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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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Now More Than Ever, We Need Leaders Who Strive for Peace

The past several weeks, events in Israel and Jerusalem have been challenging, troubling, and scary. This comes only months after a ceasefire following a summer-long war in Gaza. The attempted assassination of right-wing Temple Mount advocate Yehuda Glick, and in turn, the killing of the man who tried to murder him, sparked violence at the Temple Mount. This also led to scary terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, with terrorists using their cars as deadly weapons, ramming the car into a train platform and killing two.

The response following these tragic events from Israeli leaders have suggested that they no longer see peace as a possibility or as a priority. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has called on Israeli police to use “aggressive force” against Arabs who are protesting. He believes that this is the only way to end the wave of violence. I, on the other hand, believe that such force only adds more fuel to the fire.

Additionally, last week, MK Naftali Bennett, arguably one of the most powerful political leaders in Israel and a threat to Netanyahu’s premiership, wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times, declaring that a Two-State Solution in no solution at all. Prime Minister Netanyahu added this week that Mahmoud Abbas incites violence against Israel and is not a true partner in peace.

What worries me is that, based on the comments of Netanyahu, Bennett, and Barkat, it seems Israel has given up on peace as a priority. Now more than ever, peace must be a priority. Now more than ever, we must work towards peace.

I am unsure what the term “partner of peace” means. We do not make peace with our friends. They are already are friends; peace is unnecessary. We make peace with our enemies. Thus, especially during these heightened moments of violence, we must do even more to pursue peace. Just as we learn in Pirkei Avot, we must be disciples of Aaron the High Priest and not just love peace, but truly pursue it.

Yet, while Israeli officials and Palestinian leaders refuse to make peace a priority, it is reassuring to find a sliver of light at dark moments in our history. I am proud of my mother, Sheryl Olitzky, and the work she does with the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, an organization geared towards bringing Jewish and Muslim women together to shatter stereotypes and work towards peace. While Israeli and Palestinian leaders seem to have given up on peace as a priority, these women came together on November 2nd for their first conference at Temple University, committed to being change agents, committed to dialogue, committed to understanding, committed to peace, committed to making this world a better place.

After all, we once lived in peace alongside each other. It was only the external factors, the pressure of those around us that altered such a sense of harmony. Jewish tradition teaches that we are descendants of Abraham’s son Isaac. Many in Islamic tradition believe that Muslims are descendants of Abraham’s son Ishmael, with Ishmael serving as a forefather to the prophet Muhammad. Two peoples descended from brothers, from brothers who enjoyed playing together.

In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayera, we find the beginning of such a schism between these two brothers. In Genesis 21:9 we read:

Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing [with Isaac].

Out of jealousy, Sarah kicks Hagar and Ishmael out of their home. Ishmael and Isaac loved each other and played with each other. Chapters later, despite such a separation, they even reunite and re-embrace to come together to bury their deceased father. In their innocence, before they could be influenced by the outside world, they peacefully play together.

Our rabbinic commentators are so uncomfortable about Sarah kicking Ishmael and Hagar out of their home for “playing” that they try to reinterpret to word “playing” as something else entirely: attempted murder, sexual assault, idol worship. Such commentary only reinforces the simple beauty of these two boys – two fathers of two nations and faiths – playing together before they are forced apart by outside factors and peer pressure.

ShalomSalaamPeaceAt our core, we are still brothers and sisters. Our goal is to get back to a point where we can sit together and play together again. That is what the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom achieved last week and continues to work towards. That is the work – the hard work, but necessary work – that Israeli and Palestinians leaders have given up on.

I hope and pray for a time when all of our children can sit and play together, just as Ishmael and Isaac once did. I hope and pray for leaders who, even in the face of violence and hate, will be committed to seek peace, will be committed to a two-state solution, and will be committed to harmony. I pray for leaders who will be brave enough and courageous enough to work towards peace even when it is not popular, even if it won’t get them reelected. I pray for leaders who will remember that at our core, in spite of such terror and violence, we are brothers. May we return to a time when we can play together again, and may the time come speedily in our day.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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A Safe Haven for All

At the height of the Nike Live Strong yellow bracelet craze, every organization was selling every possible colored rubber bracelet, representing a diverse spectrum of causes. For about four or five years or so, I wore a green bracelet, never taking it off, as a subtle way to take a stand on a larger issue. From about 2003 or so until 2008, I wore a green bracelet made and sold by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) that had embossed on it two simple words: Save Darfur.

Save Darfur. Darfur, a region of the Sudan, was – and still is – consumed by violence and genocide. Since early 2003, the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed, the militias that they armed, were conducting a genocidal campaign against the people of Darfur. They focused on ethnic cleansing, murdering close to half a million people, and displacing another 2 million people. Even when a peace agreement was signed in 2006, it was clear that the Sudanese government had escalated its campaign to terrorize and kill civilians, to rape women and young girls, and to burn villages and drive innocent people from their homes.

SaveDarfurBraceletTwo words — Save Darfur — were embossed on my wrist. Why? With two other words, Never Again, engrained in the collective memory of our people, it’s our obligation to make sure genocide no longer happens. We do not only stand up to prevent genocide against our people, to prevent a second Holocaust, but we stand up to put an end to ethnic cleansing, no matter the corner of the world. To me, the words Save Darfur meant the same as Never Again.

The establishment of the Modern State of Israel made the promise of “Never Again” a reality. Israel was to be a safe haven, a place where individuals didn’t have to worry about being abused, imprisoned, raped, or murdered simply because of who they were.

World Jewry, and more specifically, the American Jewish Community with AJWS at the forefront, sought to end to the violence in the Sudan. So, it is only appropriate that the Jewish community doesn’t just fight to end genocide, but ensures the continued safety of those impacted by such genocide.

In 2010, thousands of Sudanese refugees began entering Israel illegally, trekking by foot for weeks from Sudan through Egypt’s Sinai Desert into Israel seeking political asylum. Sudan’s neighboring Eritrea is one of the world’s worst human rights offenders and thousands of refugees came from this neighboring nation as well, also seeking political asylum.

Sigal Rozen, Public Policy Coordinator for Israel’s Hotline for Migrant Workers, estimates that there are over 54,000 African asylum seekers in Israel from this region. Israel has not granted a single one of them asylum, with many in the government claiming that they are simply “work infiltrators” in Israel not for interested in their own safety, but only to improve their quality of life.

Last week, Israel witnessed a dramatic demonstration staged by refugees. 150 Sudanese men AfricanRefugeesProtestwho had been incarcerated in an immigration prison in Southern Israel – some for as long as two years – marched for three days along with twenty or so human rights workers to the Israeli government compound in Jerusalem. With handmade signs written in Hebrew and English, they marched, chanting “No More Prison. Refugees’ rights right now!” They were marching for freedom.

Israeli border police eventually intervened, forming a human barricade around the group, forcing them back into busses waiting to drive them back to the cold cells in southern Israel. Following the illegal immigration of these asylum seekers years ago, Israel built a $400 million security fence at its southern border. Still, not knowing how to deal with these 50,000 asylum seekers, a new Anti-Infiltration Law was passed by Knesset which transfers these refugees to an “open air” prison, which essentially means that they are still locked up, but they can walk around outside while they’re locked up. Even more worrisome about this new law is the fact that it permits government to incarcerate refugees seeking asylum indefinitely.

Following the protests, Prime Minister Netanyahu made a brief three sentence statement: referring to these asylum seekers as work infiltrators and calmly explained that they are welcome to remain locked up in this immigration prison or return to genocide in their home countries. We promised to Save Darfur. We declared Never Again. And yet, these 50,000 refugees are left with a choice of incarceration or genocide.

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Va’era, and were reminded of what it feels like to be imprisoned,reminded of what it feels like to be enslaved. Stuck in the 400 year old reality of slavery in Egypt, we refused to remain incarcerated by Pharaoh any longer. Moses, along with Aaron, come to Pharaoh demanding freedom for the Israelites and when Pharaoh refuses, God brings upon the Egyptians the first seven of the ten plagues: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle disease, boils, and hail. And with each time, with each hardship, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened. Still, time and time again, Moses and Aaron, continue to demand that Pharaoh free the Israelite slaves.

Exodus 7:1 reveals the Divine nature of fighting for an individuals freedom:

Vayomer Adonai El Moshe Re’eh N’ta’ticha Elohim l’faroh v’aharon achi’cha yihye n’viecha.

God said to Moses: See that I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.

God’s statement confirms the Divine nature of standing up for freedom and justice. When one stands up and says “Let my people go” he or she is not speaking his own words, he’s not just speaking for himself; he is speaking for God. He is doing God’s will. When one demands justice and freedom, one speaks for God. Moses’ cry for freedom was God’s cry for freedom. Aaron’s prophetic voice spread God’s call for freedom.

Every time an African refugee asylum seeker is brave enough to stand up for his own justice the same is true. His cry for freedom is God’s cry for freedom. His call for justice is a prophetic call for justice.

We know eventually what happens in our narrative, beginning this Shabbat as we read Parashat Bo: locusts, darkness, death of the firstborn, splitting of the sea, freedom. And once the Jewish people, the Israelites, are freed, God reminds us in Exodus 22:20, that we should not oppress the stranger for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. We should not incarcerate, imprison, or enslave, for we were once incarcerated, imprisoned, and enslaved. We need to continue to be the prophetic voice, to place ourselves in the role of God – to do God’s Divine work in this world.

After these brave souls marched from Southern Israel to Jerusalem demanding freedom and asylum last week, I looked through my things, trying to find that green Save Darfur bracelet. I couldn’t find it. But the message of those two words remains true. We aren’t seeking to just save the region, we are seeking to save the lives of the people of the region. That does not mean imprisoning them, that means allowing our safe haven to be their safe haven. Such an act is a public statement and a fulfillment of a promise, so that when we say “Never Again,” we mean it.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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