Sukkot and Our Bedouin Problem: Movable Booths, Dreams of Going Home
By Rabbi Joey Wolf
The holiday of Sukkot, in its rabbinic formulation, is observed through two lenses: the rickety booth that the sages tell us could be put up just about anywhere, even on the back of an animal, and the one within Jerusalem's grand assembly hall. We are more familiar with the vulnerable backyard experience, the starlight seen through a partial roof, a structure at odds with our suburban palaces. The sukkah is a sideways glance at the material culture we normally dwell in, a chuckle, a whimsical satire.
But there's no grasping this intentional dislocation without coming to terms with the water festival that got celebrated during the middle days of the holidays - not outside the home, but deep inside it. It's all but forgotten, and yet its music resonates for us and the holiday still reverberates with deep joy. The rabbis tell us that "One who has not seen the rejoicing of the water-drawing ceremony has never seen true rejoicing." In other words, there was nothing like this wholly other Sukkot experience in Jerusalem, this yearly reenactment.
On the other hand, there's a Talmudic gloss (Sukkah 51b) in which we question the memory. Certain authorities seem to imply that it's the architecture of the Temple, Jerusalem's colossus, which got people all excited and not the elaborate ritual itself. In which case, the rabbis raise the question - which one?! Well, naturally, it was Herod's, the one which came down last. . . In the mind's eye, they were erected and razed seriatim, but the original assault on Solomon's edifice left a traumatic impression of its own. It's for this reason that it came to be remembered as "the fallen Sukkah", and our outlier status shifts back to that earlier period. It's true that we can just hear the generation that got booted out later, in the days of Rome, telling their grandchildren how fortunate they felt to have lived in Jerusalem, at the center of the action. Despite the deep sense of loss, by then, however, it was already semi-permanent at best, as stable as heaven would have it. That was before that day's empire rezoned the city, cut its points of access.
Consider the juxtaposition of places, the jarring expatriations, the trope of hospitality invoked - irony of ironies - in flimsy huts put up abroad. Here we sit outside our homes, and yet we remember the music and light and flowing water in the heart of Jerusalem, our home. Conversely, we recall the incomparable joy of being there together, while in retrospect we ponder its Sukkah-like qualities.
Who can read the texts of Sukkot and fail to notice that, once again, Jerusalem's inhabitants are being restricted to the point that they cannot live there? Who cannot see the arbitrary deeds of a municipality decimating Arab neighborhoods, and overlaying them with a coating of Jewish history? It's Jerusalem being rebuilt, we hear; and yet the wailing of old people whose attachments go back decades tells us a story we know all too well.
After all, it's structural. Adjacent experiences of place and memory. As is the case with the Bedouin whose makeshift homes were demolished at 5:00 AM on the morning of September 13th in the Beer Sheva vicinity town of Al Araqib. In 100 degree heat, the human beings who lived there went homeless. This was the fifth time in two months that Israeli security forces leveled the village and each time the villagers have tried to rebuild their temporary homes.
Since the mid-1970s and 80s, the Israeli government has erased thousands of Bedouin temporary homes. Since 2009, more than two hundred have come down. Keep in mind that the Bedouin living within the Green Line are Israeli citizens, and many have even served in the IDF. The problem is, the Israeli government has replaced their ancestral claims with officially sanctioned towns - outside the rubric of history and beyond the messy margins of western commerce too. Now the government is requiring these residents to take their booths away from where they have roots. The resettlement plan includes seven of the eight most impoverished communities in Israel, and there is little wonder why. Cities are not mandatory constructs, and they are certainly not hermetically sealed. So to place the Bedouin population of the northern Negev, amounting to 25% of all the people who live in the region, within 2% of the available land tells us something.
It's the ever rebuilt Jerusalem all over again. Whose Temple? And will it be sustainable?
A member of the Knesset, Taleb el-Sana, ended up in the hospital, when police officers took matters into their own hands. One can imagine a throbbing parliament, in the throes of a debate about permanent and temporary dwellings. As reported on Human Rights Watch's website: "Israel ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1991, requiring it to guarantee the right to housing. The 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which reflects international law, states that indigenous peoples have the right to lands they traditionally owned, occupied, or otherwise used, and that states should give legal recognition to this right. It also says that no relocation of indigenous peoples should take place without their free, prior, and informed consent and only after prior agreement on just and fair compensation."
Today's construct should include all the inhabitants of a place, so it's fitting that we pay attention to both sides of the story about dwelling within and dwelling without. When we sit outside, exposed to political winds that blow haphazardly, we should at least recall the joy of drawing water. It took place long before homes came down, and water flowed through all of us together.