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 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.

a day of mourning

Today is Yom HaZikaron in Israel, the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. In addition to the national memorial services that take place, the day opens (the preceding evening, since Jewish days begin at sunset) with a country-wide siren during which everyone and everything stops for a minute of silence.

It’s also Patriots’ Day here in Boston, a local holiday ostensibly commemorating the battles of Lexington and Concord — also known as the day the Boston Marathon is run. There’s also always a Red Sox home game.

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar are often at complete odds with one another. This morning’s tefila was soulful and somber. My Bible teacher, who raised her children in Israel, read a piece she had written when one of her son’s fellow soldiers was killed near the Golan Heights. The mother of the slain soldier had asked my teacher to take care of her own son (the one who had survived), that he might not be forever haunted by his friend’s death. It was heartbreaking.

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how so many of my friends would be running the race, or watching the race, or watching the baseball game. One of my classmates, who has lived in Boston for several years now, said that it was too bad that those of us new to Boston wouldn’t get the chance today to enjoy Patriots’ Day the way it should be celebrated: by drinking lots of beer and watching the race. We talked about going down to Commonwealth Avenue, near the infamous Heartbreak Hill, during lunch. (Homework called instead.)

As I drove to school this morning, I thought about how I wished I were running the race today. It’s been my dream since college to one day qualify for the Boston Marathon. I wondered if I would be able to get fast enough to do so during my five years here.

As I sat in Hebrew class this afternoon, my husband texted me that bombs had exploded near the marathon finish line. As of this writing, two people are dead and dozens are wounded. (Everyone I knew running or watching the race is fine.) We began a frantic checking in via Facebook, Twitter, text message, and phone call.

And just like that, the days synched.

a prayer for the children of abraham

Since the uprising began in March 2011, there have been an estimated 40,000 deaths in Syria.

But journalists are not flocking there. The conflict is not the main subject of every media outlet’s programs. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are not brimming with posts advocating for each side.

These Syrians, it seems — like the Rwandans and the Sudanese and many, many others before them — had the misfortune (on top of many other misfortunes) of being killed by their countrymen.

I have long maintained that I would rather do  . . . anything, really, . . . than talk about Israel and the Palestinian territories. I have many friends who are devoting their lives to the conflict, and I know that I couldn’t spend a day in their shoes. But last week I felt sick and overwhelmed, and reading the news from the region became an obsession. So here I am, again wading into the fray, again writing about a difficult issue.

I started this post the way that I did to underline the irrationality that underlies this conflict from left to right, from top to bottom. I understand that number of deaths alone isn’t an indication of merit for attention, and the contrast here tells me what is at stake are things other than the fact that people are dying, which is right about where the issue loses me. As it turns out, for many people, only certain deaths matter.

My Facebook friends basically fall into four groups: progressives, libertarians (hey there, DPR folks!), Jews, and family. (Of course among those there is a fair amount of intersectionality.) And I follow an even broader range of people on Twitter. I am guessing that everyone who posted about the conflict is convinced of the rationality of his or her position, but I’ve seen expressed everything from “Israelis are Nazis” to “Palestinians are animals.” My views are not fully developed, and I still found fault in what almost everyone posted. Which tells me there is necessarily a great deal of nuance to be embraced.

We only barely addressed the conflict at school. Even before the latest escalation in violence, we didn’t talk about Israel. There is even an agreement that topics about Israel/Palestine are not to be posted to community email lists, at least in part because of the many different opinions held by members of the community. (Since I’m new, I’m not completely familiar with the history there.) This is crazy. I’m not saying that the practice is not an appropriate response to a past situation. But it’s objectively odd that there exists a group of rabbis-in-training who don’t talk about Israel with each other (and I say this even as I am loathe to do so). However, in light of the current situation, there are now voices advocating that we do in fact start having these tough conversations.

On Monday, Hebrew College was a co-sponsor of CJP’s Rally to Support Israel, and the day before a letter was sent to President Daniel Lehmann questioning that sponsorship, signed by current and former Hebrew College rabbinical students. This prompted both a public response from President Lehmann, as part of his already scheduled “Community Update” address, and an email response from Dean Sharon Anisfeld (and no change in the school’s status as a sponsor). In a development that probably surprised exactly no one, it only took four responses to the dean’s email to get to, Your position means that you don’t care about me/my family. I was writing this post as that began to unfold. (Since then, more level heads have tried to prevail, with success for now.)

The one place at school that we did touch on the attacks was Hebrew class: My teacher started a discussion about the name of the IDF’s operation, “Pillar of Cloud,” a reference to the manifestation of G-d in the Torah that guided the Israelites out of Egypt. I suppose the effort was admirable, since there was silence everywhere else. But I can’t think of a topic that requires more careful or more precise language, and in Hebrew I can barely summarize an article about Israel’s indigenous plants. (Yes, this is an actual example.) Plus, my teacher is an Israeli whose entire family still lives in Israel. She laughed as she told us the story of her sister stubbornly driving on through rocket sirens, but she’s not where I would chose to start this difficult conversation.

I, too, have family (on my husband’s side), plus friends and classmates, in Israel; I don’t know anyone — or even know if I know anyone who knows anyone — in Gaza, such is the divide that exists in that tiny corner of the world. But I’ve seen too many claims of righteousness based on the fact of “having skin in the game.” In this conflict, in its current form, there is not — and there never will be — a winning side. I can only see death and despair — and more distance.

There were glimmers of reason among the overwhelming voices of intransigence. Two great primers came to my attention: how to support Israel without being racist and how to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic. Wiser friends — and wiser friends of friends — than I wrote insightful words, and I am grateful to them. But the war of words paled in comparison to the actual war, and even I, as steadfast a believer in the power of language as there ever was, wondered what we were doing. As if an article could comfort. As if an email could soothe. As if a status update could transform. As if 140 characters could heal. As if a blog post (ahem) could assuage. We feel helpless, and so we fight who we can and how we can.

May there indeed be peace in our days.

*The title of this post is taken from an original poem at Velveteen Rabbi.


holocaust victims; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Two weeks ago on Yom Kippur I returned to the assisted living facility at which I led first and second day Rosh Hashanah services. Before the service, a resident came up to me and handed me a piece of paper (right) with names. She asked me to read them during the service. “I’m the only one who survived,” she said. The list included her parents, both sets of grandparents, two sisters, and a brother-in-law. It ended with “aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.”

I wish I had had the opportunity to talk with her more then, and I missed her after the service with so many people to greet. I don’t know what to do when faced with the enormity of such an revelation. I only heard a Holocaust survivor speak for the first time a few years ago. That history is not my family’s, and both sides of my husband’s family had long since departed Europe by the war.

A few days after I read these names, the Times published an article and photo essay about young Israelis who have voluntarily gotten the same number tattoos that were forced on their grandparents. Predictably, the trend has been met with mixed reactions, from reverence and pathos to shock and anger. As the articles notes, “[I]nstitutions and individuals are grappling with how best to remember the Holocaust — so integral to Israel’s founding and identity — after those who lived it are gone.” I’m not sure what to think about this way of remembering, except that it is, like the woman’s request, an attempt to make the transition from lived to historical memory. Will her descendants keep this list?

rabbinical students on israel

j street's "fill to the green line" shot glass; photo by salem pearce via  instagram

j street’s “fill to the green line” shot glass; photo by salem pearce via instagram

Last Sunday, I managed to walk the five blocks from my apartment to the convention center to attend a session at J Street’s annual conference. I say “managed” because Sunday was a busy day for D.C.-area Jewish organizations. I ran Sixth & I’s Exodus 5K in Rock Park in the morning and went to JUFJ’s Labor Seder in the evening. Among the events I couldn’t squeeze in were Federation’s “Good Deeds Day” and a lecture by Anat Hoffman. (I think it’s possible that the Jews need to coordinate their events a little more.)

I’m really glad I took the time to attend the panel, called “The Changing Attitudes of Rabbinical Students on Israel: Perspectives from the Deans.” The deans in question were HUC-JIR’s Renni Altman; JTS’s Danny Nevins; and Hebrew College’s Daniel Lehmann (who I’m pretty sure is actually the president of Hebrew College, but no matter).

The creation of the panel was prompted by an article by Daniel Gordis published last year in Commentary: “Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel?” The response was of special interest to me as an enrolling rabbinical student — but also because part of what prompted Gordis’s article was the commemoration of Yom Hazikaron at Hebrew College (where I’ve decided to enroll). The article caused quite a bit of uproar when it was first published: I happened to get an earful about it in October when I ended up sitting next to a man from the Republican Jewish Coalition on a trolley in Arlington Cemetery on the way to the dedication of the Jewish Chaplains Monument. When he found out I was applying to rabbinical school, he immediately brought up his horror about the article (published some five months earlier). His interpretation? Rabbinical students today more closely align themselves with the philosophy of J Street than with that of AIPAC.

For those not in the know, the reason this is so upsetting to some is that J Street engenders a lot of suspicion — if not downright hatred — among a large (or possibly the most outspoken) part of the American Jewish community. As for example: In November 2010, I attended a Federation lunch event that featured a debate between a conservative and a progressive about the meaning of the mid-term elections, particularly for the Jews. (The conservative viewpoint was represented by Bill Kristol, with whom I almost never agree, but who was miles more articulate than the progressive, who was unfortunately ridiculous — and whose name I can’t remember.) They argued for an hour, disagreeing about everything.

Until someone asked their opinions of J Street. Kristol responded that he thought the organization was a front for a pro-Palestinian agenda. The progressive: “I agree.” The room exploded in laughter.

This is not an uncommon view. J Street’s slogan is “Pro-Israel. Pro-Peace.” — but its opponents generally don’t believe any of its stated positions. It is routinely labeled “anti-Israel.” Recently I witnessed a Facebook exchange between an acquaintance of mine and an acquaintance of his about the BDS controversy at the Park Slope Co-op. (And if you haven’t seen “The Daily Show’s take on this vote, you must.) The person I didn’t know crowed about the failed boycott, adding the comment, “Take that, J Street.” When my friend pointed out that a) the BDS movement precedes the founding of J Street by several years, and b) that J Street opposes the BDS movement (and has position papers on its website to this effect), the former was unswayed. And he remained unswayed even when a VP at J Street weighed in on the feed that she has spoken on numerous occasions about J Street’s opposition to BDS. And so it went.

salem in israel in 2002

I’m nervous about wading even a little into the Israel-Palestine issue here, as it is, in the words of Rabbi Nevins, “unbelievably messy.” And I don’t really want to get it into it (more on that below), in no small part because it’s just not an issue I know that much about. I’m taking this risk, though, to explain the stakes and to make the point of how important it was that J Street addressed the issue. And it made me happy to see leaders of the schools I applied to at the conference. Whether or not you agree with J Street, they’re one of the few Jewish organizations that allows expression of a variety of viewpoints on Israel (as for example, when J Street noted that it disagreed with Peter Beinart but invited him to speak at the conference anyway). One of the things that I love about Judaism is that it values debate; but on Israel some believe that there are things we can’t say.

Also on the panel was Professor Steven Cohen of HUC-JIR, who had conducted a survey of JTS rabbinical students’ attitudes towards Israel in the wake of the article. All of the deans expressed disagreement with Gordis’s conclusions, and Cohen’s data seems to back them up. I suppose the deans’ remarks could be interpreted as merely defensive, but I’ve met and spoken with all three of them, and they are all thoughtful, responsible rabbis. Plus, they belong to the generation to which Gordis was drawing his contrast with current rabbinical students. But Cohen’s study did concur with the RJC staffer’s interpretation of Gordis’s article (if not his condemnation): Rabbinical students tend to agree with AIPAC less than with J Street or Rabbis for Human Rights — or the New Israel Fund, which was rated highest in political affiliation by students.

All of the deans acknowledged a shift in their students’ attitude towards Israel: “an evolution, not a revolution,” as Rabbi Altman characterized it. They agreed that rabbinical students do tend to hold more varied, diverse, and complex opinions about Israel than their predecessors. Gordis and his ilk attribute this to the fact that our generation didn’t grow up during the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars, when existential threats to Israel were inescapable. But as Rabbi Nevins pointed up, our generation did grow up when bombs were exploding at pizza parlors and discos in Jerusalem, making Gordis’s point “more of truism than a deep truth.” Rabbinical students today — and indeed, young Jews in general — tend to prioritize different values in their support of Israel: human rights, say, versus the previous generation’s emphasis on loyalty. What most resonated with me was Rabbi Lehmann’s observation that Israel is now much less of a motivating factor to enter than rabbinate than it once was. Indeed, I remember thinking that it wouldn’t have even occurred to me that a North American Jew would become a rabbi because of Israel (I’ve certainly never heard anyone cite it).

Ultimately, the panel was an interesting glimpse into my future classmates and some of the issues I’ll be grappling with. I was reassured to hear about the diversity of opinion among my soon-to-be peers, and I’m looking forward to furthering my own Israel education.


golda In her excellent biography Golda, Elinor Burkett gives her readers an entirely new definition of the word “tenacity.” Her subject, Golda Meir, the first female head of the state of Israel, achieved all that she did through sheer force of will. And she did so with little support from her family — father, mother, sister, husband, or children — and, for most of her career, in extremely poor health. Adored in America, she was reviled in Israel for her role in the Yom Kippur War, but it’s ultimately hard not to have sympathy for this woman from another time, doing the best she could in a modern world that had disappointed her.

Born Golda Mabovich in Kiev at the very end of the 19th century (she became Meyerson upon her marriage and Meir under pressure from David Ben-Gurion to Hebraicize her name), she was shaped by her first memories of pogroms in the Russian empire. As a young girl, she and her mother and two sisters followed her father to Milwaukee, where he had moved to find work. After 15 years in the United States, Golda made aliyah to then-British Mandate for Palestine, where she lived until her death in 1978.

Golda was heavily influenced by her older sister Sheyna, who introduced her to Labor Zionism, which informed Golda’s drive to establish and work for the state of Israel — and led her to try to join a kibbutz upon her arrival in Tel Aviv. But she and her husband’s first application was rejected, as was their second. Golda eventually managed to wrangle a place on the communal farm, but she and Morris were never fully accepted as kibbutz members, in part because of the perception of them, as a married couple, as hopelessly bourgeois Americans. Yet Golda persisted, thus establishing a pattern she would follow her entire life. Motivated by idealism, Golda tries to do something; Golda is rebuffed; and then Golda “bashes heads together” to get her way. Working her way up through pre-state quasi-governmental organizations and later the Israeli state apparatus, Golda would do it again and again.

Interestingly, Golda’s commitment to Israel was purely a matter of ensuring self-determination for Jews, so that they wouldn’t ever again have to rely on other countries for their survival. Her experiences of the pogroms of her youth and the Holocaust of her middle age solidified her militancy on this topic. It’s somewhat hard to imagine, given the influence that the ultra-religious now have on Israel, but its founders were largely completely secular. On erev Yom Kippur in 1973, as the war brewed, Burkett relates how Golda sat down to dinner with her family — on a holiday when even the least observant religious Jews generally fast.

As might be imagined, this ambition — as it could only somewhat accurately be described — didn’t leave much time for even a semblance of a personal life. Indeed, Golda was never as much wed to Morris as she was to her work. Although she did manage to make time as a younger woman for a few lovers (a fairly typical practice among the early, free-love Socialist Zionists, for whom divorce was equally rare), she and Morris gave up acting like married couple less than 10 years after emigrating. Morris died in 1951, and Golda never remarried — or it seems, ever had another intimate relationship. Golda’s children judged her especially harshly for her lifestyle, and while they were certainly justified in feeling so — and Golda admitted as much — Burkett doesn’t address their father’s abandonment, arguably as complete. Morris struggled with employment his entire life; he certainly had the time to step in for Golda. But in 1938, he moved to Persia, leaving their two children to her.

goldaSoftening her edges a bit was her famous wit. The stories are legion of her one-liners and quips, and the press hung on every one. On her 80th birthday, in the midst of peace process negotiations, she declared, “I wouldn’t want the West Bank even if it were given to me as a birthday present.” When Henry Kissinger, mediator after the Yom Kippur war, whined about her public coldness towards him (“When I reach Cairo, Sadat hugs and kisses me. But when I come here, everyone attacks me.”), Golda rejoined, “If I were an Egyptian, I would kiss you, too.”

But she couldn’t joke away her health problems, though she tried valiantly to ignore them until she was ordered into recuperation. She suffered from obesity; heart and circulatory problems; a twisted leg, and later phlebitis and blood clots; migraines; gallbladder attacks; kidney stones; a broken shoulder; and lymphoma. These weren’t helped by her three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. And as with everything else she deemed inconvenient, Golda barreled through her illnesses, often cutting short treatment to attend to a matter of state.

In the book, Burkett manages the near-impossible: building suspense in the story of the founding of Israel, an incredibly painful narrative. I actually found myself wondering whether the new state would be able to overcome its challenges. But I shouldn’t have, because Golda was always there, willing it into being behind the scenes.