I'm having an amazing summer. Jerusalem is, in my friend Megan's words, "catnip for liberal rabbis," and it's possible to have experiences here that one can't really have anywhere else. Davening at the Kotel, walking the streets of the Old City, learning from and with rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum... Even when I leave Jerusalem, I get amazing Jewish experiences -- like the one I just had, welcoming Shabbat by davening at the very edge of the Mediterranean, singing as the sun sinks in to the glorious sea.
I'm also having a heartbreaking summer. My friend Yishay Mor pointed me to a new essay by Bassam Aramin called The Palestinian Bar Mitzvah. Bassam is the Palestinian co-founder of Combatants for Peace, and the essay begins:
My son Arab is 14, just past the age that his Jewish Israeli peers are celebrating their bar mitzvahs. This ceremony in Jewish culture is a rite of passage that marks a boy's entrance into the realities and responsibilities of adulthood. And last week, my son experienced something akin to the Palestinian bar-mitzvah.
Bassam's daughter Abir was killed by an IDF soldier at the age of ten in front of her school. In this essay he writes about his son Arab begging him to be allowed to accompany friends to a beach in the Galilee. He describes how he acquiesced, thinking of his daughter and all she didn't get to experience... and how Arab's bus was detained on the way home, and how the people on the bus were treated:
In the industrial neighborhood of Wad Al-Joz in Jerusalem, a group of Israeli Special Forces troops on motorcycles along with police and army reinforcements were stationed on the path the bus from Tiberias was taking to get its passengers, all legal residents of Israel, home. They demanded that the driver stop immediately. One of the soldiers got on the bus and said, "Anyone who moves his head, I’ll put a bullet in it." Arab said to me, "At that moment all I could think of was Abir, who really was shot in the head by a bullet."
The soldier continued, "We are from national security." He then told the young men, about ten of them, to begin taking off their clothes in the bus, in front of the women and girls. Then he took them out one by one and had them lie down on the filthy street, littered with stones and pieces of glass.
This is a hard story to read. Really hard. It breaks my heart and then stomps all over it for good measure. But I think it's important, and I hope you'll read it. I come away filled with respect for Bassam and the work he is doing, and filled with anger and sorrow that these things happen at the hands of my fellow Jews. I find a measure of hope in the story, by the end, but it's still painful.
I know some American Jews who come here and experience nothing but pleasure. For them, Israel feels like Jewish paradise: a place that functions according to Jewish rhythms, where Shabbat is truly a sabbath, where our holy language of prayer is a living spoken tongue, where great Jewish things are happening all the time everywhere you turn.
And I know some American Jews who come here and experience nothing but sorrow. Engaging with the matzav (The Situation) can be a perennial source of heartbreak. Spend time in the Territories, meet Palestinians, read stories like Bassam's, and it's easy to descend into a despair so bleak and all-encompassing that hope seems all but impossible.
In some ways, there's something easy about each of those extremes. Blocking out the bad and focusing only on the good, or blocking out the good and focusing only on the bad: either way one gets the luxury of absolute certainty about what Israel is and what it represents. And either of those attitudes toward Israel can calcify, can become a constraint that holds one in a particular political and emotional position.
For me the real challenge is holding both realities in my mind at the same time. Loving what I love about this place, and also being horrified and angered. Feeling empathy for Bassam and for his children (and others like them) -- and feeling empathy for the 19-year-old kids who are placed in the position of training guns on a bus full of strangers, whose souls are being damaged by the experience of being occupiers -- and also being able to cherish the sound of spoken Hebrew, the many flowerings of Judaism that arise here, and the many Israelis I know and love who are also struggling with this difficult mix.
The cognitive dissonance is exhausting. But I would feel dishonest if I were to eschew the dissonance and focus on either the all-good or the all-bad. Amazing and painful, beautiful and appalling, a source of pride and a source of shame: this place is always both/and. As I cross the midpoint of my Israel summer adventure, that's some of the deepest learning I'm receiving.