Monday, December 14, 2009

הגיע זמן לקחת אחריות - The Time Has Arrived to Take Responsibility

I went on two tiyulim (trips) the week before last that revealed two very different slices of life in Israel and the territories, slices of life that are hard to catch glimpses of.

South Tel Aviv
On Thursday, I traveled to Tel Aviv with the social justice track, to learn about the issues surrounding migrant workers, refugees, and the sex trade in Tel Aviv and in Israel. Our guide, John Mark, a Pardes alum and a lawyer who used to work for the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, led us around the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the Central Bus Station, a bus station that I have traveled in and out of several times without being aware of the multitude of populations that live around it, beyond a basic knowledge that it is not a neighborhood to be in alone late at night. We walked through the bus station itself, and noted the businesses run by and catering to various segments of the immigrant community - the Hebrew disappeared, travel agencies to homelands in Asia and Africa proliferated, as did grocery stores selling the junk foods of someone else's home. John Mark told us the complicated history of African refugees in Israel - many of whom have not received refugee status.

We walked down a street that John Mark described as the social center for the Tel Aviv immigrant community. I had seen it from the other end, the end right next to the bus station, many times, but had never walked down it. We visited a cafe owned by a Sudanese refugee, and heard another refugee from the Sudan, Ismail, tell his story. Ismail owns a small electronics shop in that same commercial area. He fled from the Sudan to Egypt with his family, but Egypt gives no rights to refugees - they cannot work or educate their children. He and his family illegally crossed the border to Israel in the middle of night. Ismail told us that when Israeli soldiers found him and his family, it was the first time he had an encounter with soldiers or police in which he was not kicked or slapped before questioning even started. The soldiers gave his kids water to drink, brought the whole family to the military base, where the kids were fed and received medical check-ups. For me, hearing this story was a confirmation of the image of the Israeli military that I had heard about growing up, an image that is continually challenged today.

Ismail's electronics shop in South Tel Aviv

Two summers ago, the summer of 2007, the Darfur refugee issue received a great deal of attention from the Israeli media. Ismail told about being at a protest at the Rose Garden, by the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), for the Darfur refugees, a protest that I was at also, with my fellow madrichot from NFTY in Israel (Sara G., Jillian S., and Anna K.!). Seeing how our paths crossed, unknowingly, was powerful. There were other challenges along the way, but Ismail and his family now live in Tel Aviv. When we asked how his kids had adjusted to Israeli life and speaking Hebrew, Ismail told us, with a huge smile, that they come home from school singing Chanukah songs.

"The time has come to take responsibility" - Jerusalem rally for Darfur refugees, June 2007

John Mark raised the question of responsibility and community. Who is responsible for the world's refugees, those who would die if they returned home? To what extent is Israel responsible for them, as a country that has long valued bringing Jewish refugees to safety? John Mark said he, as an Israeli and Tel Aviv resident, feels that Ismail and his family are more in John Mark's community, non-Jews who live in Tel Aviv, than us Pardes students, foreigners, although Jewish, who are here for a year.

We studied a Talmud text in class, from Masechet Nedarim 80b-81a:
One ruling of R' Yosi contradicts another of his: With respect to a well belonging to townspeople, when it is a question of their own lives or the lives of others, their own lives take precedence; their cattle or the cattle of others, their cattle take precedence over those of others; their laundry or that of others, their laundry takes precedence over that of others. But if the choice lies between the lives of others and their own laundry, the lives of the others take precedence over their own laundry. R' Yosi ruled: Their laundry takes precedence over the lives of strangers...
This text and the challenges of welcoming in new populations to any community raise hard questions about how we allocate resources. In the world-as-it-is, it isn't as easy as simply saying, "Once everyone has a base level of needs filled, then we will provide for other needs (like our laundry)." But it's never that clear-cut in reality, as proven by the fact that R' Yosi himself cannot even come up with a conclusive position on it.

The next day, I traveled to Hebron with Shovrim Shtika-Breaking the Silence, an organization that leads tours, primarily for Israelis, to the occupied territories to see the impact that maintaining a military presence in the West Bank has on the soldiers who serve there, the people who live there, and Israeli society as a whole.

Hebron is a twisted place. Currently, the city is divided in two parts, H1 and H2. H1 is entirely Palestinian, and under the control of the Palestinian Authority. H2 is home to 800 Jewish settlers, about 20,000 Palestinians, and 500 Israeli soldiers. H2, where we toured, is a ghost town. Streets are empty of cars and people, formerly bustling open air markets are boarded up and deserted. In order to maintain total separation between the Jewish and Palestinian populations, reducing friction, many of the streets in H2 are closed to Palestinian pedestrian traffic, and even more are closed to Palestinian cars. There are families that cannot leave their homes, because their front doors open up on to streets that they are not permitted to walk on. Everywhere we traveled, we were accompanied by a heavy police protect us from settler violence and harassment. Many of Shovrim Shtika's tours end with a visit to Ma'arat HaMachpela, the Cave of the Patriarchs, but the police decided we couldn't go, because they could not guarantee our safety from settler reactions.

an empty, deserted street, formerly a bustling commercial area

our police escort

There is graffiti all over Hebron - racist, hateful graffiti towards Palestinians, and images of Stars of David, Am Yisrael Chai. The latter are images and phrases that I consider mine, and I am not OK with what is being done in my name, using my symbolism.

graffiti on the wall between H1 and H2

I know people who have served in Hebron, are currently serving there, and will serve there in the future. This isn't something distant that effects other people, but has a real impact, not just on Israeli society at the macro level, but on real individuals in my life.

Friday morning, before leaving to meet the rest of the group, I read this editorial in Ha'aretz, "I Have No Brother." Yossi Sarid disowns the settlers as his brothers, writing:
"When I see a Jew running over a wounded Arab terrorist again and again, I am absolutely certain that any connection between us is coincidental, happenstance, and that I'm obligated to sever it completely...What do I have to do with these people? Brothers we are not, but rather strangers in the night."
Michael, our tour guide, offered a different perspective. He said that since, at the moment, Hebron is indeed part of Israel, he, as an Israeli, feels a responsibility for what is happening there. Saying "those Jews/Israelis are different from me" does not remove the responsibility. The part of that editorial that struck me the most was this: I immediately look at myself to make sure that they are not me.


  1. This is a really powerful post, filled with really powerful sources and questions. The d'var I'm working on right now is about who we have the responsibility to care for -- I'd love to talk with you more about the question, because it's a big one.

  2. Wow. What a powerful experience. Thanks so much for sharing it. I hope you're doing well! Chag Urim Sameach!