I haven’t revisited the “Yiddish Curses for Republican Jews” meme since its height during the US presidential elections last year, but an experience earlier this weekend prompted me to go back and scroll through them to find one in particular. On Friday morning, I boarded a bus and travelled deep into the West Bank for an olive picking and human rights tour with Rabbis for Human Rights.
Our first stop was the home of Jamil, a Palestinian olive farmer, who has had multiple interactions with the IDF and with settlers. Within moments of sitting down on the plush sofas in his living room, we were promptly served strong coffee and sweet tea, followed by pastries which his son described as “Palestinian pizza.”
We heard much that was distressing – stories of the over 30 legal complaints Jamil had to file in response to attacks on his settlers. Stories of how settlers have repeatedly cut down, burned, and poisoned Palestinian olive fields. Stories of how after Israeli courts ruled in favor of Palestinian claims, Israeli settlers came in the middle of the night and burned down entire olive orchards. Stories of how there are olive trees that were planted by Palestinians decades ago, but now exist within the bounds of Israeli settlements; trees that Palestinians can still see, but cannot harvest. It’s like having court-supervised visitation after a particularly messy divorce.
Later in the day, we would see with our own eyes an olive orchard that had recently been burned down by settlers from a nearby outpost. After running through the most recent offenses against his land, Jamil paused to reflect on the nature of his quotidian life, then shared: “When your enemy is the police and the judge, the system is stacked against you.” *
In response, our Rabbinic guide lamented: “It’s like seeing your family members cut down trees.”
We asked Jamil how he viewed the future. He responded: “No other country will accept us. We can’t leave.” His words struck me like a punch to the chest. They could just as easily have come from the mouth of a Jew around the time of the foundation of Israel.
Lest I become too despondent, I should stop and say that my point is not to put forth a litany of the offenses we saw and heard off. Rather, it is to draw a sharp distinction between how one might suspect we would be treated by those we met in the West Bank, and the reality of our experiences there. Here we were, kippot-clad Jewish rabbinical students from Jerusalem, as good a symbol of the Other as possible. Jamil and his kinsmen had every reason to be suspicious of, offended by, even angry at us. The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Sitting in Jamil’s home, talking about the daily immense struggles his family faces with regards to accessing their land, freedom of movement, and threats from nearby settlers, I was struck by how warm, peaceful and welcoming our surrounding was. Which is why I was reminded of the modern yiddish curse:
May you find yourself lost and stranded in a village of Palestinian Muslims, and may you be treated only with dignity, kindness and respect.
One of the reasons the “curses” were so effectively humorous is that they brought to light many of the uncomfortable truths that we’re loathe to recognize in ourselves and others. Some of them were hilarious in their absurdity, while others cut a little too close to home. Consider this one as those of the latter disposition.
Later in the day, we trekked out into the orchards to help pick the last of this harvest’s olives. This was an un-arranged visit; we just dropped by a group of farmers and asked if we could help. While doing so, we were served more tea, along with fresh olives, pita, and olive oil. As we took a break to eat and drink, we played with some of the local Palestinian children. They, too, had every reason to fear our presence – the kippot on our heads symbols (unfairly so) of those people who have come to destroy their fields. To be sure, some stared from a distance, pointing at our heads with one hand while drawing a circle over their own heads.
While much can be said about what stereotypes are being taught about the Other in both cultures and how this isn’t helping bring peace any closer, for now it was simply delightful to contribute to Jews and Palestinians having time to laugh with each other, clearly an important step on the path to dismantling some of these stereotypes.
As we boarded our bus to head back to Jerusalem, another group of our Palestinian hosts came out of their house, asking us to come inside to drink coffee with them. Unfortunately we didn’t have time as we had to get back home before Shabbat. So – and here’s the best part – they ran back inside, and quickly returned with small paper cups, so they could serve us coffee for the ride home.
Three times that day, we were welcomed in graciously as guests. Three times, our hosts went above and beyond what could be expected, in order to make us feel welcomed with dignity, kindness, and respect. For me, the juxtaposition between these acts of hachnasat orchim (welcoming the stranger) and the acts of sinat chinam (baseless hatred) and cruelty we saw committed by our fellow Jews and Israelis – was the most impactful part of the day. Granted, what we saw and heard must be understood in terms of the larger context of the situation in the West Bank. Not all settlers burn down olive fields, and not all Palestinians are necessarily as welcoming as those we meet. That said, it was clear to me that the welcoming and openness we received was not an extreme example – it was the norm for these families. Yet this normative welcoming is being met with extremist violence by the settlers.
It is on that note that it must be asked: “Who wants to see these things? To believe that Jewish people are doing these things?”
Challenging us with this question, our guide prompted us to think about Sulam Ya’akov (Jacob’s Ladder) the famous episode in Genesis from that week’s parasha. After awaking from his dream at Beth El, Jacob declared “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!” Similarly, we must acknowledge that we must awake from our own dreams and acknowledge the truths that are around us, as challenging as that may be.
Faced with the prospect of such a jarring awakening, it seems that there are a few dominant responses: Some people just ignore the problems and pretend that they don’t exist – a response that the separation wall/fence/barrier is exacerbating (it’s so easy to pretend that the Other doesn’t exist when you don’t have to see them). At the other end of the extreme are those who respond with rejection and hostility towards Israel en masse. This response is equally harmful, in that it also distorts the entire picture by trying to paint a new picture of reality with broad strokes that ignore the nuances of Israel.
There is a middle road, and it is incumbent upon me to walk that road. At the end of the day, the settlers belong to my people and my Torah. For this reason, I believe I can’t be ignorant or rejectionist, since my lot is cast with them. I must help others acknowledge the middle road between ignorance and hostility, that permits access to the more realistic – albeit more challenging – understanding of reality. Far too often, it’s incredibly easy to live in Israel these days in a dreamlike state ignorant of the harsh reality mere kilometers away.
After awaking from his dream, Jacob goes on to wrestle with an angel God. Some commentators suggest that he is actually wrestling with himself. Most certainly, it is time again for Israel to wrestle with itself.
*These offenses are well documented.