The West Bank of village of Yasuf has become the object of sometimes unwanted Jewish attention since a mosque was vandalized and torched there in a Dec. 11 attack assumed to have been carried out by Jewish settlers.
Jewish organizations in Israel and America widely condemned the act.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, a social activist from New York, reports below on his attempt—a little scary, but eventually successful—to reach out to the Palestinians of Yasuf.
Rabbi Weiss is the founder and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School and senior rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. He is also National President of AMCHA, The Coalition for Jewish Concerns and author of Principles of Spiritual Activism, Ktav publishers, November 2001.
Yair Silverman, an Israeli rabbi serving Kehillat Moed in Zichron Ya’akov near Haifa, and formerly a rabbi in Berkeley, California, was in an Arab cab when I phoned asking him to join me on a visit to Yasuf, an Arab village in Samaria, the West Bank, where a mosque had been desecrated the previous week. The driver, Eyad, offered to take us there, suggesting that it would be best to go in an Arab cab. “No one will hurt you, I’ll see to it you’ll be safe,” he said.
As it turned out, Eyad was our savior. The landscape on the way north from Jerusalem was breathtaking. On both sides of the road we passed farmers working the fertile land of Arab and Jewish towns surrounded by hills nourished by the recent rains.
Traveling on toward the outskirts of Shechem (Nablus), in the heart of what is known as “Area A” currently controlled by the Palestinian Authority, passing Shilo and Eli, I thought of my many close friends living there. My children, together with their large family, have made their home in Efrat, one of the largest communities of the Etzion Bloc in Judea.
When we neared Yasuf, Yair put in a call to the local governor - Munir Abbushi. We had expected to meet him at the entrance to the village where the Israeli army has an outpost, express our sorrow and then leave. We were taken by surprise when the governor, on the phone with Eyad speaking in Arabic, told him to “go in” and meet him at the mosque. We were surprised because two days earlier a delegation of Israeli rabbis on the left-wing of the Israeli political spectrum were stopped at the entrance. And a day after that, when Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and his entourage had come to the mosque under the joint protection of IDF and PA security forces, a curfew was imposed and Yasuf was in lockdown. As Rabbi Metzger left, stones were hurled at his group.
And here we arrived, unarmed, without cameras, with residents of Yasuf in the streets—children scurrying home from school, cars and some mules filling the narrow lanes, laborer’s working on some building sites. We continued on deep into Yasuf, through winding roads, up and down hills. It wasn’t difficult once we were in the village to find the mosque. Workers were inside rebuilding.
Eyad stepped out of the car and we followed. As we stood before the mosque, a few workers emerged. Seeing the kippot on our heads, recognizing that we are Jewish, they grew obviously agitated. I reached out to shake hands and no one responded. Word quickly spread that we were there and about 50 people suddenly materialized out of nowhere. Clearly upset, some gestured that we remove our kippot. We indicated that we could not. The moment was tense. I knew the governor would soon arrive, but he seemed to be taking forever. I looked around. Across the road was a mule, teenagers milling about and a group of angry people gathered in front of us. I turned to Yair and said, “Perhaps we should try to leave. We’re upsetting people, not comforting them.”
Unbeknownst to me, Eyad, as he explained to us later, reacted strongly to those who were belligerent. He told them, “A few rabbis from America have come unarmed, they’ve placed themselves in danger, and this is your reaction?” Eyad continued, “I was not going to let anything happen to our guests.”
I began speaking in English - expressing sympathy and hope for peace, when the governor finally arrived. Our words were translated into Arabic, and Yair and I spoke of the pain we felt at what had occurred. We, the people who had too often been the victims of such attacks throughout history, could not but empathize with our Arab brethren.
I thought for a moment of mentioning the destruction of Joseph’s tomb in nearby Nablus several years earlier and the destruction of synagogues in Gush Katif in Gaza in 2005 where I had spent the final week before the Disengagement, but I decided it wasn’t the place to bring up those incidents. In truth, I wanted to, but did not. Perhaps it was cowardly, but I had the feeling that we would be exposed to serious danger. Moreover, I felt that destruction by one side does not condone similar acts by the other. For there to be real peace, voices on both sides need to speak out against such acts of desecration.
By now, a Palestinian TV crew had arrived. The reporter asked our reaction to a statement made by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, that all Muslims are “less than human.” It was not an easy moment. It’s hard to criticize Rabbi Yosef whom I regard as a great Torah scholar. Nevertheless, he has made similar harmful comments in the past. I responded that I categorically reject such comments. “This is not Torah, it is not Jewish, it is not the Jewish belief,” I said.
Those around us seemed to begin to connect to us. I gave a traditional embrace to the governor on both cheeks, invited him to my home and synagogue in New York, and turned to the assembled and offered a prayer, that much like the holiday of Hanukkah that Jews are celebrating, may light emerge from this despicable act of defiling a house of worship.
And then something wondrous occurred. As we left, many who at first had refused to shake our hands, reached out. We shook hands, made our way into Eyad’s taxi, and slowly pulled away.
Officials of the American Embassy were scheduled to follow our visit to Yasuf a few moments after we left. We were told that during the Americans’ visit, residents of Yasuf would be asked to remain indoors, sharply contrasting with the circumstances of our visit.
We had been inside Yasuf for a relatively short period of time, yet we felt drained. What had potentially been an explosive situation, which could have spiraled out of control, turned out to be a meaningful and perhaps healing experience.
It was a simple gesture from the heart and soul that fortunately turned out positively. I am hopeful that it will make a difference for some who were there and perhaps in its own tiny way, have an impact on the larger geopolitical quest for peace—a real peace that all humanity so desperately needs.