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Facing my Return to Israel/Palestine

by Rabbi David J. Cooper

     It was only three years ago that I wrote in Kol Kehilla in regard to the 50 years since my celebration of becoming bar mitzvah. Now I’m writing that it is 50 years since I arrived in Israel as a 16-year old a few weeks after the Six Day War. And now, this month I am leaving for Israel/Palestine just before turning 66 and I can’t describe the sadness and anger I feel that a half-century has not ended the occupation that began the month I first arrived there.

I came on a teen tour – as did my siblings when they turned 16. I had been a member of a left socialist-Zionist youth group, Hashomer Hatzair. My family were liberal Zionists. I was a high school activist against the Vietnam War. In April, a few weeks before leaving on the trip, I marched in Manhattan in the same anti-war procession as Martin Luther King, Jr., just a week after his famous Riverside Church speech.

In May, Egyptian president Nasser required the UN to remove its buffer forces between Israel and the Egyptian military on the Sinai Peninsula. It became clear that there would be a war with Egypt and probably with Jordan and Syria as well. Many of us were very scared that this would be the end of Israel. So it was with great relief that the war that did commence ended in less than a week without the destruction of Israel. My trip had been cancelled with the prospect of war, but was un-cancelled a few days after in its wake. And so, within a month I was walking in Jerusalem.

In Hebrew day school I had learned that after the 1948 war, Jews were not able to go to the Western Wall. But now the Old City was open to tourists. In the synagogues where I grew up, there were photos and paintings of the wall. They showed a narrow street, more like an alley, with the wall on one side and houses facing the wall on the other. Men and women – without a dividing mechitza – prayed privately facing the wall.

But that is not what I saw when I got there. A mechitza now separated the men and the women. But that was not the main difference. Where there had been houses in the old photos, the wall now faced an open area. I was puzzled. I turned to the Israeli tour guide and asked if the Jordanians had torn down the neighborhood facing the wall sometime since 1948. No, he replied, “We did it, last week.” And then I asked the same question that as teenager I asked when I learned about urban renewal in New York. “What happened to the people who lived here?” He looked at me somewhat surprised and said, “What does that matter?”

Well it mattered to me. It still does.

So I’m heading to Israel/Palestine. For about ten days I’ll be on the Israeli side of the Green Line with friends, and also exploring places that a Kehilla trip might go to. Then for another ten days I’ll cross the line with the Center for Jewish NonViolence to engage with Palestinians there to better understand the reality of occupation as that they have experienced for five decades.

And now, as I consider that soon I’ll cross through the barrier wall into Bethlehem, I recall how in the summer of ‘67 we were told that we should hurry to see some of the sights in the West Bank such as Bethlehem and Jericho, after all people said, they would soon be returned as bargaining chips for peace. When I learned a year later that Israeli civilians were moving into settlements in the West Bank I asked myself, “What about the bargaining chip thing. What about peace?”

I’m still wondering.

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