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 Palestinian participants in the group expressed their hesitation when the plan for the day was first presented.
“We really don’t want to go to a memorial site for the three Israeli young men murdered by Hamas. It’s not that we don’t feel pain for what happened. But the memorial complex and forest were created on stolen Palestinian land and it is surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements. We cannot feel comfortable there. We’re afraid. And the war is going on in Gaza. Our brothers and sisters are being killed. The situation is too tense. It is not the right time.”
The German participants in the group may have heard or sensed the Palestinian opposition. Or perhaps they did not. But they did not know enough about the day-to-day reality on the ground to really understand what was going on. They were out of their element and went along with whatever was happening.
Most, if not all, of the Israeli participants in this unique trilateral reconciliation workshop, were staunchly against the occupation and the settlements. Still, they felt it was important to visit the memorial in order for all sides to understand the geopolitical circumstances. They may have harbored ambivalent feelings about visiting the memorial, but certainly no fear. What could happen? They listened to the Palestinians but did not fully fathom their partners’ predicament.
From the moment the group disembarked from the bus at the site, the Palestinians noticed that they were surrounded by settlers. Fear gripped them. As the guide began his explanation, an Israeli settler woman began filming them. They had no idea why she was doing so but for them, it was a clear provocation. The Palestinians were afraid of being filmed in such compromising circumstances – at a memorial for Israelis killed by Palestinians, part of a group that included Israelis, in the presence of settlers. Their reputations would be ruined were such a clip to make the rounds on social media. One of the Palestinians asked the women to stop. She rudely dismissed the request and refused. He asked again, and then in anger impulsively reached for her camera. She started to violently curse him and screamed that a Palestinian terrorist was attacking her. She yelled and shouted that the army must come and save her from this savage. Within seconds uniformed Israeli soldiers, weapons were drawn, converged on the scene.
The Palestinian participants, already fearful and disoriented, sensed an imminent threat. They were terrified. They had heard many stories of innocent Palestinians shot by soldiers, knives later planted on their bodies. Some were sure that it was about to happen to them. Images of friends and relatives who had been murdered in the conflict flashed before their eyes.
The soldiers ordered the group to leave immediately. The participants hurriedly made for the bus. The woman did not cease filming. Neither did she desist from her violent cursing of Arabs. Shaking and enraged, some of the Palestinians responded in kind. One of them may have instinctively lunged at her. The soldiers surrounded the women to shield her. The Palestinians continued to feel menaced. From their perspective, the soldiers were protecting the perpetrator, leaving them vulnerable.
The bus left. It was over.
But it was not over. The trauma remained despite the extended debriefing that the group went through later.
I heard this story from a young Palestinian man – let’s call him Mohamed – who had been part of it. He told it 22 months after it occurred, at a trilateral seminar that included some of the original Israeli, Palestinian and German protagonists. I was among those attendees who had not been there when the events had first transpired. One of the German participants had earlier brought up the outlines of the incident. Many emotions and pain bubbled to the surface. We went around the circle and one of the Palestinians – the one I am calling Mohamed – said he needed the floor. He could barely control himself, sobbing and reliving the trauma as he recounted his experience. We realized that he and the other Palestinians had experienced the events very differently than the Israelis had. From their perspective, only a hairbreadth had separated between them and certain death. They had been permanently scarred by what had transpired during those few short minutes.
I cried inside as I listened. I felt intense empathy. My whole body convulsed as I struggled unsuccessfully to hold back tears. I knew the young man from earlier seminars and from other times we had spent together. There had been a unique bond between us since our first meeting, despite the 35 years separating us. I had hugged him lovingly when I saw him at the outset of this seminar, and the day before the story took center stage, we had sat down for lunch together, talking about matters of religion and faith. He was an open, gentle young man.
When he concluded his retelling–reliving of the events and tried to compose himself, there was a long tense silence. I wanted to give him a big hug. I hesitated. The facilitator began to speak, and I did not want to interrupt the process that he was now putting our group through. Minutes later, when the time was right, I gave my young friend one of the longest, most powerful hugs that I have ever given, full of tears. I wanted to hold him tight, to cry with him, to protect him from the terrible reality in which we live.
I cried not only for ‘Mohamed’ and for what had happened. I cried in resentment and in protest against the deeply embedded fear and prejudice that made it happen, the terrible debilitating narrative of ‘them and us’ and the two-dimensional caricatures that leave so little room for simple humanity.
For my dear Palestinian friend, Israeli settlers are a violent, dangerous breed. They are barely human. Soldiers are a source of dread. All settlements are illegal and built on stolen land. Being filmed by Israelis is nothing but a sinister provocation and being filmed with Israelis is a deathly danger to one’s reputation and social standing. Knives are routinely planted on the bodies of dead Palestinians arbitrarily executed by cruel Israeli soldiers. That is what he thinks. That’s his reality. And it rules his life.
We Israelis have our own traumas. We are guided by our caricatures and our fears just as the Palestinians are guided by theirs.
Stereotypes poison us. Fear breeds more and greater fear. The results are catastrophic. There are times when fear leads to bloodshed. It could have happened in this case, just as it has happened in many other cases.
One of the many exercises we did during the course of this seminar had me paired with a German and a Palestinian. Each in his turn, we had to stand between the others and to fall backward and forward, trusting that our partners would support us and prevent us from tumbling to the ground.
Afterward, the three of us talked about how it felt. The Palestinian, a prominent peace activist with whom I have had a positive contact in the past, said that he felt great trust and that that confused him. Asked why it confused him, he responded that I was a settler and that a Palestinian cannot trust a settler. After mulling it over for a long time, he said that perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that I hold American citizenship! I was dumbfounded. I gently pressed him and suggested that perhaps it is just that I am a human being. He looked back at me and seemed to try to wrap his mind around the possibility…
The picture was taken and uploaded by Justin McIntosh, Palestine occupation18.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1156400