On Monday I spent most of the day in Nablus, the Palestinian city also known as Shechem and a proposed sister city for Boulder. Having been involved in the opposition to this project, I wanted to see and experience for myself the culture of this place that is so close to the Israel that I know and love and yet an entirely different world in so many ways. I was very warmly welcomed by everyone I met and had a wonderful day hearing stories and wandering through the enchanted maze of the old city, seeing a traditional olive oil soap factory and sampling the local delicacy of sweet and stuffed shredded wheat, called kanafee, Unsurprisingly, there are so many aspects of this rich and vibrant place that are familiar to Jewish and Israeli culture and yet ways in which they are so far apart. There have been times in our shared history that have been positive and connected, defined through friendship; and now too many years of conflict, violence and hatred, as the two peoples seem destined to be enemies.
Even though I did find the posters of martyrs plastered around the old city very shocking, there was not even a moment that I felt unsafe or unwelcome. As I walked through the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem’s old city in the very early hours of the following morning on my way to pray at the Western Wall, I found myself noticing the stone memorials to our martyrs, people who have died al Kiddush HaShem, in sanctification of the holy name, on sites where Jews have been murdered throughout the years of this bloody conflict. I found myself wondering how they are the same and how they are different to the colorful posters of young fighters who have died for the Palestinian cause. My guide for the day, Majdi Shella, assured me that these posters are not honoring terrorists, suicide bombers who have killed innocent civilians, but are people who have died during the violent exchanges within the city between the IDF and the locals. He also told me that there are way, way less of them than there used to be! I don’t read Arabic, so I can neither confirm nor deny what he told me. When I asked Majdi directly if it would be safe to walk the streets of Nabus displaying obvious signs of being Jewish, he acknowledged that in some areas it might not be wise or safe, but that in the Old City and all of the neighborhoods we were in, it was totally fine. I intuitively liked and trusted Majdi very much though and enjoyed our time together.
We met in the Hotel Al Yasmeen and set an intention to be completely honest in our conversations and I think we were. As always, the issues are complex and there are different narratives and what is plain fact to one, may be questioned, or seen differently by another. Majdi has a compelling view of the world, which says that growing extremist, nationalist trends in the west and radical Islam in the east both contribute to a polarization of the forces of good and evil, and ultimately both have the capacity to separate, to deny connection, to cultivate fear and suspicion, and to perpetrate violence. “But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” This powerful quote by Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag Archipelago shared with me by Ovadiah, loudly protests against such false dichotomies. Yet we are afraid of the other. Madji fondly remembers his youth when he had good friendships with Israelis, who would often visit Nablus and he and his friends would go and hang out on the beach in Netanya, neither of which is possible anymore. Those of us not in one of these extremes need, I believe, to find ways to resist the stereotypes and commit to knowing one another. It is a form of protest. Ayman Shakaa is the director of Nablus’ Multipurpose Community Resource Center, bringing arts and culture and international connections to the city, including coordination of volunteers. We met in his office in the old city, attached to the mayor’s office. He shared some of the same sentiments as Majdi and confirmed that any talk of peace and reconciliation is meaningless unless there are possibilities for Israelis and Palestinians to work together, which is so hard under the current reality. However much the separation wall may have improved security, it also constantly perpetuates keeping the two people apart and makes co-existence less and less likely. I think there is some real value for all of us to understand and appreciate aspects of Palestinian culture and for us to work in different ways with the people and enjoy their wonderful hospitality as well as share some what we can offer, however I still remain in opposition to the official status of Nablus as a sister city to Boulder. Every day life for Palestinians is defined to a greater or lesser extent by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and, as I have seen for myself, there are some really bad things that happen there. However much we may accept or fight to change this reality, for now Palestinian identity is political in its resistance to Israel,and for a liberal, western city to have an official sister city relationship with Nablus, by definition, becomes attached to one side only of a very complex narrative. Many of us in the Jewish community strongly oppose some of the policies of Israel’s current administration along with thousands and thousands of Israelis, but we cannot risk, in my view, demonizing all of Israel. Similarly, there are no doubt Hamas cells in Nablus ready to act in violence, but we cannot demonize all Palestinians as terrorists. Genuine partnerships and co-existence projects, mostly on a grassroots, non-political level, are the only hope I believe.
Before I left Nablus, Majdi wanted me to see Jacob’s Well, the site of an ancient well said to be dug by Jacob and now the home of a beautiful Greek Orthodox Church. The place has sacred meaning for Jews, Muslims and Christians and the tragedy here is that the beloved priest Philoumenos, was brutally murdered with an ax in the church in 1979. The horrific crime has been blamed on local violent Jewish settlers, angry that this important holy site housed a church. Even, though we sadly have to acknowledge that there are settlers who have done appalling things over the years, it has never been proven that they were the perpetrators in this case, and that narrative is another way in which fear and hatred are maintained. Click here to see photos and videos of Nablus.
On Tuesday, after early morning prayers at the Kottel (the Western Wall), I went on a two day road trip with Hovav Paller, who many of you in Boulder remember fondly. We hiked around the area of Har Gilboa, swam in clear rivers and springs, and I got to see a whole part of the country, rich in Biblical references, that I had not experienced before. From there, we drove out to Kibbutz Ein Shemer, the venue for an iconic project called The Ecological Greenhouse. Any of you who have read Yossi Klein HaLevi’s brilliant book, Like Dreamers, may remember Avital Geva, the artist kibbutznik, who designed and built this massive greenhouse in 1977 that has become a center of education, ecology, creativity, art, exploration and co-existence with 100s of kids visiting the lab-style classrooms every week from diverse Jewish backgrounds, as well as from Arab and Palestinian schools. The project just became recognized by the Ministry of Education as an official school and is an inspiring, organic model of so much that is positive in Israeli culture and society. I got to meet Avital and his sons and dream together of collaboration and hope.
After a brief moment on the beach in Herzliya, we returned to Jerusalem and then I picked up a rabbinical student friend of mine, Ari Witkin, and we drove out to the West Bank for a powerful gathering out at the Judur/Shorashim/Roots project. Many of us have met activists from this organization in Boulder, whose aim is to bring together Jewish Settlers and Palestinians, who live on and love the same piece of land and come together beyond any political reality to form relationships, friendships based on acceptance of being neighbors, choosing to defy the notion that they should be sworn enemies. Every two weeks now, there is Cafe Judur, which is a simple social gathering in another large greenhouse, over coffee and tea and partnership. It was deeply inspiring to see the impact of this work and the genuine friendships that are being formed, through the willingness to build bridges rather than walls, to hear other narratives than our own, however painful.
Today is Thanksgiving, though you would not know that here. I was up very early and walked across the street to a 5.45am shacharit service in my local shul in the German Colony, where there were already about 30 people gathered learning Talmud before the first of two daily minyans. In a tired, pre-sunrise state of mind, I started reflecting on all the gratitude I have to be alive and to be here at this time, even with all of the uncertainty and conflict, and to have such a full and rich glimpse into some very hopeful dimensions of this beautiful and complex place, where I can swim in clear and pure waters and carefully walk over bridges of friendship that penetrate walls of hate. Tomorrow afternoon, I will have the gift of another Shabbat here in this place where the tastes and smells and rhythm of Shabbat are uniquely alive and we breathe her in our souls.
Whatever rivers and bridges we find ourselves in and on in these perplexing days, may hope and gratitude find us there too.
Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom,