Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Into the Settlements

This is one of my favorite t-shirts of all time. I bought it from woot.com and like to sport it in public places. Without needing to say more, I think you can imagine my feelings about spending a day touring a settlement in the West Bank. Though I have driven through the West Bank on numerous occasions (it is the quickest way to get to the Dead Sea and the south), I have never been to a settlement because it makes me feel ideologically uncomfortable on so many levels. But, if I have any hope of connecting to settlers as part of the Jewish people, part of my understanding of people, I need to try and look beyond their ideology and focus on them as people. Also, I had no choice. And so, I went, hoping to meet people, and ended up adding many new layers of complexity to my ideology.

Gush Etzion is one of the oldest and currently one of the most well-established settlements in the West Bank. It is located halfway between Jerusalem and Hebron and served as a significant military battlefield at different periods in the creation of the state of Israel. On the one hand, there is no difference between the story of Gush Etzion and almost every other Israeli city other than that Gush Etzion is over the Green Line, while others sit comfortably inside Israel’s recognized borders. Unlike many of the newer settlements, Gush Etzion holds deep significance in the modern Zionist-Israeli narrative. Today, close to 80,000 Jews live in the different villages that make up Gush Etzion. These residents have relatively peaceful and civil relations with the relatively few Palestinian villages in the vicinity. There is even a new supermarket where Jews and Palestinians work side by side and serve both populations in peace. This is a stark contrast to a settlement like Hebron, where 800 Jews live and flourish while 40,000 Palestinian residents suffer and struggle.

On the other hand, Gush Etzion is still a settlement. The population is relatively new, young, and ideologically driven. They could live in Israel, but are choosing to have nicer, newer homes, surrounded by people who are just like them. The person we met with, a reasonable and nice man, described the community as a homogenous suburb. The yeshiva we visited moved from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion a few years ago, both because the real estate was cheaper and also because they hold an ideological commitment to settle the land. According to our guide, popular consensus, even amongst more liberal leaning Jews in Israel, would include Gush Etzion as part of greater Israel, should a peace process lead to a two state solution with land swaps. So, even if a disengagement process ever happens, Gush Etzion will more than likely remain, or become, part of greater Israel.

The experience was emotionally and intellectually challenging. I learned that not all settlements are the same. Not all settlers are the same. This seems obvious, but its easy to get caught up in ideology and ignore the fact that they are real live people who have complex stories and experiences. Some of them are actually quite nice and are actually not crazy fanatics. I learned that the situation is even more complex than I already knew it was. More than anything else I learned how little I know about the situation. If I want to have a voice, I need to learn more and I need to make a point to open myself to more nice people who are willing to consider me part of their people, in the same way, I must ultimately be able to consider them part of mine.

Jewish Peoplehood?

I have more blessings in my life than I could possibly recount in one sitting. My personal and professional lives are filled with beautiful people and opportunities that consistently push me to learn and grow. In my professional life, I am particularly blessed to be part of the Mandel Fellowship, which is dedicated to developing leaders across the Jewish world. My particular fellowship is designed for rabbinical students seeking to develop a sense of vision as future rabbinic leaders through the lens of Jewish education. The fellowship explores four themes: Education as Growth, Vision, Community and Peoplehood. In order to participate in the fellowship I, along with six of my classmates, took a year off of rabbinical school to receive a Masters in Religious Education. In addition to taking courses in education at HUC, we met together for three seminars in Malibu, Boston, and now Israel. At these seminars we explore the different themes of the fellowship and how they relate to our own experiences, ideas and goals for the future. The Israel seminar serves as a culmination of our work, with a natural focus on the theme of Jewish peoplehood.

Jewish peoplehood is a spanking new concept. Though Jews have been called 'the people of Israel' since the biblical period, the concept of Jewish peoplehood originated as recently as the middle of the 20th century. In many ways, the notion of peoplehood originated out of a feeling that no other concept could accurately describe what it really is that binds Jews to one another. Despite popular opinion in America, Judaism is not a religion in the same way that Christianity is a religion. What I mean by this is that being Christian is fundamentally about belief in a particular faith. It is near impossible to call yourself Christian without some minimal commitment to faith. For many Jews, however, being Jewish has absolutely nothing to do with faith, belief, religious tradition, or God. When we start to define Judaism as only a religion (of course it is a religion!), we fail to acknowledge the multitude of legitimate expressions of Judaism. Before the notion of peoplehood came along, Judaism was described as a race, an ethnicity, a culture, a civilization and a nationality. Some of these notions were more helpful than others, and often illustrative of many individual Jewish experiences. That being said, each of these concepts fails to capture the totality of what it means to be Jewish in the world today.

Jewish peoplehood offers an alternative notion that suggests that Jews across the world (and perhaps across time) are in some way connected. The question becomes: How are Jews connected and what purpose do these connections serve? One of the goals of this seminar is to work toward developing a personal stance to these questions. The challenge and task is great and like everything Jewish, is immensely complex and filled with tension. If you are left wondering what in the world I am talking about, all I can say is that you are not alone, and with the presentation of my personal stance on peoplehood just days away, I hope to find a bit of clarity through my musings.