The following narrative and photos came from
Rabbi Mivasair in Jerusalem. Click on the photos to see enlargements.
Purim 5761 (March 2001)
On Thursday, the day before Jerusalem's three-day Purim began, a brief e-mail came from Rabbis for Human Rights. Netivot Shalom, a very small religious peace group here, was collecting money to purchase food relief for hungry families in Beit Surik, a Palestinian village just over the Green Line a few miles west of Jerusalem. Mishloach Manot for Purim. It said: Call Leah to contribute or to participate in delivering the food to a point near the village.
It struck me immediately as a meaningful thing to do. Undoubtedly, the families could use the food. We read daily about the desperate situation of people caught in villages under the Israeli seige now for five months -- no work, no money, no food, no schools, no access to medical care. Giving something to help, and maybe going on the trip, would be a good balance to the intentional silliness of Purim (We definitely had to be silly on Purim -- but if that is all we did, we'd feel like we'd ignored reality.)
Leah said they'd meet at Gan Ha-Pa'amon, a park two miles from our house, at 9 on Friday. That was the first of Jerusalem's three days of Purim, the day when we send "mattanot le-evyonim" -- gifts to the poor. I said we'd give we'd give a certain sum of shekels. She thanked me very deeply. I didn't know if that was a lot or a little. I was very interested in going, but didn't know if I would. It was Purim, after all, and I wanted to hear the megilla in the morning. Maybe the kids would have activities, who knows what. I wasn't even clear where Beit Surik was and, these days especially, wanted to be sure it would be safe. Michal has been very concerned about travelling in questionable places (understandably!) and I didn't want to take undue risks.
Michal surprised me by saying, in her wisdom, that it would be a great thing to do with Sophie and Yehuda. It would make mattanot le-evyonim very real. Last year in Vancouver, we personally took a contribution to a battered women's shelter on Purim, thinking of Esther and her sisters of all 127 nations and provinces. While we were there, our kids happened to meet kids their ages living in the shelter. They really got what it was about. We decided we'd go to Gan ha-Pa'amon with the kids and take it from there. If it seemed safe, we'd go. If not, we'd just give our shekels and go back home. On Thursday night we got dressed totally silly in our costumes, had a great dinner, and went to boo Haman, cheer Esther and Mordechai and raise a holy ruckus with our adopted community at Yedidya.
We left for Gan ha-Pa'amon not knowing who would be there or even if
we'd find anyone. Familiar faces greeted us. The tireless,
courageous director of RHR, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, with whom I went to
Harres village back in the fall, and the gentle and wise chair of the RHR
board, Rabbi Yehiel Greniman, were there with Leah and three guys with
kippahs who I didn't know. There was also a huge silver SUV
with gigantic "TV" and Arabic language "FOREIGN PRESS"
stickers on it indicating that it belonged to a news service and,
according to the unwritten rules of the game here, should not be
targetted by Palestinian stone throwers or driveby shooters. It
happened to also have a Canadian flag to project a total
"good-guy" image to everyone. (It was CBC film crew out
to get footage for a 15-minute program they're doing soon on the decline
and disarray of the Israeli left. I asked the reporter if we were
an example of that. He said, to the contrary, that Netivot Shalom
and RHR are about the only positive things he's seen happening on the
left lately.) In addition, the photo-journalist who'd gone along to
Harres with the Knight-Ridder writer was there. She'd just driven
back Thursday night from a three-week assignment in Baghdad and was very
relieved to be back in Israel where things are relatively normal.
There were also two American men with red baseball hats, members of the
Christian Peacemaker Team from Hebron, who'd come up to Yerushalayim for
A winding road took us a mile or so up the hills to the north. We entered Har Adar, a lovely Jewish hilltop settlement of a hundred or so spacious red-roofed single-family homes with lawns and gardens. Although the gardens were fairly mature, the houses couldn't have been more than 25 years old. The place was obviously built after '67. Bulldozers and building crews were still at work on a couple of lots. I couldn't tell which side of the Green Line we were on. Was this land taken by Israel in '67, technically a West Bank settlement? or was inside the Green Line before then and part of "Israeli proper"?
Past the last house, we went a couple hundred yards down a road that was lined on both side by an eight- or ten-foot high wire-mesh fence with olive and almond trees just beyond on either side. At one point, the fence went right across the road and had a gate in it to allow people to cross through. There was a tiny Israeli army post -- just a couple of guys with rifles sitting on chairs next to the road -- a hundred yards before the gate. Beyond the gate, a dozen or so cars with green and white Palestinian license plates were parked on sides of the road.
The gate was open. We drove right up to it. A slender, tired-looking Palestinian man came through. Arik and Leah greeted him right by one of the huge concrete blocks placed there to serve as gun barriers should shooting break out. He was Hisham (not his real name), the guy who Arik and Leah have been in touch with. He was going to take the food in his old car back to the village, which was over the hill and out of our sight, and distribute it to families who are absolutely destitute. Hisham appeared to be in his late thirties or forties. One of the Jewish men with us had worked with him before the current intifada to try to get the authorities to bring electricity into his village, which still has no electric service. Hisham was little hunched over and spoke quietly with obvious anxiety. He didn't want to carry the food himself through the gate. Would we carry it?
Sure, we would, but why?
His ribs hurt. He explained that's why he's kind of hunched over. He was shot by a rubber bullet in his lower chest on the side. He sometimes comes through the fence to work on construction sites in Har Adar. With permission. When he comes through, he has to give his ID card to the soldiers and gets it back when he leaves. One time not long ago, after he got it back, he was walking away from the soldiers toward the gate to go home. One of them call to him. He turned around and they fired four shots -- for nothing. One hit him in the ribs. It hurt terribly and still does. After several days he went to the doctor and was told he has fractured ribs. They can't put them in a cast. Have to do an operation. But, when? Where? How to pay for it?
We were shocked. Just how many abuses can a people take? Arik and one of the other men with a kippah who I later learned is Rabbi Shaul Feinberg, associate dean of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, asked Hisham if he reported the incident. Reported to who? Who would do anything? Tell us the details, we replied, we'll follow through with it. We'll see what can be done.
While we were talking, another Palestinian man walked down the road from Har Adar, on our side, carrying two bags of groceries and simply stepped through the gate and went on his way. I noticed on the other side of the gate, the first car parked there with Palestinian plates was a very sleek and shiny brand new black Mercedez Benz. Hmmm . . . wonder who that belongs to and where they went after they crossed through the gate. And right in the middle of the road, near the gate, just beyond Hisham's beat up old car, was a very nice new white car. Two young Palestinian guys were just hanging around it, obviously waiting for someone or something. Maybe they were going to go through the fence to work. Maybe picking up someone on the way home. I noticed a Palestinian woman in a red traditional dress with a couple of kids picking something -- sticks for kindling? -- in a small cluster of almond or plum trees. All of us under the same sun on the same small patch of land. Such different lives.
While I was watching and listening, the civilian security patrol from Har Adar drove up, lights flashing. What's going on here? Arik calmly explained that nothing at all was going on, no trouble, no problems. We really don't need any help, thank you. We just brought some food for people on the other side.
Then, the Israeli soldiers walked into the conversation. One of them heard what Hisham had said about being wounded and began screaming that it was all lies. No shots had been fired here, none at all. There was never any trouble here! No one ever got shot here! If we didn't believe it, we could check their records. It was all lies.
This was kind of hard to process. Was Hisham lying? Did any of
us really know him? Was the soldier just lying to us, covering
up? Or, possibly, the soldier, obviously a reservist called up for
brief duty from his regular life somewhere in Israel, simply not know
everything that had happened here in the past few weeks . . .
The soldiers left; the civilian security guards drove back up the road to
the village. We started carrying the food through the fence and
loading it into Hisham's car. He watched and directed, moving slowly,
visibly uncomforable. Michal and I were interested to get to know
him and the situation a bit better. We talked a little. He
told me he was chair of the village committee. When I asked, he
told me the new houses at the top of the hill were being built on land
taken from his village.
Michal went to talk with the other two younger guys with the white car. Where were they from? His village? She couldn't really understand their answers. I noticed that they were very well dressed and had fresh sharp haircuts. They definitely did not look as if they were suffering from the closures or anything else. Just a couple of young guys hanging around in the sunshine.
Then, when we'd loaded about half the food -- sacks of rice, cases of flour, sugar, cooking oil, canned vegetables -- into his car, Hisham told us he had to go. We should take the rest of the food to Shaul's house in Har Adar and he'd get it another time. And that's what we did. We stopped loading his car and all of us went back onto our side of the fence. Hisham drove away up the road and disappeared over the hill toward his village.
Securely back on our side of the fence, Arik explained: Hisham did not know those two young men and didn't like the way they were just sitting there watching him. He was very worried that they were from the Palestinian "Shabak" -- the secret security police who try to keep their people from being too friendly with our people. Gettinging aid from us would weaken the people's will to continue the struggle. Hisham was afraid that they would severely punish him for receiving food from us or, at the very least, demand a cut of it. Talk about between a rock and a hard place.
The whole time we were there, just a few yards away, a Palestinian mom and her kids were gathering twigs in this lovely grove of almond -- or are they plum? -- trees. The kids were friendly and shouted "Shalom, Shalom!" when I walked over. The mom did not even glance up at me.
We went back to Shaul's house in Har Adar, right over the top of the hill -- gorgeous views, lovely garden with a patio, swings for the grandchildren, antique furnishings, a mellow old dog, a Latin American cleaning woman. Michal remarked to me that it was like West Van. The contrast to the scene a few hundred yards away was striking.
We wondered about Hisham. Was he OK? Did he get home? or mugged on the way? Shaul tried calling him on his cellphone. No answer. We enjoyed a most pleasant visit in Shaul's house for an hour or so and then headed home to get ready for Shabbat, still wondering. What had we just seen? Did Hisham really give out food to people? Who were those guys? Were they going to beat him up? or worse? How was it that Palestinians walk right in and out of the gate? One even carrying groceries. And no one checking them. How could Hisham tell us he was shot in the ribs and the soldier insist that it was a lie? And Shaul, the peace activist, living in a gorgeous house a few hundred yards over the Green Line. Just how do you put all this together?
Purim is the day when we know that we don't know. On Purim, we get to the level where we just can't tell Baruch Mordechai from Aror Haman. The concealed is revealed and realize all over again that the revealed conceals.
As soon as Shabbat was over this evening, I called Shaul. He heard from Hisham a couple of hours after we left. It was suddenly raining cats and dogs. Hail was falling on the village. Hisham said no one would be out at that time. He wanted to come and get the rest of the food. Shaul took it to the fence and loaded it into his car. Once again, Hisham drove off.
Purim, among many other things, is about the complexity of the layers of reality and our unwillingness and inability to see them all. The "eitz", the tree that Haman put up for us and which ultimately caught him, grew from the seed of the original "eitz ha-da'at tov ve-ra" -- the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Paradigms of right and wrong don't tell it all. I believe Hisham is helping people with food relief. I believe those other two slick Palestinians would rather let other Palestinians come near starvation rather than take relief supplies from sympathetic Jews. I saw Jews helping who live on stolen land.
Tomorrow, our festivities will continue. We need to hold onto the frivolity of Purim, joy in life. We need to hold onto the fragility of life and our excitement to be a part of it. We need to remember that each of us is Esther and can do courageous acts as partners of HaShem. If we don't, as Mordechai said to Esther, "Help will come from another place." But, also as Mordechai said to Esther, maybe we are here, now, to do just exactly what needs to be done. We need to be that Place, we need to hear like Esther and bring redemption in ways that only human beings can do. And at the same time, remember the joy and light in our lives.
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