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Encounter During the War

I am in Philadelphia. I am sitting across from a man who is drinking mint tea. I am eating a salad with candied pecans and blue cheese. We are in an upscale café in a gentrified area of the city where they serve gluten-free pizza and even advertise gluten-free salad dressing.

He is telling me about his car accident and his parents who survived the Holocaust in Poland. The man talking to me is near tears several times, or so it appears. He knows I have just visited Lithuania and Israel. He knows I went to Israel a couple of days before the Israeli army invaded the Gaza strip.

I start talking about the hardest few days of that trip. I traveled around Israel with a group of liberal American rabbis. Ten of us spent three days at the end of the trip, in the midst of the war, in a place called Tantur. It is a beautiful pink stone building surrounded by gardens. It is a hostel for Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. Tantur is situated on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, Israel’s 1967 border, and on the Israeli side of the separation fence, wall or barrier that surrounds the West Bank.  It overlooks Bethlehem and a very busy checkpoint where Palestinian men cross over at 4 AM looking for work in Israel. They return early, especially during the war, when there is no work for them.  

The ten of us are American rabbis ranging in age from their mid 30’s to their late 60’s. I am the oldest. Our original trip has been revised because of the war. Instead of visiting Bethlehem and Hebron, we are staying at Tantur for three days and the various speakers we were planning to hear are coming to speak to us. One after the other.

It is a beautiful room with high ceilings and large open windows. The chairs are upholstered and are very comfortable. There is tea, coffee, fruit and pastries for snacking all day long. We have been instructed to listen and ask questions. We are a very agreeable and docile group. We know how to follow instructions. The staff is so pleased that the speakers are still willing to come in the middle of the war. They are also pleased that the accommodations are so well appointed and comfortable and the food is good.

A few weeks later I am back in Philadelphia and talking about this experience. I realize that I am still very upset. In fact my body is still vibrating. I haven’t been able to think about these three days without feeling terribly upset. Sometimes it feels like anger but it is more likely grief although I am not crying now. I cried while I was at Tantur. At night, in my room (I asked for a single and thankfully received one) I called Maynard in Philadelphia and wailed on the phone. I cried in the small group when we were supposed to share our feelings with each other. I am not sure we were very supportive to each other. I think we were all partially numb, overwhelmed and confused. At least, I was.

My lunch partner helps me understand what is going on for me. I never had so much hatred directed at me. Yes, it wasn’t me personally but it was at Israel and the Jewish people and I am part of that reality. I am part of the oppressor. These people feel so oppressed. They take no responsibility for their suffering. It was done to them. They are the ultimate and forever victims. Like the Jews used to be but now the tables are turned.  One after the other with personal sagas, with maps, with graphs with large brown eyes, dressed in short skirts and jeans and wearing a jalabiyah. It is all the same. Some of them begged us as American Jews who were free to leave: “Tell your government about our suffering.” The words repeated –land, water, land water, home, border crossing, police, prison, hatred, Israel, Israel, Israel.

At one point during the three days, I imagined putting a revolver to my own head. I felt I could not stand this anymore.

At lunch, back in Philadelphia,  I am told that this is as deep an experience of compassion or empathy that one can have – to sit still, to listen, to receive pure hatred, blame, abuse leveled at one’s own kin, one’s own soul, the structure of one’s heart.  It feels like I am drinking poison and cannot digest it, cannot swallow it, cannot spit it out.

Meanwhile at Tantur, my colleagues are recognizing that their flights home are canceled. They are calling their travel agents and airlines. Walking in and out of the sessions. I am sure that my flight would go because I had scheduled extra time on my “vacation” to hang with friends. The energy of being trapped, scrambling to get out, to get home. A paradox for Jews in their homeland. Where is the homeland? Where is my home? Where do any of us belong?

There is such a strong desire to make sense of this or to blame the organizers for poor facilitation or the group or myself. I must simply sit with the visceral vibrations of hatred. Hatred that leads to war. Hatred that cannot easily be transformed. Hatred that corrodes and solidifies at the same time.

I experienced separation- aloneness – the separation of hatred. It is ugly. It is sinister. It sucks the life blood from my veins.

I had some sweet days with friends in Jerusalem after that. I spend a beautiful Sabbath in the city of golden light and delicious bread and cheeses and exquisite tomatoes and cucumbers and endless gelato and frozen yogurt.  My flight is canceled but I get home only two days late. I dream about war every night for a week. Guilt and despair swirl around my mind and I am now far away. It is so easy to be here in this moment, to just have the ability to put it aside, to be quiet, to rest and not to know. 

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