Pastoral in Palestine
During the late winter and spring of 2011, I was living in Ramallah and teaching just outside East Jerusalem, at the Abu Dis campus of Al-Quds University, in a collaborative program set up by the University and Bard College. The reports reprinted here were initially sent back to some friends curious to learn what life was like in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank. My experience of that life was limited. Without Arabic or Hebrew, I could converse only with those Israelis and Palestinians who spoke English. I was not allowed to visit the horrors of Gaza, nor did I spend time in the refugee camps or the villages, where the burdens of the Occupation are considerably more oppressive than they are in Ramallah itself or at my university. Nevertheless, I got to see and hear a good deal; I leave the judgment of the pertinence of these accounts to my reader. They form part of a pamphlet soon to be published by the Prickly Paradigm Press.
15 March: the Tarifis, Itamar murders
Time to pay my rent. I walk around the corner to the storefront office of Al-Tarifi Real Estate, the owners of my building and of the other shops alongside theirs—a sweetshop, a dry cleaner’s, a pharmacy, a bakery, a minimart and a now defunct café, soon to be something else, I’m told. It’s too bad about the café, named, its owner told me, The Birth Café in honor of the rebirth of Ramallah after the withdrawal of the IDF some years ago. He was a slight man in his thirties with a large, strikingly thin, salient nose that made him look like a scaled-down version of Wilfred Hyde-White, the great, urbane British character actor. The café owner was urbane in his own right. He had a university degree, had traveled, spoke several languages, but could find no serious professional work in the West Bank. He’d take the proceeds of selling his restaurant equipment and put it into a clothing shop he owned elsewhere in Ramallah, he told me. He was a skilled cook: I’d had some good meals there in the days before he closed the place down, sitting in this too dark, lounge-like setting, and talking with him—(I was usually his only customer). He liked novels, and wanted me to recommend some in English: I’d suggested Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate and Don DeLillo’s The Names, thinking he knew enough about the Middle East, and the world, to appreciate them. On politics, on “the Situation,” he was a pessimist, though he was enthusiastic about what was happening in Egypt these last weeks.
We talked about the neighborhood and I told him I enjoyed dealing with the Tarifis, his landlords and mine, which surprised him. He saw them as too concerned with money—perhaps the judgment of a tenant on the verge of losing his lease. And it could be true, but still my visits to their office—to ask for a better reading lamp, to borrow a vacuum cleaner, to (mistakenly) report a leak in the propane tank—have been a pleasure. My actual landlord, Khaled, the man who signed my lease, is the oldest of ten children of a man whose family, in 1948, was driven out of a village named Tarif. (No way to find it on a contemporary map—it was demolished and replaced with housing for Israelis). Since then members of the family—Khaled, his parents, and at least one of his siblings—have spent time on the Near North Side of Chicago, and it shows: except for his father’s puffing on a waterpipe instead of a cigar, as he holds court in the front room of the narrow suite of offices, chatting but keeping an eye on the street, we could be in the opening chapters of Augie March: the Old Man, his sons, the young building manager learning the ropes, a couple of other gofers, some drop-ins and hangers-on, a family operation, a very recognizable big city American scene. But of course I’m putting the cart before the horse: family operations of this sort were imported to America from the Middle East, from Italy, from Poland, from China, long before I ran into them in the Manhattan of my childhood, or in Bellow’s Chicago.
Today, when I arrive with my wad of 200-shekel notes, the Old Man isn’t around, and I find Khaled alone with his brother and Nazeeh, the super, in the back office, which is better furnished, with some Islamic art on the walls and the apparatus of business—file cabinets and a large-screened computer. We talk about Libya, and then I get around to what I really wanted to know: what they’d heard about the bloody knife-killing of a Jewish family, a mother, a father, and three sleeping children, at Itamar, a settlement near Nablus, about 20 miles north of Ramallah. For the last couple of days it has been the major news in Israel, even in competition with what’s happening in Libya or with the scenes of unimaginable terror and misery broadcast from Japan. The Israeli government’s response was to immediately approve the building of 500 more housing units on the West Bank—as if they might not have done so if these murders hadn’t taken place?—and, among other statements of anger and concern, to lodge an official protest with CNN for using the word “intruders” instead of “terrorists” when describing the killers. This was drearily predictable, but so, I discovered, was the Tarifis’ response: what about all the children the Israelis had killed in Gaza, what about all the settler violence? In fact, Khaled’s brother said, one of the killers was a man whose son had been shot by settlers two or three years ago. I wondered how he could know that: the killers haven’t yet been caught or even identified; the IDF is still rounding up suspects. This must be something people are telling one another. But whether it’s true or not, it too is predictable. Had I challenged this report, I would have been asked what difference it made whether it was actually this man’s son or some other man’s son: children, sons are being killed. Victims are interchangeable units in the prevailing local calculus: it’s not this eye for that eye, but any eye for any eye, any tooth, any arm, any child. That’s as far as I could press the question with the Tarifis. If I want to learn more of what to expect in the way of a Palestinian response to the Israeli response to the murders—and, living as I do in Ramallah, this is not a matter of idle curiosity—I shall have to ask people who can more fully take in the local news. There’s a limit to what I can get from Ha’aretz’s and Al-Jazeera’s English editions.
Actually, a sentence in Ha’aretz’s initial report, about how the Itamar settlement was famous for its bad relations with its Arab neighbors, set me to reading more about the Fogels, the family who were killed, about Itamar, and about the so-called Religious Zionists who founded the colony in 1984. They are associated with the Machon Meir yeshiva in Jerusalem, whose chief rabbi was a student of the better-known Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982) who led the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva, also in Jerusalem, founded by his still more famous father, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935). Father and son, these rabbis preached the Redemption of the Land, carrying forward a line of rabbinical thought that predates Herzl’s founding of the Zionist movement in the late nineteenth-century, (a line of thought that George Eliot read her way into when composing Daniel Deronda). The younger Kook is considered the spiritual founder of the post-1967 settler movement. There had been many earlier settlements in the West Bank, even long before 1948, but they proliferated after Israel captured control of that territory in 1967.
Attempts are often made to discriminate between violent and non-violent settlers. In a video interview circulating just now, the father murdered in his bed, Udi Fogel, in fact comes across as a sweet-natured man, once a tank commander, now a farmer and teacher. And yesterday some members of the Itamar community insisted on their non-violent ethos: they were grieving but they were not angry, they said; and they never demonstrated, they never attacked the Arab villagers; it was “those crazies on the hilltop,” other (more radical) Zionist youth, encamped above them, who did things like that; Itamar families simply wanted to be left alone in this their homeland to study Torah, grow organic vegetables, and raise their kids, plus some sheep and goats. Last night, however, the IDF had to intervene to keep some masked Itamar settlers from taking revenge on the nearby Palestinian village of Awarta, downhill from the settlement. And a history of Itamar notes that one of its founders was the son of a member of the “Jewish Underground” movement who, in 1984, was convicted of plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock, so as to clear the way for the building of the Third Temple on what some believe to be Solomon’s Temple’s original site. (More of this below). Past a certain point, discriminating between “nice” and “nasty” settlers, legitimate or illegitimate acts of resistance on the Palestinians’ part, makes little sense: the violence is structural, inherent in the project of Redeeming the Land.
I’ll close for now with a remarkable bit of autobiographical writing that I came upon when preparing a reader for the course Omar Yousef and I are teaching on Jerusalem. It speaks to the compelling force, for some Israelis, of the Redemptive project. In a book called Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount: Who Will Build the Third Temple?, the Israeli historian Motti Imbari devotes a chapter to a Messianic organization founded in 1984 called The Temple Institute and to its leader, Rabbi Israel Ariel. Imbari is interested in producing a psychohistorical account of the vicissitudes of Messianic thinking in present-day Israel. He believes that Ariel was impelled to found The Temple Institute by a particular experience during the 1967 war, when he was a paratrooper in a unit fighting its way towards the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. As he got closer to the Wall he heard from some soldiers in front of him that they had run into “two old men” up ahead. Ariel wrote:
I thought to myself: The Messiah and the Prophet Elijah must have
arrived. Who else could appear here during the battle for the Temple
Mount after two thousand years? That was what seemed natural at
the time. [….] Naturally, the two old men who should appear at this
time are the Messiah and the Prophet Elijah. So I went off to meet the
Messiah and the Prophet Elijah. I asked myself where I would find
them. Surely on the Temple Mount—they must have come to build
the Temple. But I saw everyone running toward the Western Wall.
For some reason people were more moved by the wall than by the
Temple Mount. Awareness of the Western Wall is much greater
among the people than awareness of the Temple [….]
I arrived at the Western Wall, and below me I saw two old men—
none other than my two rabbis and teachers from the yeshiva, Rabbi
Zvi Yehuda Kook (may the memory of the righteous be blessed!) and
the “Reclusive Rabbi” (may the memory of the righteous be blessed!).
We embraced and stood with tears running down our cheeks, in
complete silence, sensing that Messiah was still on the way—it would
just take another hour or two.
In 1967 Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook was 76 years old, a venerable (and much venerated) “old man,” but not, as it turned out, the Messiah. According to Imbari, the psychohistorian, it would take decades for Ariel to work through his experience that day—the sacred thrill of expectation, the ensuing disappointment—and reinterpret it as a vocation, an understanding of his mission. He had wrongly imagined that the Messiah had come to rebuild the Temple; he now understood that it was only when the Temple was rebuilt that the Messiah would come. He was called to hasten that moment, whence the Temple Institute. Imbari also notes that in 1984 Ariel founded a journal that was devoted to justifying the actions of those convicted of the attempt on the Al-Aqsa Mosque and to “encouraging the expectation of the construction of the Temple.”
Someone takes a knife and kills a family in what seems like an act of archaic vengeance; someone else longs to blow up one holy site to replace it with one holier still—you can become hypnotized by such stories of tribal warfare into forgetting that other vocabularies of motivation may also apply and perhaps be even more pertinent. Suppose that the killings at Itamar are part of a quite coolheaded strategy on, say, Hamas’s part to embarrass the Palestinian Authority at this particular juncture in their (currently non-violent) dealings with the Israelis; or consider that most Israeli political figures, from 1948 on, have not been theologically committed to the Redemptive project but have nevertheless quite cynically manipulated its capacity to excite popular ardor, and that the “real cause” of the Arab/Israeli conflict may be better located in the question of who shall control the aquifers in the Jordan Valley.
16 April: more on the Itamar murders
The news this weekend was that the IDF has announced that they have arrested the killers of the Fogel family of Itamar. The suspects are two teenagers from the nearby village of Awarta who, according to reports, have confessed (“without showing any remorse”) and even reenacted the crime in a visit back to the settlement. It appears there is DNA evidence, so the accusations have been accepted as valid, even by some Amarta villagers, although the boys’ families are saying that the confessions were beaten out of them.
At the funeral for the family, back in March, Udi Fogel’s brother, Motti, had said, addressing the body in the coffin, “You are gone. You are gone and no slogan can bring you back. Above all, this funeral must be a private event. Udi, you are not a symbol or a national event. Your life had a purpose of its own and your horrid death must not render that life into a vehicle.” This was his hope, but it can hardly have been his expectation; he had just listened to the Chief Rabbi of Israel urging the 20,000 people in attendance to “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt. (The reference is to Exodus 17:8.) He went on: “Amalek is here!” and declared that “Itamar needs to become a major city in Israel.” But I doubt that even Motti Fogel, so clearly wary of the appropriation of his grief for religious and political ends, could have imagined that his surviving nieces and nephew—a twelve year-old girl and her younger siblings—would, this past weekend, be given a “special briefing” on the success of the investigation by none other than the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, who then had himself photographed presenting them with a commemorative volume—a Passover Haggadah! (“Season’s greetings, kids!”).
The photo appeared in an early on-line edition of Ha’aretz. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and, indeed, when I went back on-line a few hours later, to try to download it, it had disappeared, replaced by a montage of the two accused murderers and their five victims. Nor did any mention of the Chief of Staff and his Haggadah appear in the print version of Ha’aretz this morning. Someone must have pointed out to the IDF public relations people that this was perhaps “inappropriate,” perhaps even a little “grotesque”?
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