Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Letter from Alon Shevut ...

People have asked me how it is living in Alon Shevut at the current time. The answer, in short, is… it's complicated.

On the one hand, there is pain, tension, some fear and much frustration.

Let's start with the pain. Last week, a beloved friend and community member, Yaakov Don z"l, was murdered just outside the gates of our Yishuv. (In the same attack, 18 year old Ezra Schwartz z"l was killed.)

The entire community of Alon Shevut has been thrust into deep mourning. Yaakov was an incredible dynamo of warmth and positive energy in the community and a dear friend to many. (I have written more about him here.) Many of our children are friendly with his children, or were inspired by his teaching and leadership in one of our local schools. Yaakov's terrible murder has brought the recent wave of terrorism home to us in a most immediate manner - into our hearts and souls - emotionally, viscerally, as an ever-present consciousness.

Tension - as the roads and sidewalks are simply unsafe. The violence, knife and car attacks started in Jerusalem some weeks ago, but now, Gush Etzion Junction, not 3 minutes from my house, has the unsavory status as the most dangerous spot in Israel, with over 10 attacks in the past month and 4 people killed just this week.  If Alon Shevut wasn't "famous" before, for its hitchhiking station nearby from which the "three boys" were abducted and murdered in the summer of 2014; now - with almost daily attacks - we feel vulnerable, tense, even fearful for our safety and that of our loved ones. After the 3 boys were abducted last year, we instructed our children not to hitchhike, but now after our friend Yaakov was murdered in a drive-by terrorist shooting, what shall we say to our children and spouses? Not to drive to work? Not to cross the road?  

And here comes some of the frustration, because prior to this, Gush Etzion was perceived, by its residents and by others, as a place of moderation and tolerance. Our local supermarket, Rami Levy, was a paragon of Arab-Jewish coexistence with Arabs and Jews shopping side by side, smiling at one another as we queued at the checkout, wishing each other a "Ramadan Karim!" and a "Shanna Tova!" Business was expanding, and the community was looking forward to the opening of a new shopping mall, for Arabs and Jews alike, a further step to normalization in the district. Gush Etzion's key rabbinic figures – Rabbis Amital, Lichtenstein and Riskin - were political moderates; its highly-educated population represents a more tolerant and open model than the classic "settler" stereotype. Gush Etzion was a pastoral, rural area in which our kids would walk, guitar in hand to swim in the local spring, as Jewish joggers and bikers would ride in-between Arab farmed vineyards in their weekend exercise. Our boutique winery, bakeries, restaurants and beauty spots had become increasingly attractive as tourist venues.

But now it feels as if this has all radically changed. Now, Gush Etzion Junction looks like a fortified army camp with security barriers and close-circuit cameras in every direction, a military watchtower and over 20 infantry soldiers in full battle gear keeping us safe.
Soldiers at Gush Etzion Junction
The Arabs are not shopping at the local supermarket. And the prospect of any co-existence seems elusive, and maybe completely impossible. In order to protect my children as they take an 8 minute walk to school, they pass at least four points at which armed guards are stationed. This is what we have to do to be safe; but it is a steep price to pay.

And we wonder - will it all return to normal after this wave of violence, or is our neighbourhood forever changed?

But in contrast to all this, the events surrounding Yaakov Don's murder has exposed real dignity and beauty, strength and determination, and yes – hope!

Mosaic in Yaakov's memory
Let me share a little about what went on in Alon Shevut this past week.

From the moment that we received the terrible news of Yaakov's murder, the entire community sprang into action in the most remarkable of ways. That weekend was supposed to be "Shabbat Irgun," an annual celebration of Bnei Akiva, the local youth movement. It is the crescendo of a month of frenzied youth activity, and that Thursday night had been earmarked as the annual "White-Night" as the kids would stay up through the night having fun and putting the finishing touches to their plays, presentations and the like.

At 6pm we heard the awful news, and celebration turned to mourning. At 8pm, the kids – over 300 of them from age 9 to 18 – gathered in the local youth center. The recited Psalms, they cried, they sang slow songs of yearning and sorrow, they divided into discussion groups to voice their fears and sadness. Parents guided some of the events behind the scenes, but in truth, the youth demonstrated such maturity, such greatness of spirit in absorbing the shock as they took comfort, in prayer, tears, and togetherness.

Some of the youth proceeded to the site of the murder, setting up a memorial stone and lighting candles. Some spent the night in a mosaic studio, making an incredible mosaic of a verse that encapsulates the sorrow over the death of Yaakov (Jacob) as well as their determination to continue: God will have compassion on Jacob; once again he will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land. (Isaiah 14:1).

The circle of song
Friday was the funeral. Thousands came. The celebratory youth Shabbat was postponed. However, 24 hours later, after Shabbat, the entire community gathered in our basketball court. It started with a small circle of youth singing songs from the Rosh Hashanna liturgy: "Hamol" – Have mercy of Your creations, "Ochila La-el" – I plead to God, "Rahem" – Have mercy upon Israel Your nation… on Jerusalem your holy city; "Hassoph" - … the days are long and there is no end to the days of evil; and other such songs. The circle widened and widened, until it filled the entire stadium. An entire community of children, surrounded by their parents, arm in arm, grieving together, singing together; it was a beautiful moment of faith and spirit.

After the songs, we proceeded to march to the Gush Etzion Junction with flags and song. What were we saying? I don't know!   - That we are here, that this is our home, that we will overcome! We stood together, sang Hatikva, Ani Maamin and returned home as a community - united.
A new parochet for the Bnei Akiva snif, Inscribed in Yaakov's memory,,, a reference to Yaakov and Torah (and Shevet Morasha) "The Inheritance of the Community of Yaakov"

The entire week of the shiva has seen the community rally around the Don family - the youth with their friends, the adults providing an endless supply of food, cleaning, and assistance of every kind . The house could barely contain the size of the minyanim, the endless flow of friends, neighbours, students, politicians who came to greet and console the family.

The violence has spurred neighbours and local people into remarkable activity. One woman organized a rally of several hundred mothers, demanding safety on our roads. On Thursday morning, as the Shiva came to an end, in a gesture of commemoration and defiance, "Derekh Avot" - the school in which Yaakov Don worked, held their morning prayers at Gush Etzion Junction and then marched and danced the kilometer back to their school.

The security forces that have flowed into the area to provide security and protection, have been met by droves of people in Efrat and beyond, families who have barbecued for the troops, offered food, laundry and showers. I encountered two soldiers yesterday in the evening cold. I offered to buy them a coffee from the local café. They replied: "We've eaten far too much today; people have been overwhelming in their generosity." The kindness and strength of the wider Gush Etzion community has revealed beauty and resilience, friendship, love and determination to continue.

And life continues... Alon Shevut celebrated two weddings this week as its children build their own homes! Next week, "Shabbat Ha-Irgun" will be celebrated in the Yishuv in the traditional manner.

I have yet to hear one person express a sentiment of "Death to Arabs" or a call for revenge. I have heard words of determination to continue, despite the violence, to develop our communities and institutions so that Gush Etzion can continue to thrive. I have heard people speak of the Jewish roots here in this region, with a Jewish presence that extends to Temple times. I have heard people recall Gush Etzion of 1948, four small settlements, that were overrun and destroyed by Jordanian troops on the eve of Israeli independence, many of the residents massacred, and the years of yearning to return, eventually realized in the Jewish restoration of the region following the Six Day War by a small, resolute group of idealistic pioneers. Today, Gush Etzion numbers over 50,000 people living, working and studying here. Despite the violence, we have the privilege to live in a beautiful region of our national homeland. Our educational institutions are among the finest  in Israel. Our children are proud of their home, despite the price it sometimes demands.  We are truly blessed.

One year ago, a Palestinian killed a young woman, Dalia Lemkus z"l, by ramming his car into a local bus stop. Our children decided that the best response would be to create a human chain,
an act of hope and defiance, to express that they embraced life; not death. Our enemies seek to kill and we embrace life; they destroy and we build. We vow that our enemies cannot deter us from building our special communities in this historic place.

This is the source of our hope.


Anonymous said...

You say that you "have yet to hear one person express... a call for revenge" yet the photo of the new Bnei Akiva parochet, your symbol of communal unity in response to the murder, clearly shows "הי"ד", "may God avenge his death".

Alex Israel said...

A nice and fair video for Hebrew speakers. Worth watching:
"Gush Etzion - from co-existence to Terror and Despair"

Alex Israel said...

Dear Anonymous,
First, if you already issuing a critique, it would be polite not to hide under the veil of anonymity.

Second, HY"D (lit. may God avenge his blood") has become a standard honorific title for anyone killed because they are a Jew. It symbolizes that the person was killed due to their Jewish status, rather than dying a normal death.

Furthermore, Judaism frequently calls for God to exact vengeance; but this is precisely the point - rather than humans engaging in vigelante violence, we appeal to God to exact justice in response to unjust violence. In the case of Yaakov, and Ezra Schwartz z"l, I have no qualms in asking God to exact justice by punishing the perpetrators. They fully deserve it, and I am sure that a God will know what to deal them and how. If only the world was that fair!
So on all accounts, one could hardly describe HY"D as a call for revenge in the sense indicated by my article.

Melinda Jones said...

Thank you for sharing this. Building resilience is a challenge in easier times, but the youth of Gush Etzion seem to have something very special. Those of us in the diaspora share the pain from a distance and send a prayer that your community can go back to walking and working alongside your Arab neighbours.

marci wiesel said...

Thank you Alex for putting this into words for me.

Yuliya Mazur said...

Thank you, Alex! Alon Shvut is indeed in all of our hearts after the "three boys". May the community find at least some comfort and may we all know peace soon.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alex,

What is happening to your community is tragic. And yet you are being dishonest to describe your presence as a model of coexistence, when your Arab neighbors do not enjoy the same political rights as you. You may not feel like a "settler" but you are one nonetheless. And you will remain one until either you are living under Palestinain rule, or your Arab neighbors are granted full citizenship of Israel.

Anonymous said...

Dear Rav Alex,

I guess it is too bad that those living under martial law with no voting rights, virtually non-existant legal rights, no building permits, no travel rights, illegality to live within the comfortable confines of any of the Gush Etzion Jewish settlements, and who understand all too well that while Israel enjoys the good life this could go on another 50 years, won't all put up nicely with the beautiful fact that Baruch Hashem they can share a supermarket with the Israelis of Gush Etzion.

Please tell me one, just one, instance in the entire history of mankind that any population has ever put up with military occupation to enable a ethnocentric settler-colonial society to exist on condition of its exclusion.

The tragedy of Gush Etzion is how otherwise intelligent, sensible, moderate and reasonable people have come to believe that there is such thing as a humane or tolerable occupation, and that the Jewish colonies of Gush Etzion are any less an apartheid than any of the other Jewish settlements of the rest of the post-1967 military occupation with utterly non-consensual militarily enforced administration of the non-citizen prior residents ("natives"/Palestinians).

Sentimentality, as 100% understandable as it is, and as much as I must empathise with your situation, is no excuse for complicit collusion with the inevitable downfall and moral catastrophe of the militaristic messianic (Religious) Zionist project.

Apologies to be harsh, but under the cloak of social media anonymity, perhaps this is the forum where the truth can begin to be heard, and the fear of the contemporary mainstream religious Jewish fascistic group-think can recede for a virtual moment.

With the greatest respect,

A Talmid

Bernard Weinstein said...

Dear anonymous writer -

You write:
"The tragedy of Gush Etzion is how otherwise intelligent, sensible, moderate and reasonable people have come to believe that there is such thing as a humane or tolerable occupation, and that the Jewish colonies of Gush Etzion are any less an apartheid than any of the other Jewish settlements of the rest of the post-1967 military occupation"

My response to you is as follows:
To quote you: "the (true) tragedy is how otherwise intelligent, sensible, moderate and reasonable people" have not been interested in reading what Palestininians themselves actually believe. Official Palestinian writings refer to wherever you are living in Israel (including PRE- 1967 boundaries) as "occupied territories" – making no distinction between killing Jews living in Tel Aviv or killing Jews living in Gush Etzion.

I am assuming that you have never read the documentation that unequivocally substantiates that Palestinian society educationally, religiously and culturally teaches that Killing Jews – living in both pre- 1967 boundaries and post 1967 boundaries - is a holy goal. If you are interested in the documentation to substantiate this - you may find it in Palestinian Media Watch and other equivalent sources that simply quote verbatim how Palestinians write about themselves.

In a similar vein, I would be interested in reading your response to the fact that the PLO with its OFFICIAL mandate to destroy the state of Israel (which as per the PLO's own official charter was NEVER legally rescinded by the criteria that that very same charter demands) - was established in 1964 (i.e. 3 years before whatever it is you refer to as the "occupation).

Given that the PLO mandate to destroy the state of Israel began BEFORE what you refer to as the "occupation" - and given that the PLO to this day continues with the identical rhetoric it had before 1967 (viz. to both destroy the "zionist entity" & kill Jews living anywhere in the state of Israel - referring to ANY such Jew as "settlers"), I do not understand why you somehow believe that morally speaking - Israel should grant legal voting rights to a people whose official legal leadership has never accepted that there is a moral-legal basis to Jewish sovereignty anywhere in the Middle East.

You also write:
"Perhaps this is the forum where the truth can begin to be heard, and the fear of the contemporary mainstream religious Jewish fascistic group-think can recede for a virtual moment"

My response to your mocking simplification of "mainstream religious Jewish group-think" is:
Perhaps this is the forum where the truth can begin to be heard, and the moralistic voice of contemporary mainstream leftist Jewish group- think can recede for a virtual moment.

Finally, you write:

"Please tell me one, just one, instance in the entire history of mankind that any population has ever put up with military occupation to enable a ethnocentric settler-colonial society to exist on condition of its exclusion".

My response:
Given that Palestinian official teachings refer to both pre and post 1967 Israeli Jews as "settlers" -
Please tell me one, just one instance, where an equivalent majority culture treated an equivalent minority culture with the type of compassion that the Israeli army has treated the civilians of its sworn enemy (as per warning Palestinian civilians by the thousands to evacuate areas used by its popularly elected leadership to indiscriminantly bomb the civilians of its sworn enemy) - and whose citizens from the majority culture have built the type of symbolic gesture of peace that you so sarcastically dismiss as meaningless.

Please tell me one, just one instance of such compassion for the "other".

Bernard Weinstein

not resigned said...

Dear Bernard Weinstein,

I suggest you watch the excellent film that Rav Alex posted. (I assume with your fierce nationalist consciousness you should be able to understand the Hebrew!)

Pertinent quotes for non-Hebrew speakers:
The director of the Kfar Etzion field school: "I think that in the passage of time, there are two options: either we will not be here, or there will be full equality between all the inhabitants here".

Rav Shlezinger of Alon Shvut: [with reference to a children's book teaching that the oak tree of Alon Shvut was abandoned and alone before 1967] "this is false: there were children here - Arabs were living in the area, but from the perspective of the author these people do not exist; they are transparent and not part of the consciousness. I want to educate my children that this tree is not only ours but belongs to everyone".

I could not imagine someone who actually lives in the actual tapestry of daily life of Jews and Arabs in the Gush Etzion could write thoughts of such Spartan thuggery as you have done. I certainly could not imagine if I was in yeshiva again today that I would ever imbibe such a spirit of supremacist hatred from Rav Alex's teaching and Torah.

I feel for the predicament of the residents of Gush Etzion and these must be trying times. History has never been kind to the success of military occupations and Gush Etzion is secured and facilitated by military occupation and military administration no less than any other part of Yehuda v'shomron. Anyone who has pointed this out from 1967 until today has been lambasted as an anti-redemption anti-irredentist party-pooper.

Unlike the brave voices on Rav Alex's film that he posted, I regret I must remain anonymous as in the diaspora Orthodox Jewish community, voices of even sympathetic dissent are not tolerated, due to a sense of being under national threat. Unfortunately I worry this will only get worse if things potentially unravel as many fear in Israel. In which case, all Jews everywhere will suffer spiritually and physically, and there is no justification for smugness or arrogance whatever ones views.

Kind regards,

Rav Alex's talmid (a second and final posting on the matter - sorry Rav Alex for filling your comments page)