Friday, October 28, 2011

walls and fences

The softest thing in the world dashes against and overcomes the hardest.
That which has no existence enters where there is no crevice.
I know hereby what advantage belongs to doing nothing with a purpose.
Tao te Ching, 43
27 oct, 2011, yad vashem and the west bank

After our long day seeing the major sites on Wednesday, after dinner we had our first of what will be several presentations from people speaking from alternative narratives in the region. Her name was Roni Kider; she is a Jewish woman from a little village right on the border of the Gaza Strip who runs an organization called "Other Voice." She had originally been a part of another village (she did not like the word "settlement") in the area that was given back to Egypt in a peace treaty, a place that she and her colleagues had "turned into a paradise," she said, with agricultural advances and water systems. The village was bulldozed to the ground when they left, and when she passed it by later she said she wept. She had also spent five years living in Egypt, since her husband had livd in Cairo (a home from which he was forceably displaced at a young age), speaks fluent Arabic and taught agriculture in Cairo. She told a touching story about the long struggle to get her young daughter's Palestinian best friend's mother to allow the children to play together, and eventually become friends with Roni herself. This inspired her to start this loose-knit organization simply to inspire and encourage conversations and friendships. Few of her fellow citizens in her current village support her, but she presses on nobly. She was a genteel woman, well-spoken and kindly, and obviously very intelligent. She encourages people not let go of the past--not forget it, she insisted, just let go--and look together to the future. Where do we go from here?

I asked a couple of questions. I am still trying to get the facts straight and the situation in 1967 that set the stage for this whole thing. The first I asked was pretty naive, I guess, but it seemed like an obvious thing: couldn't the Jews and the Arabs/Muslims have lived together here? No, she said, we could not. And then I asked her of the two million (!) Palestinains refugees living in the Gaza Strip, how many of them were/are displaced people from what is now Israel? None, she said, they all left on their own, no one chased them out. I wanted to believe her, but that didn't have the ring of the whole story to me. As one of our group has quoted to me, it sounded like "narrative getting confused with truth." Others told me later that they had the same reaction.

This morning was totally dedicated to the Holocaust Museum, called Yad Vashem, Hebrew from a line from the prophet Isaiah
meaning "everlasting rememberance." There are no words to describe the museum nor the experience. The main building is a long A-frame structure that is like a tunnel inside. Immediately upon entering you see a film playing on the back wall of the tunnel of life in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century before the Nazis. At the other end far away is clear glass, "a light at the end of the tunnel," but in order to reach that you need to go through a series of obstacles in the long corridor that make you jut in and across to verious side rooms that tell the history of the Holocaust in chronological order, from Hitler's rise to power as Chancellor of Germany through to the Final Solution in the early 1940's, the gas chambers and crematoria. Morgie led us through wearing a microphone transmitting to us via headsets. She is so incredibly knowledgeable of the whole history. She actually teaches Holocaust history in Poland as well as acting as a tour guide. Again, I won't even attempt to summarize it except to say that the whole place makes the actual situation come very much alive, everything from the victims shoes and personal items that were found in there pockets (many of them were stil carrying their house keys, for instance) to Oskar Schindler's actual list, and of course many little details that I had never known about.

There was one panel "dedicated" to Pope Pius XII and his silence. Morgie had mentioned it earlier in connection with Pope Benedict's visit to Isreal and this very museum, how he had gone to another building, the Hall of Rememberance, but had not come to the museum itself because of that particular display. And then when we got to it, she read it out loud to us in its entirety, and added that "we have no intention of taking it down." She also singled out Catholicism (not all of Christianity?) for stirring up anti-Semiticism throughout history, which is true enough, by naming the Jews "Christ-killers" and worse. I was sorry she didn't make any mention of Maximilian Kolbe, Edith Stein, or Deitrich Bonhoffer, nor the countless Catholics (Fr Deiss, Pope John Paul II, my old friend Paolo) who worked in the underground resistance. And I wondered too about the silence of the Lutheran chcurch in Germany itself, to which I think we can assume many of the Nazis belonged.

Finally at the end of the tour you come upon the glass wall at the far end, and Morgie opened the door and said, "The light at the end of the tunnel: Isreal!" And you walk out on to a upward slanted porch to see a vista of beautiful countryside looking west toward the Mediterranean. That stayed with me strongly, the bald unequivocal statement that the Jews now have Israel as a safe haven from that--is that the right wording? Maybe it is just to point out that in the end, in spite of that horrific suffering, "Look! now we live in a paradise." Or, a little more darkly understood, as if to say, "Now you see we are so fiercely self-defensive and protectionist." All of the young people from the Israeli Defense Force walking around with machine guns in the plaza afterward really drove that point home.

There were a few other sites to see on the grounds, the aforementioned Hall of Rememberance, and the Memorial to Children, which reduced a few of the mothers to tears. None of us could or wanted to speak much aftereward. I kept thinking of the Western Wall and juxtaposing it to the fences put up around the Warsaw ghetto and the concentration camps and death camps. Morgie did tell us that she didn't like the word "camps." "'Camp' is where I send my kids," she said. "These were death 'facilities.'"

After picking up a quick lunch at a shopping mall, Morgie left us. Gitanjali and I taught the other pilgrims Tim Manion's version of Psalm 122, "Pray Peace." I hadn't sung that in years, and I was kicking myself when I got here that I hadn't thought of it, so I wrote to Rory and Tom Kendzia and asked one of them to send it, which Rory kindly did. I'd forgotten what a great marchin' song that was, and perfect for the aliyah--ascent. I'd also forgotten how beautiful the verses were. Here's verse 2:
Whispered gently by the Spirit is the Law
sounding clear across our days the call.
Hold we firm before the powers and we
pray peace, pray peace, pray peace.
We then headed behind the other wall and fences, into the Occupied Territories, the West Bank. People had told me about the poverty I would see in the West Bank, so I was prepared for that. Oddly enough, what I wasn't prepared for was the affluence of Israel. That's what really made the contrast, so suddenly to see scattered half built structures and beat up cars.

That word "occupied" never struck me with as much force before, it's tossed around so glibly. There were cars lined up at the security check point--Palestinian cars with their green license plates­­--while vehicles with Israeli license plates and our tour bus drove right through. We saw some of the new disputed settlements right away. We were told that some of the settlers simply see this as suburban Jerusalem. Israelis can at this point simply go into this land and start new developements, usually on highest hills, and they will be supported by the government. This is also what "occupied territory" means: the occupiers can do whatever they want there with impunity. I still get different versions of what is meant by the '67 borders, but this much seems to be true: The agreement after the Six Day War, when Isreal chased Jordan out of this region, set this area aside for the Palestinians, even though it was still under Israeli control. But of course the ultra-Zionists, supported by American money, want this land for Israel too, and are slowly moving in until the status quo changes. These are some of the settlements that are standing in the way of the peace talks. Most of the signs were now in Arabic instead of Hebrew, but at one point we saw something the entrance to one of the new settlements, like a subdivision about to be built, with signs in Hebrew around some construction type trailers. I wondered if they were actually advertising for the new neighborhood. The settlements have chain link fences around them.

It's hard to write about these things. I"m trying to act like a journalist and be objective, not editorialize. But when you write the facts it sounds as if you are trying to make Israel look bad. These are just the facts. I certainly don't sympathize with the terrorist actions taken by Hamas or al-jihad. I kept reminding myself over and over: everyone agreed when the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were carved out for the Palestinian people. And now the Israelis are moving in, and no one can stop them.

Our guide for the day was supposed to be Rabbi Arich from Rabbis for Peace, but as we were driving in Rabbi Paula got a phone call that he had been arrested and someone else was going to come in his place, Rabbi Yehiye, with whom we rendez-voused along the side of the road. He came into the bus and gave us some preliminary remarks. He's the son of Polish Jews who were Holocaust survivors himself, raised in Melbourne, Australia. He led us deeper in, past Ramallah in the distance (one of the areas where the Israelis have no jurisdiction). As we were driving, every now and then I would see UN vehicles passing by, and young Orthodox kids with their black and white clothes, and broad rimmed hats or yamulkas. Yehiye was a gentle man in his 60s, with a face that seemed to go back and forth between kindness and worry. He explained to us that there is a group of rabbis who live in Israel proper who work with and for the Palestinian people as their advocates in courts and protecting them as they tend to their crops. We were on our way to do the latter as well. It seems as if the settlers like to place obstacles between the Palestinians and their crops, hoping that they will simply give up and leave this land for them. (But where would they go?) Some have even chopped down olive groves. But the biggest probelm is water. The settlements have all the water they want. The Palestinians have little and sometimes none. I asked, "Is there any justification, rationale given for that?" No, there isn't.

Mahmoud, our bus driver, dropped us off at a grove of olive trees and without any preliminary hellos or sala'ms or introductions, we climbed up some ladders and got to work. There were three young guys, two older men and an old woman with a baby already at work on this little grove of trees. I was on a tall ladder stripping branches with Lori. One of the young guys finally caught our attention and started trying to have some interaction with us in Arabic and sign language. This went on for about an hour, during which time we were offered ice cold Coca Cola from our smiling hosts, and Bakr, one of the 15 year olds, shimmied up the tree between Pastor Dave and I, and started pretty much showing off for us and (mostly) for the women in the group, as a 15 yuear old might. After about an hour we gathered around Rabbi Yehiye and Zacaria, a Palestinian man who seems to be a leader in his community. He told us a few more horror stories about aggression on the part of the Israeli settlers toward the Palestinians, fire bombing cars, chopping down trees and petty things like throwing rock at their goats while they are grazing just to try to provoke an altercation, knowing that the Israeli soldiers in the area cannot arrest the Israelis but can hold the Palestinians until the police come. I might have thought he was exaggerating but for having heard several times now similar stories from Jewish Israelis who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, from a human rights perspective. As if on cue, Zacaria got a phone call that three young men had been arrested by the Israeli military in his village. After conferring with Yehiye, he hurried off and left Yehiye to finish up with us.

Yehiye told us that it is American Jewish and evangelical Christian money that is behind the settlements. Whether that is absolutely true or just his "narrative" may be subject to a fact check, but it sounds right to me, and that is certainly what Palestinians think. I asked him what his co-religionists, his fellow Israelis, and finally the Palestinians thought of him, a rabbi in their midst. He answered well, first by saying, "Well, we never really knwo what people think of us!" Then he went on to say that for the first two it is a mixed bag, but there are obviously a lot of people who think that he is a traitor. The Palestinians he says are usually at first surprised. They think that all Jewish Israelis hate them. But he has been at this a long time and has developed relationships of trust. "I may be the only Jew they ever meet," he said. He has gone to the court with them and stood up for them in the face of violent settlers, protected their crops and their families. He told a story from the Talmud about a poor and illiterate man who wanted to marry a queen, but the queen said the only way she would marry him is if he proved his love by learning how tro read and write. He struggloed for months trying to learn but made little progress. He sat down by a stream one day, about to give up in his quest, when he spotted a rock through which the water had bored a hole. He thought to himself that if something as soft as water had the patience to bore a hole in something as hard as a rock, then he had the patience to learn to read for his Beloved. And then he said that his relationships with the Palestinians are like that. He said he didn't believe in big flashy actions, but in the long slow building up of friendship and trust. A Taoist rabbi. I tried to tell him that I wanted somehow to do the same thing, please let the Palestinain people know that not all American Christians support support the aggressive actions of the settlers.

We were all pretty fired up and/or confused by the day as we went around the circle and checked in after dinner. The juxtaposition of the Western Wall with the security wall, the fences around the Polish ghetto and fences around the settlements, the victims becoming the victimizers. Again, I would feel less comfortable even writing all this if my Jewish friends around me and our hosts here weren't leading us to these conclusions themselves. Morgie herself mentioned the "victim mentality." Rabbi Paula had given us this wonderful essay by A.B. Yehoshua earlier in the day, and her husband Ariyeh brought up this one quote that said exactly something that I have been trying to articulate for years:
The victim does not become moral because of being a victim.
The Holocaust, with the terrible things that it did to us, did not give us an eternal justification card. It only made the murderers immoral, not the victims moral. To be moral, you must do moral things. And the test is constant and daily.
This applies to any oppressed group, people of color, the gay community, women, any religious or ethnic group. We don't become moral just because of being a victim. To be moral we must do moral things.