Monthly Archives: July 2016

How Lovely are Your Tents, Your Dwelling Places, Rawabi

This article was originally published on July 25, 2016, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

In reading the well-known narrative found in Parashat Balak this past Shabbat, in which the Moabite King Balak sends out the magician Balaam to curse the Israelites, we learn of the blessing of potential. Balak knew that he whom Balaam blessed would surely be blessed and he whom he cursed would surely be cursed. He hoped for such a curse so that the Moabites could drive them out of the land. Balaam reminded Balak’s officials though, that regardless of the silver, gold, and riches given to him, he couldn’t do anything contrary to God’s wishes. He could not just curse who he wants or bless who he wants. He had no control over the words that would come out of his mouth. Time and time again, when he approached the encampment of the Israelites, he opened his mouth and words of blessing came out.

I spent time this month in Israel on a Progressive Rabbis Mission to Israel, sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AEIF), and organized by AIPAC. This trip is an example of AIPAC’s efforts to widen the tent and make sure there is room for progressive Zionists among their membership. We spent the majority of one day of our trip in the occupied territories of the West Bank. We drove by parts of the West Bank that looked like abandoned ghost towns; we saw the buildings still shelled and destroyed during the second intifada, abandoned long ago and never rebuilt. I expected to see the metaphorical “curses” of the community. How the Palestinians, because of failed leadership on the Palestinian and Israeli side.

Rawabi1Yet, among the many places we visited that day was a tour of Rawabi. The first-of-its-kind planned Palestinian city, we approached it and I opened my mouth and saw nothing but blessing. Rawabi is a short drive from Ramallah, in Area A, the area of the occupied territories in which the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian police has full autonomy according to the Oslo Accords. This planned city will have 23 different neighborhoods and a total of 5,000 housing units. There are already 650 people who have moved into one of the completed neighborhoods with another 600 soon to come – the plan is for the city to have a population of 40,000 when all the housing units are complete.

But like any planned city, Rawabi is about more than just housing units: We walked Rawabi2through the 14,000 person amphitheater, the largest in the Arab world – where only weeks earlier, Mohammed Assaf, who grew up in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip and won the most recent season of Arab Idol, performed. We wandered through the center-of-town commercial district, modeled after Jerusalem’s Mamilla Mall – the first shopping center in the Palestinian territories that will have brand name stores like Kenneth Cole. And we saw the Wadina family fun center in the distance, with volley ball courts, playgrounds, and the soon-to-be safari section with off-road ATV’s and a zipline that will be built. This seems like a model city.

The city is the vision of Palestinian Billionaire Bashar Masri, who invested in Rawabi as a vision for what Palestine can one day be, a small model for what a Palestinian State in the future can look like. Masri shared with us that he was tired of waiting for the Israelis to take care of Palestinians and described himself as being treated like a second-class citizen. He also said he was tired of the corrupt and ineffective Palestinian Authority who never helped and just continued to make broken promises. He invested his own money to make Rawabi, meaning ‘the Hills’, a reality. Upon the hills of Rawabi, you can even see the Tel Aviv skyline in the distance on a clear day. But these hills are also metaphoric: the hilltop represents a vision of opportunity, of what can be, for a struggling people.

So Masri began construction in January 2010. Yet when I visited six years later, there was still much to do. Why? Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian government has made this easy for him. It took until 2012 for Israel to grant the project use of a single small access road for construction trucks. It took until 2013 for a new stretch of road to be approved for Palestinians to be permitted to drive into the town. And as of last year, Israel has still refused to widen the road, or allow for access to Rawabi from Ramallah or Nablus. Additionally, Israel connecting a water line to Israel’s water grid was promised by 2014, but that didn’t finally come until February of 2016, and Rawabi still has only a limited water supply for its residents, substantially less water than its settler neighbors has. And for what it’s worth, Masri agreed to use Israeli companies and building supplies to build the project, while employing Palestinian workers. When he said that he refused to allow products manufactured in settlements because he disagreed with settlement building, these companies agreed. The response was the right-wing government passing a law that allows a settlement to sue an organization, company, or individual who boycotts settlement products for economic damage.

And then there is the lack of support from the Palestinians. Many Palestinians criticize the city and Masri, seeing it as betrayal. Instead of seeing it as potential of what can be, they suggest that it normalizes occupation. Furthermore, many have protested the projected because Masri involved Israeli companies. And the Palestinian Authority completely betrayed him, promising to help fund the project and yet ultimately, because of the corruption of the elected leadership, they still haven’t contributed any money. The schools, medical centers, parks, water and sewage systems, and first-of-its-kind in the occupied Palestinian territories fiber-optics network are all privately funded by Masri. Rawabi is a vision of what can be and both Israeli leadership and Palestinian leadership are providing hurdles and barriers for it to reach its potential.

When Balaam opened his mouth to curse the Israelites, he only had words of blessing for them:

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. How lovely are your tents Jacob, Your dwelling places, Israel. (Num. 24:5)

Rashi suggests that “How lovely are your tents” refers to modesty – that the entrances of these tents didn’t face each other. They respected each other’s privacy and no one sought to look in on another’s private life. Hizkuni links the concept of “tents” and “Jacob” to Genesis 25:27 which refers to Jacob as an Ish Tam, Yoshev Ohalim, a quiet man who dwelt in tents. However, Nachmanides, the Ramban, sees this supposed-to-be curse that turned-out-to-be a blessing by Balaam as a prophecy for the future. “Your tents” refers to the current fragile state which is temporary. “Your dwelling places” focuses on a more permanent future. The blessing sees the reality of now and envisions a future that can be.

How lovely are your tents, your dwelling places. How lovely they can be and will be, if only there was support to make that a reality. Rawabi should be a prophecy fulfilled, vision that would lead towards economic growth and stability, and ultimately peace and a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians. But that has yet to come. During our time in Ramallah, we also met with Dr. Khalil Shakaki, the Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. He focused on changing statistics and research and said that while there are reasons to be pessimistic, there are still a majority of Palestinians, a majority of Israeli Jews, and a majority of Israeli Arabs who support a two-state solution.

How lovely may the tents of Rawabi be. May the temporary become permanent. May a dream become reality. Among the many conversation we had during this trip, it was also clear that Israelis and Palestinians had a shared view of their leadership: both Palestinians and Israelis don’t think their respective elected leaders were truly interested in peace. May they stop being the roadblocks to this city being achieved. If there were more projects like Rawabi, the Palestinian people would be far better off. And maybe, they too would see this as a prophecy into the future. And with this prophecy fulfilled, we could be one step closer to peace.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Learning a Lesson from Korach

I often wonder where Korach went wrong. In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Korach, Korach and his followers stand up to the leaders of the Israelites. Although he challenges Moses’ and Aaron’s authority with an ultimately unsuccessful rebellion, the essence of his message is one that we cannot forget. He says:

You are too much! For all of the community is holy and God is in their midst. (Num. 16:3)

Of course this is true! Korach is challenging Moses and Aaron, lest they think that they are any better than anyone else simply because they are leaders. The entire community is God’s people. All of humanity is holy.

I often wonder where we as a society went wrong. Day after day, we wake up to the latest heartbreaking and horrific news stories. Last Wednesday, we woke up to news of the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at the hands of two police officers, killed for selling CD’s in the Triple S Food Mart parking lot. His death was filmed on a cell phone. On Thursday, I woke up to news of the death of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by a Falcon Heights, Minnesota police officer at a traffic stop; the shooting was streamed live on Facebook by Philando’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the passenger sit. And we woke up on Friday morning, to hear news of the manhunt and shootout that took place in Dallas, Texas the night before in which five officers were murdered and seven wounded. At a peaceful #BlackLivesMatter action and protest, a man started shooting at officers and at the crowd, putting the whole downtown area in a panic.

Don’t we believe the words of Korach’s challenge? Don’t we believe that the whole community is holy? If so, then it is our responsibility to stand up and ensure that all are considered holy. We need to preach that. We need to act on that. We need to stand up for the holiness of all.

BlackLivesMatterSome suggest that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is somehow anti-police. But that is unfair and inaccurate. It is anti-police brutality. We all should be against police brutality. Some suggest that to support police officers somehow means that one condones the systemic racism and brutality that we have witnessed and seen, that all too often leads to the death of black men and women at the hands of police in this country. That too is unfair and inaccurate. One can – and should – support a movement which stands to protect the holiness of the lives of black men and women and still support our police in their efforts to keep us safe. Gene Testimony Hall, of the #BlackLivesMatter movement wrote that:

Let’s be clear, we said “Black Lives Matter.” We never said “only black lives matter.” In truth, we know that all lives matter. We’ve supported your lives throughout history. Now we need your help with Black Lives Matter for black lives are in danger.

Rabbinic tradition teaches that Korach ultimately failed because he didn’t really believe in the message that he was preaching. He didn’t believe that the whole community was holy. He didn’t believe that God resided within all of us, that we were all created in God’s image. Rather, he only cared about power. He was jealous of the power that Moses and Aaron had and wanted that power for himself. That is why he failed. Because he didn’t care about the true meaning of the message he taught, he was swallowed up by the earth. And it seems that unless we take a stand against systemic racism, then the earth will swallow us all up – we will continue to destroy each other.

Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, two of Korach’s followers and supporters, but they refused to meet with him. They cried out their concern that they were taken out of slavery, with a promise to be brought to the land flowing with milk and honey, only to die in the wilderness. Their challenge is an important one: what is the point of freedom if it only leads to us killing each other in the wilderness? May we no longer wander in the wilderness. May we work together, to create a metaphoric Promised Land for us all.

I pray that we no longer wake up to the news of another life taken too soon – a life taken because of racism, bigotry, or hate. We are committed to building a better world – a more peaceful and just world. Yet, day after day, we cry ourselves to sleep with news of another soul taken from this world far too soon. The Psalmist teaches:

We may weep through the night, but joy comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5).

May we wake up to a new day, a day full of joy, a day where we take a stand. May we take Korach’s message to heart that all are holy and God resides within each individual. And may we march with our black brothers and sisters for justice, until the essence of Korach’s message is realized.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized