Separation Fence

The “separation fence” running around and through the West Bank represents, to various observers:

·     A necessary security measure that dramatically reduced terrorism over the last 15 years.

·     A land grab, unilaterally reshaping Israel’s borders.

·     Racist domination, designed to keep “savages” away from civilized people.

·     An ugly scar, marring a beautiful landscape.

In different ways, these are each a piece of the puzzle. Traveling last week to Israel and the Palestinian Authority’s territories with Encounter, along with AC member Shifra Bronznick and 30-some others, learning about Palestinian perspectives on the conflict, I discovered that this concrete barrier is also an eruv.

As many of you know, Sabbath law prohibits carrying burdens, however small, and transferring items between private to public spaces. An eruv is a kind of Halakhic legal fiction, by which large spaces are enclosed by real or symbolic walls, transforming them imaginatively into a single private property, in which carrying would be permitted on Shabbat. Walk along upper Riverside Drive, on the park side, and you’ll notice a wire strung from lamp posts to telephone poles, marking that symbolic wall around much of Manhattan.

While crossing the Kalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, last Thursday, my traveling mates and I noticed that same tell-tale wire at a gap in the wall where cars pass through. I found this a haunting image, laying bare the limited options, poor choices and narrow vision that leaves Israel and the Palestinians yoked in brutal conflict.

Jewish sacred norms exist to sanctify life, to endow it with spiritual and moral purpose, with reverence and worship. Our norms should refine us, spurring us to more thoughtful, more virtuous, holier lives. I cringe to think of the clever rabbinic mind who looked at that grim concrete barrier one day and got a bright idea: “Cool! Not only can we keep the Palestinians away, on Shabbat we can carry snacks to guard duty!”

Was there no further reflection on the religious meaning of this symbol of division? Did it represent only a convenient prop for enabling Jews to observe a ritual detail? I am embarrassed at the thought.

I do not deny that the security barrier might be necessary. All who remember the almost daily bombings in restaurants and buses in 2001, 2002 and 2003 will concede that Israel must protect its citizens. And certainly it has. Terrorism has fallen precipitously. So perhaps we need this wall.

Yet my recent trip was a painful reminder that our beloved Israel – which I personally treasure and whose Zionist mission I still affirm, which is central to contemporary Jewish existence and my vision of our destiny – is also the source of great suffering to our neighbors.

In our own pain, we Jews are too seldom capable of recognizing their pain. Instinctively, defensively, I think, many feel that admitting the Palestinians’ trials would undermine Israel’s legitimate existence. We often feel this way about naming Israel’s moral challenges as it wrestles with its often vicious enemies. Can we not admit that we must fight terrorists, and must not lose our reverence for our enemies’ human lives? Can we defend ourselves, love our people and love our homeland without lurching into dehumanizing our neighbors? Can only one people thrive in this little land?

The difficult things I saw complicated but did not diminish my joy in Israel. As always, I adored being there: walking the streets, eating the food, speaking the holy language, breathing “the air of the Land of Israel, which makes one wise,” as the Talmud says [BB 158b]. I especially enjoyed spending time with five of our wonderful AC young people – Maxine Berman, Noam Kaplan, Lilith Shapiro, Kayla Taus and Ella Tav – studying this year in Israel. Whatever Israel’s challenges, od lo avda tikvateinu. “Our hope is not lost.”

At the same time, this recent trip spurred me to think about Israel’s successes and failures, and its challenges still to meet. Next Saturday is Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Pesach, in which rabbis traditionally give expanded words of Torah. As we prepare for the holiday of our liberation, I will speak about these themes, relating some more of what I saw and the ethical, spiritual, Judaic challenges these matters raise for me and, I hope, for us all. I will speak in the Sanctuary at the end of services, around 12 noon, to enable participation from those who attend any of our minyanim or who might not attend services at all. See you then.

A sweet and kosher Pesach to us all.