Falling in love again with Israel
By Rabbi Ellen Lippmann
Board member, T'ruah
This piece in a slightly different format originally appeared in VOICES, the literary journal of Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives, Brooklyn, NY, edited by Trisha Arlin.
With the level of heat and lack of consensus present in my congregation, why did I take 7 members to Israel in the fall of 2007 for the first-ever congregational trip to Israel?
The first answer is that a board member pushed me into it. A few years ago, she and I and a few others were part of a small-group discussion about possible action related to Israel when a member who had lived there for years said, “I don’t think anyone who has not been there should criticize Israel.” The board member heard that loud and clear and decided it was correct and that she – as critic – needed to go to Israel and wanted to go with our congregation…
So yes, she pushed me into it. But the second answer to why I wanted to take this trip to Israel is more personal to me. I had last been in Israel two years before, a painful trip with Rabbis for Human Rights to rebuild the home of the Dari family, Palestinians whose home had been demolished in an all too typical Jerusalem catch-22: In their area of east Jerusalem it is impossible to get a permit to build a home, and when people build their homes are demolished for lack of a permit. We began to rebuild, we saw another home demolished before our eyes, and last year we learned that the rebuilt Dari family home had once again been demolished. I wept and wept as that cruel reality sunk in, and I came home saddened, embittered. I wanted and needed a “corrective,” a trip whose mission would be broader, more complex. And I wanted both to show the broader reality to my members and to see it with them. Yet I could not go again unless we visited, learned from and engaged in some of the incredible work for justice that goes on among Israelis and Palestinians, starting with that of Rabbis for Human Rights. It is that work that gives me hope and makes me think again, when I am most despairing, that peace – a real and just settlement for Israelis and Palestinians – may be possible.
So off we went, 8 members of different ages, 2 men and 6 women, only 2 of who had been to Israel before. And it was wonderful: wading in the Mediterranean, swimming in the Kinneret (sea of Galilee), basking in the sun’s glow on Jerusalem’s stones was as delightful as ever. Visiting the site of a hard-won battle against Syria in the 1967 war was as sorrowfully touching as ever. Putting a note in the cracks of the warmly energetic stones of the Western Wall was as moving as ever. Walking to shul along stone and tree-lined streets in Jerusalem was as inspiring as ever.
I was able to feel the delight, the touching sorrow, the moving feel of the stones, and the inspiration because of what else we did and learned, the people who inspired us with their stories and their passionate work, the reality of meeting Palestinians with many different views, the complexity we heard and saw.
We toured the wall that snakes through from north to south; depending on your perspective, you call it the Security Wall, the Security Barrier, the Separation Fence. Whatever you call it, it is a tall cement barrier that is creating a border before Jerusalem’s borders are determined by any peace process. We were there with Jessica Montell, Director, and a Palestinian member of her staff at B’tselem (“in the image of…”), Israel’s preeminent human rights advocacy organization. We saw up close how it splits neighbor from neighbor, farmer from field, and yes, suicide bomber from destination. And for the rest of my time in Israel and since I have returned, it is that wall I have struggled with, beating my head against the wall, as it were, as I tried to reconcile the reality of the wall providing more security for Jews in Jerusalem while it hampers almost every aspect of life for Palestinians. I felt safe, in other words, because of a wall whose existence I strongly question.
I think the security it provides is temporary and that it is creating additional frustration and rage against Israel and Israelis and Jews among Palestinians. I saw the wall up close and if it divided me from my neighbors and family and livelihood as it does so many Palestinians, I too would be enraged. Yet even Jessica Montell, who spends days and years trying to protect Palestinian rights through advocacy and lawsuit, believes that the wall may be necessary. She argues against its route, not against having it at all. Why? She is raising children in Jerusalem and wants them to be safe. So does her Palestinian co-worker, who has children in East Jerusalem and works for B’tselem because it works, it has had success, he sees great potential for his people in its work. Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel, says much the same thing about his own children, even while he puts his own safety on the line to fight for the human rights of others, THE other, protecting Palestinian farmers from the violent opposition of Israeli settlers, standing in the way of Israeli bull-dozers preparing to demolish Palestinian homes.
We harvested olives with a Palestinian farmer near Nablus, brought there by RHR and Arik Ascherman, and there could be no better illustration of the Two Trees concept than the site of a wealthy, verdant, well-watered settlement on the hill high above the fields in which we worked, fields owned originally by the farmer we helped. T'ruah is right to highlight Two Trees in its campaign, urging us all to think of these discrepancies, and to contribute to the work that highlights them and works for greater equity. Our few hours did help one farmer make his harvest, and it did give him hope, we hoped.
We also visited the Bethlehem checkpoint with Hana Barag, a member-leader of Machsom Watch, a group of 500 mostly older women who stand in witness at the checkpoints around the country through which Palestinians enter Israel. They are mostly older because young women can’t follow the schedule of getting up at 5 am to be at the checkpoints before 6, and returning in the afternoon for return trips.
Hana is 72, a mother, and a grandmother, a widow. She spoke to us of the hardships the checkpoints inflict on Palestinians, preventing them getting to from everything from weddings to hospitals. She spoke of the ways she had been able to intervene, helping a three year-old and his grandmother get to a hospital so he could have delicate eye surgery, for example. She had been Ben Gurion’s secretary in an earlier life. And she said, “I am an Israeli, a Zionist. I was born here; I have lived here all my life. I speak the language. And I am doing this work to try to save the soul of Israel.”
I wept twice this trip and that was one time. I too fear for the soul of Israel, as that grand experiment in Jewish self-determination turns its back on socialism, allows extreme Orthodox Jews too much power, and too often ignores human rights in its push for security. Israel does many good things, including having better laws about LGBT rights then we do here and having an important ruling by the Supreme Court against torture. But during my last trip I learned how much torture goes on anyway, and in spite of much that it is good, Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian lands is itself a violation of human rights, as Arik Ascherman and Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel say.
And yet. On this trip I somehow fell in love with Israel again. I don’t exactly know why. But I felt a love for the place I had not felt in twenty years, since I lived there for my first year of rabbinical school. My despair and fear were tempered by the reality of the work of incredible people like Jessica Montell and Hana Barag. But there was more: there was the sight and smell and feel of Jerusalem air, clear, cool desert air after days of hot humid weather further north. There was revisiting the site of my apartment from that long ago year, and remembering that “this” happened “there” and “this,” “there,” and that I had some tie to this place that I never imagined when I landed there twenty years ago for the first time to stay a year and thought, “What have I done now?!?!”
I never felt like kissing the ground, and I strongly believe with scholar Yeshayahu Leibovitz (z”l) that the place is not intrinsically holy but rather is made holy by the ethical deeds of it inhabitants. Yet there is something about the interaction of this place and all the deeds of all its inhabitants that gets under my skin, into my heart.
A friend suggests I am trying to deny my love for Israel when I write of expressing loving criticism, and maybe she is right. Certainly the criticism has been foremost for some time. This time – this visit – I regained the love. And maybe that is really what I hoped for the members of my congregation: That they too might feel some of that love, even as we deliberately learned about some of the most criticizable things – the wall, the checkpoints, the settlements.
I think some did, maybe all. Certainly they surprised me by the things that drew their attention: Perhaps the most left-wing member of the trip went back again and again to the Kotel, the Western Wall, because of some sense of its deep connection to the cosmos. Perhaps the most right-wing member of the trip loved it there too, and wrote a lovely poem about it that startled us all during our last dinner together. Who would have thought that those two would find common ground in that place, where for centuries people of faith have found holiness? Who would have thought that another member of the trip and I, avowed feminists both, would fall in love with a modern Orthodox synagogue and want to go back again and again, in spite of the mehitza that divides men and women in prayer? Who would have thought that we would all stand at quiet attention – and some with tears - in the “valley of tears” commemorating Israel’s soldiers who died in battle against Syria? Or that we would all love traveling by jeep (and eating apples picked right off a tree we passed) toward Mt. Hermon, Israel’s highest mountain, to learn about the border with Syria and the place of the Druze in Israel and near that border?
Our congregation’s Values Statement says about Israel, among other things…Jews have an obligation to grapple with the many issues and emotions connected to our historic attachment to Israel and the current political situation in Israel and Palestine…
We read Nitzavim on Yom Kippur morning, in accord with Reform tradition: I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live…Then you shall endure in the land which the Eternal promised to your ancestors…
I don’t know if we chose good over evil, though it sometimes felt like it. Ultimately, what we did was grapple with the many issues and emotions that arose as we traveled and learned and cried and laughed and – maybe – came to love a place that is unbearably beautiful and unbearably frustrating and unbearably complicated, the place God promised to our ancestors. You can’t do that here. So what better reason to go?