Rosh HaShana Thoughts 5773
Rabbi Arik Ascherman
As those of you who have already read RHR’s Rosh HaShana letter know, I have been thinking a lot this year about makhzoriut.
The special prayerbook we use on the High Holy Day is called the Makhzor, which means “cycle.” In a never ending circle, we return to the High Holy Days year after year. There is something very comforting in this, even though the High Holy Days are also supposed to alarm us and wake us up, “Another year gone by, and what have we done?”
But, there is another kind of cycle in which there is no comfort. In the South Hebron Hills, the residents of the South Hebron Hills seem to be facing the very same threats we thought we had overcome back in 1999-2001.
Permit me a digression to explain what I mean, even if this feels less “Spiritual,” or “Jewish.” As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us:
“God will return to us when we will be willing to let Him in (Heschel wrote before the advent of gender inclusive God language) – into our banks and factories, into our Congress and clubs, into our courts and investigating committees, into our homes and theaters. For God is everywhere or nowhere, the Father of all men or no man, concerned about everything or nothing.
(“The Meaning of This Hour” originally an address in 1938, eventually appearing in “Man’s Quest for God” pp.147-151,)
Back in 1999, 700 men, women and children were expelled from their caves in the South Hebron Hills, allegedly to create a live fire practice zone for the IDF. In March 2000, the Israeli High Court issued a temporary restraining order sending them home. For years the State preferred to postpone Court hearings on the case. Please Click Here for more information about the firing zone.
The residents of Susya were expelled from their homes in 1986, as their village was declared an archeological site where residency would not be allowed because of an ancient synagogue. (Never mind that shortly after a few Jews were permitted to live there, or that nobody seemed concerned with preserving the fairly old mosque, also on the site.) Many of them moved to their adjacent agricultural lands, “illegally” living in caves on their remaining lands. They were again expelled in 2001. Like in March 2000, the High Court issued a temporary restraining order sending them home. Click here to read a summary of the history of Susya from the 19th century until today.
And so, since 2001 life continued. True, the residents lived only a half existence. The State used a draconian interpretation of the restraining order to maintain the status quo to impose a total ban on any development even stricter than the manipulation of zoning laws to prevent legal building throughout Area C and East Jerusalem. Not succeeding in expelling people directly, they wanted to make life so difficult that people would leave “On their own accord.”
This strategy might have worked, had it not been for the tenacity of the residents, and the massive involvement of many Israeli and international groups, including RHR. Sometimes, I think that it has been rather like a bad light bulb joke, “How many NGO’s does it take to keep a family in their cave?” As the years dragged on without resolution, we realized that this sort of nisht ahir un nisht aher (neither here nor there) purgatory had become an albatross around their necks (How’s that for a Yiddish-Christian-English literature mixed metaphor?) Still, when asked recently why we don’t see the same massive attempt at displacement throughout the Occupied Territories, my response was 1. There are attempts going on to displace in many other locations. 2. Without this massive effort by so many NGO’s, there is a good chance that the cave communities would have disappeared and the full court displacement press would have moved on to other areas. We created a buffer, drawing a line in the sand.
Palestinians learned to live with this relatively stable, if terribly problematic status quo, while we and other NGO’s worked to improve the situation. “Comet” began to install micro energy projects, while the RHR OT Legal Department returned Palestinians to Bir El ‘Id, the Twamin valley, Hushiya family lands, Abu-Samra family lands adjacent to Lucifer’s Farm (The name the settlers gave it. I couldn’t have made it up.), Ta’ayush activists are in the field every week, etc.. The High Court appeal for Susya was eventually cancelled by the Court, but that didn’t really make much of a difference either.
It is therefore been with a sense of dismay that this year we seemingly have found ourselves back where we were in 1999-2001. The High Court, under the leadership of the new Chief Justice Grunis, asked the army to stop stalling and to resolve the 1999 fire zone case, The army responded by requesting the eviction of residents from 8 cave communities, while the residents of an additional 4 communities will be permitted to continue living within the borders of the alleged “practice zone,” with restrictions preventing development.
This last Shavuot I already reported that the radical NGO “Regavim” has petitioned the High Court to demolish thevillageofSusya. Regavim has submitted a series of appeals using misleading statistics to claim reverse discrimination against settlers in order to demand that the army demolish Palestinian homes at a FASTER PACE THAN THEY ALREADY ARE. As I write, the Court is hearing today another Regavim appeal demanding that the army demolish the Khan El-Akhmar mud and tire school we helped build for the Jahalin Bedouin. Regavim loses almost every time, but they win by losing. The State responds that the army is doing their job by demolishing homes, only at their own pace. The court accepts this. Where is the third voice saying, “Wait a second? Why are any demolitions justified when Palestinians aren’t given a fair chance to build legally?”
With the High Holy Days approaching, I couldn’t stop dwelling on the fact that, just as the makhzor hashana (yearly cycle) was coming full circle, we had again come full circle in the S. Hebron Hills. The fights over water cisterns described in the book of Genesis still take place today, and Palestinians face the same threats that they were facing back in 1999-2001. True, we can take pride in the fact that up until now we have thwarted the plans of those who have aspired to expel the cave dwellers of the South Hebron Hills, and would have moved on to expel additional Palestinians had we not defended our line in the sand. At the same time, it was frustrating at best to find that we had returned to the same point in the circle where we had been over ten years earlier. It was reminiscent of the next to final scene in Steven King’s Dark Tower series. Roland is horrified to understand that, just as he thought he had reached the end of his quest, it turned out that he was actually trapped in a never ending circle. Just as had happened endless times before, he opens the final door and understands that he is to be thrown back to the very beginning.
And then something happened that simply took my breath away and changed my perspective. Quamar Misharqi-Assad and I were participating in a high level diplomatic visit to Susya and the firing zone. Susya spokesperson Nasser Nawajah spoke the words with which we opened RHR’s Rosh HaShana letter, “When they demolished our homes in the eighties, there was nothing we could do because we were alone. But, we’re not alone anymore.”
I was reminded that the cycles of our lives are not closed circles, but spirals. Yes, we come back to the High Holy Days year after year, but we are not in the exact same space. Furthermore, we have some ability, and therefore responsibility to influence whether the spirals of our lives are upward or downward spirals. Perhaps standing alone or together seems like a minor thing, but it is not. Of course, it is not enough to “fight the good fight,” if the outcome doesn’t change. I see this as similar to the teaching, “Everything is in the hands of heaven, except the fear of heaven. (Talmud Bavli; Brakhot 33b) One might think that “only” having control over whether or not we act out of fear of heaven is irrelevant in the face of all that we don’t have control over. For some it may be very frustrating to believe that we have no significant influence. For others, it may be very soothing because it relieves us of responsibility. That is why so many Jewish philosophers struggled with the seeming contribution between human free will and the resulting human responsibility, and God’s omnipotence and omniscience.
However, that fear of heaven has has the power to move worlds and change destinies. Even if we are dismayed that we are back to where over 10 years ago, we have not gone back to 1986, when Palestinians were expelled and homes demolished with impunity, because Palestinians were alone.
At least as important is the fact that the residents of Susya and Bir El-id and others are not simply passive pawns dependent on Israeli knights in shining armor riding in on white horses. They are tenacious fighters taking responsibility for their lives, and partners with us guiding us in how best to assist their struggle. At the same time, what I hear in Nasser’s words is that the residents of Susya feel more empowered and strengthened because they no longer stand alone. Solidarity is a power that can move worlds. The simple act of ensuring that nobody in need stands alone can cause a chain reaction moving us higher and higher, and closer to actualizing theIsraelwe seek to create.
And, we need to learn and derive strength from our Palestinian partners as well. I am constantly afraid for Nasser, who arouses the ire of settlers because he is always filming instances of violence and misconduct by settlers and security forces. When Ismail was brutally attacked a few weeks ago, some of us asked whether or not we were somehow responsible. Just a few weeks before that, RHR had brought volunteers to help clean out a water cistern in plain sight of the Mitzpeh Yair outpost, from where the attackers came. As far as I can tell, Ismail had no such thoughts. He is back in his tenuous home in Bir El-’Id, determined as ever. While obviously we do not want to carelessly or unnecessarily endanger those we work with, many Palestinians simply understand that these risks are part and parcel of the struggle for freedom, dignity and human rights. (I should add that Israelis with whom we partner in the struggle for economic and social justice also sometimes feel that they are being targeted, blacklisted, fired, etc., for daring to raise their heads, protest and advocate.)
Yes, we are facing some of the same issues we faced ten and twenty years ago, in the South Hebron Hills and elsewhere. No, we are not in the same place. Yes, there are examples where we are in a worse place than in the past. And yes, there are many examples where we are in a better place. Far from everything is in our hands, but we can, have, must and will move worlds with what we have. We have no rose colored glasses, but we fully expect that Regavim will be discredited. We fully intend to utilize to our advantage the latest threat to erase villages, in order to eliminate the draconian interpretation of the status quo, and win the right for the cave dwellers of the South Hebron Hills to plan and develop their communities. We have two hands so that we can grasp seemingly contradictory realities at the same time. We have two feet so that one can be firmly rooted in the present reality, even as the second steps toward a different and better reality.
As we open a new makzor in our lives this Rosh HaShana, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts strengthen our resolve to move this year in an upward spiral, our faith that we can do so, and our clarity how to do so. As the midrash teaches, may our resolve, faith and clarity be met by God half way, taking us beyond what we can achieve on our own. May we come around to this season next year in a higher and more holy space.
Shana Tova, Metuka V’Tzodeket,
Wishing you, your loved ones and the world a good, sweet and more just New Year,
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