Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
My synagogue group stood on a hill near the Mount Scopus Campus of the Hebrew University looking east towards the Dead Sea. To the far right, about 7 km away, stood the Jewish settlement-city of Ma’ale Adumim (population, 40,000 Jews). To the north and adjacent to it was the last open area in the circular ring around Jerusalem called E-1 (about 12 square km - 4.6 square miles) that falls between Jerusalem and Jericho.
Beneath us down the hill and towards the two East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhoods of Isawiyya and A-Tur is another open area that Jewish settler organizations are working to declare “Mount Scopus Slopes National Park.”
Whenever the Israeli government has designated an area as a "National Park," there is usually some archeological, historical or nature significance to it. This area, however, has no significance in any of these ways.
Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann explained that the primary goal in designating this area a national park is
“…to link between the inner encirclement of the Old City and its visual basin, as designated by the governmental Old City Basin Project, and the outer encirclement in Greater Jerusalem, as disclosed by the E-1 plan between Ma’ale Adumim and East Jerusalem. The new national park will be a bridge, creating [and] forging a geographical link between the Old City basin and E-1.”
Daniel Seidemann is the founder of “Terrestrial Jerusalem,” an Israeli non-governmental organization that works to identify and track the developments in Jerusalem that could impact either the political process or permanent status options, destabilize the city or spark violence, or create humanitarian crises. His organization says that
“Israel has already expropriated more than 35% of the privately owned land of East Jerusalem for the purpose of building settlement neighborhoods (in excess of 50,000 residential units for Israelis). Now, additional lands owned by the residents of Issawiya and A Tur will be, to all intents, expropriated by Israel. While declaring the site a national park does not nullify the owners’ property rights, it inevitably deprives them of the ability to exercise these rights in any meaningful way by denying them the ability to develop or sell their land. The declaration of the park will, in effect empty ownership of virtually all practical significance.”
The larger goal of the settlement groups and the Israeli right-wing is to effectively surround the city of Jerusalem with Jewish settlements and national parks and cut off direct access to the east that would allow contiguity for a future state of Palestine, thus making the achievement of two-states for two-peoples impossible.
The following short video (7 minutes) features Israeli experts in Jerusalem who show exactly how this will occur http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tuGALhavoc.
Polls indicate that the majority of Israelis accept that the city of Jerusalem will have to be shared as the capital for both Israel and Palestine. The Palestinians have stated consistently that there can be no agreement without their capital in Jerusalem. The challenge, of course, will be security, which is what negotiations are for.
Given that the sharing of Jerusalem is among the most important and central issues on the negotiating table, anything that deliberately changes Jerusalem’s status-quo until an agreement can be achieved is ill-advised. Those Israelis, aided and abetted by the settler movement and Israel’s right wing, that insist that Jerusalem cannot and should not be shared, are doing everything possible to create facts on the ground that will condemn negotiations to failure and assure continuing violence and war.
See a map of the area: http://www.t-j.org.il/Portals/26/featured_maps_2011/TJ_ScopusPark_B.jpg
12.19.13 at 6:54 am | Moses was absolutely unique, the only prophet to. . .
12.17.13 at 7:41 am | I applaud Rabbi Jacobs in her response to Dr.. . .
12.16.13 at 8:28 am | Israel's human rights organizations are not. . .
12.11.13 at 2:49 pm | Exile is not just about one’s physical. . .
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12.3.13 at 6:33 am | Anat Hoffman's letter and a link to include your. . .
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12.17.13 at 7:41 am | I applaud Rabbi Jacobs in her response to Dr.. . . (124)
12.16.13 at 8:28 am | Israel's human rights organizations are not. . . (72)
November 11, 2013 | 10:00 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
In 1968, then Attorney General Meir Shamgar (who would become President of Israel’s High Court from 1983-1995), determined that the “Absentee Property Law” may not be used in East Jerusalem. All Israeli governments complied, until now.
The “Absentee Property Law,” passed during the fledgling years of Israel (1950), allows the state to seize and assume ownership of lands abandoned by Palestinians after November 29, 1947 who left to live in Arab states, the West Bank or Gaza. In their absence their forfeited property could be taken over by the Absentee Property Custodian and title could be transferred to the State of Israel.
To accommodate East Jerusalem Palestinians after the 1967 War, the Knesset passed a law (1970) excluding them from exposure to the Absentee Property Law. [Note: East Jerusalem Arabs are not “citizens” of the state of Israel, though they are entitled to vote in municipal elections.]
Ir Amim (lit. “City of Peoples/Nations”) is an Israeli non-profit and non-partisan organization that has monitored East Jerusalem neighborhoods since 2004. Its mission is “to … engage in those issues impacting on Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and on the political future of the city.” Among its chief concerns is the status of East Jerusalem Palestinian land.
My synagogue group toured one of East Jerusalem’s neighborhoods, Sheikh Jarrah, which is wedged between formerly Jordanian held-East Jerusalem and Israeli-held West Jerusalem (1948 to 1967) on the slopes of Mount Scopus very near to the American Colony Hotel and Old City.
After the 1948 war, Jews fled the neighborhood while many Arabs remained. In 1957, the Jordanian government moved 28 Palestinian families to houses in Sheikh Jarrah who had fled their homes in West Jerusalem during the 1948 War.
Founded in 1865, Sheikh Jarrah was once home to Jerusalem’s Muslim elite. At the turn of the 20th century, 30 large homes housed 167 Muslim families (about 1250 people), 97 Jewish families, and six Christian families.
In 1972, the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Yisrael Committee went to court to justify Jewish claims of property ownership in Sheikh Jarrah using documents from the days of the Ottoman Empire. Based on a supportive Israeli court ruling, Palestinian Arab residents could remain as tenants as long as they paid rent to the Jewish community.
The Palestinians, however, also produced Ottoman Empire documents showing their ownership. Though the Absentee Property Law superseded Palestinian claims, there were no efforts to evict them from their homes based on Shamgar’s 1968 decision.
Beginning in 2008, Palestinians began receiving eviction notices initiated by Jewish settler groups. In August 2009, an Israeli court evicted two Palestinian families from two homes in Sheikh Jarrah, followed almost immediately by Jewish settler families moving in.
In applying the Absentee Property Law, Palestinians have no rights, no redress, no appeals, and receive no compensation. In contrast, relative to the same contested land, Jews have certain legal rights based on their Israeli citizenship.
In Sheikh Jarrah we met with Sara Beninga, a 30 year-old Israeli Jewish activist, and Salach Diab, a Palestinian resident, who told us the story of this small neighborhood. Sara has been the inspiration of the “Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement” (now called simply "Solidarity") formed in 2010. She is a bright, principled and passionate Israeli who believes that gross injustice is being done to the Palestinian Arabs living in this neighborhood.
From 2010-2012 every Friday afternoon, hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians gathered on the main street of Sheikh Jarrah to protest the government’s unfair policies and the Jewish settler land grab.
As we arrived, Sara pointed out settlers returning to the house they occupy yards from Salah’s house, and Salah showed us photographs of settler violence against him and his neighbors.
Daniel Seidemann, a founder of Ir Amim and an attorney who has advocated on behalf of the Arab residents of East Jerusalem neighborhoods for the past nine years, explains the nature and importance of this property conflict:
“After 45 years, you now have 2300 Jewish settlers [living] in existing Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, [and while] that’s negligible numerically, symbolically it’s nuclear fusion, because you take the two radioactive subjects of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, which are Jerusalem and refugees, and you fuse them…By insisting on a Jewish right of return to Sheikh Jarrah, Israel is opening the 1948 file and strengthening the Palestinian claim of a right of return to Israel.” (Reported by Sarah Wildman, visiting scholar at the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University).
Jewish settlers are clear about their larger goal; to prevent, through the establishment of facts on the ground in East Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement resulting in two states for two peoples with Jerusalem as the shared capital of each state.
I will continue this discussion of East Jerusalem neighborhoods and Israeli land policy in my next blog.
November 10, 2013 | 6:54 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This past High Holiday season (2013-5774) I asked myself and my congregation one central question in three different ways: Ayeka? (Lit. - “Where are you?”).
The question, of course, is not about one’s location. Rather, it asks about our identity, how we think and what believe, who we are and what values are central in our lives.
Ayeka is the first question to appear in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 3:9). It was asked by God of the first humans in the Garden of Eden immediately after they ate from the forbidden tree.
Ayeka – Where are You? Part I - American Jews
Ayeka – Where are You? Part II - The Jewish People and State of Israel
Ayeka – Where are You? Part III - God
I include here as well my Yizkor sermon "A Midrash on the Death of Moses" based on a compilation of midrashim (rabbinic legends and commentaries).
In the context of my synagogue mission’s to Israel and the West Bank in October (2013) about which I am still writing in a series of Reports from Israel, the second sermon, in particular, informs my thinking. All three sermons, however, ought to be considered together.
The sermons are posted on the Temple Israel of Hollywood (Los Angeles) web-site at http://www.tioh.org/worship/clergy/clergystudy
November 8, 2013 | 1:43 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:10-22) was his first encounter with the God of his fathers Abraham and Isaac, and is part of a narrative that culminates next week in a second meeting at the River Jabbok (Genesis 32). There, in the darkness of night, Jacob wrestled with a Divine/human being and became Yisrael, the one who struggles with God.
In these Genesis chapters, we watch Jacob grow into the Jewish leader he was destined to become. As a boy he was graced with great spiritual potential, but he was ethically challenged and needed a full range of life experience, including hardship and suffering, before he could assume leadership of the tribe.
At the core of his life was his relationship with his twin brother Esau, a relationship that was troubled from the start. Even before birth in Rebekah's womb they struggled. Jacob emerged second holding Esau’s heel signaling both his resolve and his destiny to become the leader.
Rashi reasoned that Jacob’s apparent manipulation and deceit in attaining the birthright in last week's portion Toldot gained for him what should have been his from the beginning. After all, Rashi explained, if you drop a pebble into a flask followed by a second pebble, and then invert the flask, what happens? The second pebble falls out first. Thus, though Esau was born first, he was conceived second.
As the boys grew, Rebekah understood as only a parent can that Esau lacked the necessary spiritual gifts to effectively lead the tribe, whereas Jacob possessed deep understanding of the spiritual world. She therefore compounded Jacob’s unethical behavior with her own, and orchestrated with him a plan whereby Isaac would bless Jacob as the first-born in Esau’s place.
Our commentators struggled with the deception. Some explained that Isaac’s old age, blindness and feeble-mindedness kept him from knowing which son was which, and so he was easily tricked in blessing the wrong son. However, all evidence suggests otherwise, that Isaac was not at all feeble-minded, nor was he confused. He had maintained and built upon his father’s wealth, and his blessings of his two sons in last week's portion (Genesis 27:28-29, 39-40) were each eloquent poetry describing Jacob’s and Esau’s respective natures and destinies.
It seems to me that Isaac was a silent and willing partner with Rebecca in the ruse, that though loving Esau dearly, Isaac agreed that Jacob was the more fitting heir and leader. This was not the first instance in which the younger exceeded the older (e.g. Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac).
Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending the ladder to heaven at Bethel signals the spiritual destiny of the Jewish people. Commentators note that the stairway (sulam - samech, lamed, mem) totals 130 according the the science of gematria that assigns number equivalents to Hebrew letters, just as Sinai (samech, nun, yod) also totals 130, thus linking Jacob’s dream-revelation and Moses communion with God at Mt. Sinai.
When Jacob awoke from his dream, he was astonished and said, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!”
For the first time in his life Jacob experienced awe, wonder and humility, the quality of which he sorely lacked and needed in order to lead effectively his tribe.
Jacob’s faith was not yet fully evolved despite his powerful encounter with God at Bethel. Though moved, he vows his obeisance to God conditionally:
“If God remains with me, if God protects me …, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house – then the Eternal shall be my God.”
Nachmanides explained that Jacob was not as deficient in faith as the narrative suggests. He doubted not God, but himself because he knew that he was a man prone to committing sin. The Ramban says that Jacob’s conditional vow was a sign of his righteousness.
Among the great themes in the patriarchal and matriarchal narratives is that our Biblical heroes all suffer fear and a sense of inadequacy, as do each of us. Only the hardship that comes with life experience facilitates their spiritual and moral growth.
This week Jacob dreams, falls in love and is tricked by Rather's father, Laban, to serve him for many years that he may marry Rachel. Laban made Jacob’s life miserable, and so at last the younger man fled with his family.
In next week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob’s spiritual and familial journey reaches a peek moment as he encounters for the second time a divine/human being on the night before he is scheduled to meet the brother that he so wronged twenty years earlier. That night encounter and the next day's meeting are among the most dramatic moments in all of Biblical narrative.
The story is not only about the meeting between estranged brothers, however. It is about each one of us. Stay tuned!
November 4, 2013 | 12:07 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
There are three categories of Israeli settlements:  East Jerusalem neighborhoods forming a ring around Jerusalem,  large settlement blocs (i.e. small cities with more than 20,000 residents), and  small settlements and illegal “outposts” of a few dozen families each built strategically throughout the West Bank.
The Israeli consensus is that categories #1 and #2 will remain in Israel with land swaps to the future state of Palestine, and Israeli settlements and outposts in category #3 will be evacuated.
The recent announcement by PM Netanyahu of construction of 1500 apartments that so infuriated the Palestinians in Ramat Shlomo, a northern Jerusalem neighborhood, concerns building in category #1. Bibi is right, that these will remain Israeli. He made the announcement, most believe, for internal political reasons, to placate right-wing members of his government who were infuriated by the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners convicted of murdering Israelis.
[Note: There is one other sub-category of settlement in East Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods that I will address in my next blog.]
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, the General Secretary of the Palestine National Initiative (PNI) and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, compares the West Bank to a piece of cheese in which one side (Israel) takes bites while the other side (Palestine) is prevented from doing so. He warns that soon there will be no cheese left to share, and “Palestine” will have been eaten-up by Jewish settlements.
Is Dr. Barghouti correct? This is the question we asked of Leor Amichai, the director of “Settlement Watch” for Shalom Achshav, a liberal Israeli advocacy organization, when he took us on a tour of the hills around Ariel and Nablus deep into the West Bank.
Every year Shalom Achshav updates a West Bank map that includes brown and blue circles of different sizes, as well as small red dots. The brown circles are Palestinian cities and villages, the blue are Israeli settlements, and the red dots are Israeli “outposts” (i.e. illegal settlements according to the Israeli government). The size of the brown and blue circles is determined by population, ranging from a few dozen families to 50,000 inhabitants.
There are more than 100 blue circles speckled strategically all over the West Bank, 30 red dots south of Bethlehem, 30 more around Jerusalem, Jericho and Ramallah, 50 around Ariel, Nablus and Qalqiliya, and 6 in the far north, for a grand total of about 120 illegal red-dot-Israeli outposts.
The Israeli government has promised to remove these outposts, but has failed to do so while at the same time looking the other way as regional West Bank settlement councils provide, using Israeli tax money, the necessary infrastructure of water, electricity, gas, and security.
While on Sabbatical leave in Jerusalem two years ago, Leor took me to scout with him new outposts being built near Jerusalem. As I compare the 2011 and 2013 Shalom Achshav maps, there are many more red dots today than there were just two years ago.
Shalom Achshav says that 42% of the West Bank is currently zoned for Jewish settlements, 12% of the total West Bank population are Jewish settlers, 4% of all Israelis are settlers, and in the event of a two-state agreement, 1.8% of all Israelis (i.e. 100,000 Jews) would need to move from category #3 settlements/outposts back onto the Israeli side of the border.
Shalom Achshav and B’tzelem (another leading Israeli human rights organization) claim further that fully 33% of the land on which Israeli settlements are built in the West Bank is on privately owned and deeded Palestinian land.
Whether Israelis have the right to live anywhere they choose in the West Bank is not the issue. I believe they do, assuming they accept the sovereignty of the future Palestinian state. The relevant issue today is whether it is politically wise for Israel to build settlements if doing so makes a two-state agreement more difficult to attain?
To this question, it seems to me to indeed be unwise. Category #3 settlements and outposts have become a significant political problem in negotiations, but not as yet an insurmountable one.
Of the 100,000 settlers who will need to evacuate their settlements in a peace agreement (assuming no agreement is made for them to remain under Palestinian sovereignty), 70-80% moved to the West Bank so as to purchase inexpensive homes close to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. They, likely, will move back to Israel without incident with appropriate compensation.
The other 20-30% are ideologically and religiously driven settlers, many of whom are militant. It is unclear whether they will move peacefully or not.
PM Netanyahu’s announcement of new house construction in categories #1 and #2 is, without a doubt, politically provocative to Palestinians. Hopefully, however, this construction will not affect the outcome of negotiations.
And so Dr. Barghouti is both correct and not correct – the piece of cheese is getting smaller, but all hope is not yet lost. The time for an agreement is now!
November 3, 2013 | 6:27 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
On Tuesday, October 8, Israel’s daily Haaretz featured a photograph (front page above the fold, right-hand column) of Anat Hoffman, the Chair and public “face” of Women of the Wall (WOW). Adjacent to her photo (also above the fold, left-hand column) was a photograph of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the 93 year-old spiritual leader of the Shas Party, who had died the night before.
The article accompanying Anat’s photograph reported that by a majority vote, the Board of Women of the Wall accepted a “compromise” proposal presented by Natan Sharansky, Chair of the Jewish Agency, that would grant equal rights to women’s prayer groups and egalitarian prayer services at the Western Wall (Kotel) at a third section to be located south of the traditional prayer area and under Robinson’s Arch, now a limited space and part of an archaeological park.
The Chief Rabbi of the Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, agreed to the compromise and that he would have no authority over prayer in the new area.
Our synagogue group had attended WOW’s monthly Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan services on Friday morning, October 4, in which thousands of ultra-Orthodox had crowded into the prayer areas at the Kotel.
The last time I attended WOW Rosh Hodesh services was three years ago. Then, I witnessed a display of behavior by so-called “religious” Jews that was as ugly and undignified as anything I had seen anywhere in Jewish life. Ultra-Orthodox men screamed curses, filthy epithets and insults at the women of WOW as they prayed quietly at the back of the women’s section, and ultra-Orthodox women spit on them.
This October’s experience was not much better. Loud-speakers blasted prayers making it difficult to hear oneself think and a group of religious settlers danced and screamed their prayers on the men’s side of the mechitzah just feet from the WOW women. The purpose of the loud-speakers, allegedly, was to offer prayers of healing for the very ill Rabbi Yosef, but effectively they drowned out WOW prayers (and everyone else too) thus fulfilling the “religious” prohibition against kol isha, the voice of women praying.
The women’s section was packed with hundreds of young ultra-Orthodox girls and women, a strategy the ultra-Orthodox had used in the past at the behest of Rabbi Rabinowitz to make it virtually impossible for WOW to find space in which to pray.
The juxtaposition of the photographs of Anat Hoffman and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Haaretz was, of course, coincidental, unless you believe that “coincidences are God’s way of staying anonymous!” Regardless, that morning’s headlines visualized the culture war engulfing Israel.
My synagogue group had an appointment with Anat at 10 AM that day, but she was late because as soon as WOW made its decision, she was deluged with calls from the international press seeking comment. Under the circumstances we forgave her happily.
The WOW Board voted by a large majority in favor of the compromise; however, there are WOW members living in the United States and Canada who were angered by this decision because they wanted prayer rights in the women’s section of the Kotel and not the “new“ area.
After voicing their criticism openly, Anat responded that the compromise, assuming all conditions are met, is the first time the government of the state of Israel recognized equal rights of women to pray openly at the Kotel, to be led in prayer by women, to wear tallitot and lay t’filin, and to chant aloud from the Torah. She said:
“This space is revolutionary. It will allow every Jew, man and woman, to pray, celebrate and hold religious ceremonies at the Western Wall. However, know that we are resolved: We will pray there only if it is built in this spirit and according to our conditions.”
There are sixteen conditions that WOW insists must be met for the compromise to go forward. (For details see "Women of the Wall issue list of demands for prayer space" - UPI.com- October 28, 2013 http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2013/10/28/Women-of-the-Wall-issue-list-of-demands-for-prayer-space/UPI-31671382962197/?spt=rln&or=1
This Monday, November 4th (Rosh Hodesh Kislev), marks the 25th Anniversary of Women of the Wall. The compromise agreement is a tipping-point victory not just for WOW, but for world Jewry.
PM Netanyahu, Jewish Agency Chair Sharansky and the Israeli government are to be congratulated for affirming the dignity and integrity of the Kotel, Judaism’s most sacred site, the rights of world Jewry at that site, and for affirming the principles of religious pluralism and equal rights for all Jews, as so stated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
On Tuesday, December 3rd (7:30 PM) Anat Hoffman will speak at Temple Israel of Hollywood (7300 Hollywood Blvd., LA 90046). The community is invited at no charge. We ask that you RSVP to www.tioh.org/rsvp so we may plan appropriately.
November 1, 2013 | 9:50 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
The classic wrestling match in Biblical literature is that between the most dissimilar twins, Jacob and Esau. They began their struggle with each other even before they were born, in their mother Rebekah’s womb; and their battle continued throughout their lives.
Rebekah was so tormented by the intrauterine combat that she pleaded with God to explain her suffering or let her die. God said only that her sons must struggle and that the younger one, Jacob, must win.
The story of Jacob and Esau is a tale of two brothers whose appearances and natures were polar extremes. Their parents’ favoritism ("Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob." Genesis 25:28) didn’t help to forge family harmony.
Isaac preferred his first-born Esau who was a man of the field and a hunter, unlike himself. No reason is given, however, for Rebekah's special love for Jacob. Perhaps she loved him because he was soft and impressionable, or because he was the youngest and more vulnerable.
The Torah describes Jacob at birth as an ish tam that stayed close to the camp thereby spending more time women. He was meek and smaller than his brother and starkly contrasted with Esau who, as a hunter and a man of the field, was covered over with a hairy mantle and whose skin pigment was red and sanguine as if he was ready to kill and taste blood.
Later rabbinic tradition explained that Jacob, who dwelt in tents (Heb. ohalim) spent his days in the house of study. Quiet, thoughtful, settled, orderly, and well-integrated, Jacob, not Esau, understood intuitively the dignity of the birthright and the spiritual implications of his father’s blessing. He strove to protect the future of Judaism and Jewish life even if it meant deceiving his father and brother.
Unlike Jacob, Esau despised the birthright that he should have understood as sacred. Rather, Esau’s belly was his God and his yearning was material. Incapable of deferring hunger he sacrificed Eternity and sated himself with nothing more than a pot of stew.
In Freudian terms, Esau embodies the id, the primitive killer-instinct and lust-hunger that so often threatens civilization. As such, the rabbis regarded him as evil.
Ironically, despite Jacob's questionable ethics, he represents moral and spiritual refinement that is cultivated through prayer and study of sacred literature, thereby assuring Judaism’s future and the continuity of the Jewish people through the ages.
Jacob and Esau are prototypes of our lower and higher selves and strivings. As twins, we might think of the brothers as one person combining two natures doing battle. Together, as one, they are emblematic of the tensions within every human being.
I sometimes think of the Biblical narrative as a dreamscape of the Jewish people and each Biblical character as a projection of each of us as individuals and as Jews.
The good news is that despite Esau’s and Jacob’s misunderstandings, jealousy, betrayal, hatred, and resentment towards each other, this week's Parashat Toldot is not the end of their story. Next week, in Vayetze, the brothers meet after twenty years as older and wiser men. They fall upon each other's necks, weep, Esau forgives Jacob, and they establish peace, at last.
A veritable metaphor for our times!?
October 31, 2013 | 6:51 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
A highlight of my synagogue's mission to Israel and the west bank earlier this month was our visit to Rawabi, a model Palestinian city emerging out of the “hills” (Rawabi means “hills” in Arabic) between Ramallah, Nablus and Tel Aviv.
This city will eventually house 40,000 middle class young Palestinians and families in 6000 condominiums on 1560 acres. There will be banks, shops, offices, eight public and private schools, playgrounds, parks, hiking trails, an arts center, two mosques, a Greek Orthodox Church, a hospital, movie theaters, and a 20,000 seat amphitheater for sporting events and concerts.
The construction is using 10,000 workers, and the builders hope that eventually 3000 to 5000 new jobs will be created in the city.
The man behind this project is Bashir al-Masri, a 52 year old charismatic Nablus born and American educated businessman who raised more than $500 million from the oil-rich nation of Qatar and contributed $300 million from his private conglomerate, Massar International.
Each unit will cost between $60,000 and $200,000. Mr. al-Masri is promoting what he calls “Islamic financing” in which “service charges” will replace interest payments, forbidden by Islamic law.
We met for more than an hour with Bashir thanks to Felice Friedson, co-founder and Executive Producer for “The Media Line “ (TML) and her husband, Michael Friedson, co-founder and Executive Editor and Director of Media Services for TML. TML is a well-respected non-profit news organization in the Middle East that feeds stories daily to Al Jazeera, CNN, the BBC, Israeli, and American news services.
To a person, our group was impressed not just by the scope of this project (a modern "wonder of the world!?"), but by Bashir’s staff, organization, expertise, intelligence, optimism, and drive.
Though Mr. al-Masri has met many hurdles along the way since first conceiving this project in 2007 (construction began in 2011), nothing seems to diminish his vision and optimism. Obstacles include a promised $150 million contribution by the Palestinian Authority to build schools and a police station that never materialized, allegedly because the government is broke despite the nearly $4 billion the PA receives from foreign governments and international NGOs each year, and two significant political obstacles presented by the state of Israel.
Though Rawabi is in Area A, controlled by the PA per the Oslo Accords, the west bank is under Israeli military authority. Bashir has had co-operation from Israeli authorities, but Israel approves construction of roads that pass through Area C, which is Israeli controlled. There is an access road for construction equipment, however a road wide enough to accommodate the 40,000 future Rawabi residents has not as yet been approved.
The second obstacle is water. Trucks are bringing water in for construction purposes, but there are no arrangements with Israel as yet to provide water to the city.
Bashir believes that PM Netanyahu is using access roads and water as negotiating chips with the Palestinian Authority in the peace negotiations, thus the delay of arrangements, he told us with bitterness and frustration.
Criticism of the project has come from two quarters. West bank Jewish settlers complain that Palestinians are building new homes by the thousands while the expansion of their settlements (nay – illegal “outposts”) is constrained. Orint Flint, a settler of Ateret (an illegal “outpost” built in defiance of Israeli government policy but with Israeli compliance) said “It feels like unfair treatment of Jewish residents.” (The Guardian, August 8, 2013)
There are also Palestinian critics who are part of the BDS campaign (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) who charge that Bashir al-Masri and other Palestinian business people are helping to “whitewash [Israel’s] ongoing occupation, colonization and apartheid against the Palestinian people” by cooperating with Israeli industry and consulting with Israeli architects and engineers. (The Guardian, ibid)
Al-Masri told us that support is coming to him from every quarter, including internationally famous Israeli architect Moshe Safdie who volunteered to help in any way he could because he was moved and impressed by the scope and vision of the project and its importance to the future state of Palestine.
I see no down side for the Palestinians and Israel in this project because Rawabi will be a stabilizing element for a state of Palestine. Bashir said that though he is happy to contribute to Palestinian nation-building, he is not motivated here by altruism. He is a businessman and out to make a profit.
With so much capital pouring into the west bank from Qatar and elsewhere, the Palestinians will have too much to lose to break cavalierly an agreement with Israel. The PA has shown, in this regard, its ability to coordinate security with Israel, and this is what Bashir is counting on in a two-state agreement.
I pray Rawabi succeeds as its success will be not only a success for Palestine, but for Israel as well!