A SHORTER VERSION OF THIS PIECE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON STATE OF FORMATION, AN ONLINE PUBLICATION FOR EMERGING RELIGIOUS AND ETHICAL LEADERS WHICH WAS FOUNDED AS AN OFFSHOOT OF THE JOURNAL OF INTERRELIGIOUS STUDIES, HOUSED AT CIRCLE, A SHARED CENTER AT HEBREW COLLEGE AND ANDOVER NEWTON THEOLOGICAL SCHOOL.
Abigail recently returned from a two-week-long Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East (UUJME) human rights delegation to Israel and Palestine. UUJME’s mission is “to promote peace and justice in Israel-Palestine, including a settlement of the conflict affirming the equality, dignity, freedom and security of all peoples involved.”
I believe in the power of narrative. Often, I see that as a positive thing—the power of stories to allow us to learn, to connect, to do activism. Yet narratives also have the power to divide, when two groups involved in the same conflict live and breathe two separate stories.
I saw that over and over again on our delegation to Israel and Palestine. People have written books about it. Two different stories of the Holy Land. Two different faces of the many coins of experiences. Over and over again, there they were.
We walk Jerusalem, the Holy City. Our guide points out the many aspects of occupation—the Israeli settlements taking up buildings and floors and rooms in Palestinian neighborhoods of the Old City, rimmed with barbed wire and Israeli flags. The way those settlers walk through the streets with private security guards in plainclothes, carrying guns below the hemlines of their t-shirts. Two of them to escort as few as one person. The security cameras everywhere, tucked into the ancient stones, constantly watching. The Israeli soldiers, glancing dispassionately at the people they are controlling, then going back to smoking or playing on their phones, assault rifles slung across their backs.
The Jewish Quarter of the Old City (where Muslims, including our guide’s grandparents, once lived), all full of wide plazas and clean, new stone apartment buildings. The young men doing a “Thank an Israeli Soldier Today” campaign and asking if we want to contribute. The old, now closed mosque in the Jewish Quarter, its minaret now dwarfed by a huge new synagogue next to it.
The group of Israeli youth, dressed in uniforms and looking so young I think they must be in some sort of scout program until I see their guns and am told they are soldiers, probably seventeen or eighteen.
And then, the Western Wall. The bar mitzvah happening there, all white and blue balloons and baskets of sweets. Shofars and music. Joy. Dance. My struggle to reconcile my understanding of the Israelis as the oppressors with my connection to this very human joy of family. I feel almost sick, trying to figure out how to feel toward these people.
I go up to the Western Wall. I hesitate to touch it. Not my tradition. Not my sacred site. But then I do, pressing my palm to the warm stones, stuffed with wadded prayers in every crack—even in dimples of stone I would never have believed could fit a piece of paper. I close my eyes and soak it in, the sounds of the wailing and Torah reciting and upbeat bar mitzvah dancing.
And it all shifts, like a camera lens twisting into focus. Eyes still closed, hand still on the wall, I feel this deep sense of connection—to all the hands touching the Wall, to all the hands that had ever touched the Wall, to the living souls around me and all the prayers they are carrying in their hearts and hands and paper scraps. I have this strange sensation of zooming out, the shot encompassing the whole Wall, the whole city, the millennia of layers of time. I feel it in my bones, the weight of all the tears, all the cries for peace that Jews—since the very beginning, the very destruction of this temple—have made. The Wall is telling me of how it carries the hope for peace in its very being, is alive with it. Shivering with divine power. And so I pray, for peace and justice and deliverance of all peoples from suffering. The same prayers so many have imbued the place with. And in that moment, I love all.
And, in the spirit of Robert Frost—something there is in me that doesn’t love a wall. It is painful, to see it, cutting—like a scar—across the countryside and along the road. The barbed wire and concrete panels rising high. I write in my journal later, It’s a prison fence, nothing else—you know it in your bones as soon as you look at it. Have we not learned lessons from the past? Have we not realized that treating a people like a prison population will never lead to peace? That wall, it says so many things, while still remaining silent. It is the true Wailing Wall people should be grieving at. Oppression looks like a wall. Somewhere deep within, all of us know that.
We meet with Zochrot, an Israeli organization which aims to help Israelis remember the events of 1948 and the displacement of Palestinians which occurred. When I ask about what Israeli people’s reactions are to Zochrot’s tours, the Zochrot presenter tells us that one of the reactions she often sees is disbelief—not believing it happened, especially with the stories have to do with more difficult aspects like massacre or rape.
The irony is painful. The Jewish people know the danger of such disbelief—they’ve experienced their share of Holocaust deniers. So then to deny the suffering of another people? To pretend it never happened, that the proof and stories are not enough? Why inflict that same frustration and hopelessness on another people? Or as the Talmud says (“What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it”) how come we cannot learn not to do to others what you hate to have done to you?
We go to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. It is visceral, those first-hand stories and photos and proof of the great suffering of the Jews—of the tragedy of the Holocaust. Of course I know the horror of the Holocaust—but this shows me it again. The unthinkable evil. The trauma the Jews still carry in their bones and blood and minds. The thing that hits me the hardest are the shoes—the huge glass case of the empty leather shoes of women and children and men—heels and oxfords and moccasins piled together like so many empty shells on a tragic beach.
I’ve heard of the shoes, left behind by the gas chamber victims, before, but seeing them—knowing the terrible, unjust end to the people whose warm flesh and blood had filled these shoes and walked so many steps in them—is like a punch to the gut. I feel physically sick with grief. I pray, grasping at God to bless these souls, to acknowledge their sacred presence in the land and air and our own human bodies, all interconnected. I have to believe it, that such evil could not completely snuff out the divine sparks of life from this universe.
I understand it, afterward, riding away from the museum on the bus and looking out the window at little boys in kippahs laughing and riding bikes—the longing to have a safe space, a homeland. A place where you never again have to fear being rounded up, being made different, having to die because of your beliefs or bloodline. What a beautiful, innocent dream for a hurting people. What a dream I can understanding having. A place for children to play and couples to love and elders to grow old in peace. An Eden.
And yet. An unrealized one. Or at least an imperfectly realized one. Because at the same time, the view that Yad Vashem opens up on—a panoramic vista of Israel—looks over the village of Deir Yassin, where Zionist paramilitary groups massacred Palestinian men, women, and children in 1948.
Because, as a Unitarian Jew in our group tells us how she used to bring dimes to the synagogue as a child to pay for planting trees in Israel, our guide tells us how the Israeli government planted those trees over the ruins of demolished Palestinian villages to hide them from sight.
Because no dream is ever simple, and they can turn easily to nightmares.
I think again of what a speaker has told us: “No one can out-victim the Jews. No one can beat the Holocaust.” And it’s true. Those unfathomable evils chronicled at Yad Vashem are unmatched. What the Palestinians are suffering is not another Holocaust, not exactly. So the solution is then, to me, not to out-victim the Jewish people. Not to guilt them into action. But to speak to their higher ideals—for them to be moved to work against injustice, just at the Righteous Among the Nations (memorialized at Yad Vashem) did during the Holocaust. Appealing to their better angels. Striving for that Eden, that dream, for all. On my journey, I saw that there are already Israelis and Jews feeling that call, wanting to be better—for Israel to be more. To truly be that dream, and not a recycling of the patterns Jews themselves once faced.
I think of Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again,” which sums up to me the pinnacle of true patriotism:
O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!
The dream of Israel was a beautiful thing, one now disfigured by ugly walls and hate. The dream of Judaism is a beautiful thing—those verses of Isaiah that say, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
Right now there are two stories. Two walls. Two visions of the future. But what would it look like if there were one—one rooted in justice, in a Holy Land that yet can be? A beautiful dream for both peoples? It’s not too late to make one.
All images: Abigail Clauhs.