checking out checkpoints

“See? It’s supposed to be about security. But really, it’s about bureaucracy.”

This morning I went with Machsom Watch — an all-women, all-volunteer organization — to Qalandia checkpoint. The organization, as its name suggests, monitors the checkpoints between the West Bank and Israel proper, of which there are estimated by the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem to be almost 100 as of September 2013. As a volunteer organization, Machsom Watch does a variety of other anti-occupation projects as its members indicate interest and commit to supporting. Some members work to get Palestinians off of Shin Bet’s travel blacklist, while others monitor military courts. There’s even a group that takes Palestinian women and their children to the beach.

A lot of detail follows. The short version: Checkpoints are dehumanizing, and they serve to disrupt the lives of Palestinians more than to provide security for Israelis. Here’s one writer’s account of the Qalandia checkpoint from about a year ago.

I got picked up in French Hill at 5:15 a.m., and the volunteer whose shift I was joining — who I’ll call Lorna — drove me to the checkpoint about 15 minutes away. On the way we passed the Atarot industrial area, where many of the Palestinians crossing the checkpoint work. As soon as we passed the industrial area, she noted, the street lights were no longer working, rendering the two-kilometer walk from the checkpoint quite treacherous. “There are no sidewalks,” she elaborated. “During the summer I can see the people walking on the road at this time of the morning; during the winter, it’s terrifying.” The street lights haven’t worked in 10 years, she added. Machsom Watch has frequently appealed to the city to fix them, but the municipality hasn’t done anything.

We parked outside the wall and walked through the checkpoint to observe the people queuing up to cross. Walking in was effortless; no one stopped or even took notice of us.

The lines were short at 5:30 a.m., but by 6:00, and until 7:00, they reached out to the parking lot. The first step is for people to line up in one of three metal cages, each with a turnstile at the end controlled by a soldier in a booth. Only a few people are allowed to pass through the turnstiles at a time. And it’s never clear exactly how many people will be allowed to pass each time — it’s only when someone slams into the stopped turnstile that it’s evident that the line has come to a halt. (This happened to me when I passed through as we were leaving.)

When we arrived, the soldier in the booth had fallen asleep, and no one could get through. Lorna pulled out a coin and rapped on the fence near the booth to wake her up. She told me that she forgot her spoon: “The best way to wake up the soldiers is to take a spoon and run up and down the fence.” Last week, she said, even that didn’t work: Everyone in line had to start shouting wake her up. (I will note that it is clear that working a checkpoint is a shit job. I feel a lot of compassion for the soldiers, too, who are just kids tasked with a political mission.)

After the first turnstiles, people then line up in one of five lanes (if they’re all open) to pass through another turnstile, again controlled by another soldier in another booth. Once allowed through, bags are checked by an x-ray machine. Then people approach the window of the control booth and show both their ID and their permit — and get a fingerprint scanned to make sure it matches the person on the ID and permit. In some ways, the checkpoint is like airport security. But it’s required every single day.

There is what is called a “humanitarian gate” at the checkpoint — for women, children, anyone over age 60, teachers, and disabled folks. One of the reasons it’s especially important is so that religious women don’t have stand in close, crowded quarters with men. There are also frequent reports of women being groped in the queue. Soon after we arrived, a woman approached one of the soldiers and asked if the gate was open; the soldier replied in the affirmative, but it took another ½ hour before it was actually opened. Apparently, she didn’t have the key.

One of the aspects of this checkpoint that is especially infuriating is that the parts of the post-1967 municipal borders of Jerusalem extend inside the wall. For Qalandia, this means that residents of East Jerusalem who live inside the wall have to have a permit and go through the checkpoint to get to the part of East Jerusalem outside the wall. This includes many children who are separated from their schools by the wall.

When we were ready to leave, we got in the queue ourselves. It took a little over 30 minutes to pass. The family in front of us had permits to enter Jerusalem and appointments at the American consulate to apply for visas to enter the United States. The soldier detained the family for a long time, insisting that as residents of the West Bank they couldn’t apply for visas at the American consulate In East Jerusalem (even though the American consulate had approved them to do just that); they should go to a consular office in the West Bank, he insisted. There are no U.S. consular offices in the West Bank.

part of machsom watch map of the center of the west bank (showing qalqiliya, habla, nebi elyas, alfe menashe, elkana, and masha)

I first learned about Machsom Watch when I went on a tour with the group a few weeks ago. We first stopped at the (plant) nursery of a Palestinian man who is a resident of a village called Qalqiliya, in the center-west part of the West Bank. The wall almost completely surrounds the village, and while his house is inside the wall (i.e., in what Israel considers the West Bank), his business is outside the wall (i.e., in what Israel considers part of Israel proper). It should be noted that both his house and his business are inside the Green Line (i.e., what the international community considers the West Bank). Indeed, 85% of the wall is inside the West Bank.

To go to work everyday, he and the 500+ people he employs have to pass through a checkpoint, for which they all have to have a permit. That is, to reach his own business on his own land, this man has to apply for and be approved for a permit. Without a permit, he is considered illegally on his own land. Moreover, anyone in his village or in another part of the West Bank who wishes to shop at his nursery also has to get a permit, meaning that effectively he has no Palestinian customers.

sign on agricultural checkpoint gate near masha

Next we went to the agricultural checkpoint at the nearby village of Habla, a town also separated from its residents’ lands by the wall. Again, both the village and the lands are inside the Green Line. The checkpoint that separates the two is only opened three times a day (morning, afternoon, and evening) for an hour each time. Of course, this is only theoretical: Both the times and the length of the opening are changed without notice. We observed the mid-day opening, which was supposed to start at 1:15, but the soldiers didn’t even get to the checkpoint until 1:30, and it was at least another 10 minutes before they started letting people through. Our guide noted that a late start doesn’t affect the closing time: At 2:15, the soldiers would leave, not to return until evening. Those crossing on foot had their permits checked in a booth, while those in cars had them searched. And all of this was to move a mere 50 meters across a gate marked with a big red sign: “MORTAL DANGER — MILITARY ZONE. Anyone person who crosses or damages the fence ENDANGERS HIS LIFE.”

We next visited Nabi Elyas, a small village just to the east of Qalqiliya, the growth of which is being cut off by Israel’s construction. On one side is the wall and the settlement of Alfe Menashe; on the other is a settlers-only road, built on land confiscated from the village, and the settlement of Zufin. Nabi Elyas is in Area C, which means it doesn’t get permits for new construction, and even if it did, there’s nowhere to expand. The village is slowly being choked off.

detritus from regular protests in main road of the village of kfar qadum

After lunch we headed to Kufr Qadum. The settlement of Kedumim (also built on confiscated private Palestinian land) is just to the east of it, and at the settlers’ request, the village’s main access to the main road has been blocked for the last six years. The trip to the main road now takes an extra 20 minutes in order to ensure that Palestinians do not drive near the settlement. The villagers have protested every Friday since the closing; they are always met by the military with tear gas, skunk water, and or rubber-coated bullets. The village’s main road now looks like a disaster zone because of the clashes.

We finished the day at “the lone house,” the residence of the Amal family, which is inside an agricultural checkpoint between the Palestinian village of Masha (inside the wall) and the settlement of Elkana (outside the wall). There’s the settlement, then the wall, then the house, and then a fence, and then the Palestinian village. Once again, the village of Masha is separated from its residents’ lands by the wall. The Amal family has a key to a private gate in the fence so that they can get to the village from which it is now separated. The gate is monitored by a camera, and only the six members of the Amal family are allowed to move freely through the gate; residents of the village must apply for a permit to visit the family’s house. Machsom Watch calls this house, “the occupation in a nutshell.”

There is so much more about these two trips that I could share, but I’m guessing that getting through even this much information was a challenge. And these two trips are just a couple of the many trips and tours I took in the West Bank this summer, each horrific in its own way. As a bumper sticker I saw the other day notes:

The occupation is killing us all.

the way of peace

I gave this d’var Torah on July 1, 2016, in East Jerusalem as part of an Encounter program. 

When Erica called me earlier this week to ask me to give the d’var Torah today, I answered the phone from Nabi Saleh, a small village in the West Bank about 30 minutes northwest of Ramallah. I was standing on the rooftop deck of an unfinished and abandoned mansion, looking out over a vast landscape that included a nearby settlement, while a 20-year-old boy pointed to different houses belonging to friends and family: “This one is under demolition order, and this one, and this one, and this one . . .” When I asked him what he hopes for the future, he said, “A free Palestine,” and then gestured towards the west: “On a clear day you can see Tel Aviv from here. I’d like to go there someday.”

This week’s parshah, Korach, includes the story of the uprising of the eponymous villain against Moshe and Aharon. Korach challenges their leadership: He, too, is a Levite, and their first cousin — and therefore equally entitled to the priesthood. His charge of nepotism and dramatic protest actions are unsuccessful, to say the least, and he and his followers are either swallowed up by the earth or consumed by a fire.

hollyhocks at ocha in east jerusalem; photo by salem pearce

The Netivot Shalom, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe, a contemporary Hasidic commentator, offers an interesting diagnosis of Korach. I’ll just note that I am excited to share one of his teachings, as he is a favorite of my mentor and the rabbi at the shul at which I am the rabbinic intern. Our learning each week almost always centers on the Rebbe’s Torah commentary, and I’ve missed it this summer. Netivot Shalom means “ways of peace” — an orientation that feels especially relevant today.

The Netivot Shalom says that Korach has too much yeshut, too much sense of his own existence. He notes:

A person who is in the aspect of yesh, “existence,” who takes up space in his own eyes — it seems to him that his fellow is bothering him and standing in his way. Even if the friend has not done any harm to him in any way, because of his trait of yeshut, he has the feeling that his friend is bothering him and taking up his place, and out of this he comes into conflict.

Korach felt that Moshe and Aharon had what he should have. They were occupying his space, standing in his way, bothering him by their very existence — all because he felt too strongly the importance of his own self.

But the way of peace, the Netivot Shalom says, is the breaking down of the ego and the submission to something greater than oneself. Then we can know that no one is standing in our way, that this other person is not bothering us. Then we are at peace in the world.

The Torah makes clear that Korach’s attitude and action had deadly consequences for himself, his fellow mutineers, and for the whole community of Israel, many of whom are later struck down by a plague. But the Talmud alludes also to a different kind of damage that he did to himself. The rabbis puzzle over the strange grammar of the beginning of the parshah, ויקח קרח, “Korach took,” with no direct object. What? What did he take? the rabbis ask. They end up reading the words as an indication that Korach made a bad “purchase” (מקח) for himself. Refusing to step aside, to push our ego to the side, means becoming stuck. The world keeps moving around us, but we can’t join that movement.

Looking out over that vast landscape from the highest point in Nabi Saleh, a tiny village of 600 people, what flickered across my thoughts was, “There’s enough.” In addition to a problem of ego, Korach seems to me to be, not unrelatedly, reacting to a fear of scarcity, that there wasn’t going to be a place for him. But we know from the beginning of Bemidbar that each person was counted in the census, that the tribes were all arranged around the mishkan, and that there were land provisions made for everyone. Korach’s sense of his own importance, combined with erroneous analysis of his own position, leads to the tragedy described in this week’s parshah.

My hope for us today is an orientation of abundance, that we have enough capacity and compassion to hear what is said. That we can put away our own sense of importance and our fear that there is not enough, in order to be moved, even just a little. And so may we all be blessed with the peace that can result from this shift.

the wall(s) of Jerusalem

Last Sunday, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and got dressed in preparation to walk to the Old City to participate in that morning’s shacharit service. By all accounts I probably shouldn’t have been sleeping at all that evening, since it was Shavuot, and traditionally on this holiday Jews stay up all night learning Torah and then go to morning davvening. But I’m a morning person (generally of no use to anyone after 9:00 p.m.), so Shavuot’s marathon study sessions have always been challenging for me. I prefer just to eat cheesecake in celebration of the revelation at Sinai.

Along with my mom and my roommate, I headed towards the Western Wall, walking in darkness with many dozen others from the neighborhood. We reached the Dung Gate and entered Ezrat Yisrael, the egalitarian praying space at the Wall. Well, not exactly at the Wall — or not at the Wall’s main plaza, the one that is always shown in photographs of the prayer and pilgrimage site. Instead, we walked down a long set of wooden steps and across a wooden bridge to a temporary platform erected near the remains of what is known as Robinson’s Arch, which once supported a massive staircase that led up to the Second Temple.

The schatz had just begun birkot hashahar when we arrived. As I settled into the space, I looked around at the attendees: lots of Americans (I ran into someone I knew from D.C. on the way down the stairs), lots of what seemed like secular Israelis. Everyone looked tired, resulting in pretty quiet and lackluster singing — especially in comparison to the very loud davvening a little up and over on the main plaza. The sound of men’s voices threatened to drown out our service.

To my surprise, occasionally walking through the service, to get closer to the wall accessible from a staircase at the far end of the platform, were a number of Orthodox Jews — men, women, and children. They just passed by, prayed at the lower platform, and then passed back by again. The logical extension of an egalitarian space, I guess: everyone is welcome. 

view of the walls of jerusalem from the ramparts walk; photo by salem pearce

By the time the Torah service started, I had moved to the front of the platform, partly to see what the davvening crashers were doing. I also turned around in a circle to really see where I was, continuing to sing the prelude to taking out the scroll.  As we got to the line tivneh chomot Yerushalayim, “build the walls of Jerusalem” — our plea to Gd each time we read Torah on Shabbat or holidays — I happened to be looking at the sun rise over the actual walls of Jerusalem. In spite myself, I was moved.

I say “in spite of myself” because I don’t feel particularly invested in prayer services at the Western Wall. For one, I’m actually glad the temple cult in Jerusalem of the 1st century CE became the current diasporic system of symbolic remembrances of the temple. I question the holiness ascribed to the remnants of the ancient sacrificial site. What’s more, many of those who revere the Wall actually want the temple to be rebuilt, on the Temple Mount, where currently stand the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, sacred Muslim sites. The Third Temple can’t exist without starting the Third World War. This fact doesn’t stop various Ultra-Orthodox rabbis from making provocative statements to that effect from time to time. And even more, when the Israeli army captured Jerusalem in 1967, a Palestinian village was razed to widen the plaza for increased access to the Wall — for Jews only. But the folks fighting for the right to hold egalitarian prayer on the Wall’s main plaza, in the name of justice, don’t talk about that.

The Torah service was followed by the traditional reading of the book of Ruth. Or at least traditional for Ashkenazi Jews; Sephardim don’t read Ruth, so as a compromise we read just the first and fourth chapter of the book. As a convert, I love the book of Ruth. I say the famous line from the first chapter when I put on my tefillin in the morning: Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people, my people; your Gd, my Gd. My friend Rachel was leyning the book that morning, and she has a beautiful voice. I stood mesmorized as she sang, all the way to the end of the book, which traces the lineage from Ruth’s child to King David, whose son Solomon . . . built the First Temple.

All right, Western Wall, you got me this time.

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.

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.

short in stature, outsize in personality

i started trying to walk in my grandmother's steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

i started trying to walk in my grandmother’s steps at an early age; photo by gay lee pearce

My grandmother died this summer.

She was 96 and had lived on her own until age 92, when she suffered a stroke on the same day as her identical twin sister, who was living 800 miles and three states away (and who sadly passed away just a few days later). Because of the selflessness of my aunt and uncle, the last four years of her life she was able to continue to live in her home of 30 years, in Austin, Texas — cared for by the two of them and two wonderful home aides.

Gay Barr Wilkes had a full life and passed away surrounded by people who loved her. Her death is the kind we probably all aspire to; it’s certainly not a tragedy. But it’s still hard. In some ways I lost the Granny Gay I knew my whole life on the day of the stroke that reduced her so much. But I could still hug her and talk to her, and even though she didn’t say my name anymore, I knew that she knew who I was. And I knew that she loved me as much as she always had.

My mom is struggling with mourning both her mom who was and the one who she became in those last years. I am struggling with feeling so far away from my family the vast majority of the time that the force of this important event seems to have only struck a glancing blow. Did I really say goodbye to Granny Gay when I moved 2,000 miles away? I couldn’t make it to say a final goodbye in person, when her body began to shut down and we knew the end was near, but I was incredibly privileged to be able to organize a final farewell — because my family let me design her memorial service.

In the conversations my aunt and I had in the weeks leading up her my grandmother’s death, I asked about plans for the memorial service. I am, after all, training to be clergy: I think about the rituals of life transitions all the time. My grandmother was a woman of faith more than of religion, and since the Methodist minister of the church that she and my grandfather would on occasion attend had since moved on, my aunt wasn’t left with a meaningful choice for an officiant. (Ever the planners, my grandparents had long ago purchased a package with a local funeral home — meaning that the location and other arrangements had long since been finalized.) With many deaths, a non-family clergy member is needed, or just wanted, to hold the space for mourners. My family wasn’t wracked with grief, though; more than that, I wanted to lead the service. It’s something I knew I could do, and do well, for my family. And my aunt was trusting enough to turn it over to me.

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother's Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

a note from my grandmother, in her familiar handwriting, about the picture of us (above) that won a Mother’s Day photo contest in the Houston Post; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Everyone got a part — daughters, sons-in-law, nephews, grandchildren. I was in awe of how eloquent they all were in sharing different parts of her life and talking about what she meant to them. I lost it when her oldest grandson, my cousin Seth, started crying when he spoke about Granny.

He had lived with her and Papa as when he finally finished his undergraduate degree almost 10 years after high school. Discouraged by his slow progress, he complained to her that he would be 27 by the time he finished at the University of Texas at Austin. Her response is a piece of advice I’ve turned to many a time during my winding journey to where I am today. “You’re going to be 27 anyway.” Time passes by regardless, she had reason to know, so you might as well do what you want to do.

Seth also provided an important antidote to the rhapsody that inevitably occurs at funerals. He talked about a time when she was wrong, admitted it, and changed her behavior. Of course, that ultimately makes her even more worthy of praise.

I lived in Austin for five years, from 1997 to 2002, the only of her children and grandchildren there at that time. I got to spend lots of time with her and my grandfather, precious time of eating dinner, doing laundry, and studying at their house. I am thankful that I was smart enough to recognize it even then for the gift that it was. After college I moved to Raleigh, then to D.C., and finally to Boston, my trip up the Atlantic coast taking me farther and farther away from her. I don’t know how much of my new path to rabbinical school she ever understood (and I mean that literally, as she had already begun deteriorating from the stroke when I went back to school), but I am sure she was proud of me to the end.

When I was very young, she told me, “Salem you can be whatever you want to be.” As a child I later slightly reinterpreted her words when my mother announced it was time for bed: “Nope! Granny said I can do whatever I want to do.”

I’ll be almost 40 be the time I’m ordained as rabbi, but I’ll be almost 40 (bs”d) anyway. And I’ll be what I want to be.

midnight mass

Early yesterday morning I went to midnight mass at the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus. On Monday, I noticed it right across the street from where I’m staying while I’m in New York this week (for Mechon Hadar’s Singing Communities Intensive). I’ve never been to a Catholic midnight mass, though I think I’ve gone to an Episcopalian one before, and I was curious.

Right before I arrived, I posted on Facebook that I was going to the service. I was a little nervous in doing so. I was comfortable in my decision: I think it’s perfectly fine for me to attend another religion’s services (as long as they also think it is), and my hope is to do interfaith work, which I can’t do unless I’m willing to “border cross” (a term I borrow from the lovely UU folks). But I did wonder how it would look, and, truth be told, that factor is made more complicated by the fact of my conversion. I don’t want my decision to be mistaken for nostalgia (which it couldn’t be, because Catholicism was not my tradition, and indeed was as foreign to me as Judaism when I first came to it) or ambivalence about Judaism (which it absolutely isn’t). Simply put, this was cultural tourism — which I hope I pulled off with sensitivity.

church of the holy name of jesus; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

church of the holy name of jesus; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

The service turned out to be a really powerful experience, and in sharing it with a few of my fellow seminar participants, I realized I wanted to write about it here.

It turns out that I was in no way the only Jew who went to midnight mass on Erev Christmas. A group from my seminar went to St. John the Divine for its late service. And a rabbi who was a mentor to me when I lived in D.C. commented that my post made her miss “her” church, the one she used to go to on Christmas Eve when she lived in New York. As it turns out, in an amazing coincidence, this church *is* her church. And the church itself recognized that outsiders might be in attendance: When he offered the invocation, the pastor welcomed the parishioners, as well as “our friends of other religions who have joined us tonight.”

The service was in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole, reflecting the diversity of the parish. Indeed, there was a striking variety of race and socio-economic status among the attendees. And the three languages were well-integrated; none was token. Many readings and hymns were only offered in one language, with translations printed in the other two languages. The main reading, the story of the birth of Jesus from the gospel of Luke, was read verse-by-verse in the three languages. It seemed like two of the associate friars were native Spanish and Creole speakers, respectively.

The service was really moving. (My friends said the same thing about the service at St. John the Divine.) The building’s Gothic Revival architecture is strikingly dramatic, and it was decorated with lots of lights and greenery. The music was beautiful, and at the end of the service the choir sang the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.” (The one odd moment was seeing one of the friars carrying an old plastic doll supposed to represent the baby Jesus during the procession.)

I found myself watching the service through a lens informed by the seminar that I’m participating in this week. The annual program at this egalitarian yeshiva is focusing on the High Holidays; we’re studying Torah related to music and the days’ liturgies, melodies, and nusach. Christmas and Easter, I imagine, are the church’s High Holidays. These are the two times a year when it has an opportunity to reach parishioners who don’t come the rest of year. As with synagogues, there is probably enormous pressure to make the service accessible and engaging.

I especially saw this in the pastor’s homily. He talked about the angels’ injunction to the shepherds, upon announcing the birth of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid.” He addressed some of the most vulnerable members of the congregation, including queer folks and undocumented immigrants, reassuring them of G-d’s love and message to them not to be fearful.

Everyone exited the church joyfully, wishing those around them a merry Christmas. I was very happy I went. (So was my mom, who I views any way that I am Jesus-adjacent as a positive.)

how (not) to delete a blog post

A few weeks ago, I removed from this blog all of the posts that I had written about my experiences at the interfaith program I was a part of in England. I had written about text study, a weekend trip, and a guest speaker. I have since restored all four posts, but they’ve been edited, mostly to remove references to specific people and to the program and the university that runs it. I’ve never done anything like this before — and in theory it offends the honesty and integrity that I (at least try to) bring to this space — but I think it was the right decision at the time, when I deleted the posts, and I think it’s the right decision now to re-post edited versions.

tiles, with an oddly apropos message, for sale in old spitalfields market in london; photo by salem pearce

tiles, with an oddly apropos message, for sale in old spitalfields market in london; photo by salem pearce

The mass deleting happened a few days after I posted an excoriation of a guest speaker — who made outrageously homophobic and sexist remarks — and of the program’s reaction to him and to my fellow participants’ objections to him. When I first published the post, I got two types of reactions. From my friends in the program and at home, I was thanked and cheered on for standing up to the speaker. From the program leadership and some other participants, I was pressured to take down the post. One of the program staff expressed concern that someone googling the program would see the post — and that it might deter future applicants and funders. (When I told my husband this, he trenchantly noted, “DUH!”) Two of my fellow participants felt that the comparison I made between the speaker and Hugo Schwyzer was unfair.

Another of the program staff — one brought on to do pastoral work for its duration — was concerned about what she thought was an impulsive decision to post a criticism of the speaker and the program. You have to think about whether you’re creating light or heat, she said.

I really think that the latter was coming from a good place — I came to trust her very much over the next two weeks — and I do think that there was something for me to learn from the experience and from my reaction to it. As she pointed out, how would I feel as a rabbi to have someone do to me what I did to the speaker? Indeed, if I had it to do over again, I think I would have waited for the program’s reaction — and let myself process more — before posting a reflection. To be sure, the program’s reaction, both immediately and throughout the rest of the program, only evidenced its unpreparedness to deal with these situations, but I think I can more clearly articulate my concerns now, since the program has ended.

In regard to creating light or creating heat, I understand the point that was being made, but I think the post was light for some people. Not for the program, and not for the speaker, but for the people whom the speaker so callously dismissed. I want my rabbinate to be about speaking truth to power: One of the reasons I went to rabbinical school was to be able to be an ally to marginalized folks from a position of religious authority — exactly the opposite of what the speaker did.

Four days after I wrote about the guest speaker, I was formally asked by the program to take down the blog post. The speaker had read it and was, to put it mildly, quite displeased. I was told that he threatened to sue the program as well as me personally, and the program staff felt that threat was sufficiently powerful to render the program vulnerable, to the point where it might not exist if the speaker carried out his threat.

The threat really, really scared me, too. I had heard that libel laws are almost the exact opposite in England as they are in the U.S. (which fact someone confirmed for me last week), and I had visions of being dragged into court, needing to get a lawyer, not being able to leave the country, etc. In short, his threat worked, and I removed the post from my website. I didn’t want to be sued, and I didn’t — and still don’t — want the program to go under. (I deleted the other posts about the program out of anger; I figured if the staff didn’t want bad press then they didn’t deserve good press.)

Obviously, the speaker’s move was a cowardly one. Though in the post I originally compared the speaker to Hugo Schwyzer, I’ve come to believe that drawing that parallel was tenuous and distracting, and I’ve deleted it. (Of course, the speaker didn’t help himself by using back channels to threaten and to silence me, as Schwyzer is known to have done.) I really don’t understand how you get to be “Britain’s most influential Muslim” and not be able to countenance criticism.

a beautiful morning in london (view from the hungerford bridge); photo by salem pearce (via instagram

a beautiful morning in london (view from the hungerford bridge); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I wish the program could have stood up to the speaker. Essentially, I felt that the program was condoning what he did. The situation was especially painful for me as it brought back memories of one of the hardest times in my life, when my boss sexually assaulted one of my coworkers — and the organization’s board stood by him. It was like it was happening all over again: The behavior of a powerful white man was excused and covered up by an institution that should, in theory, work against it.

I wish the program had done other things, too. The staff failed to realize how damaging the speaker’s comments were until one of the interns told them. The speaker’s comments were talked about in generalities instead of specifics and were characterized as “controversial” instead of condemned. The program staff initially declined to do any group work around the issue because they didn’t feel they would be able to facilitate that discussion well, so they didn’t want to do it all; it was only on the second-to-last day of the program that an outside speaker — not even a member of the program staff — held a (non-mandatory) group discussion. I didn’t go.

Ultimately, the program proved itself sorely ill-equipped to deal with this crisis. As my therapist pointed out, this issue could have become the conference and could have led to something really great. But it was swept under the rug, I think in part out of fear of the reaction of the large group from a culturally conservative Persian Gulf country. I think it’s true that these men and women don’t even have the vocabulary to talk about queer issues (the excuse offered for dodging the problem), and I think that truth ignores more important ones. Namely, the issues the speaker raised were less about homophobia or sexism (or general dismissiveness of progressive religious traditions, another of the speaker’s sins) than about how to be compassionate and respectful in the face of disagreement. Which was purportedly the entire point of our text studies, the cornerstone of the program.

I also think that the program has a responsibility to ensure pre-conference education for the participants from this conservative country. If they are going to a Western country, to participate in a program with more progressive liberal strains, then they need to know that there is the possibility of encountering queer folks. I think it could be even something as basic as the fact that a man might be in a relationship with another man, instead of a woman. And since this leaves out many, many queer folks, I would definitely recommend that my gender-queer and transgender friends not participate in this program as is. And in my opinion, even cis-gendered gay folks would do well to consider what limitations their participation would engender (excuse the pun).

When I was asked to take down the post, I felt frightened and humiliated and all alone. I was far away from my husband and friends and supportive community. It was the Friday afternoon before a free weekend, so almost everyone in the program had left the castle grounds. I wanted to leave to go home early. I wondered if I had made a huge mistake in publishing the original post and if I had made a huge mistake in taking it down. I wondered if I were fit to be in rabbinical school.

I decided to stick it out (last-minute one-way tickets from London to Boston are expensive!), and I think I’m glad I did. I didn’t tell any of my fellow participants what happened, which felt weird, and I mostly kept my head down and my mouth shut the final week, which also felt weird. It was a survival technique. And I lived to tell the strange tale.

the bully of britain

Note: This is part of series of posts about my participation in an interfaith program in England. It was briefly deleted from this site under threat of a lawsuit and then reposted, edited to remove references to the specific program and to the university that runs it, as well as to remove a comparison that upon further reflection was just distracting. See here for further explanation. Click here to read all the posts in the series.

The shit hit the fan last night, as it had to at some point in the formation of a new group.

Tim Winter, also known as Sheikh Abdul-Hakim Murad, spoke with us as part of my program’s “Saloon Conversations” — envisioned as informal sessions with speakers in the large room here at the castle that is known as “the Saloon.” At the beginning of the program last week, we were told that all of the speakers — and the formal lecturers as well — had been invited because of their peacemaking work and would be talking about that work in their religious contexts.

We sat down in the Saloon, the room’s comfy chairs and sofa arranged in several semicircles around the fireplace. The director of the program introduced Winter and later moderated the Q&A session.

A convert to Islam, Winter started by speaking about his work with the college that provides a one-year program for imams to give them the education, in his words, from which their religious institutions have shielded them. For instance, they learn pastoral skills and about other religions. Every year he takes the students to the Vatican, where they meet with Catholic priests, with whom they have very little in common and who are often quite frank about their hostility to Islam. It was in this context that Winter told the heartwarming story of an experience that served to bind them together: One night, they were all kept awake by Rome’s Gay Pride activities, the “sounds of secular hedonism” bothering everyone.

That was the first red flag. (Well, perhaps the second: I was struck immediately when I walked into the room by how sour and uninterested Winter seemed, which was off-putting. I think this part of his demeanor becomes important below.) I had a hard time listening after this snide and unnecessary comment. I did manage to tune back in for one of his final stories, about a young, non-Muslim woman in one of his classes (Winter teaches Islamic Studies at Cambridge University). “Immodestly dressed” (Winter indicated a sleeveless and perhaps midriff shirt), she was very moved by the Qur’an and wanted to talk with him about that experience. Expressing bewilderment, Winter said, “I wanted to help her. I figured she might have been having a problem with her boyfriend or something.”

At that point I nearly fell out of my chair, and the only reason I stayed in the room was to be able to find my friends afterwards to process what had happened so far. And then it got worse.

One of my fellow participants, a man who is married to a man, the same one who was asked about his wife at Shabbat dinner, and who had been wanting to talk more openly about his life, took the opportunity in the Q&A session to ask about Winter’s characterization of gay people in Rome. He opened by describing himself “as someone who will soon be part of the group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender clergy,” essentially — and bravely! — coming out to the group, and then asked about intersectionality. Winter first responded by stating that there was no place for gay people in the Muslim community. The different denominations of Islam, he said, agree on very little, but they are monolithic in condemning homosexuality. My classmate pushed back, and Winter conceded that he knew of one same-sex couple who were practicing celibacy, and this model was acceptable.

In response to another question, Winter went on to call a more progressive Muslim “naive” before taking and answering questions in Arabic from the native speakers. He only translated bits of those exchanges; I was later told that several questions were critical of Scriptural Reasoning (the program’s signature tool, involving close readings of sacred texts from the three traditions). The exclusion of non-Arabic speakers felt deliberate.

As the program mercifully came to an end, my friends and I began to gather and move to another room for processing, and one of the Muslim men on the text study team (academics experienced in the method) approached my classmate who had asked about queer folks and said he wanted to offer some insight into Winter’s answer. So a few us first went to talk with him.

He first explained that Tim Winter is a controversial figure. Mere months ago, there was a student-led campaign at Cambridge calling for his ouster when a 15-plus-year-old video was posted on YouTube of Winter calling homosexuality an “inherent aberration” and “inherently ugly,” among other things. Winter apologized, claiming that the video represented views he no longer held, and he kept his job. It was also shared that Winter is not an academic in the way that word is usually used — he does not have a Ph.D. — and the man providing this context also characterized Winter as more of a politician, or a community leader. (In 2010, Winter was named by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre as Britain’s most influential Muslim.) Though he considered Winter empirically correct in saying that the vast majority of Muslim leaders do consider homosexuality a sin, he felt that Winter’s answer didn’t express the nuances of the issue that is very present in many Muslim communities. Which is to say that there are of course queer Muslims, and many are accepted — if perhaps not fully — in their communities.

I have many issues with all that transpired. To start, this is now the third time during the first week of this program that I have heard homosexuality condemned: A previous “Saloon Conversation” speaker said so in passing, and then the priest at the Catholic church I visited used the week’s text (Luke 12:49-53) to inveigh against same-sex marriage. While this program certainly cannot control what is said in an independent institution, it is responsible for who it invites. And in this it must be held accountable.

During and after Winter’s presentation, I was trying to figure out who Winter was speaking to: His English was much too quick and sophisticated to reach most of the native-Arabic speakers. But he wasn’t talking to the native English speakers either: The homophobia and sexism were sure to turn off a group of Christians and Jews from more liberal traditions. So he either didn’t know who he was speaking to, which is not the case, as he’s been involved with the program for many years, or he didn’t care who he was speaking to, in which case his behavior was quite outrageous. Going back to the issue of his demeanor, I wonder whether he even wanted to be in the room.

There is of course a way to be faithful to your religious convictions and not marginalize queer folks or demean women. (He has a history of the latter as well, as the premise of his conversion story recalls the chauvinistic doctrine of original sin.) And if you can’t do that, then you ought not to be afforded a place in an interfaith setting in which we are invited into respectful dialogue with each other. One of the goals of our text study is to create a safe space for discussing differences and to learn how to disagree better — and neither of those ends are achieved by dismissiveness. And if the goal of this particular part of the program was to spark conversations about homosexuality in our traditions, which I agree need to happen, there are actually effective and non-traumatic ways of facilitating those. It shouldn’t happen at the expense of those for whom the conversations are not abstract: The other man who is married to a man (who happens to work for Berlin Pride) left the program early in disgust.

More, Winter’s views were given legitimacy by the fawning praise with which the director of the program introduced him, as well as the context into which he was invited to share them. The authority afforded a speaker in a “Saloon Conversation” results in a power imbalance in any ensuing “discussion.”

Finally, I question the choice of a white man to speak about peacemaking in the Muslim community. Putting aside the obvious reality that peacemaking is not Winter’s project, he is not representative of the British Muslim community, which is overwhelming not white. There are of course many non-white Muslim researchers and community leaders and professors who could have spoken to what Winter was brought in to share.

What happens next is not clear. I plan to share these thoughts with the program administrators and to continue having conversations with the people with whom I know it is safe to do so. I don’t know how much of my classmate’s coming out was understood by some of the native-Arabic speakers, so the fallout from that is hard to predict. Last night many expressed, simultaneously with horror at the incident, gratitude for the ensuing conversations. I’m not sure I agree; the price seems quite high for many in the room.

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