Yesterday was one of the more challenging days on the Bronfman Youth Fellows summer, our first full foray into the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While we had already visited the Knesset earlier in the week, including meeting with MK Dov Lipman and staff members of Labor MK Stav Shaffir and PM Bibi Netanyahu (with a spontaneous Knesset hall chat with Labor MK Merav Michaeli) those experiences were in the relatively air-conditioned corridors of power.
Our day Wednesday was about the heat of engagement: a four hour tour with Ir Amim, which tracks settlement and infrastructure policy in East Jerusalem; a two hour tour through the Mount of Olives cemetery with Settler Activist Yishai Fleisher; and finally, another two hours with Palestinian journalist Ziad Khalil Abu Zayyad, founder of the Middle East Post, which is a blog about politics in the region.
There are many aspects of one's day on the Bronfman Youth Fellowships program that one could argue are "essential" experiences; and I suppose what was particularly resonant for me yesterday was that this summer, my fifth as a faculty member for BYFI, I have chosen to teach a variety of texts in a class which I'm calling "Foundation Documents of Jewish and Palestinian Nationalism."
Given the ever-shifting dynamics (and this summer we have witnessed US Secretary of State Kerry's efforts toward creating peace talks to be a potentially welcome step toward peace), I thought it would be useful to look at some of the "sacred texts" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict up close.
We have read Pinsker's "Auto-Emancipation," essays by Asher Zvi Ginzberg (Ahad Haam) and Theodor Herzl along with the First Zionist Congress' Basle Declaration, the Balfour Declaration, Negib Azouri's "Program of the League of the Arab Fatherland," exchanges between Emir Feisal and Chaim Weizmann, the Arab Republic Manifesto, the PLO Constitution and Charter, Fatah's Seven Points, along with poetry--from Tchernikovsky and Bialik to Mahmoud Darwish. We've looked at a few maps, too.
It's a lot to cover in four 75 minute sessions. I haven't made it through all the material yet. But that's hardly the point.
The genius of this program for the 26 North American teens who participate is to plant seeds for further learning and understanding, on one hand, and give them the tools to make connections throughout the summer and beyond for how varieties of ideas and institutions in ancient and contemporary Jewish life are bound together by a highly complex but inspiring narrative of the ever-evolving Jewish people.
So there we were yesterday, wilting in the heat of the day but pressing ahead to understand and grasp borders, agreements, housing policies, municipal boundaries, checkpoints and the mosaic of geopolitical issues from tombs and taxis to fresh mint tea. Off in the distance from Har Homa, a controversial settlement in southeast Jerusalem, one can see Herodium, where King Herod is buried, not too far in the distance in the West Bank. Or Judea. Or the Occupied Territories. We talked about Ottoman deeds and British Mandates and Jordanian law and Israeli law and the United Nations and Bush and Clinton and Barak and Arafat and Bibi and Abbas and Kerry and Obama.
E1, while our guide explained what could go right and what could go wrong in the weeks ahead, I hoped the Fellows were also hearing voices of those we read. I hoped they heard, echoing beyond the crows cries and historical documents, the words from the Hebrew poet Shlonsky, "Here the lovely city says the morning prayer to its Creator. And among the creators is your son Abraham, a road-building bard of Israel," while simultaneously the wind carried the Palestinian poet Darwish, "Today Job cried out, filling the sky: Don't make an example of me again!" Because everyone and everything makes history here in the land.
From there we went to walk in the Jewish cemetery in the Mount of Olives. We walked among stones and burial plots, looked down upon the City of David and the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount, reminding ourselves of a Jewish presence in the land of Israel for more than three thousand years while contending with documents of Palestinian nationalism which decry Zionism as a mere colonial and imperial construct, a foreign element in the land. We were led around by a Jewish media professional and Settler Activist named Yishai Fleisher, who lives in a Jewish settlement in the middle of the Palestinian neighborhood Ras al Amud. This settlement was built by American right-wing philanthropist Irving Moskowitz and is highly controversial. Fleisher walks about the graveyard, charismatically telling his story: Israeli born, law school and dissatisfying career in the U.S. followed by desire to return to Jerusalem to claim the land and tell the triumphant story of Jewish history. Beneath the Rastafarian man purse on his hip, Fleisher totes a handgun. He says he doesn't feel welcome in his neighborhood which he does not call by its Palestinian name but instead refers to as Maale Ha-Zeitim.
In one rhetorical burst of energy, Fleisher says that "Arabs" (he purposely avoids the term "Palestinian") will live in a "modified democracy" in his version of the Jewish state. They will be granted provisional rights. He says, "This place was created first as a Jewish state, then a democratic state." But my students know their documents. One of them leans into me and says, "But didn't we read in the Israel Declaration of Independence that Israel will 'uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens?'" Ben Gurion's voice colliding with Fleisher's.
Ben Gurion who built homes here; Fleisher, who rents from a Floridian casino owner. Rich and troubling experiences. At one point, Fleisher led us to Menahem Begin's grave and told moving stories about Begin's request to be buried on the Mount of Olives next to two Jewish freedom fighters who killed themselves in order to also kill British soldiers during the Mandate period. "Suicide bombers," one student noted. "We each have them." In the distance Fleisher gestured to the Temple Mount as Muslim worshippers left the al Aqsa mosque and their Ramadan prayers. He spoke passionately of the Third Temple.
David Samuels interview with Maen Rashid Areikat, Palestine's Ambassador to Washington in which he couldn't acknowledge a Jewish presence in Jerusalem from two thousand years ago) one could certainly understand the frustration with the denial of historical narratives. Still, here was a Jewish settler smiling but denying the existence of a Palestinian people while angrily decrying their denial of a Jewish people.
Pretty nutty stuff.
But we're Jews and our textual tradition demands we end with hope. So it was that Ziad Khalil Abu Zayyad, a twenty-seven year old journalist from East Jerusalem and founder of the Middle East Post, spoke to the fellows for more than two hours, just after having finished his Ramadan fast. He was expansive and generous and honest in his remarks. He had ease with the Jewish narrative and pride in his Palestinian identity. He was, for all of us, a sign of great promise for two nations sharing the land in peace.
It's generally the BYFI ethic with regard to the study of texts that we claim their relevance in our lives because they represent for us a living, ongoing expression of Jewish civilization for more than three thousand years. And while it may be dangerously habitual of us to think that texts bind us to the past, in fact what we learn is that as precedent for understanding they root us in the past while releasing us into a present and future with new understanding.
The base of a mountain is its foundation. But the climb upward, if we're willing to make it, demonstrates strengths we may never have known we had while revealing to us new vistas, from new angles, for a future we may never could have imagined down below, in the past.