Atoning for Gaza: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5779

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One year ago, on the morning after Yom Kippur, I traveled to Palestine in my capacity as a staff person for the American Friends Service Committee. Among other things, my trip included several days with our staff in Gaza.

AFSC has a particularly significant connection to Gaza. In 1949, at the onset of the Palestinian refugee crisis, the organization was asked by the UN to organize relief efforts for refugees in the Gaza Strip. The AFSC agreed, believing their service to the new refugees would be temporary. But when it became clear Israel had no desire or intention to let Palestinian refugees return to their homes, the organization’s General Secretary Clarence Pickett, told the UN that they could not in good conscience enable the situation, insisting that there must be a political solution to the crisis. Shortly after, the UN created UNRWA (The United Nations Relief Works Agency), the organization that has served the needs of Palestinian refugees ever since. AFSC has, however, retained its programmatic presence throughout Israel/Palestine to this very day.

As you might expect, I came away from this experience with a myriad of feelings and emotions, most of which continue to resonate powerfully for me even one year later. First and foremost, I’ve been transformed by the collegial and personal relationships I created with our staff and the Palestinian Gazans we met there. I remain moved by the efforts of so many people creating communities of dignity and purpose, doing their best to live their lives with something approaching normalcy while they are so utterly choked off from the world outside. While they cannot access the most basic necessities of life. While they are literally waiting for the next bomb to fall.

Since that time, of course, much has happened in Gaza. They’ve initiated the Great Return March, a popular protest action which has taken place weekly along their eastern border with Israel. Since the first day of the march last spring, the mostly nonviolent demonstrators have consistently been met by live fire from the Israeli military. To date, 170 Palestinians have been killed and tens of thousands wounded and maimed, most of them unarmed demonstrators, including children, medics and bystanders. Over the summer, Israel has also bombarded Gaza with its most sustained military assault since 2014, destroying numerous civilian targets, including the Said al-Mishal Cultural Center in Gaza City.

I’ve written a great deal about Gaza over the years, most of it in the form of commentary and political debate. As you know, I certainly have my own strong opinions – and I’ve engaged in my share of spitting matches on this issue over the years. And I will admit I’m tempted, given the events of this past year, to give an angry political sermon about Gaza. But I’m going to resist the temptation.

I do believe these debates are important as far as they go – but only up to a point. For one thing, it seems to me, these arguments too often end up fetishizing Gaza and Gazans, describing them either as murderous terrorists, helpless pawns of Hamas or poor, passive victims. Since most people only tend to think of Gaza when the bombs are falling and the bullets flying, this is generally about as far as its public image tends to go. Gaza becomes an objectified symbol of people’s fears, their political agendas and their own internalized prejudices.

So today, I’m going to try to do my best not to give that sermon. Instead, I’d like to offer you some thoughts and impressions based on my own experiences and on my growing personal relationship with Gazans. I’d also like share a little bit of Gaza’s culture and history with you. Information is virtually unknown to most of the world but is I believe, critical if we want to understand Gaza in a three dimensional, non-objectified way. And finally, apropos of this Yom Kippur, I’d like to explore what I believe is the moral and religious challenge Gaza presents to us Jews, as Americans and as people of conscience.

I’ll begin with a little geography. What we call the “Gaza strip” constitutes a 140 square mile piece of land on the southeastern Mediterranean coast. While we generally think of “Gaza” as this one little crowded land mass, is was historically actually part of a much larger Gazan territory that has been continuously inhabited for over 3,000 years. In ancient times it enjoyed extensive commerce and trade with the outside world – difficult to imagine given Gaza’s current state of economic and social isolation. But once upon a time, Gaza was a major port and an important stop along the Spice and Incense Route. As such, it was located at a significant cultural crossroad, connecting a wide variety of different civilizations over the centuries.

While this is literally ancient history now, it has left a cultural impact on Gaza that continues to this day. One example that was very obvious to me during my stay last year was the unique nature of Gazan cuisine. Anyone who knows Gaza knows that the food in this region is filled with distinctive flavors and spices that are dramatically different from other regional forms of Palestinian food. One common example is Gazan tahini, which is made from roasted sesame seeds, making it a dark shade of red. Gazan food is also typically made with chiles, eastern spices like cardamom, cloves and cinnamon and lots of dill.

For more on this subject, I strongly recommend reading “The Gaza Kitchen” by Laila El-Hadad and Maggie Schmitt – a cookbook that offers local recipes, placing them in the context of Gaza’s cultural history and politics. The authors point out that since the strong majority of Palestinians living in Gaza today are refugees from other parts of Palestine, other regional Palestinian foods have been introduced into their culinary mix. And the authors point out that many Gazan fast food joints serve Israeli-style food such as schnitzel, which was brought to the region by European Zionist immigrants.

As the authors write:

Now, with Gaza totally isolated, it is easy to forget that for decades thousands of Gazans went every day to work in Israel, that Israeli and Gazan entrepreneurs had partnerships, that both commerce and social relations existed, albeit on unequal footing. Adult Gazans remember this, and many speak admiringly of aspects of Israeli society or maintain contact with Israeli business partners, employers and friends. But for the enormous population of young people who were not old enough to work or travel before Israel sealed the borders in 2000, this is impossible. Because their lives are completely conditioned by Israeli political decisions, they have never laid eyes on a single Israeli person except the soldiers that have come in on tanks or bulldozers, wreaking destruction. And the generation of young Israelis to which those soldiers belong has likewise never met a single Gazan Palestinian in any other context. A terrible recipe for continued conflict.

When most people think of Gaza of course, they don’t think of trade routes or cuisine; if they associate Gaza with anything at all, it’s refugees and refugee camps. But it’s important to bear in mind that the creation of these camps is a very recent phenomenon in its history. As I mentioned earlier, Gaza was historically a much larger district in historic Palestine. Under Ottoman and the British mandate for instance, the Gaza District included what would later become the Israeli cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Sderot, Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Malachi, among others.

The so-called “Gaza strip” was created in 1949, when it became a repository for a flood of Palestinian refugees from cities and villages in the coastal plain and lower Galilee. Before the outset of war, the population of this small region numbered 60 to 80,000. By the end of the hostilities, at least 200,000 refugees were crowded into what we call today the Gaza Strip. The borders of the strip were drawn arbitrarily, determined by the position of Egyptian and Israeli forces when the ceasefire was announced. It ended up being smaller by at least a third than the entire area of the Gaza District during the mandate period.

At the time, most of the refugees fully expected to return home – some could even see their towns and villages through the fences. Those who crossed the border to gather their possessions or harvest their crops were considered “infiltrators” by Israel and shot on sight. Eventually, it became all too clear there would be no return. Over the years the tents turned into concrete buildings that grew ever higher in that narrow corridor. The numbers of that once sparse territory has grown to a population today of almost 2,000,000 people.

Given this context, it was natural that Gaza would become a center for the Palestinian resistance movement. We know from history that when a people are oppressed, they will inevitably resist their oppression. And yes, sometimes that resistance will be violent in nature. As early as the 1950s, groups of Palestinians known as “fedayeen” crossed over the border to stage violent attacks in the surrounding settlements.

One of these attacks offers an important insight into the course of Gaza’s history in ways that reverberate for us even today. In 1956, a group of fedayeen entered a field in Kibbutz Nahal Oz and killed a kibbutznik named Roi Rotenberg. The famed Israeli general Moshe Dayan spoke at his funeral – and during his eulogy he expressed himself with brutal and unexpected honesty:

Do not today besmirch the murderers with accusations. Who are we that we should bewail their mighty hatred of us? For eight years they sit in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled…

This we know: that in order that the hope to destroy us should die we have to be armed and ready, morning and night. We are a generation of settlement, and without a steel helmet and the barrel of a cannon we cannot plant a tree and build a house. Our children will not live if we do not build shelters, and without a barbed wire fence and a machine gun we cannot pave a road and channel water. The millions of Jews that were destroyed because they did not have a land look at us from the ashes of Israelite history and command us to take possession of and establish a land for our nation.

When I read Dayan’s comments today, I find them to be unbearably tragic – particularly when you consider how much time has elapsed since they were spoken. We have only to change the number of years in Dayan’s speech and the leave the rest intact: “For seventy years they’ve sat in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled.”

It’s clear that the descendants of the original Gazan refugees have lost none of their ancestors desire for return. Most of them know full well where their ancestral homes and fields are located, in some cases just a few miles from where currently live. As in other parts of Palestine, the memory of home and the desire for return are a palpable part of Gazan culture. I experienced this in a simple yet powerful way during my visit to Gaza last year. One afternoon, as we traveled north along the coast from Rafah to Gaza City, I noticed a series of colorful concrete benches along the beachfront. My colleague Ali translated the Arabic words on the backs of each bench, pointing out that each one bore the name of a Palestinian city or town where Gazans lived prior to 1948.

It’s not difficult to grasp the sacred significance of these simple seaside benches to the refugees of Gaza. Unlike most memorials, which commemorate what was lost and is never to be found, I’d wager that those who come to these beaches don’t believe their home cities and villages to be lost at all. On the contrary, I believe these benches testify that these places are still very real to them. And to their faith that they will one day return home.

In the end my trip to Gaza affected me in ways I could not predict at the time. Most importantly, for lack of a better term, I find I’m taking the issue much more personally. When Israel drops bombs on Gaza, I invariably get a sick, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and immediately send emails to my colleagues and friends to check on their welfare. When a young Gazan is killed during the weekly Return March demonstrations, it’s not unusual for me to read a grief stricken testimony on social media by a friend, or friend of a friend. I increasingly hear their stories of their loved ones whose visas were denied or who cannot travel to access proper health care – and increasingly, I find myself taking their stories to heart.

Of course, I also take it personally when I hear so many in the Jewish community rationalizing this oppression away or worse – blaming Gazans for their own misery. When Israel was bombarding Gaza with bombs this past July, for instance, I recalled the fall of 2014 and how the American Jewish communal establishment characterized Israel’s war as a moral and religious imperative. In their view, the leadership in Gaza posed nothing short of an existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people – and in the wake of the Holocaust, ensuring Jewish survival is the most sacrosanct commandment of our time.

In early August of that year, Elie Wiesel wrote a public statement that was published as a paid ad in many prominent newspapers, including the New York Times. It was entitled “Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago. Now it’s Hamas’ turn.” Wiesel’s words, I think, are a perfect representation of the ways the Jewish communal establishment framed the religious challenge of Gaza:

More than three thousand years ago, Abraham had two children. One son had been sent into the wilderness and was in danger of dying. God saved him with water from a spring. The other son was bound, his throat about to be cut by his own father. But God stayed the knife. Both sons – Ishmael and Isaac – received promises that they would father great nations.

With these narratives, monotheism and western civilization begin. And the Canaanite practices of child sacrifice to Moloch are forever left behind by the descendants of Abraham.

Except they are not.

In my own lifetime, I have seen Jewish children thrown into the fire. And now I have seen Muslim children used as human shields, in both cases, by worshippers of death cults indistinguishable from that of the Molochites.

What we are suffering through today is not a battle of Jew versus Arab or Israeli versus Palestinian. Rather, it is a battle between those who celebrate life and those who champion death. It is a battle of civilization versus barbarism.

I remember when I first read these words. I remember how deeply, how viscerally, I reacted to them – particularly while I had been reading day after day about Gazan children like the four Bakr boys, who were shot down not as “human shields” but while they were playing soccer on the beach one morning. I remember how desperately I wished there were other Jews or Jewish communities ready to provide an alternative religious understanding of what was going on in Gaza.

There was only one religious response to Wiesel I recall reading at the time. It came from scholar and theologian Marc Ellis, who addressed Wiesel’s statement head on:

The problem is the news that keeps coming from Israel. Israel’s bombing of residential areas, hospitals and UN schools and shelters is international news. In Gaza, even after Israel’s proclaimed “withdrawal,” the death toll mounts. Among the dead are children sacrificed for Israel’s obvious goal – to deny Palestinians statehood, their political and human rights, which include the right to resist occupation.

The question for Elie Wiesel and the Jewish establishment is not about Abraham’s binding of Isaac – a treasure trove for interpreters of all types – but how many Palestinian children in Gaza will be sacrificed on the altar of Israel’s national security.

If God stayed Abraham’s knife, who will stay Israel’s?

“If God stayed Abraham’s knife, who will stay Israel’s?” This, to me is as profound an articulation of the moral and religious challenge presented to us by Gaza as we are likely to find. And I simply cannot understand how Jewish communities can gather for Yom Kippur every year without even thinking to consider this question. This is after all, the season of our cheshbon nefesh – our moral accountability. On Yom Kippur we are asked to come together and dig deep as a community to search our collective soul and confess our collective sins. How many synagogues will include confessions for what Israel is doing to Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere?

On Yom Kippur we chant over and over an annual liturgy that literally asks “who shall live and who shall die,” while the people of Gaza ask themselves that question every waking day. In a very real sense, Israel is playing God with the people of Gaza. Who shall live and who shall die? In the end, it is not God but Apache helicopters and drone fire that will provide the answers to that question. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to change the Une’taneh Tokef prayer to read, “Who will we kill and who will we spare?”

On Yom Kippur we gather to confess our sins and vow to do teshuvah – to actively repair what we have broken in the past year. But if we do believe that Israel is oppressing Gazans and Palestinians in our name, how can this day have any meaning for us at all? How can it be anything but an empty ritual? If we do believe this day still has religious relevance for us, what are we ready to do to make this teshuvah we speak of real?

My friend and colleague Jehad Abusalim was born in Gaza and is now earning his Phd from NYU. This past year he joined the Chicago staff of AFSC to work on our campaign “Gaza Unlocked.” I’d like to end with his words, because like so many of the Gazans I’ve come to know, he presents us with a question that highlights what I believe is the current religious challenge of Yom Kippur:

Our message is that we are human beings. Despite 70 years of exile, 50 years of occupation, and 11 years of a blockade, we still can carry signs in Arabic, Hebrew, and English that say, “We are not coming to fight — we are coming to return to our lands!” Gazans who saw wars and blood, who lost relatives to graves and prisons, who have four hours of electricity, who are besieged and tired — these Gazans still have faith that the international community cares. Will the rest of humanity hear them?

On Yom Kippur we plead to God, “Shema Koleynu” – “Hear our voice!” The people of Gaza – indeed all Palestinians – are calling out to us “Shema Koleynu!” Are we ready to their prayer? And if we are, what will we do to ensure our Yom Kippur prayers have not been made in vain?

G’mar Hatimah Tovah – may this be the year we write the people of Gaza into the Book of Life.