Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
The Palestinians are a people under occupation. They live under Israeli rule, without political representation and without basic human rights. And occupations are undeniably cruel, try as they may to be otherwise.
But the fact that the people live under occupation does not mean that the land itself is occupied. Judea and Samaria/the West Bank in my eyes is not occupied territory but rather disputed territory. Israel did not conquer it from an internationally recognized sovereign ruler. It was not taken from an independent nation that today continues to exist and that claims it must be returned. Furthermore, the Jewish People have a deep historical connection to the land and a serious legal claim to the land.
But the Palestinians also have a deep historical connection to the land and a serious legal claim to it. When we Jews arrived in modern times they were already living there, and they go back many, many generations.
The land is Palestine. And the land is also Israel. That makes it disputed, not occupied. But the fact that the land may not be occupied must not blind us to the fact that the people are occupied.
There are many reasons for the occupation. Its basic framework might even be historically justified. I am not apportioning blame. But that does not change the daily reality of discrimination, suffering and humiliation.
The peoples living in the land are not equal. There is a huge power imbalance. But it is not enough to know intellectually that there is such an imbalance. You have to feel it. Those who hold the privilege of power, the occupiers, must be able to put themselves in the place of the powerless, the occupied, and to learn to identify with their plight.
Three and a half years ago we founded, Roots/Shorashim/Judur, the Israeli Palestinian grassroots initiative for understanding, nonviolence and transformation. We have sought to build bridges between religious Israeli settlers and Palestinians, many of them religious Muslims, many of them former fighters and many of them hailing from refugee families.
We have all been transformed by the work and by the hundreds and hundreds of hours we have spent together. We have made tremendous strides, but we know very well that we have not yet been healed. The scars run very deep, and new wounds are still being created every day.
Living without power and suffering discrimination creates despair. A Palestinian friend of mine, a very talented and empathic young women from Ramallah, told us the story of a time during the Second Intifada (Palestinian Uprising) when some houses in her neighborhood were being shelled by Israel. As a little girl she ran to her father who held her hand and looked at her with a hopeless glance and proclaimed – my little girl, as much as I want to, I cannot protect you.
Our Palestinian partners in Roots expect us to protect them. They are so wounded. Having been ground down into the dirt for so long, they need us to stand up for them. And when we cannot, because we have no power against our own authorities or our army or our society — they lose hope and they also lose face in their communities.
They look at us as those who are supposed to save them. They wonder why we have not done so already. They are impatient, justifiably so. They desperately want to trust us, but that trust is always close to the breaking point, for we are never able to fully deliver the goods. After all, they continue, day after day, to live under occupation. Our occupation.
And in their eyes, we their partners, are part of the occupation. We are Israel. We are Bibi, we are the army, we are the soldier who humiliated them yesterday. It is our people doing this to them.
We are friends, having worked together for three years and formed deep bonds of understanding. But since we are among the only Israelis that they really know, we are also the face of Israel— the face of the occupation. They pour out their frustration to us.
For many of them every day is the day of judgment. Today our Israeli partners, so they seem to feel, have to prove themselves. And day after day, we fail.
They suffer ridicule and ostracism in their villages because of their connection with us. In the eyes of their neighbors, every day that goes by and the occupation is still in place, proves them — our Palestinian partners — to be naïve fools. They are humiliated by their association with us. When we are not able to protect them against the ravages of the occupation they lose confidence and they lose face. They despair. They realize that despite all their sacrifices and all our efforts, we— their Israeli partners— have no real power.
I cannot deny that we Israelis are also frustrated with them. Don’t they understand that things take time? You can’t just end the occupation overnight. We have to go through deep processes— together. We are afraid if we go too fast, we will bring all we have worked to create crashing down on our heads.
Doing this work paradoxically creates despair. Together with the deep human bonds that are created, together with the realization of the similarities between Judaism and Islam, despite the discovery of the humanity on the other side, we also come face to face with the yawning chasm between the two sides. Until you plunge into this work, you don’t know of the profound differences in narrative that divide the two sides. You don’t know of the terrible ignorance and mutual denial of identity. You don’t know of the extent of misunderstanding and prejudice. You don’t know of the cultural gaps. You don’t know of the depths of poverty and of human rights violations. You don’t come face to face with the culture of hatred and its ramifications.
The Mei Shiloach, Rabbi Mordechai Leiner, turns a beautiful phrase in Parashat Va’etchanan that expresses what many of us know to be true – “A wall is the source of life”. Only when you come up against what appears to be an impermeable brick wall do you really begin to live. Only when there seems to be no hope do our hidden resources of humanity and creativity come alive. Sometimes you have to sink real low in order to begin a meaningful ascent.
The work of Roots is precarious. Every day brings new crises of trust. We never know if this partnership can continue on. But every crisis we go through makes us stronger. Inshallah. May God be with us.