2016-06-30
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Excerpted with permission from The Shalom Center website.

I am writing from Jerusalem, from a window with a magnificent view above the Old City--both the huge gray stones of the Western Wall and the golden Dome of the Rock.

But just a few days ago, I was visiting two Palestinian villages, sunk in poverty and sorrow.

My wife, Phyllis Berman, and I had asked Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, to shepherd us in meeting with Palestinians on the West Bank. (RHR is the only organization of Israeli rabbis that includes Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis. It has had a working relationship with Palestinians for eight years, and is one of the few Israeli groups that has been able to keep these relationships going through the last four months of violence.)

He took us to two towns: Hares, a village of 3,000 which lives almost surrounded by Israeli settlements, and Solfit, a larger town. Both places suffered sieges during the last several months.

By "sieges" I mean real sieges, not feeling besieged or even being occasionally shot at. That is, all roads closed by the Israeli army and settlers--in Hares, for two straight months. Sick people prevented from going to hospital. Students prevented from continuing their college education in other Palestinian cities. Schoolteachers from other Palestinian cities prevented from coming to teach. Purchases of food from outside prevented.

Fifteen hundred olive trees uprooted or cut down by the army and settlers.

These olive trees are not decorative. They are the life-support of the village. Some of the trees were hundreds of years old, having produced for this village oil and olives for all that time. Each one of them, as a villager explained, paid the cost of year after year of schooling for a child. Or the cost of a room built for a growing child. Or a dowry for a girl about to be married.

In short, these trees are the family bank accounts. They are also beloved members of the family. Many are now gone.

The Israelis came in the night to cut down the trees while the villagers were asleep. Afterwards, the army said Palestinians were using the trees to throw rocks onto the road which had been built to service the Israeli settlements nearby.

Ascherman said this was probably accurate, in regard to some of the trees. But some, cut by settlers, were so distant from the road that no stones could be thrown or shots aimed from them. The cut-down trees will be affecting not just stone-throwers now but the whole village for decades to come. And the roads are there in the first place purely for the convenience and safety of the settlers.

This village has been under Israeli occupation for 33 years. Its people have paid taxes all that time. But they said never once had the Israelis paved their streets, brought in new electric lines, or built new sewers. The visible evidence bore them out.

Across the roads, within two kilometers, were spanking new "suburbs" with advanced electric wiring, water pipes (drawing on water under the Palestinian land), and some with swimming pools. (The Palestinian village runs out of cooking water every summer, when there is no rain to collect. The settlers' swimming pools are full.)

In the second town, Solfit, we had to approach in a roundabout way because the regular road was closed the day before--adding about 30 minutes to the trip.

We met a young father who had his leg blown off by an Israeli missile that hit his private house one night when the Israelis were firing at Fatah offices in every West Bank city and town. He was asleep in his bedroom. His house is more than a kilometer from the Fatah office.

That he was not lying was manifest to Ascherman, who came the next day and saw the blackened bedroom and shreds of flesh stuck to the walls. The Palestinian father spent months in Saudi Arabia having his wounds treated and serious internal-organ damage partly repaired. He grimaced in embarrassment but showed us the scars across his belly.

He had been a computer worker for the settlement nearby. Many of the villagers had been independent farmers until the Israeli settlements were carved out of their farms and they were forced to get jobs in the settlements. They said the relationship is one of master and slave, not free workers.

Israeli-owned factories are located on nearby hills. These factories were denied licenses inside Israel because they were likely to pollute the soil and rivers. Here they were not blocked by the Israeli authorities. They pour polluted water from the factories, filled with noxious chemicals, into the streams nearby. The villagers say the cancer rate has risen.

The Israeli authorities have offered no apology, let alone recompense, to this father for the maiming of his body or the loss of his income or the traumatizing of his children on the night an Israeli missile was fired into his house.

Rabbis for Human Rights did raise money to help to pay for part of his medical treatment, and also money to replace a few of the olive trees.

During our visit, we heard many Israelis use the word "atrocities" when referring to attacks on Israelis by Palestinians. They are quite right--there have certainly been such atrocities. Three Israelis were killed during the very week of our visit.

But we heard few Israelis speak of the atrocities--almost 10 times as many deaths, about 200 times as many serious, permanently disabling injuries--inflicted by Israeli soldiers and settlers upon Palestinians during the last four months.

It might be an important spiritual discipline for people from both sides who talk of atrocities to be sure to describe in every such occasion the atrocities visited by each people upon the other.

Not, God forbid, to spark some "competition" in regard to counting atrocities, but to remind ourselves that both peoples are made up of human beings, both are suffering, and that indeed one of the peoples is suffering even worse than the other.

The Torah commands: "Justice, justice shall you pursue." The only workable approach I can imagine to apply this principle is to give the Israeli settlers an honorable and compassionate choice: Move back to Israel, or become citizens of a new Palestinian state, living under Palestinian law, just as Israeli citizens of Palestinian culture live under Israeli law without any special protection by the army of any Arab state.

This would have the added benefit of returning the Israeli Army to its core task of defending Israel. (Army officials just this week complained that occupation duty is depriving them of training time for possible defense of the country against military attack.)

It would also have the benefit of making almost all Israeli settlers and soldiers unavailable for becoming objects of the kinds of atrocious attacks that have been committed against some of them by some Palestinian attackers. (Almost all the Israeli deaths of the last three months have been in the occupied territories, not by terrorist attacks inside Israel.)

If as a rabbi I were to apply the rule of Deuteronomy 20:19--"Even if you are at war with a city, do not cut down its trees"--well, what indeed would I do?

And where might I decide to plant trees on Tu B'Shevat, the festival of the renewal of the Tree of Life that comes in deep winter?

Ascherman told us that in these months, fewer than 50 Israeli Jews and hardly any Diaspora Jews had made such visits to towns that are or have been under siege. Partly this was because the Palestinians have said they are fed up with useless "dialogue" and visits that serve only to "normalize" this state of affairs and to make the Israeli or overseas Jews feel they have been nice. So one Palestinian response has been to meet only with Israelis who are taking serious action to protect human rights or to end the occupation.

But partly, Ascherman said, the absence of Jews is because very few Israeli or American Jews are willing to confront their own pictures of reality by visiting these villages or meeting such Palestinians as human beings.

The Talmud teaches: On three things the world stands: truth, justice, and peace. But one of the rabbis responded: All these are one. For where truth is visible, justice is done, and peace is achieved.

Only if both peoples will open their eyes to see the truth of each other can justice be done and peace achieved.

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