29 August 2007

30 August 2007 - In unity, diversity; in diversity, confusion

A couple of days ago, I went for a sunset run through the German Colony and Baka and up to the Haas Promenade, one of my favorite places in the city and one of the few areas where Jews and Arabs mingle in substantial numbers. The promenade has two “levels”—above, a stately walkway made of Jerusalem stone, and below, a lush, long grassy area popular for picnics and impromptu soccer matches.

At the far eastern end of the promenade, on the grassy level, is an area often used for weddings. This particular evening, an Orthodox Jewish wedding was taking place. The couple stood beneath a chupah draped in white lace, with the city glimmering behind them in the last golden light of day. The rabbi began the wedding ceremony just as the sun’s disc began to sink behind the western hills.

Above, on the stone walkway, a crowd of onlookers began to gather—some Jewish, but most Muslim Arabs. The women in hijab seemed particularly interested—not just out of ordinary curiousity or for sentimental reasons, I thought, but also because Islamic nuptials don’t directly include women in the ceremony. Soon, it seemed, there were almost as many uninvited guests as invited ones.

Jews and Arabs want to know more about each other, and are occasionally able to interact with each other in these quiet, gentle ways. Today I met my Arabic tutor, a secular Muslim, for coffee—the last time I will see her this summer. She had just returned from Europe, where she joined several Arab and Jewish women on a retreat. They had to go to Germany to meet, but meet each other they did.

Occasionally, there are disasters. Ha’aretz reports today that a group of rabbis has been causing unintended panic among Arab farmers in the center of the country by telling them they have to sell their land. The reason? Next year is a shmitah year, a sabbatical year, in which Jews are commanded by God to let their lands lie fallow (See Leviticus, Chapter 25). (The rule generally applies to lands in Israel alone.)

The shmitah rule makes running a modern agricultural economy—and even a pre-modern one—difficult. So, over the centuries, the rabbis developed a way around the rule: Jews would “sell” their land to Gentiles for the year for some token sum, on the tacit understanding that the land would be returned afterwards. Meanwhile, the Jewish farmers would continue working the land as before.

Among Israel’s Orthodox Jews, there has been a push in recent decades to enforce the shmitah. (No one is yet pushing to enforce the second part of the doctrine, the Yovel or Jubilee, according to which all land must revert to its original owners every fifty years. This, it is said, can only be enforced in a messianic age when all of the Jews in the world have been gathered into the Land of Israel from exile.)

So why does the shmitah involve Arab farmers? Because the farmers are leasing their land from the Israel Lands Authority, the central body that owns most of the land in the country. On the one hand, this is further proof that non-Jews can and do possess landing Israel. On the other hand, this Arab land is religiously Jewish—at least in the eyes of the Orthodox rabbinate, for the purposes of the shmitah.

The rabbis, irony of ironies, have been telling the Arab farmers that their produce will not be certified kosher next year (i.e. next Jewish year, beginning in mid-September) if they do not “sell” it to a non-Jew! The poor farmers are completely confused, and are terrified, in the context of a history of conflict, that this is some sort of scheme to impoverish them and permanently dispossess them of their land.

Pressure from the rabbinical authorities may feel like extortion, especially to people who aren’t Jewish. The kashrut bureaucracy in Israel is reputed to be corrupt, and restaurant owners are rumored to make use of extra “donations” to smooth the process. What looks to some like the sincere inclusion of Arab farmers in a Jewish tradition may appear to others—especially the farmers—like a protection racket.

At some point, a line has to be drawn, beyond which the rabbinate cannot exert any further authority. Already, the tolerance of mainstream Israeli Jews towards the rabbinate’s control of their family affairs is growing thin. Now, with the shmitah, the rabbis are expanding their authority not just to farming among Jews, but to farming among Arabs. Shmitah should be a matter of choice, not compulsion.

Perhaps this is another sign of Jewish transition—the struggle to move from a minority consciousness to a majority one, one that has to be large and tolerant enough to include minorities on fair terms. Before coming to Israel, I could talk about the complexity of conflict. Over the past few months, I’ve learned that there is also a dynamic complexity of transition to consider, for both Jews and Arabs.

I meet Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group founder Bassem Eid yesterday at his office in East Jerusalem, and interviewed him for the next issue of New Society. I asked him what he would do to help solve the conflict if he could choose one policy to implement. He said he would tell Palestinians to adjust to the fact that they are negotiating from a position of weakness instead of strength.

Weakness, until now, has been treated by Palestinians as a mark of illegitimacy. Islam is not used to being a minority faith, and Arabs are not used to being a minority group—just as Jews are not accustomed to sovereignty and the responsibilities it entails. Some maintain that power is actually foreign to Jewish identity. Our histories have not prepared Jews and Arabs for our present encounter.

But as I wind up my summer here, I feel hopeful that a resolution is possible. Bassem Eid seemed to suggest that even if Olmert and Abbas sign a deal, real peace will take a long time to build, because Palestinians need to build their own state. Israelis have long since taken control of their political destiny—but there are still many questions to face. Perhaps those answers, too, will bring peace closer.

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