Category Archives: Israel Symposium 2008

Wading Through the Waters


From this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Beshallach:

And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon dry ground, and the waters formed a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. (Exodus 14:22)

I’ve always been struck by the dramatic, almost fearful description of the parting of the waters. It’s often seemed to me that the Israelites’ song is as much a song of terror as much as it is a song of joy and liberation. It’s an apt image, I think: the Israelites head toward their liberation with two fragile walls of water on their left and their right, threatening to obliterate them at any moment as they pass between.

Finding your way to liberation and peace is indeed a terrifying business. It means wading into powerful waters that rise before you while simultaneously threatening to submerge you on either side. I’m sure there are many who would simply prefer to stay turn back at various points along the way – or not to wade in at all. In so many ways, this story is about facing the terror of the narrow path through the waters, but finding the wherewithal to move forward nevertheless because the alternative (i.e., remaining in place or turning back) is even more terrifying to contemplate.

This past week, as my Meretz-Brit Tzedek V’Shalom Symposium visited with Israeli and Palestinian activists, leaders, politicians, and ordinary citizens, so devoted the cause of peace, I have been mindful of how fragile and discouraging this work so often feels. Indeed, I know how tempting it can be to surrender to this discouragement, to give in to the the fatigue: “We’ve tried and failed” “It’s too late.” “Peace between Jews and Palestinians can never truly happen.”

It is clear to me that for most Israelis and Palestinians, this fearful voice comes from a collective sense of ongoing trauma. During the week of our visit, hundreds of Kassam rockets rained down daily on and around the Israeli town Sderot -and Israel responded with deadly military incursions in Gaza. I spoke with Israeli friends who told me with great emotion that life in Sderot and the surrounding area is absolutely unbearable. As I traveled through Ramallah, I saw Palestinian flags flying at half mast for the Gaza dead.

As the cycle of violence continued however, we met and spoke with inspired individuals who worked tirelessly for peace for their respective peoples. Yes. we were told repeatedly by many experts that moderates on both sides are simply growing tired and less sure that peace will ever be possible. But we know first-hand that there are also many who defy the fear and press on for peace in Israel/Palestine, knowing that discouragement is simply a luxury they cannot afford.

Of course I realize that walking the path of peace will require complex and often painful decisions, but after my experiences of this week, I am even more convinced of this: two states for two peoples is simply the only way out, and we must support the efforts of those working toward this end with everything we have. Accepting an untenable status quo, or going back the way we came are simply not options. The way through the waters is not easy or comfortable, but as ever, there is still only one way forward.

Shalom/Salaam from Jerusalem…

Adding the Goat


Some highlights of our final day of the Meretz/Brit Tzedek V’Shalom Israel Symposium

In the morning we visited and spoke with some members of Alon Shvut, a West Bank settlement in Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem. Afterwards we were given a tour of the Arab villages and new Jewish settlements/outposts in the region by Hagit Ofran (above) who works for the settlement-watch division of Peace Now. We paid special attention to the new bypass roads and tunnels that connect the settlements to each other and to other areas inside the Green Line.

Needless to say, bypass roads have aided considerably in the growth of the settlements. Since they are designed to help the Jewish population avoid travel near or through Arab centers on the West Bank, Palestinian access to them is virtually impossible. There are also three “sterile” roads (meaning Jewish-only): Rte. 443, that connects Modi’in, to the settlement of Elon Moreh, a highway near Nablus, and the Dead Sea road to Ein Gedi

We also saw several so-called illegal Israeli outposts along the way – new settlements that have built on private Palestinian land (see pic below). Since 1996, more than 100 outposts have been built with the assistance of the Ministry of Housing. Because they are easily built and easily taken down, the Israeli government can take dismantle them when necessary to create the impression of compliance with the first phase of the Road Map, which directs Israel to actively remove all illegal settlements on the West Bank. (Of course, the term “illegal outpost” is a bit of a misnomer as all West Bank settlements are technically illegal according to international law.)

A great aside: Hagit says the construction of illegal outposts is known in Peace Now circles as “adding the goat” – a reference to the well-known Jewish folktale about the man who has so many children that he goes to the Rabbi to ask him how to get some peace and quiet from all of the noise. The Rabbi tells him to bring a goat into his house. He does so and in a few days there is so much noise that the man tells the Rabbi the situation is even worse than before. So the Rabbi tells him, “Now take the goat out of your house” and the noise finally settles down…

After returning to Jerusalem our group participated in a demonstration in Paris Square by Women in Black – a well-known Israeli peace group that has been gathering to protest the occupation every Friday afternoon on this site for the past twenty years. The pic at the bottom shows Brit Tzedek President Steve Masters talking with Dafna Kaminer, one of the founders of Women in Black who has been standing on this street corner fighting the good fight for two decades. (Afterwards, we heard an inspiring presentation from another Israeli peace activist veteran: Gila Svirskey of the Coalition of Women for Peace.)

It’s been a long, exhausting, educational, heartbreaking, inspiring week. Some final thoughts follow in my next post…



An Afternoon in Ramallah


Today was devoted to meetings with various leaders of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Our group met first with Hanan Ashrawi, the well-known Palestinian leader, negotiator and academic – and currently a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. (That’s her above, on the right, together with me and fellow trip member Susie Coliver).

Ashrawi greeted us warmly but told us we were visiting during a very difficult time for the community. As we had been told by many Israelis and Palestinians previously, we heard grave disappointment from her that the promises made post-Annapolis are not matched by the reality on the ground, and most troubling, that there is an increasing skepticism among Palestinians over the viability of a two-state solution.

Ashrawi explained that this was an inevitable response to the despair of their daily reality: the clamping down at the checkpoints, the growth of settlements and outposts, and the increasing violence of the settlers. Ashrawi said to us sadly that she believed Palestinians who believe in the two-state solution (like herself) are now a distinct minority. Interestingly, she also told us she believes that while Palestinian intellectuals and solidarity groups abroad tend to advocate a one-state solution from an ideological point of view, Palestinians in the territories are essentially coming this position due to the dismal reality of their situation

She also had a great deal to say about the lack of trust that Palestinians have in Bush and Blair, and the increasingly stagnant economic straits in the West Bank. I was most struck, however, by her analysis of the situation in Gaza. Ashrawi believes Hamas is quickly losing support of Gazans – largely because of the brutal way they took power and the harsh nature of their Islamic fundamentalist rule. Ironically, she says the economic blockade imposed by the US and Europe really only serves to strengthen their popularity. (This was not the first time we have heard such an analysis.)

We also visited with Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayed at his office (below). By contrast, Fayed told us that compared to where life was in 2006 (i.e, the Hamas coup in Gaza, Israel’s war in Lebanon), he felt there had been important progress. In particular, he pointed to the PA’s implementation of their security plan in Nablus, where the police were recently able to disarm gunmen and curb local violence. These measures were an important part of their commitments to the first phase of the Road Map – and Fayed he felt that this had improved life for Palestinians to an important extent. (From his point of view, there was still critical work to be done in the area of services and social welfare.)


It was interesting that while Ashrawi chose to focus on the overall political reality, Fayed chose to speak about local Palestinian politics – and though the PA admittedly has limited power to institute change, he saw their efforts beginning to bear meaningful fruit. It seems to me that the difference in the presentations stemmed largely from their respective points of view: Ashrawi is a political veteran who has been in the trenches for many years. She has seen the rise and fall of the Palestinians’ political fortunes – and while some of our group heard her words as largely pessimistic, it seemed to me that she was simply relating to us the hard reality of the situation as she saw it. Fayed, on the other hand, is a political technocrat. As a prominent international economist, it seems that he understands the way systems operate – particularly the slow and gradual nature of progress in the life of a community. In end, despite what we might think about the nature of their leadership. both Ashrawi and Fayed represent the forces of moderation in the Palestinian community – and do I believe they need our support now more than ever.

Back in Jerusalem, we had dinner with Tsvia Greenfield, a remarkable woman from the ultra-orthodox community who is also a member of the Meretz party slate. (If Meretz had received one more seat in the last election, she would now be a member of Knesset.) Here is a woman who single handedly dispels many of our preconceptions of a Haredi woman: she received her MA in philosophy from Hebrew University, helped found the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, supports religious pluralism, a two-state solution, and gay/lesbian rights. (Yes, you heard me correctly!)

Tomorrow it’s back to West Bank for the last full day of our trip. Among other things, we’ll be visiting with a settler family in Gush Etzion. There’s still more to come…

Where Peace and Politics Collide


Today we spent the entire day at the Knesset, and an incredible day it was. We met with a number of prominent MKs, including opposition leader Bibi Netanyahu and ended up having a nearly one hour meeting with Prime Minister Olmert himself.

As it turned out, this was a politically eventful and important day in Israel. As had been rumored for the past few weeks, MK Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of the ultra-nationalist Beitenu party announced this morning that his party was pulling out of the government’s coalition, taking eleven seats with him. And as if this wasn’t enough for a Prime Minister who is pursing a delicate new peace process, Olmert is nervously awaiting the release of the second phase of the Winograd Report, which is expected to come down hard upon him for his handling of the 2006 Lebanon war and quite possibility force his resignation.

In a sense, this is the place where peace and politics collide. It is an interesting moral/political question to ponder: assuming Winograd confirms all predictions, should we still support Olmert, even while agreeing that he committed fatal, unforgivable errors during the Lebanon war? After all, if Olmert is forced to resign, and the Knesset opts for new elections, polls say that Likud’s Bibi Netanyahu will be the clear winner, which would most certainly mean the end of the peace process as we know it.

During our visit to the Knesset we met first with several prominent members of Meretz (which will soon be holding its own elections to replace outgoing chairman Yossi Beilin). Beilin told us that he believes for the sake of the peace process, Meretz should support Olmert no matter what. We also spoke with Haim Oron and Zehava Galon, both of whom are running for the new chair position. While Oron counseled to adopt a wait and see attitude, Galon was unequivocal in her feelings that if the report is as critical as expected, it would be morally unacceptable for him to remain Prime Minister. She, as others, felt the best case scenario would be to replace Olmert from within the Kadima party, presumably by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

In addition to these issues, Meretz MK Abu Vilan talked to us extensively about the “One Home” bill that he and others are hoping to get passed through Knesset. This bill would allocate significant funds (2-2.5 billion dollars) to compensate residents from 74 settlements outside the separation barrier for resettlement inside the Green Line – if they come forward now. The obvious idea behind this effort would be to mitigate the upheaval that would inevitably ensue from a forced evacuation by the Israeli military in the eventuality that the West Bank becomes part of a new Palestinian state. Vilan told us that this bill currently has the support of key MKs, and he was hopeful that he could move it through the complicated Knesset process for eventual passage.

After hearing from two MK’s from the Labor party – Minister of Education Yuli Tamir and Collette Avital – we met with the Prime Minister. In many ways Olmert was the consummate master of politics: saying all of the right things, alternately candid and guarded when he felt the occasions warranted.

In his opening comments, Olmert addressed the crisis precipitated by Lieberman’s exit from the coalition. While expressing regret he said that he was well aware the Lieberman rejected his government’s efforts in the peace process – and on this count he said was firm: he would under no circumstances go back on his policy and commitments in pursing a two-state solution for Israel/Palestine.

He also addressed Bush’s recent visit, rejecting the popular notion that Bush was making a desperate effort in the final year of his presidency. Olmert said that in the volatile Middle East, “one year is like a lifetime.” He believed that the process initiated by Bush had a real chance, even if an agreement does not emerge in 2008. Olmert stressed his firm support of a two-state solution, underlining the commitments he made at Annapolis and saying how important it was that his intentions were broadcast live around the world.

Based on our experiences of the past few days, we were ready with our first question: why, if he was so serious about the peace process, were things not only not improving on the ground for Palestinians, but were actually going backwards?

Indeed, we have heard repeatedly during our trip that conditions have actually gotten worse in the West Bank in the two months since Annapolis. Not only have outposts not been dismantled and settlements frozen, but in the case of Har Homa (as I wrote in an earlier post) tenders on new construction have actually been issued by the government. Moreover, the situation at checkpoints has not eased one iota – if anything they have only tightened down even further. Why, we asked, has Olmert not instituted any confidence building measures in order to demonstrate his articulated commitment to the peace process?

Olmert responded in a… well… in a very political manner. He said that his government was in fact working with the Palestinians to institute confidence building measures, but he was not at liberty to make them public yet. At the same time, however, he claimed that he was in something of a political Catch-22. Imagine, he asked, if he closed a checkpoint and it turned out that a suicide bomber was able to make it through and commit a terrorist attack inside Israel. In such a case, he said, the entire peace process would be over. As he put it, things were in such a delicate situation, that “one failure would be one failure too many.” (Though we didn’t have the time to engage on this issue more thoroughly, I think that one could make an even more compelling case that if the Prime Minister makes promises, then fails to back them up with some semblance of change in the daily life of Palestinians, the entire peace process would run an even greater risk of being dead straight out of the starting gate.)

Olmert is a fascinating political animal: I think the jury is out on whether or not he can truly deliver the goods. He is currently fighting for his political life – but at the same time, he is the one to whom this peace process has been entrusted. I think on some level it would be a gamble at this point to hand this process to another leader from his party – and there is no doubt whatsoever that if Bibi becomes Prime Minister in new elections, then the peace process will be dead in its tracks – probably forever.

Speaking of Bibi, during his meeting with us I can only say that the arguments he used to dismiss the peace process were largely the same tired arguments he has been using for decades. Of course, everyone wants peace, Bibi said, but the peace process has only brought Israel the opposite of peace. There currently are Islamists in Gaza and Lebanon, and Israel is being rocketed from the north and the south. The reason, he says, is clear: the Palestinians don’t want a two-state solution – they want to liberate all of Palestine.

As Bibi simply put it, Israel’s past and current efforts at making peace are failures because there has never been a partner in peace on the other side – and the Palestinians have never produced a leader brave enough to make peace. President Abbas is not a true partner because he is simply too weak. He cannot possibly deliver the minimum that Israel would require for true peace and security.

Where does that leave us? Bibi suggested that Israel has been going at it all wrong. They should not try to impose a solution from the “top down,” but rather from the “bottom up.” By that he meant Israel should help the Palestinians build economic opportunity by creating businesses along the “seam line” (which we could only assume meant the separation barrier.) This, he explained, would eventually lead to stability and moderation for the Palestinians and security for Israel.

Of course, it would not be in Israel’s best interest to maintain permanent sovereignty over the territories – rather they should create self-government in “local Palestinian centers” (by which we could only assume he meant Bantustans.) Of course, this did not include Jerusalem, which should always remain under Israeli sovereignty. He also believed that Israel should maintain security buffer zones in the Jordan valley since these were unpopulated areas and of no use to the Palestinians.

Bibi’s most jaw dropping suggestion came on the issue of demographics. He considered this only to be an issue inside Israel, since Israel did not have an interest in permanent sovereignty over the territories. As for the rising Arab birthrate inside the Green Line, he explained that this was already being controlled by his changing of child subsidy laws during his administration. (???)

Bibi’s presentation to us was, for lack of a better word, chilling. For me, the most offensive part of his vision was his deeply patronizing vision of Palestinians: essentially painting them all as inbred enemies of Israel who simply needed to be brought along in order to live in peace with the Jews. No recognition of the diverse nature of Palestinian society, let alone appreciation for the fact that they might have national aspirations of their own. The bottom line is clear: a Netanyahu electoral victory would be the permanent death knell for the peace process…

OK, I can’t possibly end on this dark note. This evening after dinner, we heard from two of my personal heroes: Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad of the Bereaved Parents Circle – the wonderful coexistence group that promotes Israeli/Palestinian reconciliation and non-violence. I have already written extensively about them on this blog so I won’t say more except to say you should know about them and support their efforts.

Tomorrow we travel to Ramallah to meet with members of the Palestinian Authority, including Prime Minister Salaam Fayed. Should be another long post – stay tuned…

Machsom Watch at Rachel’s Passage


Amazing presentations today – we heard about the latest prospects for peace from Gadi Baltiansky, the Director General of “Education for Peace, Ltd” (the Israeli NGO that actively promotes the Geneva Initiative); during lunch we heard an unflinching and incisive presentation from prominent Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar (his book about the settlers’ movement “Lords of the Land” is must reading); and this evening we enjoyed a stimulating, thought provoking presentation by Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, an influential, award-winning joint Israeli-Palestinian think tank. Our heads are spinning from these incredible presentations, and needless to say there is much to say about what we’ve heard (I encourage you to check out the Brit Tzedek trip blog for more).

In the meantime, however, I’d like to write a bit about how we spent our afternoon. After lunch we met with Hana Barag from the courageous Israeli NGO, “Machsom Watch” a group of women who have been monitoring checkpoints in the West Bank, documenting the abuses that routinely occur there. Over the past seven years Machsom Watch (which means “Checkpoint Watch”) has become an important and prominent human rights group in the West Bank. They currently visit a total of forty checkpoints twice a day, observe the behavior of the guards, document what they observe, and post extensive reports regularly on their website.

Hana is a diminutive, elderly woman whose outer appearance belies her fierce devotion to her cause. As she explained to us, her organization is made up of ordinary Israeli citizens, Zionists who are deeply concerned with the dehumanizing effects of the occupation – on soldiers as well as Palestinians. To this end, their work has three simple motivations: they are against the occupation, against the checkpoints, and for human rights.

There 546 checkpoints throughout Israel and the occupied territories – and over the last several years they have become an indelible part of the Palestinians’ oppressive day to day reality. Those who use the checkpoints regularly to go work or to work their fields must first receive a work permit, which are only allowed to relatively few Palestinians and which are issued through a complex and maddening bureaucratic process.

To complicate things even further, work permits can only be used at certainly times – and if workers are delayed at the checkpoint, they inevitably lose one day’s pay (as well as an employer’s tax that is passed on to the workers). The checkpoints, of course, are also used for a variety of other reasons, by children going to school, in cases of medical emergency, etc. Hana told us numerous painful stories about the humanitarian abuses that occur daily at these checkpoints, which can often take hours to pass through.

Though they are often characterized by the Israeli military as a security necessity, few realize that there are only three checkpoints that actually monitor passage across the Green Line – the rest are located within the West Bank itself. To be sure, the security rationale for these checkpoints are not self-evident (unless, of course, we are talking exclusively about the security of the settlers.) The Israeli military has admitted that they play an important role in Israel’s psychological war against potential terrorists – but one might well argue that the daily indignities that Palestinians experience at checkpoints only serve to further radicalize their population further – which one could well argue is an important security concern in its own right

With Hana as our guide, we observed the checkpoint into Bethlehem (delicately called“Rachel’s Passage” by the military because of its proximity to Rachel’s Tomb). The first thing I noticed as we arrived was how incredibly massive the checkpoint was – much broader and more physically imposing than I ever would have expected. I was also struck by the clean sterility of the place – and the incongruously cheerful signs on the exterior of the site. (Note the final line in the picture below – and compare it with the picture at the bottom, which shows graffiti on the barrier wall just around the corner from the checkpoint.)

Hana brought us into the checkpoint itself in small groups and explained the complicated passage procedure to us in depth. After visiting inside the checkpoint, a group of us were standing outside the front gate. Eventually, small buses pulled up one by one, bringing Palestinian workers heading home from work. As they exited the buses, they raced to into the checkpoint, clearly jockeying to get a decent spot in line. The line of workers quickly grew in length as they settled in for processing and passage.

Like our evening in Hevron, this was not easy experience for any of us to observe. It is difficult for me to write about this even now. Though many of us intellectually understand the reality of the occupation upon both sides of the conflict, it is something else entirely to witness it first hand. After spending just two hours at this checkpoint, I am personally in awe of those such as Hana and Machsom Watch, who bear witness to this reality on a daily basis.



Life in Limbo Land



Our first stop today was Givat Haviva, the venerable school founded by the Kibbutz Artzi movement. GH is located in the north of Israel, in the middle of Wadi Ara (or the so-called “Little Triangle”) – one of the most densely populated Arab sections in the country. The school is a pioneering institution in the field of coexistence; its Jewish-Arab Center for Peace sponsors a variety of different educational programs including High School Youth workshops and Arabic-language/culture classes for Israeli soldiers.

This morning we spoke with Lydia Eisenberg (top pic), who works on the staff of GH’s International Department. Lydia took us on a tour of the nearby Arab village Bartato help demonstrate the Orwellian nature of Israel’s oft-shifting boundaries. In the armistice following the 1948 war, Barta was divided in half by Israel and Jordan: West Barta became part of the new Jewish state and East Barta became part of Jordan. After 1967, East Barta was incorporated by Israel into the occupied territories – half of the village was literally under the rule of Israel’s civil administration while the other half was under military occupation. Things were complicated even further when Israel’s separation barrier was erected, putting East Barta outside the Green Line, but inside the new security fence – a uniquely perverse geographic area that Lydia affectionately calls “Limbo Land.”

The afternoon was spent nearby at Kibbutz Metzer, which has a had a unique and remarkable relationship with the citizens of Maiser, an adjacent Israeli Arab village. For over fifty years, the secular socialist Zionist members of the kibbutz and the traditional Muslim citizens of Maiser have made a devoted effort to overcome their differences and receive each other as good neighbors. Over the years, as both Kibbutz Metzer and Maiser struggled to make their homes in a regions with little infrastructure and a meager water supply, they have openly shared their knowledge resources with each other, coexisting side by side with peace and mutual respect.

Their relationship was put to a terrible test in November of 2002 when a Palestinian terrorist entered the kibbutz and murdered five members to death (including a mother and her two young children inside their home.) Despite this tragic event, the respective communities only redoubled their efforts to maintain mutual respect and a spirit of coexistence. That’s me in the pic immediately above – I’m next to Said Arda, who works for the municipality of the village of Maisa, Dov Avital, the secretary of Kibbutz Metzer, and Steve Masters, President of Brit Tzedek Ve’Shalom (who is also an old friend and my roomie on the trip.)

We heard powerful presentations from both Said and Dov, who are clearly passionate about maintaining positive, healing relations with their neighbors. I was especially moved by Said’s description of how numerous families from Maiser visited the kibbutz every day/night during the shiva following the tragedy. After our painfully difficult day in Hevron yesterday, a much-needed message of trust and hope.

BTW: Brit Tzedek V’Shalom is maintaining a blog about our trip as well – and as you can read, there is much to relate. Click here for the link.

Borderlines and Ghost Towns


Our first full day of our Meretz-Brit Tzedek Symposium – and it’s been a full day. The morning was spent with a tour of significant areas of East Jerusalem by Danny Seidman, a prominent human rights lawyer who is one of Israel’s foremost experts on the legal ramifications of Jerusalem’s East-West divide. He is also a consultant to Im Amim, an important Israeli NGO that actively engages on issues impacting on Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and on the political future of the city. Among the many sites we visited was Har Homa (see pic above) – a massive 2,000 unit settlement built on land expropriated by Israel. The site was first developed in 1998 and was became infamous more recently when, only five days after the Annapolis conference, Israel’s Housing Ministry announced it would take public bids on 307 new units – an outrageous set of developments that almost killed the Annapolis peace process right out of the starting gate.

Needless to say, a political firestorm ensued, and it became clear that the whole thing caught Prime Minister Olmert flatfooted. How could such a critical move take place without the knowledge of the Israeli government, you might ask? That’s a very good question – and the answer has something to do with Israel’s complex settlement bureaucracy (or as Seidman called it, a “shadow government”) that is a product of a long-time relationship between the Housing Ministry and the settler movement itself. Though Olmert has vowed to clamp down on future settlement in the wake of Annapolis, it is not completely clear if this includes developments in East Jerusalem (territory which is still outside the Green Line, no matter what anyone might tell you…)

Spent the afternoon touring “Bare Life,” (see pic below) the latest exhibition at “The Museum on the Seam,” the amazing coexistence art museum located in a former Arab house/Israeli Army outpost that sits on the original pre-1948 border between East and West J’lem. (Highly worth a visit the next time you visit the city.)

For me, the most powerful part of the day was a tour of the West Bank city of Hevron by Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of Breaking the Silence. BTS is a group of discharged Israeli soldiers, veterans of the 2nd intifada, that has taken it upon itself to speak out about the daily routine of life under the occupation in the territories – a routine that gets virtually no coverage in the media. (That’s Yehuda and me in Hevron, two pics down.)

One of the profoundly painful realities of Hevron is the manner in which much of it has been reduced to a virtual ghost town since the Intifada. For over ten years now, Hevron has been divided into two segments: H1, which is adminstered by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, which remains under Israeli military control. Together, we toured H2, a previously bustling Palestinian city center which was rendered eerily empty. Citing the protection of a few hundred settlers who live in the heart of Hevron, the army has severely restricted the movement of the tens of thousands of Palestinian residents.

Because of longtime social and economic separation – as well as ongoing settler violence (countenanced by the Israeli military) – 42% of Hevron’s Palestinian homes are empty and 70% of its Palestinan business have been shut down. The pic at the bottom tells the story – the city center which is now permanently shuttered, with hateful Jewish settler graffiti on every storefront. (Among the slogans I read: “Death to Arabs.” “Arabs to the crematorium!”)

Yehuda, an amazingly articulate young 25 year old (and a traditional Jew who grew up in a settler community himself) told us numerous painful stories about his own experiences doing army duty in Hevron. He also took us to visit a local Palestinian family who received us graciously and told us about life under curfew, road blocks and “sterilized streets” (an actual IDF term for roads that forbid Palestinian cars/foot traffic/commercial activity.)

What else can I say? This is not your average tour of Israel – but it is one I ferevently wish would be made more readily available to American Jews. More to come…




The Tragedy of a Hardened Heart

heart1.jpgFrom this week’s Torah Portion, Parashat Bo:

But God hardened Pharoah’s heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go (Exodus 10:10)

For many, this teaches a disturbing lesson about the nature of tyranny: Pharaoh’s evil seems to largely result from divine manipulation – he appears more as God’s puppet or plaything than a genuine tyrant per se. What are we to make of such a portrayal – and in particular what do we make of God’s troubling role in this story? (Or as my Torah study students might say, who is the real tyrant here?)

Many commentators have pointed out that there is an interesting evolution in the wording of Pharoah’s refusals. At first, the Torah seems to leave God out of the equation (see for instance, Exodus 7:13: “And Pharoah’s heart was hardened…) Only during the final plagues do we read that God hardened Pharoah’s heart. Some indicate that this points to a certain inevitablity in Pharaoh’s behavior. Perhaps to say God hardened Pharoah’s heart really means that his heart became impossibly, irrevocably hardened over years of oppressive behavior.

This is, indeed a psychological/spiritual phenomenon we experience all too well. We all have a “Pharoah aspect” to our souls: the tendency to accommodate ourselves to oppression as a status quo, to the point that we become callous and cynical to even the possibility of a life beyond. This is the tragedy of the hardened heart: the inability to see beyond the pain – yes, even that which we might create ourselves – into the hope for a better future.

I am writing these particular words from Israel, where I am preparing to participate in a week long symposium sponsored by Meretz USA and Brit Tzedek Ve’Shalom. Along with twenty other participants, we will meet with Israeli and Palestinian politicians and peace activists in Israel and the Palestinian territories to learn about the latest prospects for peace and coexistence in Israel/Palestine. I am looking forward to learning much more about the diligent work of those who, against all odds, seek and pursue Shalom in this troubled part of the world.

Though this is a critical time for the peace process, it would not be an overstatement to say there are many who are increasingly cynical about it and its prospects. Indeed, after so much pain and tragedy, it is all too easy for us to simply accommodate ourselves to the pain – to harden our hearts to the idea of a real and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. But as our Torah portion reminds us this week, pain, suffering and oppression are not simply inevitable. Our collective liberation is more than just a naive dream, if only we are ready to really, truly work for it.

I look forward to sharing my experiences with you during the coming week.