Two Pictures of Men Wrapping Tefillin: A Narrative Challenge to Diaspora Zionists

by Jacob Abolafia

A picture hung (and perhaps still hangs) in the library of the Conservative synagogue where I spent my first conscious years attending services. It was of a soldier, standing on top of a tank, wearing a tallit, and shaking a lulav. The picture naturally aroused the curiosity of a young boy, with its combination of artifacts so familiar to me from my family’s sedate, suburban religious practice and the exotic masculinity of the steel killing machine dug into the desert sands. The young soldier in the photo stands, in my memory, with his eyes closed, in a pose of stoic devotion. I did not need to know anything about the Yom Kippur War, or its terrible cost, to sense that this poster, in its glass and metal frame, was at least as important an object of worship as the massive bronze ark for the Torah scroll found in the sanctuary next door to it.

I suspect that it is almost impossible for a young boy to be exposed to such a photo, and others like it, and to not to become a Zionist, at least for a time. The picture suggested enticements unavailable to me in my Jewish life in my sleepy, upstate New York city. It suggested a religion of confidence, a muscular Judaism. Against the background of the battlefield, the objects of ritual observance –the prayer shawl, the palm branch –gained a weightiness, a seriousness. Israel was the place where the stakes of being Jewish were highest. My own attendance in synagogue gained some meaning from the fact that this young man had taken the time, while fighting for his life, to utter the same prayers that were chanted, dirge-like, from the bimah

Although my memories of this photo are early, and deeply etched, I had not thought about it consciously for a long time, until I was reminded of it by a video I saw this week. The video shows a young man, dressed all in dark beige, like a soldier’s desert camouflage, though he is a civilian. He is wearing tefillin, phylacteries, and his right arm is stretched out over his head. His face is wrapped in a scarf or balaclava, though not against the weather, for it is late July, in a parched field outside the Palestinian town of Taybeh, some ten miles northeast of Jerusalem. There is an older woman in the frame, dressed in a tie-die shirt and jeans, with a red backpack, filming him from up close with her cell-phone. 

As the clip continues, we hear only two sounds, a mechanical whirring, and the chanting of the man, as his eyes roam ahead of him, avoiding the camera with obvious determination. He sings a tune loudly, obstinately, trying to ignore or drown out whatever the woman is saying to him. The wind rustles the flaps of his tefillin, and the camera pans left. We see that the man’s arm is raised up not in salute, but to hold up a water pipe, which leads to a blue plastic tank towed by a red tractor. On the tank sits another man, in a hooded sweatshirt, also staring out into the distance, avoiding the camera’s gaze. Finally the camera turns down, to reveal the source of the mechanical noise. It is a water pump, sucking water out of a stone well in the ground. The well is a private well, owned by Palestinians. The men are from an illegal outpost east of the settlement Rimonim, a mile or so up the road. They have come to commit a theft, hiding their faces, but they have come in the light of day, for they know they will not be caught or punished for their crime. 

There is much that could be said about this video, of the callousness of stealing water in parched summer months (as we learn from Genesis, the patriarchs fought battles over such things), of the stunning bad faith of thieves who come not in the night, but in the afternoon, because they live in a land where theft by Jews from Arabs is de facto lawful, or of the bravery of the women, activists with the Israeli anti-occupation organization Ta’ayush, who document their crime and confront them, even if the law will not.

But what I most want to talk about is the man’s tefillin, and the tune he sings, a tune, it turns out, written by the American Chassidic songwriter Shlomo Carlebach to some verses from Isaiah. It is this combination of Jewish ritual, so intensely familiar from my childhood, and the harsh landscape of Samaria immediately that immediately conjured up for me the image of that soldier on the tank. Once again, I saw aspects of my own domestic, American Judaism on display in the Holy Land. But the context is no longer the defensive war of 1973, and its mythic victory of the few over the many. This is a scene of liars and thieves, citizens of a wealthy country who steal life-giving resources from those who have very little. The dynamic of Judaism as a serious, muscular identity, is still tangibly present (what can these tie-died women do to stop the man with the siphon?), but the meaning of that identity is suddenly something ugly, cruel, and wanton. 

When I saw this video, I knew that I wanted it to be shown in every library that that the poster of my childhood also hangs in. I wanted the image of a man in tefillin committing a crime (and a violation of Jewish law) in broad daylight with the implicit protection of the state to be as familiar to American Jews as the image of worried young men heading to the battlefields of the Sinai and the Golan Heights once was. It was, after all, images of Jewish heroism that helped to forge a connection between what was once the world’s largest Jewish community and the Jewish state that so desperately needed its attention and support. And these new sorts of images can do something similar. 

Israel still demands our attention, and the project of a Jewish state cries out for our assistance now more than ever. But our task is not to press Congress for arms shipments, or to pass laws about boycotts, but to help root out and destroy behavior like that of the men in this video. The settlements and the occupation are not only a matter of internal Israeli politics, they are a question of how Judaism is to exist in the world today. Just as the soldier waving a lulav gave my own practice meaning, so too the thief singing a niggun reflects on my own songs, whenever and wherever I sing them. We are implicated in the thief’s crime in the same way we felt implicated watching men don their prayer shawls, exhausted after battle.

There are many practical ways the American Jewish community can start to fight the occupation from home – by refusing to fund projects across the green line (projects whose money can make its way to outposts like that from which the men in the video came), by refusing to fund hateful right wing religious organizations like Honenu or the violent Jewish settlers in Hebron. But I want to suggest one more way in which American Jewish communities can connect to Israel. We can open our eyes, we can look at these images of theft, destruction, and yes, murder, with the same eyes we once looked at the scenes of bravery, heroism, and danger that helped us to construct a shared Zionist mythos. We share our Judaism with the Jews in the land of Israel. That must spur us to action now, just as much as it did in 1973.

One last word about the tune the thief was singing. Its words are from the Haftorah of Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort after the fast of the Ninth of Av, which will be chanted this Shabbat. In them, the prophet is told to speak to the heart of Jerusalem and say, “that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned” (Isaiah 40:2). To sing such words while committing a theft has a particularly poisonous irony. In the wake of the ninth of Av, as Shabbat Nachamu approaches, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we are pardoned. The occupation continues to enable Jewish crime, and every Jew must take responsibility for it.

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