Languages of Liturgy and Occupation
I remember trips to synagogue from my childhood. My favorite part of the service was when our Torah was read. This Torah had made it through the Holocaust. It once belonged to a community in Eastern Europe and had nearly been destroyed. It had been salvaged, though, and patched, repaired and resanctified. I remember watching the Torah as it was taken from our ark, looking brittle, holy, and mysterious.
I grew up on the island of Deer Isle, Maine, where most people are Christian. We have thirteen churches and a population of 3,000; the nearest synagogue is over an hour away in Bangor. At an early age, my practice of Judaism became very personal. Hebrew, too, felt like a personal, spiritual language that I could use to speak to God.
During the Torah recitation, I would close my eyes. Our cantor would use the old, mournful melodies. Then, I felt connected to something greater, larger and older than myself. We would hear stories about the patriarchs and matriarchs, people who searched for God, spoke to God, and grappled with God. Hearing the stories carried by song made them even more powerful. The melodies of our liturgy have always evoked history for me—a sense of time passed and passing.
Today, from my apartment in Ramallah, in the Palestinian West Bank, the call from the neighborhood muezzin has a similar effect on me. His voice is plaintive and powerful. The call to prayers floats over this small, crowded Palestinian city where I’ve been living for over a year, and I pause to listen.
My View from the West Bank
Ramallah is the de facto capital of the occupied West Bank. The path that brought me here is one that led first through Israel. What brought me to Israel was a sense of Jewish identity; what brought me to Ramallah, to work and study Arabic, was also a sense of Jewish identity.
The policies of the Israeli government—ones that subject millions of Palestinians to military rule and simultaneously deprive them of their sovereignty and rights as full citizens—are done in my name and in the name of Jews everywhere.
I felt an ethical, spiritual obligation to see this for myself.
Living here has meant that I must see my Judaism differently. It means I sometimes have to turn myself inside out. I see our religious symbols differently. I experience Hebrew differently. I hear Hebrew as the five million Palestinians who live here do: not as a spiritual language but a language of military occupation.
Ramallah is a busy, relatively young city perched on top of a series of hills, just a few miles north of Jerusalem. For most of its history, Ramallah has been on the periphery of history, a small provincial Christian town on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It means, “the hills of God,” in a combination of old Aramaic and Arabic.
In the past sixty years, though, Ramallah’s importance—and size—has grown.
In 1948, after what Israelis call The War of Independence and Palestinians call the Nakba (Catastrophe), the city was flooded with refugees. Over 750,000 Palestinians were displaced during the war. In 1967, following Israel’s Six Day War—what Palestinians call the Naksa (Setback)—even more refugees came here. During the war, the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai came under Israeli control.
There are four UN-recognized refugee camps on the outskirts of Ramallah. Other unofficial refugee neighborhoods, one just outside my home, dot the city. Even if you’re not an expert about the region, refugee camps are immediately recognizable: the streets are narrow, the homes are crowded, zoning laws are ignored and the walls are covered in graffiti. These are families that, though they were displaced generations ago, are still waiting to return to their homes.
Ramallah is the administrative center of the Palestinian Authority and home to dozens of NGOs and international organizations. But even if foreign aid pours into the city and glitzy shopping malls are being built, it does not mean that the growth here is steady or sustainable. It is one of the paradoxes of life here. Ramallah, like all of the West Bank, is under military occupation. Looking at the bustling city center, one could easily forget that reality.
Learning the Language of Occupation
Military occupation has become the everyday reality for the five million Palestinians who live here. Even if conditions for some look tolerable, they do not live the lives of full citizens. It’s important to remember this.
Firas learned Hebrew when he was a teenager. He’s in his thirties now, and he and his wife, Samya, have three daughters. They live in the suburbs to the south of Ramallah, next to the al-Amary refugee camp. Samya is from the northern city of Jenin. Firas is from a village outside of Ramallah. They moved to Ramallah to raise a family.
Firas thinks that Hebrew is easier to speak than Arabic.
“But,” he adds, “it’s not as beautiful.” In Hebrew, he says, it can be hard to describe things. Arabic is a very lyrical language, he says. For him, Modern Hebrew can feel terse.
Firas perfected his Hebrew while working in an Israeli settlement. Settlements sprawl across the West Bank, numbering over 120. Over 300,000 Israeli settlers live here. Most settlements are built strategically on hilltops, overlooking Palestinian cities. Settlements are easily recognizable: they’re squat, concrete houses built in neat rows, surrounded by concrete walls and spotlights. They all have red, ceramic roofs. From afar they look incongruous, like American suburbs cut into the hillside.
All settlements are illegal under international law, but settlers live here with the protection of the Israeli military. They exist in barricaded clusters connected to each other and Israeli cities by a network of roads that are closed to most Palestinians.
Settlements continue to grow. And though settlements regularly confiscate private Palestinian land, paradoxically, tens of thousands of Palestinians (somewhere around 35,000) such as Firas work in settlements, often in construction, building homes for the occupying power.
Firas worked as a cook, he tells me. He doesn’t speak Hebrew like other Palestinians, he boasts. He has a very good accent. He’s mastered the Israeli “r,” which is pronounced almost gutturally, in the back of the throat. “If you heard me speak, you’d think I was an Israeli.”
The kind of pay that Palestinians would receive working in the Palestinian Authority controlled West Bank cannot compete with what they could make working in settlements. Palestinians find themselves in a bind.
Living in the Shadow of the Wall
On the roof of Firas’ home, in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Ramallah called Misharaiet, laundry hanging from clotheslines flutters in the breeze. Downstairs, Samya is making lunch of roasted chicken and rice. Their two daughters are playing at our feet. They call me “uncle” and cling to my legs.
There’s a tall minaret just a few blocks away and a vacant lot next door, where a horse grazes. We can also see a string of tall, concrete slabs, wedged into the ground. They’re only a hundred feet away, cutting through the center of his neighborhood and following the contour of the hill to the south before falling out of sight.
This is the long concrete barricade that divides the West Bank from East
Jerusalem and Israel. The wall roughly follows the 1949 armistice line, the internationally recognized borders defined after Israel’s victory in the war of 1948, but in many cases the wall cuts further into the West Bank.
Most importantly, the wall also encompasses Jerusalem, which was occupied following the Six Day War, too. Jerusalem is home to over 200,000 Palestinians who live there, but are not Israeli citizens.
This long, concrete wall goes by many names. Some people call it “the wall,” “the apartheid wall,” or “the wall of racial segregation.” Israelis call it a “security barrier.” Whatever you call it, it runs for 440 miles. It’s made up of concrete, razor wire, trenches, roadblocks and earthen mounds. It makes Israelis feel safe; it imprisons Palestinians. It creates a wall between two people who, a generation ago, however unequally, interacted with each other. Now they don’t.
Facing the Checkpoints
The road leading out of Ramallah is not well maintained. It’s full of potholes and crumbling sidewalks. Trash clogs the gutters and on some nights, fires are set in dumpsters.
For Palestinians to enter into Jerusalem and Israel, they must pass through a military checkpoint. One of the main checkpoints dividing Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank is called Qalandia. Traffic is predictably backed up, oftentimes for miles on either side. Cars are searched, bags are emptied, and everyone’s IDs are checked.
The Israelis who guard the checkpoints are younger than I am. Some of the men are still too young to grow beards. Few of the soldiers at Qalandia speak Arabic. Most of the Palestinians who pass daily into Jerusalem speak Hebrew very well. They have to.
For some Palestinians, the military checkpoint is part of a daily routine. A micro- economy has sprung up here. Coffee vendors prepare spiced coffee and sweet tea and sell it to people waiting in traffic. One small stand barbecues lamb kebabs over an open flame, the fragrant smell of meat mixing with exhaust fumes.
From the barricaded checkpoint of Qalandia, an Israeli settlement is visible, perched on an opposing hill. This settlement, called Kochav Ya’acov, is much further into the West Bank than the checkpoint. If you’re a Palestinian trying to enter Jerusalem, this Israeli settlement is behind you.
It’s no wonder that most Palestinians feel surrounded. They are made to feel like strangers in their own country, like people who don’t belong. It’s no wonder they feel their land is being pulled out from underneath them.
Cars slowly crawl through the checkpoint. Horns honk and bus drivers yell out of windows. A manned watchtower surveys everything. Amplified through a loudspeaker, an Israeli soldier directs traffic in a mixture of Arabic and Hebrew. When traffic is congested, he yells, his voice distorting.
Hebrew’s Role in Israeli State-Building
Early Zionist settlers didn’t speak Hebrew as their mother tongue. They spoke German and Yiddish mostly. There was some debate initially about what the official language of the Zionist state should be. The Jews coming here were not a homogenous group. They came from different cultures and had different, varied practices. No one spoke Hebrew, at least not as a first language.
The process of modernizing Hebrew was a very conscious, deliberate one.
A Lithuanian Jew named Eliazer Ben-Yehuda, who in 1881 immigrated to then Ottoman Palestine, played an instrumental role in reviving the Hebrew language. If they were to be a sovereign state, Ben Yehuda reasoned, they would need a new national identity, a new national language. They needed to cast aside the culture of diaspora and the languages, too.
Of course, many things have changed since then. But Hebrew continues to be central to Israel’s state-building project. Jewish immigrants are offered a subsidized, intensive language program, an ulpan, on arrival. I am not immigrating to Israel, but I enroll in one of these language programs out of curiosity, also out of a sense of connection to this language.
When I began studying Arabic, the little Hebrew that I could speak helped me. The alphabets are nearly identical; the grammar and vocabulary are closely related. Quickly my Arabic became better than my Hebrew. Now, my Hebrew teachers tell me, I pronounce Hebrew with an Arabic accent.
Sometimes my head spins and I confuse the two languages, but more often they inform each other. They share similar, Semitic roots.
My Hebrew classes are taught in a drab, four-story building not far from Jerusalem’s Old City. The teaching methods are rigorous. Four hours a day, five days a week, a rotating group of teachers drill us in Hebrew. Every day, we learn a handful of new verbs and how to conjugate them in the present, past, and future.
They encourage us to speak in class, instead of taking notes. There’s an emphasis on repetition and rote memorization. It can be exhausting. During class breaks, students sit outside the building on a grassy lawn.
Most of my classmates are American Jews. There are also two South Koreans, two women from France, and an Indonesian.
An American Jew Makes Aliyah
An American immigrant in my class named Saul tells me that he had “been wandering for a while” before he decided to make Israel his home.
“I’m going to put down roots here,” he says. He grew up in a culturally Jewish home, but was never very religious. Coming to Israel, though, has allowed him to rekindle his Jewish practice. He prays before and after meals and keeps the Sabbath. Saul feels strongly that Judaism could never survive without Israel. “We need this place,” he says. “There could easily be another Holocaust.”
Saul is deeply anxious about this.
He believes that the international community has turned against Israel. Things look grim, he says. War could be around the corner. “All of the Arab countries around us want to see us disappear,” he says. “How could we put down our weapons?”
Saul would never visit a Palestinian city. He looks horrified at the idea. He seldom goes to East Jerusalem. “They would kill me,” he says. He would like to serve in the Israeli army, he tells me, but because of back problems, cannot.
Saul does not speak Hebrew well, but he studies hard. Learning a new language can be difficult. The process of immigration has not been easy either, he admits. Sometimes it can be lonely. Saul and I are talking outside the school, during break. Groups of Russian are clustered together nearby, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.
Saul gets a distant look in his eyes when he talks about Israel. He also doesn’t say he “immigrated”—instead “immigrated.” Instead, he uses the Hebrew verb la’alot, which literally means “to ascend.” He tells me he made aliyah. It’s a word with liturgical connotations. Coming to Israel, the word suggests, is a process of stepping up, of moving closer to something heavenly. Saul believes that all Jews need to come back to Israel. “We’re still discovering who we are as a Jewish people,” he says. “Together, in Israel, we need to do this.”
Like Saul, pre-state Zionists believed that they were reclaiming something, too: sovereignty, nationhood. One of these young Zionists was a man named Yossef Haim Brenner. Brenner was born in Russia into an Orthodox Jewish family. They were poor and religious. From an early age, Brenner was a writer. He joined the Zionist movement early in his life, and when he was drafted to fight for the Russian army, he deserted. He felt he had other, stronger allegiances.
He moved to what was then Ottoman Palestine and lived in a Jewish colony, eager to put his Zionist ideology to work. He saw diaspora Jewry as doomed. The only possible way forward was living in Palestine, in a Jewish state. He worked the land. He taught new settlers Hebrew. He continued to write.
Brenner is celebrated as a Zionist and one of Modern Hebrew’s great writers. But his work is conflicted and complex. Modern Hebrew was still developing then, and Brenner had to stretch the young language and improvise to express himself. He used a combination of Arabic, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic.
Life here was not easy. For Brenner, perhaps, it was not what he had expected. He worked on a road crew in the Galilee and published short stories.
He wrote about loss and displacement, about mourning and disharmony. In Russia, Brenner knew a life of exile and pain. Zionism offered a way out. But life in this new land was strange and difficult, too. How was it, that here, Brenner also felt out of place?
Life in the early Jewish colonies of Palestine was a kind of diaspora, too, he suggested in his writing. There was a profound displacement here, also, and the pains of exile. His embrace of Zionism did not ease his anxieties. How, Brenner asked, do we find ourselves?
A Palestinian Learns Hebrew in Prison
Numbers fluctuate overnight, but as I write there are nearly 5,000 Palestinians held in Israeli custody. Of those, 522 are sentenced to life, 456 are serving sentences of over twenty years, and 300 of them are in administrative detention. This is just one of the many terrible aspects of the military occupation.
Formal public charges do not have to come against many of these Palestinians, because they are being held as “terrorists.” If Palestinians are from the West Bank, they are tried in a military court. They are not tried as civilians, and the procedures in military courts almost guarantee that defendants will be found guilty. Military courts have a conviction rate of 99.7 percent.
Over a fifth of the entire Palestinian population of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip has served time in Israeli detention. Almost every family has a story of its own.
Shadi, who owns the neighborhood coffee shop, learned to speak Hebrew in prison. During the Second Intifada, everyone was involved in the popular resistance, he tells me. His coffee shop was raided; the windows were shattered. He watched as a friend of his was gunned down in the street.
Shadi is in his mid-twenties now. He has thin, wiry hair and chain-smokes. He wishes he could leave the country to go to university abroad. However, like all Palestinians, his movement is regulated by Israel. Because he was arrested at a protest, he’s been barred from leaving the West Bank. They were fighting for their rights, he tells me.
He asks me about Miami, Florida. In pictures, it looks beautiful, he says. He’s been accepted into a university there, on a scholarship. But Shadi has been unable to get a visa to leave.
The effects of the occupation are hard to describe. Numbers do not do justice. They have to be seen and felt. This is a military occupation that has been grinding on for over forty years. Dispossession of land has become the norm; human rights are disregarded. What is most overwhelming is the sinking feeling that this is permanent. For generations, Palestinians have been living lives as noncitizens who do not hold full rights. This is what is so, devastatingly, overwhelming.
Yearning for a “Normal Life”
Firas’ wife, Samya, is eight months into her pregnancy. Her belly is swollen and she moves carefully around the apartment, holding her hand to her back for support. They had an ultrasound, Firas tells me, and their new child will be another girl. Samya is excited, and she rubs her belly and smiles. They’ve decided on a name: Layla.
Firas says he worries about how he will support his family. The economy in Ramallah is not good, despite appearances. Firas works in one of the many crowded, labyrinthine shopping centers in the center of the city. If he could get the permit to work in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, he would, he tells me.
Sometimes he has a hard time sleeping at night. “I worry about my daughters and the world that I’m bringing them into.”
Unlike other families, he doesn’t tell his daughters about the political situation here. They’ll learn about it soon enough, he says. Before the Second Intifada, he remembers, there was more interaction between Israelis and Palestinians. Things weren’t perfect, he tells me, but he believes they were better. He wishes for a time like that again.
Firas, like most Palestinians, is barred from entering Israel or Jerusalem. But Firas tells me that he keeps in touch with Israeli friends on Facebook. I am not exaggerating at all when I say that Firas has an obsession with Facebook. He spends hours on the computer. Every day, he sends messages to an Israeli friend, originally from Russia, who lives in Tel Aviv. She’s pregnant with her second child.
“Some of my Palestinian friends might think it’s strange, that I have all of these Israeli friends on Facebook,” he shrugs. “I guess I think about it differently.”
He doesn’t want me to misunderstand him. “I’ve been a part of the resistance, too, like everyone here. During the First Intifada, I was at the protests. I was shot through the leg by an Israeli soldier.” He lifts up his pant leg to show me the scar: two deep dimples on either side of his calf. “It’s just that we want a normal life.”
The call to prayer sounds from the nearby mosque. We stop talking and listen for a moment.
“Because I have Israeli friends, somebody might think I’m not a proud Palestinian,” he says. “Unlike you—or any of the other foreigners who come to work here—I have to live here and stay here. I have my daughters and my family. I love my country, of course. I would die for my country. But I don’t hate Israelis. That’s not the kind of person I am.”
Outrage and Mourning
The outrage I feel about Israel and Palestine is personal and grows out of my connection with Judaism. It is different from the kind of outrage that other defenders of human rights may feel. It is different from the outrage of Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, or agnostics. It is different from the outrage of Palestinians. We are all outraged for similar, humanistic reasons, but a Jewish reaction carries a certain burden and significance.
Like any Jew who questions Israel’s actions, since I moved to Ramallah I’ve become an easy target. I’ve been called a “self-hating Jew.” I’ve been told “Hitler should have finished” me off, and that I have “the blood of Jews” on my hands.
Talking about Israel and Palestine can break communities apart. It’s an issue close to many people’s hearts. Our own history, our collective, traumatized experiences as Jews, has made us especially sensitive to feelings of persecution. Close Jewish friends of mine are hesitant to bring up the topic of Palestine at family gatherings. They know that they would be ostracized, insulted, and humiliated. Some Jews think that if they come out as critical of Israel, they could never live a normal life in the Jewish community.
As Jews, our choosing to grapple with Israel and Palestine—to fundamentally question the value of the Zionist project there—means also to ask what it means for ourselves to be Jewish. It is an opportunity to clarify our values and priorities.
Part of this process of definition and clarification is mourning.
We need to mourn—not just for the millions of Palestinians who have been displaced, exiled and oppressed in our name—but for our own misguided dreams, for the part of ourselves that we’ve lost.
Our profound sense of exile and displacement, which we find in our liturgy, myths and stories, is for me one of the most beautiful things about Judaism. What I’ve seen is that in becoming the conquerors, we lost a vital part of ourselves.
This is what we do well as Jews: we cultivate a sense of displacement. We yearn to return to God, to a primordial unity, to a Promised Land—a Promised Land that is so much more powerful when it is found inside, not out.
As a Jew living and working in Palestine, it’s easy to feel torn, conflicted, confused. I’m drawn to be here out of outrage. But it’s also about Judaism. It’s out of love, for tradition, family and a reverence for history, that I’ve come here. I believe we can do better than this. Like Saul, I am discovering who I am, too. For me, this means learning two languages, not one, and, in doing, seeing myself as insider and outsider.
“Love the outsider because you were outsiders, too,” we read in the tenth verse of Deuteronomy. Only when we put ourselves in the other’s shoes can we grow. We can feel the pain that we’ve caused. We must be forever expanding our sense of compassion and empathy. It is the first step towards justice and retribution.
The Miracle of a New Moon
Leaving Firas’ neighborhood, I wait for one of the small, public buses to take me back to the center of town. Night has fallen and the streets are quiet. A group of small boys plays soccer, a few blocks away. The moon is just rising, a sliver of luminous white in the night sky. A cold wind whips around me. Even when the days are warm, night can be surprisingly cold.
Weather here comes in extremes.
The summer heat is brutal. In the sun, the hills bleach brown and yellow. Plants wither and wilt. People stay out of the sun, but come out at night. Around September, a mercifully cool breeze begins to blow through Ramallah.
In Judaism, our religious traditions are linked to the shifting of the seasons, to the passing of annual cycles. Perched between seasons, each moon moves us forward. It’s a physical shifting, one we can feel in our bodies.
The rain can begin in December or January. This winter can be very wet and cold. Freezing rain falls almost every day, turning the streets into icy rivers. People huddle around heaters inside, but the parched land welcomes the water. In the spring, the weather is fickle. Some days are shockingly hot; others are freezing. When the sun does come out, the flowers bloom and the patches of grass sprout, looking dark green and lush.
Jewish tradition teaches this: there is a connection between the passing of the months and our own emotional state. In the book of Exodus, God says to Moses, “the renewal of the moon will be a beginning of renewals for you.”
A nineteenth-century German Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, comments on God’s words. Every month, Hirsch believes, offers us an opportunity for reflection. Hirsch reads God’s words in Exodus and adds: “Realizing the fresh birth of the moon will induce you to achieve a similar rejuvenation.”
Throughout the month we may stray from our path and move further away from empathy or compassion. We may “slide further way, always getting more estranged from God,” Hirsch warns. Often, “our hearts become stiff and heavy.”
We can always bring ourselves closer to God, our traditions teach, but the new month—when we see the rebirth of the natural world, the simple miracle of a new moon—offers us a special opportunity for redemption. It allows for moral rejuvenation. We can pull ourselves closer to a sense of inner-connectedness. We can always make our hearts pliable and accepting again.