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.
He was tense and almost trembling as he told us about being attacked by a stone-yielding mob of 30 angry young men. Only by a miracle did none of the rocks smash through the windshield of the car. And then shots were fired. A bullet whizzed by his ear and lodged in the doorframe of the car. Deeply shaken but unharmed, he sped up and drove just a hundred meters ahead to an army checkpoint. He and his passenger told the soldiers of their harrowing ordeal. The soldiers ignored their plight, announced that the road forward was closed and that they must go back the way they came. They refused; the mob will kill them. The soldiers stood their ground and the two men pleaded for their lives.
Eventually these two Palestinians from Beit Umar, between Bethlehem and Hebron, made their way back home, full of rage against the settlers who attacked them and the Israeli army that did nothing to defend them.
We, the 12 or 13 Palestinians and an almost equal number of Israeli settlers sitting in a circle and listening to the story, could feel the rage and the trauma. The tension among us sitting in the open field was sky high.
The speaker went on, telling of his powerful desire for revenge. He related that his 15-year daughter, upon hearing of her father’s ordeal, said that she was going down to the road to throw stones at Israeli cars. And I wont stop her, he told us.
He said that only once before had he been part of our activities here at Roots, the Palestinian Israeli Initiative for Understanding, Nonviolence and Transformation. His brother Jamal, who had brought him here today, has always tried to convince him to return but he had always refused. He closed his words by saying that he will never come back.
Jamal then spoke. He spoke with the simmering indignation of someone who has lived his whole life under the cloud of occupation: no rights, no freedom, no dignity. As he had told us in the past, he talked of the demolition order issued by the Israeli Civil Administration hovering over his home and the homes of all of his neighbors. He talked of intermittent water service, of nocturnal arrests, of soldiers controlling their village and their lives.
All his efforts for peace and reconciliation have been for naught he said. The men of Beit Umar are attacking me mercilessly for all I have done to reach out to Israelis. And I have nothing to say to them anymore. They’re right. I am ashamed of myself.
We have the inalienable right to resist in any way possible he ended, and you settlers have no right at all to be here or to protect yourselves.
Then I spoke. I expressed deep sorrow and anger that my people had done such a thing, and that they had had to experience such an ordeal. And then I told the group what I had been going through for the past few days.
Exactly a week earlier I had read the headline late at night that Eitam and Na’ama Henkin had been murdered in cold blood by Palestinian terrorists with their four little children in the back seat of the car. I told them how I woke up my wife and how we cried together, how shattered we were. We had been close to the Henkin family since Eitam was a little boy. The tragedy was unfathomable.
The next day we were surrounded by thousands at the funeral. The pain was unbearable. And even as the screens of our smartphones flashed with news of additional murderous attacks, there were no cries for revenge among the subdued crowd of religious Israelis and settlers. Only uncontrollable tears.
A few days later my wife and I went to the shiva home to comfort the mourners. That was yesterday, I said to my partners in Palestinian Israeli rapprochement for the past 20 months. It was terrible. Everyone was distraught. The sobbing of the funeral continued throughout the days of mourning. I stumbled out of the house of mourning almost unable to go on.
I told the group that I have had neighbors gunned down before. I have seen orphans grow up saying Kaddish for their murdered parents. I have been to many funerals. We all have. But rarely have I been so deeply affected, so deeply wounded inside, so utterly shattered.
This could have been the end for me of any hope of reconciliation. I could have thrown in the towel and – within my own soul – placed the final nail in the coffin of the belief that it is never too late to search for a partner for peace.
But my belief that there are human beings on the other side with whom we can make peace did not go down to the grave with Eitam and Na’ama Henkin. At that moment I stood up and pointed across the circle at my friend Jamal, and said that my hope had not go down to the grave with Eitam and Na’ama — because of you!
You were the first Palestinian who I ever talked with one on one as a human being. It was right here, in the same place we are now sitting. I met you and your wife and your son Yazen. And for the first time in my life the shell I had been enclosed in began to crack open. A process began in which I started to see the humanity, and the perspective, and the suffering of the Palestinian people. I began to make room in my soul for another narrative, and I began to feel empathy for those whom I had only seen previously as the gray, threatening mass of the enemy.
Jamal, you have been one of our teachers, our guides. We won’t let you despair, we won’t let you give up. We need you.
A long silence. And then much was said, but Jamal remained silent. At the very end, we embraced. He said thank you.
I did it. I wrote this blog that I thought I was too shattered to write. It was really hard, but also a bit cathartic. Writing helped me feel a little bit better.
We all know that many will die in the common weeks and years. But I tell you, we – the settlers and Palestinians of Roots — shall continue to search for common ground. There is no other way.
For more information about Roots, see www.friendsofroots.net