pretty similar to how I would spend my Shabbat in Boston — except I would be leading services or reading Torah, so it was pretty nice to have a break in that way. I give all of these details to underscore how those 25 hours really drove home for me my American Jewish privilege: With almost no effort, I was able to come to Israel/Palestine and find safe, welcoming, familiar, desirable, accessible community. As an example, a friend claims that this summer I am “living in the neighborhood with the single highest concentration of interesting davvening options . . . in the world.” 

It was a mad dash to my apartment on Friday evening: The group was meeting with two Israelis doing work with IDF refusniks, and I wanted to hear as much of that presentation as possible. And earlier in the day, we’d protested in Paris Square, near the prime minister’s home, with Women in Black (a longtime anti-war-cum-anti-occupation organization). Then the cab driver and I had some trouble finding my apartment, making me late to meet my friend before services. So by the time I sat down in the community center for Kabbalat Shabbat, it was the first time I had caught my breath all day. 

There was absolutely beautiful singing happening when we entered: A chanting of the first two chapters of Shir HaShirim, one of my favorite texts, to a sublime melody I had never heard before. But it was all I could do to just sit there: I wasn’t in a joyful, restful place. The moment and the music seemed discordant in comparison with the rest of my day. It just didn’t seem right to sing. All I could think was: “It wasn’t enough that you occupied the land? Now you are singing happily in it?”

I eventually found my voice, but the discordance came back a few hours later at dinner. My friend’s friend lives in a gorgeous apartment with a terrace twice the size of it. There was a view of the Old City, and you could actually see Al-Aksa Mosque. As I stuffed myself with delicious food and enjoyed interesting conversation, I remembered that a little over 24 hours before I had been walking in the Aida refugee camp outside Bethlehem. Established in 1950, shortly after the declaration of the Israeli state, this dwelling place of 6,000 Palestinians defies the definition of “camp” — which, to me, implies a temporary structure. Aida is now a conglomerate of concrete buildings and narrow roads along the separation wall. As my dinner hosts talked about their son and daughter, I kept flashing back to earlier in the day when our refugee camp host told us about his daughter. She once said to him, “I only want daughters. If I have sons they will just be jailed or killed.”

I rejoined my group in the village of Nabi Saleh after Shabbat ended. They’d had an incredibly hard day hearing from its residents about their clashes with the IDF, which enters the village with impunity even though it is designated as “Area A” and therefore ostensibly under the control of the Palestinian Authority. The power of Shabbat, and especially Shabbat in this land, came became to clear to me. For those 25 hours I had been in another world, one which, comparatively, Jewish Israelis inhabit all the time. Shabbat, what Heschel described so poetically with the metaphor of “a palace in time,” has been concretized. It seem that the palace exists now in time and space, and the Palestinians are not allowed in.

one of them

I step back into my hotel room from the balcony and turn around to put away my tallit and tefillin. I’ve just davenned Shacharit, the morning service, and ended my prayers with the traditional refrain: oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom, alienu v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teveyl, “may the one who makes peace above make peace for us, for all of Israel, and for all of the earth’s inhabitants.” As I turn I catch a glance of myself in the mirror, the thought flashes through my head: “I look like one of them.”

I’m in East Jerusalem, traveling with Interfaith Peace-Builders on a delegation to the West Bank, with a special focus on the effects of incarceration and detention on Palestinian society. This hotel is our home base for the 10 days we’ll spend learning about the occupation. There are 27 of us, mostly non-Jews from the States (with a Scot thrown in for good measure), plus a handful of Jews. 

For me the difficulty started as soon as our bus drove out of the airport: “This is the Jewish neighborhood of [x],” the guide intoned, “built on the Palestinian town of [y]. It was called [a], but now it’s called [b].” This has been a constant refrain over the past three days.

“One of them,” of course, has become Jewish Israelis, and specifically religious Jewish Israelis, whose racist government continues to systematically oppress the native Palestinian population. As has been said more than once, the Nakba, the Palestinians’ word for what Israelis call Independence Day — May 15, 1948, the day the state of Israel was established — is ongoing.

photo by Asher Emmanuel


I identify as a religious Jew. But what really brought me into my Jewish practice was social justice. I understand Judaism as requiring that I act in pursuit of the liberation of all people. All of my social justice work is rooted in Jewish values. And those values are antithetical to destruction of homes, and building of walls, and detention of children, and forcible removal of peoples, and use of Biblical names as a signal of colonization. To witness the devastation that religious Judaism has wreaked in this land has been . . . well, devastating. For the first time in my life, I have felt ashamed of being Jewish.

Yesterday, we visited the Palestinian town of Yaffa, now annexed to the city of Tel Aviv. (The latter is officially called Tel Aviv-Yafo.) Our guide told us about the private construction of an apartment building on municipal land: The religious Jew who won the bid declined to rent units to non-Jews, with the excuse that they would not “respect Shabbat.” When asked whether apartments would be let to secular Jewish Israelis who would respect Shabbat, the answer was affirmative. Just not to Palestinians — even if they agreed to “respect Shabbat.” The extensive litigation process by a Palestinian activist group was unsuccessful in preventing this discrimination.

Shabbat is sacred to me, essential to my survival as a Jewish seeker of peace and justice in this painful world. As Heschel said, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” To hear about the use of Shabbat as a tool of racism is heartbreaking. More than once I’ve felt like I literally cannot hear anymore the onslaught of the catalogue of Israeli crimes. And then I feel guilty, because Palestinians live this reality every day, and they cannot opt out of it.

I know this is part of my process of learning and of integregrating that new knowledge into my identity: What does it mean that these human rights violations are perpetrated in my name, as a Jew, and what is my responsibility in responding? How do I deal with the internalized anti-Semitism that I’ve been experiencing? I feel confident that I’ll eventually work it out. It’s been hugely helpful to have two Jewish leaders who have gone through this process — as well as being able to get and give support to and from the other Jewish participants on the trip.

I will note that this is just part of my experience. I have criticisms of this delegation and its speakers as well. There are things that aren’t being talked about (as there are in a Zionist narrative), but I also think this is not the trip for me to point that out. My job here is to listen to what Palestinian civil society has to say.