This Tisha B'Av, How About Less Comfort and More Justice?

“Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over, that her iniquity is expiated; for she has received at the hand of the Lord double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1-2)

This week is Shabbat Nachamu, when we read the first of the seven “haftarot of consolation” that are recited in the weeks following the holiday of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temple.

[pullquote align=left] American Jews are too comfortable with the Israeli occupation.
[/pullquote]On this Sabbath of Comfort, I want to suggest that we as American Jews are too comforted, and too comfortable with the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.  This summer, I traveled for two weeks to the West Bank.  Every friend and family member who told me they “would never go there” has traveled – some many times – to Israel.  That was me until recently.  Just a few years ago, when I staffed a seminar in Israel for Jewish social work graduate students, a Palestinian speaker from the Parents Circle Families Forum asked my group what places we were visiting on this trip.  “Are you going to Nablus?  To Ramallah?”  Of course we weren’t.  But why not?  Even on a graduate seminar where we strove to expose students to the complexities of Israeli society – its struggles for social justice, its troubling response to asylum seekers, its troubled relationship between secular and religious Jews, its underfunding of public services, even its checkpoints – we didn’t consider that seeing Ramallah, Nablus, or any of the Palestinian cities, villages, or refugee camps might be essential to our understanding of the current situation in Israel.

I thought I was troubled by the conflict, and that I wanted to see, hear, and understand.  On the other hand, a Zionist version of white liberal guilt, and the defensiveness that goes hand in hand with this kind of guilt, kept me on the Jerusalem side of the Qalandia checkpoint.  It let me comfort myself by focusing on the Israeli social justice protests and the handful of Israeli activists who stood up against the occupation.  My Jews weren’t the ones living in caravans or attacking Palestinian children as they walked to school; my Jews were the ones voting for left-wing parties, protesting home demolitions, and trying to make things better.  Comfort, oh comfort my people.

[pullquote align=right] What if we were less comforted and more curious?
[/pullquote]We are so comfortable as we place our prayers for peace in the Western Wall, write our checks to J-Street and the New Israel Fund, shake our heads when Netanyahu is reelected, and don’t ask about the buried Palestinian villages under the JNF forests, about the unequal distribution of water, about the daily humiliations that ordinary Palestinians suffer in the name of our people’s security.  Sure, we know things are bad for some people over there on the other side of the Green Line, but we also remember the Holocaust and need a strong defense; we remember the bombs in the buses and nightclubs and feel comforted even as we look away from the separation wall and its checkpoints – better safe than sorry.  When Isaiah (40:4) says “Let every valley be raised, every hill and mount be made low,” we somehow think he means that our valleys will be raised up, and their mountains brought low.  We think he speaks tenderly to [our eternal and indivisible capital city of] Jerusalem and declares to her that her term of service is over.

What if we were less comforted and more curious?  This June, I caught a Palestinian bus a block from the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, and in half an hour, at a cost of 8 shekels, I was in Ramallah.  An incredibly easy trip for something that seemed unthinkable to me such a short time ago.  Over the next two weeks, I visited every major city in the West Bank, hiked through olive-grove covered hillsides and desert wadis, visited refugee camps, archaeological sites, and the only brewery in Palestine. I got lost in Nablus (no English street signs), and a man in a car directed a nearby group of small children to conduct me to the ruins of ancient Shechem – which they did with great pride and solemnity, all the while practicing their schoolroom English and laughing at my attempts to pronounce the Arabic words for, “What’s your name?”  I ate dinner in the lovely garden of Hosh Yasmin restaurant in Beit Jala, where I watched the sun set over a Palestinian village, the separation wall, and a settlement on the opposite hillside – a strange combination of natural beauty and unsettling humanity.

[pullquote align=left] I saw a seven-year-old girl in a pink dress at a checkpoint asked questions.
[/pullquote]At the guesthouses where I stayed and in all the Palestinian villages, cities, and refugee camps I visited, black water tanks on the roofs were a constant reminder that the Israeli Water Authority only sells Palestinians water on some days of the week, so they have to try and store what they’ll need for the rest of the week in tanks – all while the many settlements always within view had constant access to water and no need to economize in this way.  On every Palestinian bus I rode, both the driver and all the other passengers kept suddenly and intensely fastening their seat belts at seemingly random intervals, which I learned they did as they passed in and out of Israeli-controlled areas, to avoid getting tickets that, for Palestinians, are adjudicated under military law (Israeli settlers on the same roads are subject to civil law and can challenge tickets in civilian courts).  Also on a Palestinian bus, I saw a seven-year-old girl in a pink dress ordered off at a checkpoint to be asked questions in Hebrew that she didn’t understand by a 19-year-old Israeli soldier with a machine gun, while her mother watched helplessly from inside the bus.  Fortunately, the bus driver spoke some Hebrew and was able to explain to the soldiers that the girl was with this mother, who had a permit allowing them to travel together into Jerusalem that day, and the little girl ran back to her seat on the bus, her pony tail swinging and her face expressionless.  I find that I can’t get this image out of my mind.

[pullquote align=right] Instead of shoring up the status quo for our own comfort, let us truly see the cost to others of this illusive comfort.
[/pullquote]I don’t pretend that I saw or understood everything in two weeks, but what I did see was what many observers have noted is an unsustainable status quo, one that we keep hidden behind a high wall and keep out with checkpoints, but that will not be denied forever.  Are we so comfortable in Tel Aviv and Haifa and the Old City – or safely at home in New York and Los Angeles remembering our special visits to these storied places – that we are blind to the little girl in the pink dress, to the children walking to school in the shadow of the illegal settlement, to the villages under demolition order, to the years of occupation and the failed promise of the Oslo accords to bring anything approaching a just peace?

Instead of shoring up the status quo for our own comfort, let us truly see the cost to others of this illusive comfort.  For all the seeming permanence of concrete walls, watchtowers, checkpoints, and prisons, Isaiah knows that, “He brings potentates to naught, Makes rulers of the earth as nothing. Hardly are they planted, hardly are they sown, hardly has their stem taken root in earth, when He blows upon them and they dry up, and the storm bears them off like straw.” (Isaiah 40: 23-24) Let us look occupation in the face, however uncomfortable that may be, and let us work together to replace it with a just system where one group’s comfort does not rest on another’s oppression and displacement.

10 thoughts on “This Tisha B'Av, How About Less Comfort and More Justice?

  1. This was so thoughtfully written. Until I read it I didn’t have very much understanding of the issues. I’m now inspired to learn more and to be less comfortable about the oppression and displacement so far away from my comfortable life in Maryland. Thank you, Rebecca, for sharing your experience, strength and hope.

  2. Thank you for challenging fellow Jews to confront — and dismantle — the occupation instead of making endless excuses and justifications based on fear, ignorance, and racism. We need more of this coming from the American Jewish community.

  3. I found your piece an incredibly candid and wholly insightful assessment of the current status quo. It is quite the brave and moving thing to turn the mirror on ourselves sometimes. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Well written indeed!

  4. A very moving and personal account. Congratulations to the author for her willingness to confront stereotypes and learn firsthand about the lives of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

  5. My bar mitzvah thing was ‘nachamu, nachamu.’
    Today I say to occupiers: may you have no hope, no merit in the world to come.

  6. An impressively-reasoned and articulate reminder that our love for, and responsibility to, others recognizes no boundaries. Thank you for stirring our consciences.

  7. The ratio of experience and reflection to statement and argument is so high in this piece. It brought me closer to the ethics in the region, but … more than that, I feel like the approach she takes is one we need more of, not just on this issue but on all kinds of political, and polarized issues. It seems to get below the rhetorical dividing lines to something more real. So I signed this petition:
    But also hope to be influenced by her approach, more generally.

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