Where are our Cities of Refuge?


Let me start with the most immediate, the most obvious, the most unwelcome, the most disorienting, the most frightening of experiences, in this week when we read from the Torah (Numbers 35) about those six Biblical ‘cities of refuge’- places where anyone could go (Jew or non-Jew, resident or stranger) and seek shelter, protection from bloodshed or vengeance, places you could go where you could await justice, safely, await the processes of law to take effect and not be at the mercy of those who had a personal vendetta against you, or who wanted to take the law into their own hands. What an extraordinary concept those cities of refuge were, protected spaces where – whatever blood had been spilled unwittingly – you could still feel safe from the sudden arrival of someone or something intent on revenge.

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And what is most disturbing, most disillusioning, most damning, most dementing, about the world we live in and we see unfolding on our TV screens and in our newspapers every day more than two and a half millennia since those texts were written, is that in reality there are no places of refuge. The Torah is like a dream. And then we awaken from it – and the nightmare is that there is nowhere that is safe from death’s sudden arrival, however guilty or innocent one might be. You can get into a plane to fly off on holiday or to a conference – and be blown out of the sky. As those of us living in London remember, you can get onto an underground train or a bus on a sunny July morning – as in 2005 – and you find out that nowhere in our modern world guarantees a refuge from acts of human destructiveness.
As I wrote those words I hear that 15 people have been killed and more than 200 injured in a United Nations-run school in Gaza that was being used as a shelter by people fleeing the fighting. And we have seen throughout this last week that nowhere is safe in that benighted land, no matter how many leaflets are dropped, how many text messages are sent, how many phone calls the IDF make telling people to move: nowhere is safe. And nowhere is safe either in Israel, we know, although the Iron Dome missile defense offers some protection, as does the decades-old system of nation-wide bomb shelters once more pressed into service.

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The Hebrew word miklat ‘shelter’ has migrated from our Biblical text – arey miklat, cities of shelter (Numbers 35:6,11-15) – to refer now to bomb shelters. We can note the irony: what was once the word for a space related to holiness – for it was as if God could not bear to be present in a land where premeditated acts of blood vengeance were allowed to take place, so there needed to be institutionalised places of refuge, safe havens as a legal requirement – what started in this sacred context has become desacrilized, is now part of a God-free system of defense; it’s what happens when your ancient, prayed-for, longed-for, not unanimously believed to be essential, and yet somehow historically necessary, national home has been founded in ways that lead your neighbours to hate you.
How can it be that the place that was celebrated by almost the whole of the Jewish people two generations ago as a finally-achieved place of refuge – not just a city but a ‘land of refuge’, after those millennia of wanderings – is now the most dangerous place on earth for Jews to live? And has managed to export that sense of danger around the globe to wherever Jews gather together in communities?
Last week, under-reported even in Europe, there were anti-Semitic riots in France, the firebombing of synagogues, and crowds of youths looting Jewish shops and shouting ‘Death to the Jews’. This mirrors the Jewish marches through Jerusalem in the last few weeks with the cry being ‘Death to the Arabs’. We aren’t inside a story here with clear-cut goodies and baddies. We see hatred, aggression, violence and madness on all sides.
Jewish history has become a horror story. It always had its bleakness, its insecurity, its pain – alongside its creativity and its joy and its capacity to endure with undiminished hopefulness and, miraculously, its vision intact – but now one wonders how much of that vision remains? How much do the unfolding horrors – and the fears they bring and the fears they produce – how much does the horror story now obscure the vision and the hope?
Even the most sensitive of our friends begin to despair. There was a heartbreaking article in the Observer last weekend by the Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua who lives in West Jerusalem with his family – his daughter is 14, his sons are 9 and 3. Educated in a Jewish boarding school there – where he’d been sent from his village because his Palestinian teachers had recognised how gifted he was – he became a novelist, writing in Hebrew, his books translated into 15 languages. I am going to quote a few paragraphs of this because – well, because we need to hear this voice.

“I began to write, believing that all I had to do to change things would be to write the other side, to tell the stories that I heard from my grandmother. To write how my grandfather was killed in the battle over Tira in 1948, how my grandmother lost all of our land, how she raised my father while she supported them as a fruit picker paid by the Jews.
I wanted to tell, in Hebrew, about my father who sat in jail for long years, with no trial, for his political ideas. I wanted to tell the Israelis a story, the Palestinian story. Surely when they read it they will understand, when they read it they will change, all I have to do is write and the Occupation will end. I just have to be a good writer and I will free my people from the ghettos they live in, tell good stories in Hebrew and I will be safe, another book, another movie, another newspaper column and another script for television and my children will have a better future. Thanks to my stories one day we will turn into equal citizens, almost like the Jews.
Twenty-five years of writing in Hebrew, and nothing has changed. Twenty-five years clutching at the hope, believing it is not possible that people can be so blind. Twenty-five years during which I had few reasons to be optimistic but continued to believe that one day this place in which both Jews and Arabs live together would be the one story where the story of the other is not denied. That one day the Israelis would stop denying the Nakba, the Occupation, and the suffering of the Palestinian people. That one day the Palestinians would be willing to forgive and together we would build a place that was worth living in.
Twenty-five years that I am writing and knowing bitter criticism from both sides, but last week I gave up. Last week something inside of me broke. When Jewish youth parade through the city shouting “Death to the Arabs,” and attack Arabs only because they are Arabs, I understood that I had lost my little war.
I listened to the politicians and the media and I know that they are differentiating between blood and blood, between peoples. Those who have become the powers that be say expressly what most Israelis think, “We are a better people than the Arabs.” On panels that I participated in, it was said that Jews are a superior people, more entitled to life. I despair to know that an absolute majority in the country does not recognise the rights of an Arab to live”. (For the full text click here).

When he says that last week he ‘gave up’, what he means is that he has just left Jerusalem, with his family, on one-way tickets, for a new life in America.
Let’s hope that Chicago, his temporary new home, becomes his ‘city of refuge’, at least for now. Jews have always sought – and found – cities of refuge from generations of hostility directed against them: this is a deep part of European Jewish experience. Jews fled Russian pogroms and oppression for the safe haven of Paris, or New York, London, Vienna, Berlin…Later they fled Berlin for the safe haven of Manchester or Los Angeles or Rio de Janeiro…We know in our souls how hard it has been to find these places of refuge.
And the State of Israel was supposed to put an end to all that. But it hasn’t; and now others need to escape and find their own cities of refuge from Jews. Even though nowhere is safe, some places seem – like Chicago – safer than others, at least to be getting on with. But of course those who live in Gaza can’t ask their travel agents to book them one-way tickets out of the hostilities, as Sayed Kashua has just done.

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We are in the three weeks that lead up to Tisha B’Av, that day in the calendar when Jews mourn, reflect on, give imaginative consideration to, the destruction of the Temples – those symbolic centers of Jewish life in the first millennium of our collective history. As part of how we reflect annually on this destruction of a whole way of Judaic life, and consider exile and dispersal and the beginnings of scattered diaspora life, we find that in our calendar the rabbis place a series of Prophetic readings – as a warning and a rebuke; for these prophetic texts are uncompromising in their message – and part of the message is that history repeats itself. Listen to the words we read this week:

“The priests never asked themselves ‘Where is God, the Eternal One?’/ the guardians of Torah ignored Me/ the powers-that-be rebelled against Me/ the prophets prophesied by fake deities and followed what can do no good…Be appalled, O heavens, at this/ be horrified, utterly dazed’, says the Eternal One..Let your misfortune reprove you/ let your afflictions rebuke you/mark well how bad and bitter it is that you forsake the Eternal your God,/that awe for Me is not in you…” (Jeremiah 2:8, 12, 19).

Prophets like Jeremiah lived through experiences of war and oppression, political and national alliances and enmities, no less complex than those of our own days, and they found themselves reflecting with anguish on how their people’s failures to live up to the vision of how we are to live with each other – in society and between societies – rebounded over and over again against their own beloved people. ‘Israel’, they said, ‘you are your own worst enemy. If you don’t live in ways that are congruent with the moral and ethical vision given to you – an inherited vision that is your sole justification for existing – nothing good can ever come of you. You sow the seeds of your own destruction’ – this was Jeremiah’s message. We read this – but we don’t want to hear it. We really don’t.
But then we come across – and it was the wisdom of the rabbis who constructed our annual readings to put them there – we come across small cities of refuge, cities made of words for us to live in, that they tacked on to the prophetic readings for these three sombre weeks in the calendar. There is the refuge of Jeremiah chapter 4 that we end our synagogue reading with this week: “If you return, O Israel, declares the Eternal One, If you return to Me, and remove your abominable practices from My presence…in sincerity, justice and righteousness/ Nations shall bless themselves by you/ and praise themselves by you” (4:1-2).
It is a refuge of hope, hope that change of heart is possible, and change of abominable actions, and hope that these kinds of changes in Israel as a people can and will affect how others see us. That what is cursed can become a source of blessing.
We need these cities of refuge, ‘word cities’ that we can live in lest the aggression of our despair gains the upper hand and squeezes the life out of us. David Grossman, the Israeli novelist, spoke recently about the role of despair in the Israeli psyche, how in his view it had taken over the psyche of the people, and their leaders – the despair that the situation in the Middle East is intractable, that nothing can change because ‘they’ will always hate ‘us’. That victimhood is the Jewish condition. That the trauma and pain of Jewish history and memory is the existential condition for the people of Israel. In a quite wonderful and moving and important speech in Tel Aviv a couple of weeks ago, Grossman spelt this out, diagnosing the soul of his people: he really is an heir to those ancient prophetic interventions in Israel’s history, for his words come out of a passionate love of his people and a deep sense of the ongoing betrayals of what his people, our people, are capable of. Betrayals of their moral heritage, vision and destiny.
And one of the many remarkable things about this speech – and I urge you to read it in full- is the way it offers hope in the face of the bleakness of Israel’s situation. He refuses – like the prophets of old – to give despair the last word.

“We cannot afford the luxury and indulgence of despair. The situation is too desperate to be left to the despairing, for accepting despair amounts to an admission that we have been defeated. Defeated not on the battlefield, but as human beings. Something deep and vital to us as human was taken away, was stolen from us, the moment we agreed to let despair have a dominion.
He whose policy is essentially a thinly veiled profound despair is placing Israel in mortal danger. He who behaves thus cannot pretend to speak about being “a free people in our land.” He may sing Hatikva “The Hope”, our national anthem but in his voice we hear: our despair is not yet lost, the despair of two thousand years.
We insist upon hope. A hope that is not wide-eyed, a hope that won’t give up. A hope that gives us – Israelis and Palestinians both – our only chance to resist the gravitational pull of despair.” (July 8th, 2014).

One thought on “Where are our Cities of Refuge?

  1. Thank you so much for this article. I’m so upset that I can’t think clearly. You have articulated every thing that I’ve been feeling. And thanks for the reminder about hope. It’s been so long since I’ve had any that I’d forgotten all about it. I’m actually feeling better. Blessings.

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