December 6, 2023 -
Life on the Other Side of the Green Line: A Call for Vigilance and Hope
By Rabbi Joshua L. Caruso – Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple
Acharei Mot – May 3, 2019
We join together in solidarity tonight with heavy hearts. We have hopes to find uplift on this Shabbat, and that the text messages from our Torah will carry a more meaningful and positive message than the “Breaking News” text message alerts found on our smartphones. Even the name of the Torah portion this week, Acharei Mot (meaning, “After the death”), seems particularly resonant in the wake of the San Diego shootings last Shabbat in yet another house of worship.
Perhaps, then, it is not a surprise that three Torah portions after the deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, we circle back to that tragic moment in chapter 10 of Leviticus. The crime? The boys, sons of a priestly icon, flew too close to the sun and engaged in ritual not prescribed to them by God. The result: immediate incineration. They were consumed by God, and that episode becomes a cautionary tale in this week’s Torah portion.
Perhaps the sin of Nadav and Abihu was nothing more than a striving to dream big – to hope. We Jews like to hope. Even Israel’s national anthem is called, Hatikvah –The Hope! Hope is a central part of our ethos. And yet, the charge in our Torah portion focuses around building fences and creating boundaries in ritual and behavior. This is our ethos, too; to be discerning, to be vigilant. Somehow, it is our lot to live in these two worlds: hope and vigilance.
Today, with hate-filled domestic terrorists feeling more emboldened than ever, we veer towards vigilance. It’s harder to finds the seeds of hope, even when we know that it is a part of us, too.
And even if we can summon up hope, how do we discern the real and perceived existential threats to world Jewry? We Jews have a lot coming at us these days, and the temptation is to simply circle the wagons, fortify our positions, and maybe even renew our passports. Maybe then we won’t fall prey to the haters, the anti-Semites, to the threatened white men who believe that we want to replace them, that we govern the world’s finances, and control the media. For heaven’s sake, we’ve got members of congress and mainstream news services touching on all the old stereotypes we Jews have endured for centuries.
The latest report from the Anti-Defamation League shows that hate crimes in general have risen, and that Jewish hate crimes have more than doubled in the last year. In Ohio alone, anti-Semitic incidents have tripled since 2015.
And, it is not lost on me – or any of us for that matter – that living as a Jew in America is inseparably tied to what is going on in our State of Israel today. There are dangerous people on both the political right and left, and because of Israel’s high-profile in our government relationships, the scrutiny will only continue.
Next week we celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut – Israel Independence Day – established in 1948. Israel is the eternal homeland of the Jewish people, a dream of 2,000 years made real after the horrors of the Holocaust. On that joyous day, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, avowed independence and, with his cabinet, signed the Declaration of Independence. In it, is the vision for a State born from the destruction of the Holocaust.
Here is an excerpt:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel…
This is the dream, executed and curated by Israel’s first leaders. It is a blueprint of what could be. It seemed only fitting for such a document to evoke such grand aims of a state “envisaged by the prophets of Israel”, what with the dreams of ancestors too plenty to count weeping by the Rivers of Babylon for a homeland; to be masters of our own destiny; not dependent on one ruling nation after another. Heck, for those 2,000 years we got so used to living under other rulers that we have a passage in our prayer book dedicated to the welfare of a foreign government, with our fervent hope that we are secure. On second thought, it might as well just say, “May God bless and keep the czar…far away from us!”
Self-determination in 1948 helped the Jewish people redeem our collective identity after the horrors that took place in World War II.
My first time in Israel felt equally redemptive. Everything about it made me proud. I read and learned about the Zionist endeavor, first articulated by Theodore Herzl; it only made me more grateful that I had been born at this special moment in history (Herzl didn’t even live long enough to see the fruits of his labors). Many before me pined for a Jewish home, but I was living the dream!
As we began raising a family, it seemed only natural that Leah and I would raise our kids with the same Zionist ethic. We sent them to Gross Schechter Day School. They excelled – embracing their Judaism and their Zionism.
There have been moments, however, built up through the years that have made me increasingly uneasy. The extremism in Israel has escalated resulting, for example, in the assassination of Prime Minister Yitchak Rabin. The two Palestinian Intifada uprisings, the inability to fulfill the dictates of the Oslo Accords, the settlement build-ups. The fundamentalist Orthodox stranglehold on how religion is practiced there. It’s all resulted in tempering of my Zionist fervor. As a result, I have become more and more attentive to the plight of the Palestinians on the other side of the Green Line (the 1949 armistice lines established between Israel and its Arab neighbors following the 1948 War of independence).
On that evening, I remember talking to Shayna about how the events of the day were explained in school. She was very much aware of the American Embassy story, but had no idea of the trouble on the Gaza border. I knew that it was a difficult topic, but wondered why it wasn’t broached with 14 and 15 year olds who had the constitution and maturity to discuss. To me, the omission of this fact was indicative of a common posture in the Jewish community: the increased embrace of vigilance, and the continued diminishing of hope for reconciliation with our Palestinian neighbors.
This should provide context and background for my wishes to participate in the Encounter program, an organization devoted to opening up conversation between Palestinian and Jewish-American leadership.
More than 40 of us spent 4 intense days on the other side of the Green Line, only miles from the familiar streets of West Jerusalem, the place where I fell in love with Judaism and Israel.
Soon after my arrival, I and other fellow participants of the Encounter program gathered together for the first time. The initial question we were asked to answer was, “Imagining what you are about to see and experience in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, who would you wish take along with you on this journey?”
After some thought, I came up with my daughter. Why Shayna? Well, Shayna, like my boys, was raised in a Zionist day school and a Zionist synagogue here at Fairmount Temple. Shayna is perhaps the most fervently pro-Israel of the bunch. She spent years eagerly awaiting her wonderful 3-week Israel adventure in 8th grade with her classmates.
And knowing that she had little exposure or education about everyday Palestinian life, I wanted her to see and hear and experience another side of the conflict.
Just hours after that first gathering with the cohort, we began the journey. We went to visit Aida Refugee Camp, just inside the Green Line in the central part of the West Bank, near Bethlehem. It was there that a young pregnant woman who looked like the Palestinian equivalent of Jennifer Lawrence, shared the background and history of the camp.
She began, “Aida Refugee Camp was founded in 1950 – two years after the catastrophe.”
It took me a moment or two to realize that the “catastrophe” (“Naqba” in Arabic) was nothing other than the day we know to be the founding of the modern State of Israel. To most every Palestinian I met during that four-day intensive, the creation of a Jewish state was a variation on that theme, but that first day was my initiation. I learned that the refugee camps are more than just places for Palestinians to reside. To the refugee populations, they are temporary residences tied to the dream of returning to the land of their ancestors (but I had always learned that it was the land of MY ancestors).
Since 1950, Aida Refugee Camp has grown with generations of descendants who have heard the stories of life in Palestine before 1948. These initial families left their residences during the Arab-Jewish fighting out of fear, or in response to Arab leaders warning them to flee due to danger. They were told to lock up their homes and keep the keys, for they would soon return.
70 years later, there are families who still possess that very same key, and have now created the ritual of passing it down to the next generation.
That first day felt like a kick in the gut. So many emotions. When it was my turn to talk, I said to my group, “I’d like to rethink who I would wish to take with me on this trip – I don’t think I want my daughter to see this.”
You see, I remembered my first love; the Israel with the blooming desert, with those brave pioneers, and with the ragtag freedom fighters of the Haganah, and Irgun, and Lekhi, who beat all the odds and redeemed the sorrows of the Holocaust. All of it true. I still hold on to those stories which Leon Uris first introduced to me. That truth, our history, our strivings, and the realization of the Zionist dream, set my Jewish soul on fire 30 years ago.
And what I learned that day meeting the residents of a refugee camp, seeing the land through an entirely different lens, is that I must listen to their truth, too (and much of the listening made me angry and defensive…but mostly sad). But I knew I had to listen.
Perhaps this is our eternal struggle in this world: to acknowledge other truths in life, even when we might be seeing and living the very same thing as the other. It is human nature to not want to see the alternative truth; it our righteous mind that brings water to the desert, and it is our righteous mind that is blind to others. Sometimes the truth doesn’t set us free at all; sometimes it is painful. Sometimes we don’t want to know.
As I thought about Shayna, I wondered if I could just expose her to one truth. My truth. Could I neatly package the realization of the dream of Zion in carefully curated visits to the Shuk, Ben Yehuda Street and The Western Wall? Might I craft a carefully produced trip that celebrated the redemption story of Masada, the beautiful-looking brown-skinned men and women enjoying the beaches in Tel Aviv and Eilat, and the moving moment when David Ben-Gurion boldly declared the creation of a Jewish State knowing full well that a pan-Arab battle was right on his heels? Yes, and my curated story would end with the singing of HaTikvah, as gripping as the Barbara Streisand rendition.
It is seductive to remain in that dream-like state. Here is Israeli author, Amos Oz (may his memory be a blessing):
…to some extent…Israel is a dream come true. As such, it is bound to be flawed and imperfect. The only way to keep a dream intact is never to try to fulfill it. This is true of an initial vision for a novel, for a family, for a sexual encounter, or for planting a garden, and, indeed, for building a nation. Israel is flawed and imperfect precisely because it is a dream come true.
I wonder what that dream means to us right now, in America. About 150 years ago, Reform Jews migrated here and not only saw the United States as the “Goldeneh Medinah”, but as their Zion. It was imagined to be a place of hope and safety. And the dream felt alive! We excelled in every way in this country, gaining status in all aspects of American culture. In fact, we got so comfortable, that we made it our business to help OTHER people. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society now chiefly helps non Jewish refugees. The Hebrew Free Loan Society serves the needs of mostly non-Jews, and Jewish Orphan Home, established here in Cleveland is now Bellefaire – predominantly providing services for the needy of all faiths and races.
But today, all of those feelings of hope, of helping the other, of standing up for justice for our brother is beginning to seem indulgent. After the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, and the Poway shootings six months later, it feels vulnerable to be a Jew. It feels like we need to start leaning more towards the side of vigilance. And, I agree. But it is precisely at these times when we must also double-down on hope, on love.
If we too tightly circle our wagons we will forget that we are stronger when we batten down the hatches with our peaceful Muslim friends right here in greater Cleveland, who came to temple on that first Friday night after the Pittsburgh tragedy and stood with us, prayed with us.
When we batten down the hatches we better do it with our African-American friends right here in Cleveland with our GCC partners, with Rev Colvin, Rev Gibson, and Rev Maxwell. They stand with us too.
When we batten down the hatches, let us do so with the refugees, south of our border, who have come to us because they have fled violence and persecution.
We were them 100 years ago.
And when we batten down the hatches, let us prepare to resist the forces that are fomenting hate in the highest levels of government, and let us not be cowed by those who seek to divide us and pit us one against the other. We are stronger together.
Friends, Vigilance and Hope CAN be practiced together.
Let me conclude with a story about Osama Iliwat (God knows, I NEVER thought I’d ever meet – let alone be Facebook friends with – someone named, Osama!).
Osama spent time in Israeli prisons for doing the things you’ve heard about: resisting by throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers as a teenager and much more. He started an organization of non-violent resistance called, Combatants for Peace. I met him in Ramallah, where he shared his story with over 40 Zionist Jews. He said (I’m paraphrasing), “You know, it took me years to realize that you (meaning the Israelis) are not going anywhere, and we (the Palestinians) are not going anywhere. Now, what are we going to do about it?”
Yesterday (in commemoration of Yom Hashoah), on Facebook, he posted the following:
From Jericho, Palestine
I am Palestinian
I live under Israeli Occupation and military rules
The occupation do not allow me to live in my Family house in Jerusalem
90% of my Family are refuges
I am standing for the Victims and the survivors of the Holocaust
And I am standing for all of the Victims of the ethnic cleansing crimes all around the world
HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY
There are people who seek to reconcile, and even though they may not like us, they recognize that we are not going to leave. We don’t need to like all of them either, but we must find a way to live together.
We can no longer ignore the growing problem that will not go away. It’s time to hold our truth and their truth together. And when we hold those truths in our hands, we must do so by lifting up both vigilance and hope.
 In the Land of Israel, Amos Oz (p. 259)