Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Forty years in the desert


In a few nights we will participate in one of Judaism’s most ancient ceremonies, and certainly one of the year’s most treasured events. We sit around a table and conduct a Seder – the annual recitation of the story of Israel’s redemption from Egypt.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi, writes that that exodus had a two-fold purpose. On the one hand, it was a goal in and of itself, that being liberation from Egyptian bondage. However, he teaches that the exodus was also a means to an end, that end being the reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and eventually, observance of that Torah in Eretz Yisrael. The exodus as a stand-alone event was momentous, but its real significance came to pass only years and decades later.

We are currently marking the sixtieth anniversary of Israeli independence. The Jewish people have made tremendous leaps and bounds over the past six decades. Who could have expected, in May of 1948, the power and prestige a Jewish state would command at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This is especially notable considering the fact that the Jewish people, coming out of a 2,000 year old exile, had to virtually recreate its national being from scratch, having been totally removed from exercises in sovereignty for two millennium. On top of this we can never forget that Israel was reborn from within the ashes of Auschwitz. Jews have prayed, day in and day out for thousands of years for not only a return to Zion, but also for Techiat HaMetim, the revival of the dead. Israeli independence is no less than revival of the dead. For this, we rejoice and give thanks to the L-rd for have granted us this most magnanimous gift of national life.

That’s the up side. The down side is all too well known. From the very beginning there was a concerted effort made to oppress the foundations of Jewish being. The founding fathers, or most of them, were not great fans of observant Judaism. The kidnapping and forced resettling of over 1,000 Yemenite children is perhaps the quintessential example of attempts to eradicate Judaism from the Jews. Yet Ben Gurion was known to have answered, in reply to a question about Jewish legitimacy to settle in Eretz Yisrael, that the source of Jewish rights to the Land is the Bible.

The relationship between Israel’s leadership and our Land has been overtly problematic. Eretz Yisrael was almost viewed as a ‘card’ to be dealt at the proper time. This was explicitly felt both prior to and following the 1967 Six Day war, when Israeli leaders attempted to refrain from liberating Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, and following their liberation, expressed a desire to abandon them at the first possible opportunity. So it was that Israeli paratroopers, having captured the Old City of Jerusalem and Judaism’s most sacred site, Temple Mount and the Kotel (The Western Wall) were told to prepare to leave only a short time after the victory.

Yamit, Oslo, Hebron, Gush Katif and the northern Shomron all speak for themselves. Other words are superfluous.

Where does this leave us, after sixty years?

In my humble opinion, the state of Israel isn’t really sixty years old. Yes, if we count from 1948, to 2008, the result is sixty. But in reality, we couldn’t really call ourselves a full-fledged sovereign entity while our heart was still in captivity. That heart being Jerusalem and Hebron. They go hand-in-hand, together. David began in Hebron for seven and a half years before moving up to Jerusalem. Hebron was lost in 1929; Jerusalem in 1948. Jerusalem was liberated on the 28th of Iyar and Hebron the following day. Hebron was chopped into two parts in January, 1997. Ehud Barak offered Arafat 90% of Jerusalem only a few years ago. The fates of these two eternal, holy cities are inextricably combined and cannot be separated.

Following the Six Day war former Jerusalem residents, expelled during the 1948 War of Independence were repatriated. Moshe Dayan, then Minister of Defense, refused to speak to former Hebron Jewish homeowners who had lost their property to Arab marauders following the 1929 riots and massacre, and subsequent final expulsion in the spring of 1936. Only in 1968, exactly forty years ago this Friday, did Jews return to the first Jewish city in Israel.

As with many such stories, from close-up they seem almost ordinary. In reality, not only a physical reality, but also a metaphysical truth, such events are earthshaking, or perhaps better put, ‘heaven-shaking. ‘ The return of a small group of Jews, that 1968 Passover in Hebron, with the guidance of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook, with the participation of Rabbis Waldman, Druckman and Levinger, was the forerunner of a massive awakening, a returning to the heart of our land throughout Judea and Samaria. But this awakening too was not only a corporeal return to the land; rather, it was, primarily, a spiritual arousing, the voice of the Jewish people bursting through the ages, an almost primal expression of the faith buried so deep inside the souls of the Jewish people, who for centuries had cried out ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ whereby ‘Jerusalem’ was the keyword representing all our land, Eretz Yisrael. Without Jerusalem, without Shechem, without Hebron, we were as a body without a soul, a golem, whose bodily movements were predefined, perhaps classified as ‘natural.’ But the spirit, the inner essence, the heart, the soul, was missing. Only with the liberation of Jerusalem and Hebron and with them the rest of Judea and Samaria could we really and truly say, ‘we are back home – we have returned.’

That Passover, forty years ago, was the breaking of the ice – the trailblazer, the results of which are the authentic rebirth, physically and spiritually, of the Jewish people. As Jews began returning to their physical roots, so too did they commence the return to their spiritual roots; the numbers of Jews who have ‘returned,’ who have come back to observant Judaism in the past 40 years is beyond numbers. And that homecoming, as such, began with, and was initiated by our return to our land, our return to our heart – to Jerusalem and Hebron. The group of Jews who initiated and participated in that ‘Seder’ in Hebron in 1968 might not have known it then, and maybe some of them are still unaware of it today, but they were the sparks that set the fire of the return of the Jewish people to themselves after two thousand years.

Just as the exodus from Egypt had a double goal; one immediate and the other long-term, so too did our statehood in 1948 have a double agenda; one immediate – announcing before all the world, we, the Jewish people have not died out, we have escaped the bondage of galut, of exile, you have not been able to extinguish us; and also long-term – to bring the people back to all their land, to all their land and to all their heart and soul, physically and spiritually.

So as we celebrate sixty years and forty years, we can conclude that really, only now, are we beginning. The Jewish people spent forty years in the desert before entering the Land, forty years fraught with problem and crises. Now, we too have finished forty years, also filled with unimaginable predicaments. And just as then, when we came into the land the problems didn’t come to a swift end, we too, today, may still face unbearable situations. But those aren’t the key. The key is, we are home, we are in Israel, we have returned to Hebron and to Jerusalem, we have rediscovered ourselves, we have been granted the Divine gift of life, we are here to stay.

Happy Passover, Happy 60, Happy 40!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Why Can't Jews buy homes in Hebron?

Printed in the Jerusalem Post

Many events, despite their joy and festivity, may also have bittersweet shadows lurking behind them.

It is customary at every Jewish wedding, that under the huppa, or wedding canopy, the groom recites the words from Psalms 137:5-6: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy." In some traditions the groom also places ashes on his forehead, recalling the destruction of the second Temple, and breaks a glass as an expression of loss. Even on the happiest of occasions, we recall the depths of sorrow at the loss of our most significant national enterprises, Jerusalem and the Temple.

ON THURSDAY night I attended a wedding. The daughter of one of Hebron's leaders was married in Jerusalem. As is wont at such weddings, the groom rubbed two sets of ashes on his forehead: ashes discovered in the Old City of Jerusalem, from the fire 2,000 years ago which destroyed the city, and also dust from Gush Katif, razed and obliterated almost three years ago, this summer. However, this past Thursday night had a particularly poignant significance. The groom was a graduate of Mercaz HaRav High School. He knew many of the young men killed there by an Arab terrorist just a few weeks ago. The night of his marriage was also the "shloshim" - the 30th day following the murders. That night there was also a large memorial service at the yeshiva in memory of the young victims.

So, when the groom recited the words, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem," all the people in attendance were remembering not only the Temple from two millennium ago, but the deaths of those eight students, only a short time ago.

This is, perhaps, the story of Judaism: a combination of sadness and happiness, mixed together, making for the Jewish people.

SOME EVENTS can be understood; others are difficult to fathom. We are currently celebrating the first anniversary of the conclusion of the purchase of Beit HaShalom in Hebron. Exactly a year ago attorneys gave us the green light, and in we went. This huge, 3,500 square meter structure, strategically located on the road between Hebron and Kiryat Arba, was the first property purchased outside of the borders of the original Jewish neighborhoods. The roof of the building serves as a lookout, with a view of Kiryat Arba to the east and the Hebron Hills to the south. It is an amazing sight; on the one hand, exceedingly beautiful, and on the other hand, a bona fide security asset.

Israel is on the verge of a 60th birthday. Since the birth of the state in 1948, despite all the problems encountered, Israel has made tremendous achievements. Who could have expected that a people being shoveled into ovens only a few years before, with over six million of their brethren exterminated, could overcome all odds and bring an ancient nation back to life, a feat unequaled by any other culture or nationality in the history of the world. It certainly does deserve to be celebrated.

However I cannot but sense that this celebration is somewhat bittersweet with the case in point an excellent example, a microcosm of issues continually encountered.

The Jews came back home to Israel; but to what kind of an Israel? Of course growth and development are measures of success. But do we remember where we've come from? Do we take into account the triumphs upon which modern Israel was born? Do we recall the bedrock which serves as the justification for the rebirth of our people in our homeland?

HEBRON WAS the first Jewish city in the land of Israel, home to our patriarchs and matriarchs. The Cave of Machpela is our people's second holiest site, after the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It was off-limits to Jews for 700 years, until Hebron came under Israeli control in the 1967 Six-Day War. As we celebrate 60 years of independence, so too we observe 40 years since the return of Jewish residency in Hebron during Passover of 1968.

Yet when Jews legally purchase a building in Hebron, 60 years after the rebirth of our statehood, such a transaction is automatically shrouded in controversy. So much so that the families in the building were prevented from installing glass windows throughout a snowy and rainy winter. At present they still may not install plastic shades on the windows, nor may they hook up the building to the city's central electric services. This is not due to any question of the legality of the purchase, but rather to a fundamental question: Can Jews continue to live, grow and develop freely in Hebron?

How can we, as a people, justify our existence in Tel Aviv or Haifa, if we do not recognize the validity of our presence in Hebron? If we cannot accept and respect the very pillars upon which our statehood lies, a peek into a crystal ball of the days and years to come looks dismal and bleak. A people with no past, or a people that refuses to recognize its past, has no future. A Jewish purchase of a building such as Beit HaShalom in Hebron should not be viewed as "problematic."

Instead it should be cheered on as a positive step in the renewal of Israel's oldest city.

The time has come for Jews throughout Israel and around the world to declare their allegiance to Hebron.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Little terrorists-in-training

Adar Bet 26, 5768, 4/2/2008

Little terrorists-in-training

You can imagine what went through the father's head: Yes, or No - Clobber him, or, Don't do it.
You may have seen the report from Hebron, a couple of days ago about an Arab youth who stole a woman's hat, across from Ma'arat HaMachpela. A you may, or may not know, many religiously observant Jewish women keep their heads covered, as regulated by Jewish law. An Arab on a bicycle flew by her, grabbed the hat on her head, and kept going.

A small group of Hebron residents arrived at the scene and demanded that the police and soldiers close Arab stores across from the Ma'ara, where the crime had occurred. "If you close their stores because of this, they (the shop owners) will bring you the culprit themselves!"

To no avail. Border police lined up in front of the stores to protect the Arabs.

Later that day the Arab was discovered, apprehended, taken to the police station and then released.

So much for him.

At about seven in the evening a scuffle broke out between some Arab youth outside Beit HaShalom, and some of the Jewish kids living there. One of the Arabs punched a little boy in the face and stole his bicycle. When the police arrived they asked for a description of the attacker. "Sounds familiar," they commented. They made their way to the home of the same youth who had stolen the woman's hat in the morning, and there they discovered the bicycle. The attacker was the one and the same Arab who had taken the hat hours earlier.

A little while later, the Hebron boy who'd had his bicycle stolen, and his father, were at the police station. As they were leaving they saw the Arab who'd attacked the boy sitting alone in the waiting room. You can imagine what went through the father's head: Yes, or No - Clobber him, or, Don't do it.

In the end, he didn't. His son went over and stuck his tongue out. And they left.

As they exited the police station, they heard gasps and screams coming from inside. Quickly police ran out and grabbed the Hebron boy's father.

"What did you do to him," they screamed.

"What are you talking about?"

"Can't you hear him? He's rolling on the floor in pain. What did you do?!?:"

The police pulled him inside and began interrogating him. Again and again, 'what did you do."

Finally he answered: 'my son went over and stuck his tongue out at him. Maybe he kicked him. That's all. Nothing else."

The police officer looked at him and said: "OK - if that's your story, let's check it out. There are cameras in the waiting room. Let's see what we have on film."

So, they all sat down together to view the Hebron night out at the movies, in the police station. And to their great surprise, and also chagrin, they discovered that it was as he'd said. He hadn't done anything to the Arab who'd punched his son.

It seems that the little terrorist-in-training has good teachers.