Jewish Journal

Being Good Neighbors

by Yehoshua Halevi

Posted on Mar. 7, 2002 at 7:00 pm

When a suicide bomber walked unimpeded into a crowded supermarket in Efrat earlier this month and set off a small bomb, the explosion damaged a section of the store's bakery. Miraculously, no Jews were injured by the blast, but the Arab casualties were believed significant.

Following the attack, the first to occur inside the settlement, Efrat officials reinstated a ban prohibiting Arabs from entering the community. During the past year and a half, several temporary bans have been imposed and then lifted.

On one occasion, Arabs were prevented from entering Efrat ostensibly for their own protection a day after a particularly gruesome terror attack elsewhere in the country. And throughout the year, residents have hotly debated the wisdom of maintaining an open community at a time of widespread violence.

That debate, says Efrat's Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, has now been resolved. Speaking to several hundred of the city's residents who had gathered in the waning hours of Shabbat to give thanks that the attack had been thwarted without a single serious injury to Jews, Riskin announced that Arabs would not be allowed into Efrat. His announcement was greeted with loud applause.

This time, the ban is likely to remain in effect. The dozens of Arabs who come here every day to work in construction, municipal services and as handymen, gardeners and house cleaners for private individuals suddenly find themselves out of work.

"I always believed in coexistence, but to my sorrow, I have now reached the conclusion that at this point, there is no room for coexistence, as long as there is incitement on the other side," Riskin said following the attack in Efrat. "We are at war, and we have to show them that they cannot beat us. Only then can there be peace, and only then we will be able to rehabilitate the relations between us and the Palestinians."

It's a tough pill for the 61-year-old rabbi to swallow. Efrat was founded in 1982, and early on, Riskin began efforts to forge meaningful relationships with the Arabs who live in villages scattered around Efrat in the Judean Hills south of Jerusalem, in the region known as Gush Etzion.

There is no fence around the community, and although there are security regulations, up to now they have been only lightly enforced. Arabs enter freely on foot, donkey or bicycle; shop in local stores, and knock on doors looking for odd jobs.

Last year, vandals entered one of Efrat's synagogues in the middle of the night and damaged books and spray-painted anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls of the sanctuary. The perpetrators were never caught, but they left a message emblazoned on a wall trying to blame the act on residents of a nearby village. The link was never established, and many believe they were attempting to undermine the good relations between Efrat and its closest Arab neighbors.

In the months following the synagogue desecration, three residents of Efrat were killed in drive-by shootings on the road just outside the settlement. But until the bombing, there had not been a violent incident inside Efrat.

In a private interview held prior to the attack, Riskin spoke about the past 18 months of conflict. "We are fighting against the Palestinian Authority, not against the Palestinians as a people," the rabbi said. That remains a critical distinction for Riskin.

"My perspective, coming into contact with Palestinians everyday, is that the average Palestinian villager wants peace like I want peace. They want to watch their children and grandchildren grow up. They are bitterly disappointed by Arafat," he said.

Good neighborliness, said Riskin, is an idea both Jews and Arabs should be able to understand. "Both the book of Proverbs and the Quran teach, 'A good neighbor is better than a far-away brother.'"

Among the outreach programs that Riskin has spearheaded is creation of a special humanitarian fund, which he distributes to needy local Arab families. When Yasser Arafat pressured local Arab leaders not to accept money from Jews, Riskin intervened and wrote a letter to Arafat, asking him to allow the aid to continue.

Some residents of Efrat criticized Riskin, accusing him of maintaining diplomatic ties with Arafat while he incited violence against Jews. But Riskin held his ground and the fund continues to operate.

In addition to financial support, many doctors in Efrat have provided medical services to the local Arab population without charge. Riskin also helped local villages to form soccer teams and paid for their uniforms. Perhaps most significantly, Riskin said, Efrat's security personnel have received warnings of possible attacks.

"Many real friendships have developed," Riskin said. And despite pressure from the Palestinian Authority, "those friendships still exist."

Riskin wears two hats: as chief rabbi of Efrat, home to 10,000 people and 21 synagogues, and as president of Ohr Torah Stone educational network, with more than 3,000 students in its high schools, colleges, graduate programs and rabbinical college.

He also writes a popular syndicated Torah column, which appears in 40 newspapers each week. "What's constantly amazing to me is that the Torah always seems to speak to our present situation. It's timeless, but at the same time a very timely Torah."

A column he wrote about the Torah portion of Jethro in January illustrates his point: "Israel is entitled to live in freedom -- and must be willing to wage battle against autocratic, Amalek-like governments which themselves utilize terrorism against innocent citizens and which harbor, aid and abet terrorists. And Israel must establish Jethro-like partnerships with those who, although they may still follow their individual religions, recognize the overarching rule of the God of justice, compassion and peace."

As the violence continues throughout Israel, Riskin continues to deliver a tough message about maintaining a strong commitment to life here: "We're living in very fateful times. If we are called upon to express commitment, even to the point of committing one's life, in our generation, the Jewish state and the Jewish homeland are worth that kind of commitment.

"It's difficult to be here, but it's a privilege, and I wouldn't trade places with anyone. Whatever happens in Israel is a chapter heading to history. Whatever happens in Diaspora is at best a footnote. And if we have one life, I want to be a chapter heading."

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