Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Let my people go!

The night of the Passover Seder, the streets of Israel's cities were empty and deserted, and from the windows could be heard the singing of ancient hymns and passages from well-accustomed texts.

Slaves we were, now we are free. Slaves we were, now we are free!  With hard labor, with mortar and with bricks, and with all manner of service in the field the Egyptians embittered our fathers'  lives. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and our God took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm. And if He had not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then we, our children and our children's children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. Not only our fathers did He redeem from Egypt, but also us did He redeem with them. Slaves we were, now we are free. Slaves we were, now we are free!

Already for forty-six year all these things have been read out and sung and chanted also by settlers in the Occupied Territories. Sitting down at armed enclaves surrounded by wire fences and walls and guarded by the soldiers of a mighty army, they told at length of slaves going out of bondage and into liberty. Did the echo of the singing reach the villages nearby whose land was confiscated and their springs clogged and their water taken away and their sons held behind bars and their roads blocked by military checkpoints?

In the city of Hebron Palestinians held a protest march, their faces covered with masks of Martin Luther King, the Black leader who was deeply inspired by the story of the Exodus. When the Palestinian disciples of Martin Luther King dared s to get closer to the fences of the settler enclave at the heart of Hebron, soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces attacked them and beat them up, sprinkling them with tear gas and dragging them into custody, so as to ensure they would not interfere with the settlers’ Passover festivities.

What is it which makes this Passover different from the forty five which preceded it, the forty five Passovers celebrated under an ongoing occupation and burgeoning settlement enterprise? This year, three days before Passover, we got a visit from Barack Hussein Obama. The Black man who managed to do what was long considered impossible and got elected President of the United States of America – elected, not just once but twice. The Black man who tried to remind us of the meaning of the holiday we are celebrating.

(...) I come to Israel on the eve of a sacred holiday – the celebration of Passover. And that is where I would like to begin today. Just a few days from now, Jews here in Israel and around the world will sit with family and friends at the Seder table, and celebrate with songs, wine and symbolic foods. After enjoying Seders with family and friends in Chicago and on the campaign trail, I’m proud to have brought this tradition into the White House. I did so because I wanted my daughters to experience the Haggadah, and the story at the center of Passover that makes this time of year so powerful.

It is a story of centuries of slavery, and years of wandering in the desert; a story of perseverance amidst persecution, and faith in God and the Torah. It is a story about finding freedom in your own land. For the Jewish people, this story is central to who you have become. But it is also a story that holds within it the universal human experience, with all of its suffering and salvation. It is a part of the three great religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – that trace their origins to Abraham, and see Jerusalem as sacred. And it is a story that has inspired communities around the globe, including me and my fellow Americans.

To African-Americans, the story of the Exodus told a powerful tale about emerging from the grip of bondage to reach for liberty and human dignity – a tale that was carried from slavery through the civil rights movement. For generations, this promise helped people weather poverty and persecution, while holding on to the hope that a better day was on the horizon. For me personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, it spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home.

 As Dr. Martin Luther King said on the day before he was killed – “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that… we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

For the Jewish people, the journey to the promise of the State of Israel wound through countless generations. It involved centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice, pogroms and even genocide. Through it all, the Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home. And while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea – to be a free people in your homeland.”

“Peace is necessary. Indeed, it is the only path to true security. You can be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future. Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine. Given the frustration in the international community, Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation. And given the march of technology, the only way to truly protect the Israeli people is through the absence of war – because no wall is high enough, and no Iron Dome is strong enough, to stop every enemy from inflicting harm.

This truth is more pronounced given the changes sweeping the Arab World. Peace must be made among peoples, not just governments. No one step can change overnight what lies in the hearts and minds of millions. But progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin. The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land."

Thus spoke Moses Obama to the ears of Israel, the State of Israel which has long since become a collective Pharaoh while continuing to speak at length of the Exodus from Egypt. And the hundreds of young Israelis who heard the speech responded with a prolonged standing ovation.

So, maybe this time the story will be a bit different. Maybe this time  Pharaoh's heart would not be hardened. Maybe the Palestinians would go from bondage to liberty and from darkness into light and will be a free people in their own land, even without our waiting for ten plagues to come upon us.

Perhaps the most important thing we heard from Obama was: " Today, I want to tell you – particularly the young people – that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd [you are not alone]. A promise very pleasing to the Israeli ear, but which contains - to those who can listen - also a warning and an alert. As long as the United States of America is there, we're not alone. But nowadays it is no longer science fiction to speak of the decline of America and reflect on the possibility that once upon a time the United States would no longer be the dominant power in the world. The day when the condition of the American Empire would approximate that of the British Empire and that even if it wanted to, America would not be able to offer much help to Israel. And should the Israeli Pharaoh continue to harden his heart until that moment, we might have to refer also to the  continuation of the story. Also to a mighty wave of water descending upon horse and rider.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

A government with a civil agenda

After all the grueling and long-lasting negotiations it seems that we have a new government. A government with a civil agenda, focusing on domestic matters – particularly on hitting out at the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community.

And what about the occupation? The Palestinians are supposed to wait for another government.  

 And if they don’t wait?

On Tuesday morning the newspaper headlines had proclaimed the mighty achievement  of Yair Lapid, who forced Netanyahu to agree that the next government will have only 21 ministers, rather than the 30 in the outgoing cabinet. Just at the time when these headlines appeared on the newsstands throughout the State of Israel, a security guard came out of the "Abigail" settler outpost in the South Hebron Hills - and attacked the shepherd Na'al Abu Aram from Susya village. The security guard -  whose name we do not know - beat, punched, kicked and shoved the shepherd, then ran after the flock of sheep, to scare them and scatter them in all directions. Then the security guard went back to the outpost. Who knows, maybe he sat there drinking coffee and keeping track of the negotiations to form a new government. By the way, the Avigail outpost is considered illegal, also under  Israeli law. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, before he fell into a coma, promised to dismantle it.  Nobody took care to keep that promise. Nor is the new government, to be  established by Lapid and Bennett and Netanyahu likely to do it.

On the evening of that same day, Tuesday night , a last minute crisis developed in the negotiations. Conflict got to a very pitch over the issue of who would get the Education portfolio. Indeed, who is better fitted to stand in the vanguard of educating the children of Israel? Should it be Gideon Saar, who sent  school kids on educational tours of Hebron, so as to make them aware that this is the Land of Our Fathers and therefore ours forever? Or is it better to entrust the job to Rabbi Shai Piron who ten years ago expressed his considered Halachic opinion that Jews should not rent apartments to Arabs, but who since changed his mind completely and became a moderate, liberal and staunchly anti-racist rabbi.  At this same time when this great crisis developed in the government coalition talks, soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces - young men who only a few years ago graduated from the Israeli education system – broke into the Fawwar Refugee Camp near Hebron. The soldiers clashed with camp youths and opened fire and shot and killed Mahmoud Al-Titi and wounded several of his fellows. Mahmoud Al-Titi had been twenty-two years old. Two of the years of his life he had spent behind bars in the Israeli occupation’s prisons, and after being released he had studied Media and Journalism at the Polytechnic Institute in Arroub. He  will not get to hear the speech of President Barack Obama who is due to arrive here next week, and will never form an opinion on whether or not Obama's visit would give Palestinians any measure of hope of  breaking free of the Israeli occupation. But probably Al-Titi, like many young Palestinians, did not have any shred of hope from this visit. Certainly not with the new government about to be formed in Israel.
Wednesday morning the media was filled with reports of the escalating coaltion talks crisis and the severe threats hurled and ultimatums set by the leaders of the various parties to each other. It was exactly at that same time that an army detachment reached the tiny  and faraway  village of Maghayer el Abeed in the South Hebron Hills, and ordered the villagers to themselves demolish at once the solar power system in their village, erected  by the Comet – ME foundation. Comet-ME is an Israeli-Palestinian non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable rural electrification - i.e. "providing renewable energy services to off-grid Palestinian communities using sustainable methods" – an aim which the military government considers utterly illegal. As far as the Israeli military government is concerned, the entire village of Maghayer el Abeed should not be there. Like several other small villagers nearby it should be destroyed and disappear, making place for “Fire Zone 918” which is needed as training area of ​​the Israel Defense Forces as well as for the expansion of several settlements in this area. Most of these settlers had voted in the recent elections for Naftali Bennett who pledged that “something new is beginning". But his talking about “new things” certainly did not refer to providing a solar power system to a Palestinian village not linked to the extensive power grid serving the flourishing and expanding settlements all around.

In the afternoon of the same day, just at the time when Naftali Bennett embarked on the task of mediation to end the crisis in the government coalition talks, there was held in the Fawwar Refugee Camp the funeral of Mahmoud Al-Titi. Almost all residents of the camp attended, and waved Palestinian flags and chanted angry slogans. The Israeli TV crew covering the funeral did not forget
to remind viewers at home that the young people they were seeing had been incited and that was why they were crying out such nasty things. Meanwhile, Naftali Bennett succeeded in his mission, and a compromise was agreed upon  whereby Lapid's party will win the Ministry of Education for Rabbi Piron and while Sa’ar of Netanyahu's party will get the Ministry of Interior. And for his own Bennett got a handsome mediator’s fee in the form of the Chairmanship of the key Knesset Finance Committee - which is considered as the main faucet  through which state funds flow, and Bennett will of course divert a considerable part of them to his settler constituents. Not that this would really be something new; previous governments have already pumped quite a lot of money to settlements and gave many benefits to Israeli citizens who went to live in them.

Among other things, it was the benefit granted by previous governments which convinced a woman called Adva Biton to move to a settlement called Yakir and raise her children there and win the many benefits offered by the government.  On Thursday afternoon, when formation of the next government of Israel was assured, only minor details left to hammer out, Adva Biton went out on a routine trip with her daughters on the Trans-Samaria Highway, a modern multi-lane throughway built for the benefit of settlers. Her car was in a long string of cars which passed near the village of Kifl Haris, where young villagers hurled stones at settler cars traveling on the road which had been erected on their village lands. A stone struck the truck which was before her car. The truck driver was not hurt, but he abruptly slowed down, and Adva Biton’s car collided with the truck, and her little daughter was injured and taken to hospital in a severe condition. And because it was an Israeli girl the case made the headlines in the Israeli press. The other incident which happened at exactly the same time, when soldiers opened fire for the second time in two days, seriously injuring a Palestinian boy, was set aside. Regardless of all that, the negotiations for formation of the new government progressed successfully and overcame the last minor sticking points.

And just when the party leaders heaved a sigh of relief and prepared to sign the finally completed coalition agreements, the Head of IDF Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, rose to speak at the Herzliya Conference and talked of the current situation on the West Bank. As he remarked, "we can all see the bubbling and hubbub on the Palestinian streets in recent months".  He then added that "The economic situation is the primary motive of this phenomenon, along with the issue of prisoners which is fueling discontent.  The settlers’ 'price tag' [retaliatory raids on Palestinian villages] and the stagnation in the political and diplomatic process contribute to the boiling and ferment”. However, the General reassured his listeners that this ferment on the Palestinian streets is of "a limited magnitude" and certainly does not constitute  a Third Intifada. So there is no real reason to worry.

Israel gets a new government, just as the Catholic Church gets a new Pope. Upon his entry into his new job, the new Pope chose a new name, a name  indicating his aspirations and intentions. He chose Francis, the first Pope to ever use that name.

Francis of Assisi was one of the important Saints in the history of the Catholic Church, and well-known also outside the church. Among the things told of him was his unique personal peace initiative. At the very midst of the Crusades, when Christians and Muslims communicated with each other mainly by the sword, St. Francis of Assisi went  alone, unarmed, to meet the Muslim King of Egypt, and was very honorably received .

No reason to worry. This is a source of inspiration for the new Pope in Rome, not for the new government in Jerusalem.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A carnival parade, a funeral and the revolving door of media interest.

This Sunday there were huge crowds of people in the street near my home in the city of Holon. Many times more than on any other day of the year. Thousands and tens of thousands poured in from all neighborhoods in the city and from far and wide, to see the famous Holon Adloyada . There were very many cheerful children in colorful costumes, holding the hands of their parents or riding on shoulders or running around playfully. And also grown ups took  care to have a costume – at least to the extent of having on their head a plastic Viking helmet or a pointed Chinese hat. The crowd was terribly dense when everybody scrambled to get places from which the carnival parade could be seen, the giant puppets of  Pinocchio and Geppetto and the elephants and dinosaurs and the hundreds of dancing school girls who had trained over months for this day. Newspaper headlines told of the rising tensions on the West Bank and the army’s high alert. But who  reads papers during the Adloyada?

This Monday there were huge crowds of people in the streets of Sa’ir village near Hebron.  Many times more than on any other day of the year. Thousands and tens of thousands poured in from all over the West Bank to the funeral of Arafat Jaradat, the gas station attendant who was suspected of stone-throwing  and who died in questionable circumstances after five days in Israeli detention. Very many angry young people in the checkered national kafiya headdress, who had already undergone short or long terms in detention centers and prisons of the Israeli occupation. They knew it could just as well have been any one of them. With them were older Palestinians who remembered the First Intifada and some of the elderly, who still carry the traumatic memories of the 1948 Nakba. They marched behind the coffin and chanted loudly and debated with each other if the time has already come to launch a full-scale Intifada and whether to go immediately to confront the Israeli soldiers stationed at the entrance to the village.

For a few days the Israeli media discovered the Palestinians. The Palestinian prisoners whose hunger strike had already gone on for many months without the citizens of Israel knowing or caring suddenly caught the top headlines. Also the protest vigil at the gates of Tel Aviv University got media attention which its organizers had given up expecting. Reporters fanned out across the West Bank to provide real-time coverage from the confrontations developing at all the hot spots. Experts discussed and debated endlessly on whether the Third Intifada had indeed arrived.

"The Goal: Quiet' announced a banner headline on the front page of the mass- circulation Yediot large, and various commentators gave their opinions and evaluations on how such quiet is to be achieved – some counseling dialogue with the Palestinians while others called  for overwhelming use of brute force. And after three days, headlines reported "security experts" as stating their opinion  that "the riots are fading out" and that evidently it was not yet the Third Intifada. And with an audible sigh of relief, the media rushed to push the Palestinians back to the godforsaken back pages and return their attention  to the usual Israeli routine of corruption scandals and political party intrigues and juicy judicial cases.

Today Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is mainly concerned with the desperate attempts to form a new governing coalition. He remains faced with the solid political alliance between Naftali Bennett, former head of the settlers’ Judea and Samaria Council and Yair Lapid who declares his strong desire to talk peace with the Palestinians - but who are united in relegating this to the background and giving complete precedence to the issue  of taking Haredi Ultra-Orthodox youths into the army, or at least throwing their representatives out of the government. And, the papers are filled to the brim with wild speculations of commentators how Netanyahu should square the circle.

Also today, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad left his office to join the young demonstrators in Bil'in, whose  weekly protest this week reached Hollywood ( “5 broken cameras”).  The Palestinian PM shared in the most common experience for young Palestinians nowadays, inhaling tear gas. Most citizens of Israel did not get to hear this piece of news. The editors just did not regard it as  important or worthy of publication. For the time being, there is no Third Intifada, so who cares what Palestinians are doing?

Rachel’s tears

One of the most touching stories in the Bible is the death of Rachel, Jacob's beloved wife, while giving birth to their youngest son Benjamin, and her burial on the side of the road where she died. At the time when the story was composed and written down,  and for a very long time afterwards, maternal mortality was an ever present danger hovering over the heads of women and married couples.

Did such a woman ever live in reality? And if she did, did she really die and get  buried at that point north of the city of Bethlehem (now well within the city)?  Jews - as well Christians and Muslims - have gone on pilgrimage there for at least thousand and five hundred year. Whatever the reality, so many years of tradition have a power of their own. The figure of an ideal mother, full of boundless compassion and understanding and having great influence in Heaven, sitting there inside the grave and listening carefully to all suppliants.
"Bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuseth to be comforted for her children” (Jeremiah 31, 14) is one of the Biblical verses very central to the Jewish religion.

For centuries the structure of Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem was chosen to appear on the postage stamps of Mandatory Palestine. That  small and modest structure no longer exists. In 1995, at the time of Oslo, the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis  cried out that "Mother Rachel" must be retained under the control of the State of Israel, and Prime Minister Rabin gave in to that pressure. The outcome was to cut off the tomb from the city of Bethlehem, make it an armed enclave under Israeli control, and build around it huge concrete walls, a veritable  fortification at the heart of the Palestinian city. Ever since, it is the focus of conflicts and incidents, with Palestinian protesters marching toward the walls and Israeli soldiers shooting tear gas and sometimes live ammunition as well, while behind the soldiers Jewish pilgrims arrive in armored vehicles. Childless Muslim women, who traditionally also used to come there and ask for Rachel's help, must now turn elsewhere for help.

Two weeks ago, colorful booklets have been distributed throughout  the country, bearing the solemn news that "On Purim Day, a special Salvation Tikkun will take place at  Rachel's Tomb. The greatest Kabbalists and Righteous Sages will gather there, right next to Mother Rachel!” The booklet made an offer which cannot be refused - for a suitable financial contribution,  the Kabbalists and Righteous Sages would take care to drop in Mother Rachel’s ears also the name of the donor: "This day is your day, the day of the Purim Salvation Tikkun at Rachel's Tomb – make the most of it.  Don’t miss this date’ let your name come before Mother Rachel! What do you wish for? Health? Contentment? Happiness? Success? A good livelihood? Sons? Anything you can want, anything you can want!!! "(Three exclamation marks in the original).

And so it was. On Monday this week the Kabbalists and Righteous Sages came under military protecttion to the Tomb, and energetically embarked on the Salvation Tikkun. A few meters away, across the thick and high concrete walls,  hundreds of young Palestinians were holding a stormy demonstration. The soldiers who were stationed at the top of the wall, so as to facilitate the Kabbalists and Righteous Sages in holding their ritual, did not content themselves with the intense firing of tear gas.

A sniper stationed at the pillbox position just in front of Rachel’ Tomb asked  and got permission to use live ammunition and shoot metal bullets of 0.22-inch diameter, nicknamed “Two-Two Bullets”. Even though years ago, after several fatal cases, the military authorities forbade the use of such bullets in the dispersal of demonstrations.

The sniper raised his rifle and fired. Odai Sarhan, a 12 year old boy from Aida Refugee camp in Bethlehem, was hit by a bullet directly to the head and fell down. For some time the soldiers prevented first aid teams from approaching. When they finally reached him, they feared that it was too late. Thank God, medical teams at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem managed to stabilize his condition. Maybe Rachel was crying for him, too...