Bridge Builders

Rabbi Arik Ascherman

I’ve known Arik for over a dozen years. He’s a Reform rabbi who’s been living in Israel for many years and has made it his life’s work to fight for the rights of Palestinians, Bedouins, and under-resourced Israeli Jews. For many years Arik was the director of an Israeli organization of rabbis from all denominations called Rabbis for Human Rights. Now he has his own organization called Torat Tzedek—the Torah of Justice. Arik works daily to make sure that Palestinians can get to their fields to farm, their farms are protected from damage, and that people aren’t evicted from their homes or have their homes destroyed. Arik works to make a difference one person, one family at a time. Arik is a real Tzadik—a righteous person.

On Wednesday, December 11, I went with him and his partner to visit a few Palestinian villages in the northern West Bank to see if any of the farmers needed help getting to their fields. In the West Bank, the settler movement is trying to build settlements to break up the contiguity of Palestinian territory in order to make it difficult to create a Palestinian State. The placement of settlements also impedes Palestinians from reaching their farms and grazing land. Additionally, some settlers try to prevent Palestinians from getting to their land through harassment and intimidation. One of the villages we visited, Turmus-Aya, is near the settlement of Shiloh. We went into the fields with one man who showed us how garbage from Shiloh had been dumped onto his fields, including boulders from a nearby construction site that had crushed some of his trees.

Arik called the army commander in the area to report what had happened and to make sure that the residents of Shiloh don’t continue to dump their trash on this man’s field or destroy his trees. The Palestinians are grateful for Arik’s help because they often can’t make headway resolving issues without it. It was a peaceful day when we were there, but sometimes Arik has to deal with settlers who are trying to prevent Palestinians from farming and grazing their animals or otherwise harassing and intimidating them.        

In the it’s a small world category, it just so happens that Turmus-Aya has many residents who ended up living in the Chicago-area, including the man we met. There are many nice homes in the village. When I asked about them, I was told they were built by these Chicago residents from Turmus-Aya after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 when people thought they’d return to live in Palestine. Now they are only inhabited part of the year when they come to visit from Chicago, but they stand in this village now perhaps as a sign of despair at the peace that has yet to come or, perhaps, as a sign of hope for the peace that will yet be.

Dr. Ya’ela Ra’anan

On Friday, December 13, Danny and I spent Shabbat with Ya’ela and her family on Kibbutz Kissufim which is just east of the Gaza border. I met Ya’ela at the peace event that I attended at the Muqata in Ramallah on Thanksgiving (see a previous blog post). She was one of the speakers that night, and I found her to be compelling and dynamic so I asked her for her phone number. She is part of several organizations committed to peace and bridge building with Palestinians—Standing Together, Women Wage Peace, and Other Voice. Standing Together is an organization of Israelis and Palestinians who live in Israel proper who are trying to build a strong shared society together; Women Wage Peace is a group of Jewish and Palestinian women who meet together and organize marches and other events to demand that the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership make peace in the region; and Other Voice is an organization based in Sderot comprised of Israelis who are developing relationships with Gazans and working to make peace from the ground up. Ya’ela also works with Bedouins in Rahat. Because of these volunteer commitments and her being a professor of anthropology and social theory at Sapir College in Sderot, she was, for a short period of time, on the Hadash party slate. Hadash is primarily a Palestinian political party that was established in 1977. Hadash, means new in Hebrew, but is an acronym that stands for the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality. The aim of its founders was to unite most of the supporters for peace, equality, democracy and workers’ rights, Jews and Arabs, in order to create a political alternative to the government’s policy of occupation and exploitation. They were the first part to support a two-state solution.

When I contacted Ya’ela after the peace solidarity event in Ramallah, she Invited Danny and me to join her and her family for Shabbat on her kibbutz.

Ya’ela encouraged us to come early on Friday afternoon because there’s a peace circle that meets weekly at what’s called “The Lighthouse,” a crumbling building a few hundred yards from the Gaza border. “The Lighthouse” is a place where the light of hope and peace shines, but there is no actual beacon of light emitted from it. Thank God for GPS! Otherwise, Danny and I would never have found this remote place. To get there, we drove to Kibbutz Be’eri and then continued a mile down the road through the kibbutz’s fields to get to “The Lighthouse.”

When we arrived, a group of about 15 people were gathered, mostly Jewish Israelis and two Bedouins. Ya’ela wasn’t there yet, but we were welcomed warmly as everyone expanded the circle and found chairs for us. Rami, the facilitator, had a gentle style and was asking everyone to speak about what Gaza meant to them. When they got to me, I said we were just guests and they should skip us. No, Rami, insisted, no one is a guest. Everyone is part of the group. So Danny and I spoke too. Danny spoke about his experience living on a kibbutz nearby 40 years ago and how he would go to Gaza for picnics on Shabbat. One woman who is a psychotherapist spoke about the trauma she has seen in Israeli children who have endured a dozen years of rocket attacks. Ya’ela’s daughter, Shani, told a story about how there were two people who lived on opposite sides of a wall who were convinced that a monster lived on the other side. When, eventually, they took the wall down, they realized there were no monsters, just people like them on the other side of the wall. I was so moved by the stories of hope and resilience that people shared that I found myself on the verge of tears the whole time we sat together. As we drank strong coffee and watched the sun get lower in the sky, one man said the conversation felt like prayer to him. Yes, I nodded in agreement, prayer uplifts the spirit and warms the heart which is exactly how I felt at that moment. Danny and I were so honored to share this space and be invited in as friends to a group of people who has experienced so much trauma and fear and yet still has so much love and hope in their hearts.

Shabbat dinner at Ya’ela’s home that evening was a warm and wonderful affair. A student at Sapir College who has been making contacts with people in Gaza through Skype was there as were 4 young people who are living on her kibbutz and enlisting in the army but have no family in Israel (Lone Soldiers, they are called—Jews from other countries who move to Israel and serve in the army). Ya’ela’s husband, daughter, and in-laws were also at the table. After dinner we played games until we could no longer keep our eyes open.   

The next morning, Ya’ela and I took a stroll along the edge of the kibbutz. The view of the fields surrounding the kibbutz is spectacular, but a large barbed wire fence sits on the perimeter of the kibbutz. The Gaza border can be seen in the distance. Later that day, Tomer, Ya’ela’s husband, took Danny and me on a tour of the border. Israel is now building a fence that goes all the way down to the water table to prevent Gazans from digging tunnels under the fence. We also observed hot air balloons near the border, monitoring the movement of Gazans. Tomer who has lived his whole life in this area and remembers a time before the fence, is saddened by what he sees, but also admits that it makes him sleep more comfortably at night knowing this security is in place.

The Israeli side of the border is sparsely populated, but the density of the Gaza side is clearly visible from where we are. I’ve heard Gaza described as the world’s largest open-air prison. This is exactly what it looks it. As Ya’ela’s daughter, Shani, and I are playing games in the back seat of the car to keep her from getting too bored on our border tour, I can’t help but think of the story she told yesterday about the imaginary monsters on the other side of the fence. This violent situation in her home is all she’s known her entire nine years of life, but she’s being taught that it doesn’t have to be this way. Will she every know the human beings on the other side, and will they ever know her, I wonder? Her parents are trying to do more than just dream about peace; they are trying to build it person by person. I dream about visiting here someday in the future when Shani is an adult and she and I can go to Gaza for a picnic.   

My day with Arik Ascherman and our trip to Kibbutz Kissufim make me think about this poem by Yehuda Amichai:

Jerusalem

On a roof in the Old City
laundry hanging in the late afternoon sunlight
the white sheet of a woman who is my enemy,
the towel of a man who is my enemy,
to wipe off the sweat of his brow.
In the sky of the Old City
a kite
At the other end of the string,
a child
I can’t see
because of the wall.
We have put up many flags,
they have put up many flags.
To make us think that they’re happy
To make them think that we’re happy.

If Amichai were alive today, he could easily have titled this poem West Bank or Gaza.      

These have been difficult, yet inspiring visits. In a place where higher and deeper walls continue to be built both literally and figuratively, I feel honored and privileged to have spent time with these amazing bridge builders.

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