“Complete check of combat gear immediately. We enter tonight!” The order came just about half an hour after reports of the terror attack.
It was 2016 and mere days before the holiday of Shavuot. My platoon was meant to go on leave to give us some much needed family time and rest from our military duties. The days before leave were always filled with the unrest of the coming freedom. Military gear weighs down on soldiers with more than just its physical weight.
Half an hour earlier, preliminary reports had reached us from Sorona Marketplace in Tel Aviv, a popular hub of Israelis and tourists alike. Some of us had planned on spending time there over the weekend. As the horror of the attack began to unfurl and pictures of the dead and wounded dripped out of the terror scene, another fact became clear to our chain of command. The two Palestinian gunmen, cousins, came to Tel Aviv from a strip of the Hebron hills directly under our responsibility. It was the town of Yata.
As the intelligence units scrambled to put together lists of arms dealers, Hamas operatives and anyone else involved in the terror attack, my battalion prepared to enter the town. And sure enough, later that night we received our targets and entered Yata. We were swift and professional, as we had been trained. With a sweep of arrests we detained all involved in the senseless murdering of innocent civilians.
This was not our first time entering Yata. This town has its ties to Hamas terrorism and its residents do not hide that fact or their detest for Israelis, whose entering the town is reason enough for deadly lynching. In fact, just one night prior to the terror attack we had arrested a Hamas operative involved in arms dealing. But this night was different. Earlier that night the residents of Yata had celebrated the very attack that murdered 4 and injured many more. I felt as if we had arrived to offer justice to those senselessly murdered in the attack. That kind of involvement in the fight against terror is not something easily forgotten. I think its proximity to Shavuot that year provided me the opportunity for reflection in the context of the Jewish calendar.
As a part of that reflection, or as perhaps a prelude to it, I feel the need to share two strange encounters I experienced. The first took place that same night as the terror attack. In a relatively large house we had divided up the residents into various rooms as we searched it. The three brothers and their wives (if I remember correctly) had connections in arms dealing according to our intelligence reports. A friend and I were responsible for guarding some of these residents while the rest of the team searched the house.
Whatever her level of Hebrew, she preferred to speak to me in English. But when she discovered I spoke English as my mother tongue her brash tone turned to begging. “Why are you doing this to us?” “We’re innocent though!” were phrases she burned into my psyche that night. She must have been about my age at the time; early 20s. She even told me she was a student at Al-Quds University. But that was not all she was. She was the wife of the very man our intelligence informed us is an arms dealer directly involved in the attack. And I explained that to her. But that explanation did not calm her in the least. But neither did I think it would. She kept telling me that we would not find anything because there is nothing.
After some time we had collected enough weapons and stolen IDF property to commit the Sorona attack a few times over and in even more deadly success. Until this day, I do not know for sure if she honestly believed what she said. To her, maybe we really seemed like unfair aggressors.
A few weeks later we returned to Yata for another mission related to Sorona. This is the second encounter. Israeli policy currently dictates that Israel will destroy the homes of terrorists. We were sent into the home of one of the two gunmen in order to take its measurements to mark it for destruction. Needless to say that this mission carried with it an emotional tension for us just like the very night of the attack. An officer of ours, who was in close earshot to me, approached the father of the gunman. He put words to a question that was burning in the minds of us all. “Why?” he asked him. “Why do it? Your son was slated to study engineering in Jordan. He came from a family in a beautiful house and neighborhood. Why would he ruin that by turning to terror?” The father was unnervingly calm. “Chayawan.” he answered blankly. “Animals.” I couldn’t believe it. I thought this cryptic answer left me with more questions, more frustration than I had before.
Were we, the soldiers, the animals, the aggressors? Was it meant for Hamas, who pressures the youth of Yata to ruin their lives and ours in terrorism? Was it meant for the arms dealer down the road? Or perhaps for European funding that pushes much of the terrorism in the West Bank? Maybe he meant it as a general description of a situation that had the families of the murdered, us, him, and others all vying for change but unable to bring it.
I must admit that it is very difficult for me not to point fingers in blame for the terror attack in Sorona. And everything we did in response was necessary in the given circumstances. But there exists a situation that allows for this to happen. And that needs to change.
Shavuot that year was spent on base. When you are a soldier your time is not your own. It belongs to the collective and when your responsibility to the collective is called upon you rise to the challenge. But my time on base in these conditions provided ample fuel to consider the holiday of Shavuot from a different perspective.
This is the holiday in traditional Judaism that celebrates the giving of the Torah. The event that altered the course of history for Jews and non-Jews alike. In the covenant on Mount Sinai the People of Israel was formally formed through its laws and mandate of the Torah and commanded to enter and fulfill it in the Land of the Forefathers. From this event forthwith Jewish society had produced the Mosaic law and the books of the Bible – cultural creations that would spread throughout the world and would inspire some of the major world religions and legal systems.
A different and more chilling view on how the Sinai covenant altered history can be found in the Talmud: “What is [the meaning of the word] Sinai? [Answer:] The mountain that [caused] hatred [Hebrew: Sin’a] to descend upon the nations of the world [against the Children of Israel].” (Tl. Bv. Shabbat 89a) In other words, the Talmud here offers a possible cause for antisemitism throughout the ages of Jewish history that has its source in the very founding of the Nation of Israel.
As I thought through the implications of this teaching during that Shavuot of 2016 outside Yata I could not help but find the fault in this teaching. Am I to simply accept hatred as the natural response to the existence of the Jewish imperative? Is there no agency in the nations of the world, who simply cannot make peace with us Jews? How can this teaching shed light on the very real questions that I raised that Shavuot?
‘The people of Yata were once Jewish,’ was what seemed to be a rumor among the soldiers stationed around there. It was usually followed with a ‘that’s why they’re more extreme, it’s like they have something to prove.’ Looking into this rumor I found that Yitzchak Ben-Tzvi, an important researcher of the history of the Land of Israel and the second President of Israel, claimed that 3 out of the 6 big Arab family clans of Yata were once Jewish. He wrote his proofs in his book She’ar Yishuv, in which he included strange customs these families perform such as lighting secret candles around the time of Hanukkah and their custom to not eat camel meat – customs that hearken back to customs of the Anusim crypto-Jews of the Spanish Inquisition. They were a Jewish tribe that entered the area of Yata in the mid-18th century, he found. Ben-Tzvi’s claim is bolstered by a tradition from the Al-Mihamra clan (a name meaning wine-makers, an act defying Islamic law) from Yata who claim direct descent from a Jewish tribe exiled by Muhammad himself in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century.
Research into the origins of the various peoples who have made their way to the Land of Israel over the sands of time is fascinating to me. And I think that in the context of my above questions I want to briefly mention the conclusions of a number of genetic research papers. Studies into the genetic origins of Ashkenazi and Sehardic Jews have shown an abnormally high spread of what is called the ‘J1 haplogroup’ in comparison with their host populations. What these studies researched is specific parts of DNA that are only passed from father to son. Because only one copy of these genes are received by male descendants genetic biologists are able to determine where these genes are most likely to have originated based on their spread in a population. This J1 haplogroup or specific male genetic code is considered ‘Semitic’ in origin and is common not only amongst Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewry but among Palestinian Arabs as well. This would suggest many parts of both Jewish and Palestinian populations share literally the same male ancestor. We are family with our Palestinian neighbors in a very profound way.
This thought brought me to the Scroll of Ruth, read every year on Shavuot. The scroll evokes the story of a Moabite woman who, despite the enmity between Moab and Judea, preferred to escort her Judean mother-in-law back to her homeland. Ruth protected Naomi and took care of her and fed her when all was lost. Her famed pronouncement, “Your people are my people, and your God my own God,” has become a staple of Jewish conversion. Except that this faith statement was by no means an easy reality for the Judeans to accept. The history between these two peoples was rocky throughout, sometimes even bloody. Already in the book of Deuteronomy the command is made clear that Moab is a people who will not be accepted to fully join the Jewish community. Indeed the Sages of the Talmud described how Ruth’s descendant, King David himself, was a controversial figure due to his Moabite pedigree (Tl. Bv. Yevamot 76b). Yet Jewish leadership in the form of the Davidic monarchy came through that union.
Furthermore the relationship of common history and kinship between Israel and Moab was more than enough reason to demand its moral implications. According to Genesis, Abraham’s nephew Lot was the father of Moab thus making kin of the descendants of these two people. It is interesting to note some of the cultural similarities of ancient Judean and Moabite civilizations. Language and writing were very similar and certain shared narratives between the peoples have even been recorded in Moabite inscription paralleling biblical accounts. Despite the political and religious tensions between their leaders these two people shared a lot in common. It is therefore not surprising to feel the betrayal in the justification for not allowing Moabite converts. After the Exodus, the Israelites attempted to enter Canaan through Moabite lands and instead of offering passage or even ‘bread and water’ for the desert wanderers Moab promised war. In a very real sense the Moabites betrayed their kinship and displayed apathy towards their distant family. And although Deuteronomy goes on to outlaw war with Moab in order to protect them, the feud between the families had been torn open.
But perhaps something in this narrative opened my eyes to the present day feud. We, as Israelis, share more with Palestinian families than maybe we would like to admit. And perhaps unlike ancient Moab this rocky family feud can be resolved. The ethical responsibilities between family members is applicable here in my eyes. And although I am not blind to the horror of Palestinian terror or of its appearance in our national nightmares or even to the fact that it guides my own sense of justice, the need for fundamental change is necessary. We cannot continue to give case-by-case responses to terrorism. There needs to be a paradigm shift in how we think through this issue. And perhaps the change is in seeing each other not as warring nations but as family. After all, did Ruth the Moabite not create the line of kings that in Jewish belief brings the Redemption itself? Ruth rose above the history of the feud to create a family. Perhaps there is a very poignant message in that for peace in the modern conflict?
There is an ethical imperative for family members to support one another in my eyes. Despite this we are not blind to the issues of terrorism. Hate can always exist but in the right context it loses its relevance. Perhaps by turning the conflict between nations into a conflict within a family we can arrive at a brighter future. The weight of my military gear still weighs on me but its responsibility lifts me. A brighter future is on the horizon.