November 08, 2009

"Hey, can I use your gun to shoot an Arab? After Shabbat, of course"

From Aaron Levitt's blog, "Justice for Palestine:"


On several occasions, when I've made my trips to Israel/Palestine, I've taken advantage of the opportunity to recapture a bit of my old Chabad experience by having Shabbat dinner with an observant family. If you go near the Western Wall on any Friday evening, looking Jewish and preferably a bit lost and/or American, you will almost certainly be approached with invitations to dinner. There's often a 'match-maker' involved; one of several observant folks who do this regularly as a religious 'mitzvah', or divinely sanctioned good deed. I've had good luck with a few past attempts, dining with a traditionally observant couple or family, and perhaps another guest or two. The discussion is apolitical, as befits Shabbat, so I can take a break from the near war-zone of Palestinian advocacy within the Jewish community. Last Friday, when I was introduced to a kindly, grey-bearded Hasid as my host for the night, and particularly when I was told that he was a well-respected teacher of Torah, I figured I was in excellent shape for the evening.

My heart sank a bit when my prospective host asked me what brought me to Israel, but when I replied that I was involved in Palestinian human rights work, he was unexpectedly complimentary. A young American man who already knew the way to our host's house was also joining us, and we headed off while our host waited to meet a third guest...or so I thought. It turned out that our host family was particularly committed to Shabbat hospitality, and wound up with some twenty people at dinner. I'm not much for large groups, even in situations less fraught with potential tension, but it was too late to reconsider without being quite rude, so I settled in for the duration. Here is the cast of our dining party:

1) My initial companion, an young American from the US who volunteered for a 14-month enlistment in the Israeli army (now almost complete) without even taking Israeli citizenship.
2) Another young American IDF volunteer in the same program, serving in a sniper unit.
3) Two Israeli soldiers: one an Israeli-born conscript, and the other a foreign-born 'only son' (normally exempt from combat duty) who volunteered for a combat role. Both are serving in a search and rescue unit that provided humanitarian assistance after earthquakes in Kenya and elsewhere {all four of the soldiers present served in the recent, apparently war-crime plagued, invasion of Gaza}.
4) A North American couple who have been in Israel for several years.
5) A small family who I never really got to meet.
6) An older woman from North America studying Torah in Jerusalem.
7) Two young men and two young women, all from North America, all studying Torah in Jerusalem.
8) Two young men from Australia, also studying Torah in Jerusalem.
9) Our host and hostess and their young daughter. 10) {the invisible other}

Most of us were already seated and chatting when the soldiers arrived, carrying their automatic weapons. One of the Australians almost immediately asked a soldier, "Hey, can I use your gun to kill an Arab? After Shabbat, of course." I don't remember the exact response, but the soldier certainly didn't chastise him, and neither did anyone else. A few minutes later, I turned to the speaker and told him that I didn't find his joke remotely funny. His only response was to say, "I wasn't joking", at which point I told him that the joke wouldn't have been funny coming from an Arab who was speaking about a Jew, it would be even less funny if the Arab were serious, and so it was in his case. I think the speaker looked at least a little abashed, though that might be wishful thinking on my part. {Slightly off-topic, I've noticed that pro-settler Australians visiting Hebron seem to be particularly racist and aggressive, even relative to the high pro-settler norms in those areas. I've wondered whether this is due to Australian anti-aboriginal racism that translates easily to Palestinians, which theory came up in a discussion with a Kiwi couple a couple of nights ago. They thought my theory seemed pretty plausible, and told me that Australian aborigines were still classified under the Flora and Fauna Act(!), and could be legally hunted(!!), until passage of a 1967 Referendum(!!!).} A bit later, our host asked the soldiers to set their guns aside during dinner; while deciding where to put them, the American sniper joked that maybe we shouldn't trust the Australian with them, which drew a hearty laugh from the assembled diners (myself excluded, as you might imagine); apparently, race-based murder was seen as a risible subject. Somewhere around this time, there's a go-round of the table, in which everyone says something about what they're thankful for this Shabbat. Our hostess leads off, and is the first of five consecutive diners who wax eloquent in their admiration of the soldiers at the table, with additional appreciation of being in Israel/Jerusalem, and some for other topics. There is no tempering, much less criticism, included in the soldier love-fest, and even the soldiers look a bit uncomfortable with the adulation. The next several speakers also fete the soldiers, though in lesser proportion to the rest of the universe; I'm the first speaker for whom neither Israeli soldiers nor the wonder of being in Israel arise. Everyone, including myself, thanks our hosts for their hospitality, etc.

At some point, all the diners go to wash their hands in the kitchen, where a very petite, dark-skinned, "foreign worker" (maybe Thai, or possibly Filipino) is washing dishes. I actually caught a glimpse of this woman earlier in the evening, but her presence has been so completely ignored by everyone else that I thought I might be mistaken. Presumably, hiring a foreign worker is better than employing a potentially 'uppity' Palestinian who might feel she has actually has rights in her homeland. I find it extraordinary that, in our round of thanksgiving, nobody (notably our hostess) has even mentioned this woman. I thank her, now, and it takes some time and a second attempt for her to even recognize that she's being addressed, though she has a great smile when she does realize I'm expressing my appreciation for her work.

As dinner progresses, the soldiers actually turn the table to a discussion of sniping techniques, the relative merits of different automatic weapons, and whether the IDF should issue bayonets to its troops. I'm a bit flabbergasted by this content at a Shabbat dinner, and wait for our host to redirect the conversation, but no such luck. After a considerable period, and to my relief, he does invite explications of the week's Torah portion (Lech Lecha: Abram and Sarah go to Egypt, Abram rescues Lot from Sodom, Sarah gives birth to Ishmael) from a couple of the students in attendance. The first 'vort' (a 'word', or short lesson on Torah) is by one of the young American students, and involves Lot's curiosity and overconfidence in his own righteousness, which lead him to reside in sinful Sodom, where he is ultimately dragged down by the corruption surrounding him. It's not a bad lesson, but I'm listening to this and getting more and more incredulous that the speaker sees no applicability to one's company at Shabbat dinner. The next vort is given by the older American woman, who tells how the Ba'al Shem Tov (a uniquely influential Jewish mystic and teacher) and his companions see a man stealing a bridle. The Ba'al Shem Tov tells his companions not to say anything, because the man obviously needs money for Shabbat; he also says that a Jew should not accuse another Jew of a crime, because, after death, Satan will call the accuser as a witness against the accused before G-d's judgment. Our host speaks up at this point, quietly pointing out that one isn't permitted to use stolen money or property for a mitzvah (such as honoring the Shabbat), and the story is rather suspect. Again, it's a good lesson, but all I can think is that the espousal of cold-blooded murder didn't warrant even a similarly mild correction.

A bit later, my original companion asks me privately to explain something I mentioned to him about mapping work I was doing in the the village of Lifta. At this point, I am fervently wishing that I had never come, swearing to myself that I never will again, and the last thing in the world I want is to be subjected to a gang-bang on the supposed evils of Palestinians. Hoping I can still salvage some small positive from the dinner, however, I present my case: Basically, I say, I have come to perceive Israeli Jews/Zionists as seeing no inherent human value in 'the other' (in this case, non-Jews, and primarily Palestinians), but viewing them basically as a contaminant of the Zionist ideal, a 'demographic time-bomb', or what have you. They are hated and persecuted by some, 'tolerated' by others, but viewed as a vital and desirable piece of the tapestry by almost no one. This kind of world view led to the ethnic cleansing of Lifta, a large Palestinian village west of Jerusalem, in 1948. It is also, in my mind, the same thinking that lay at the core of Nazi atrocities against the Jews, and all the other persecutions of our people over the centuries. My hope is to show the beauty and history of the village, its life and its people, and use that beauty to remind Israelis/Jews of the humanity and inherent value of its inhabitants. This is largely because I find it intolerable that the mindset of our persecutors has so thoroughly infiltrated Jewish life, not only because these things were done to our people, but..at this point, I pause to search for words, and my interlocutor actually finishes my sentence for me: "it's just not a good way to be!". He then tells me that he completely agrees with everything I've said, and he thinks what I'm doing in Lifta is amazing and important work. I'm absolutely delighted, of course, but also utterly amazed, and ask this guy how in the world he wound up volunteering for the IDF. He tells me it was due to "first year in Israel-itis"; he was super idealistic and caught up in the romance of the 'Jewish state'. Now, he says, he's still idealistic, but his experience in the Army has shifted his views and the nature of his idealism 180 degrees. He's obviously about to go into more detail when he visibly stops himself with an upward hand gesture, which I take to mean that he is worried about violating the Shabbat, or starting a firestorm with the other diners, or both, but I can't be sure. I give him a brief description of Zochrot, and urge him to seek out the group before he leaves Israel, and that's pretty much the end of my evening.


A preamble & postscript can be seen on Aaron's blog. Also check out his poem for Nakba Day.

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