Tag Archives: AIPAC

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

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Trying to Find a Spot in AIPAC’s Tent

I recently returned home from an exhilarating and emotional three days in Washington DC at the AIPAC Policy Conference. With over 16,000 delegates in attendance, and over 650 rabbis and cantors from across the denominational spectrum, this was AIPAC’s largest Policy Conference to date. This was not my first Policy Conference. This will not be my last Policy Conference. I appreciate the effort AIPAC staffers have made to ensure AIPAC is a big tent, to make sure that those of us who identify as progressive and liberal still feel that there is a place for us, who still desire a strong US-Israel relationship.

There were specific progressive rabbi learning sessions as well as breakout sessions that touched on issues that are important to me, including some that focused on NGO’s in Israel committed to co-existence, others that focused on LGBTQ rights and equality in Israel, and others that grappled with what it means to be progressive and a lover of Israel.

AIPAC has worked diligently to widen their tent. That being said, I could not help but also feel that my views on Israel were not always welcomed by the 16,000 delegates. Previous conferences have had various representatives from Knesset speak. In recent years, I have heard representatives from the right and left in Israel speak. While Netanyahu would address the conference, I’ve also heard Herzog, Livni, and Barak at different times speak to delegates in addition to Netanyahu. With elections in Israel only two weeks away, only the Prime Minister was in attendance. It was difficult to show one’s support for Israel, and for AIPAC, without showing one’s support for Netanyahu.

That made it ever more challenging for me to feel like I had a place, like I had a voice. The Prime Minister of Israel received more than a hero’s welcome. In fact, when he spoke, delegates around me were screaming, even crying. I felt like I was surrounded by teenagers at a One Direction concert. The irony — as opinion polls suggest — is that he is much more beloved by those in attendance than by those whom he serves in Israel.

As a Zionist, my Jewish values are intertwined with my views on Israel. While I support a strong and secure Israel and a strong US-Israel relationship (and thus, went to the AIPAC Policy Conference), I also strongly support a two-state solution. In years past, talks of peace — the necessity of peace — were an integral part of the Policy Conference. To my disappointment, those words were hardly uttered at the conference. It is no surprise then that days after the conference, Netanyahu apparently said that he no longer sees a two-state solution as a viable option.

Additionally, I believe as a Jew and a Zionist, that it is my responsibility to challenge Israel when the country does things that are detrimental to the peace process. The building and expanding of settlements in the West Bank does nothing to advance the prospects for peace. The word ‘settlement’ was barely mentioned. Any attempt to admit that such development is a barrier to peace was met with groans, hisses, and boos. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, speaking about the unbreakable US-Israel relationship, had only a single line about the United States’ opinion that continued settlement development hurts the prospects for peace. Delegates sitting around me booed and shook their heads in disappointment. In a breakout session, when former Congressman Barney Frank said that construction of settlements is an obstacle to peace, he again was met with push-back by delegates.

Don’t get me wrong: The AIPAC Policy Conference is an amazing experience. I have never been to a conference so well run. The videos are well produced. The signage catches your eye. Even the smart phone app allows you to stay up-to-date on all information regarding the conference. The conference has also become a get together for Jewish lay leaders, Jewish professionals, educators, and clergy, the only such conference that brings together 16,000 people.

Still, I fear that as hard as AIPAC tries — and I do appreciate them trying — fewer and fewer of those delegates truly make up such a diverse spectrum. I will continue to search for my place in the tent of AIPAC. I will continue to make my views and my thoughts heard. I will continue to proudly march on as a progressive, sharing my sometimes praiseworthy and sometimes critical views of Israel. I hope that my views will be welcomed in AIPAC, not just by the organization, but also by its delegates.

– Rabbi Jesse Olitzky


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