Israeli President Reuven Rivlin talks to Rabbi Eitan Shnerb at Hadassah Medical Centre in Ein Kerem on Aug 26. On the right is Shnerb’s son, Dvir, 19, who was also seriously wounded in a bomb blast near the settlement of Dolev. The rabbi’s 17-year-old daughter Rina was killed instantly. The three were hiking when the bomb was detonated. Rina’s funeral was held in the family’s hometown of Lod on Aug. 23. The blast was the latest in a series of terrorist attacks and clashes recently in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Joseph’s Tomb, inside the gate. (photo by Gil Zohar)
“The bones of Joseph, which the Children of Israel brought up from Egypt, were buried in Shechem in the portion of the field that had been purchased by Jacob.” – Joshua 24:32
“‘And he bought the field where he pitched his tent.’ (Genesis 13:19) Said Rav Yudan bar Simon, ‘This is one of the three places regarding which the nations of the world cannot slander Israel and say, “You stole them!” The places are the Cave of Machpelah [in Hebron], the Temple [in Jerusalem] and the Tomb of Joseph [in Shechem/Nablus].” – Bereshit Rabba, 79:4
There’s little inspiration to be found in the unadorned tomb of Joseph, the favourite of Jacob’s 12 sons. The holy site, located in the gritty eastern outskirts of Nablus among parched olive groves and graveyards of wrecked cars, is today a flashpoint between those who revere the site – Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, Christians of all stripes, and the 600-member Samaritan community living on Mount Gerizim overlooking this West Bank city of 160,000. The traditional anniversary of Joseph’s death on Tammuz 27 (which fell on July 31 this year) is considered an especially auspicious pilgrimage time.
The group of 1,200 pious Jews, armed with permits and prayer books, arrived at the shrine in a convoy of bulletproof buses protected by the Israel Defence Forces. Most were Bratslaver Chassidim, who set great store in their practice of praying at the graves of tzadikim (righteous ones).
The IDF-escorted pilgrimage on the first Tuesday of every month often leads to riots. IDF sappers neutralized a pipe bomb hidden at Joseph’s Tomb prior to the visit of the 1,200 pilgrims and 12 Palestinians were injured during clashes with the IDF. The list of security incidents, arson and terrorism is long and bloody.
In the secular West, the story of Joseph – whose 11 jealous brothers sold their 17-year-old sibling into slavery in Egypt – has been popularized by the rock opera Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Librettist Tim Rice and fellow Academy Award-winning composer Andrew Lloyd Weber, along with actor Donny Osmond as Joseph, captivated audiences from Broadway to the West End with their account of Joseph’s rise to become the vizier, second only to Pharaoh in the Egyptian empire.
But Joseph, the hero of Bible and Quran stories, has hardly been given the royal treatment by Middle East politics. Dotan, where Joseph was thrown into a pit, called Jubb Yussef (Joseph’s Well) today is a ruined caravanserai that collapsed in an earthquake in 1837. Joseph’s tomb, enshrining the bones brought back from Egypt by the Children of Israel some 3,300 years ago together with the remains of Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh, has fared better.
The plain one-storey is called Qabr an-Nabi Yúsuf (Tomb of the Prophet Yúsuf) in Arabic and is revered by Jews as Kever Yosef ha-Tzadik (Tomb of Yosef the Righteous). The whitewashed limestone building is capped with a cupula and protected by a massive black gate. Barbed wire crowns the looming walls. Signposts in Arabic and English indicate the nearby sites of Tel Balata and Jacob’s Well. None directs visitors to Joseph’s Tomb.
Tel Balata is the nondescript Canaanite/Israelite Iron Age stratified archeological mound that few tourists bother to visit. Jacob’s Well is covered by a 20th-century Greek Orthodox basilica marking where the patriarch camped when returning to Shechem (ancient Nablus) from Paddan Aram in today’s Iraq. In one of the Torah’s three real estate deals – along with Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron and David’s acquiring of Mount Moriah in Jerusalem – Jacob bought the plot of land from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. There, Jacob pitched his tent and erected an altar (Genesis 33:18-20).
Some 1,500 years later, Jesus “came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the field which Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s Well was there.” (John 4:5-10) Drinking water, he chatted up a Samaritan woman, known in Greek as Photine (the luminous one; hence, the church’s name, St. Photini). Christian pilgrims flock to the site to reverently drink drafts of cool water from the deep well in the church’s vault.
Across the street is Balata Refugee Camp, administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Today the largest camp in the West Bank, it houses 27,000 people in a quarter-square-kilometre site that was designated for 5,000 refugees when it was established in 1950.
Even for an intrepid, multilingual tour guide like this writer, it is daunting to find the unmarked way to the holy site. The drab building is located next to the Qadari Tuqan School, along a dusty unnamed road where only recently were sidewalks laid. The easiest way to find the landmark is to look for the Palestinian Authority police vehicle parked outside the locked gate. Then, one must locate the pair of PA police officers loitering in the shade nearby, smoking cigarettes and nervously fidgeting with their rifles. Ask politely in Arabic and they’ll let you in, no questions asked, no baksheesh (tip or bribe) required – just don’t mention that you’re Jewish.
Inside the locked gate, you’ll find a simple barrel tomb and the stump of a column of indeterminate age. There’s no evidence of the repeated vandalism that has punctuated the tragic history of Joseph’s Tomb since 1995, when Israel withdrew from the West Bank city, ending the occupation that began in 1967 with the Six Day War.
A photo from 1900 shows the well-maintained compound around Joseph’s Tomb. A carriage road facilitated the pilgrimage of pious Jews from the Old Yishuv who regularly came to pray there. The holy site stood in isolation. Nearby was the Arab hamlet of Balata, with eight houses.
The name Nablus is a corruption of the Latin Colonia Julia Neapolis, which was founded by the Roman emperor Vespasian in 72 CE. In the old city, in 1906, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II erected a clocktower to celebrate 30 years on the throne of the Sublime Porte.
In the Six Day War, Israel captured the territory, which had been occupied by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan since 1948. Once-somnolent Nablus experienced a burst of prosperity, though today, under PA self-rule, the Palestinian economy is floundering. Expanding from a population of 30,000, the city spread out to swallow the nearby villages, including Balata. Joseph’s Tomb became entangled in urban sprawl.
Jewish settlers began to frequent the mausoleum. By 1975, Muslims were prohibited from visiting the site, which some claimed was the tomb of Sheikh Yúsuf Dawiqat, an 18th-century Sufi saint. In 1982, St. Louis, Mo.-born kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh established the Od Yosef Chai (Joseph Still Lives) yeshivah at the site.
Conflict mounted following the Oslo Accords. Tensions boiled over in September 2000, in the wake of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s controversial visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. A full-scale battle broke out.
On Oct. 1, 2000, Border Police Cpl. Madhat Yusuf, 19, of Beit Jann in the Upper Galilee, was wounded in the neck in a clash with Palestinians at Joseph’s Tomb. Over the course of four hours, the Druze warrior bled to death because the IDF considered it too risky to evacuate him without a ceasefire.
A week later, on Oct. 7, 2000, the site was handed over to PA police. Within hours, Joseph’s Tomb was pillaged by Palestinian protesters. Using pickaxes, sledgehammers and their bare hands, they demolished the holy site. It was rebuilt by Italian stonemasons.
In the Bible, Joseph – the chaste and handsome prisoner – is wooed by an unnamed would-be lover only identified as Potiphar’s wife. Though many midrashim about Joseph are incorporated in the Quran’s 12th chapter, known as Surat Yusuf, the lady’s name is similarly omitted. However, within several centuries, various Islamic sources identified her as Zuleika. Among these medieval texts, the most popular was the epic Farsi poem “Yusuf and Zulaikha,” composed in 7,000 Persian couplets by 15th-century poet Jami.
The Sufi master regarded the story of Joseph’s temptations as an allegory for the mystical striving after divinity. In Nablus today, pilgrims continue to come to Joseph’s Tomb seeking that union. Alas, Israelis and Palestinians have not found a coat of many cultures to fit them both equally.
Gil Zohar is a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem, Israel.
Inside the Samaritan Museum. (photo by Barry Kaplan)
It was one of the worst winter days I could remember – freezing temperatures, high winds and streets turned into rivers from the rain. Our friend, the pastor of the Jerusalem Baptist Church, had invited us to come on their church trip to Judea-Samaria.
Judea-Samaria is the area on the west bank of the Jordan River, approximately 30 miles wide, 70 miles long, not quite 2,000 square miles in area. Judea was the southern kingdom of the country with Jerusalem as its capital, and Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom. To call this area Judea-Samaria makes clear the Jewish biblical and historical connection, but it is contentious. However, the other term for this area, the West Bank, is also a matter of contention, as that description negates the Jewish connection.
In 1922, 80% of the area of Palestine, as defined by the League of Nations (predecessor to the United Nations), was removed and became Transjordan, which was occupied then by Bedouin. During the British Mandate (1922-1948), Judea-Samaria was an integral part of the Jewish homeland and described by the British as Judea-Samaria.
In 1946, the British granted independence to Transjordan and Abdullah bin Al-Hussein was crowned king.
Jordan occupied the west bank of the river until 1950, when it annexed it to the Hashemite Kingdom. King Abdullah named it the West Bank and ruled over the area from 1950 to 1967.
Our adventure begins
Our first stop was Jacob’s Well, which is in St. Photini Church in Nablus, or Shechem. Jewish, Samaritan, Christian and Muslim traditions all associate Jacob with a well, which lies within the monastery complex of the Greek Orthodox Church. The well is not specifically mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, but Genesis 33:18-20 states that, when Jacob returned to Shechem from Paddan Aram, he camped “before” the city, bought the land on which he pitched his tent and erected an altar. Biblical scholars contend that the plot of land is where the well was constructed.
Today, Jacob’s Well is about 250 feet from the archeological ruins of ancient Shechem, which has a long history in Jewish tradition and was the first capital of the northern kingdom of Israel.
The well has been venerated by Christian pilgrims since the early fourth century CE. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, a Samaritan woman’s story at Jacob’s Well with Jesus was so powerful that many listeners became followers of Jesus, including her five sisters and two sons. The disciples heard of her experience with Jesus and came to baptize her, giving her the name Photini, meaning, “Enlightened One.” Thus, the name of the church in Nablus.
Abuna Ioustinos, a Greek Orthodox priest in Nablus, spearheaded the reconstruction project that saw Jacob’s Well restored and a new church built within the grounds of the Bir Ya’qub monastery, modeled on the designs of the Crusader-era church. Visitors access the well by entering the church and descending the stairs to the crypt.
Joseph’s Tomb is located just north of Jacob’s Well in an Ottoman-era building marked by a white dome. We could go inside the gate but no further. The tomb lies inside Area A of the West Bank, which is officially under Palestinian Authority control and the Israel Defence Forces bars Israeli citizens from entering the area without prior authorization. The site is venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims, and has often been a flashpoint for violence. Jewish pilgrims are usually only allowed to visit the tomb once a month under heavy armed guard.
There is one synagogue in downtown Nablus, two on Mount Gerizim and two in Holon.
Arriving on Mount Gerizim, our bus drove around Kiryat Luza, a village on the mountain ridge where Samaritans live. Mount Gerizim forms the southern side of the valley in which Shechem is located. On the northern side is Mount Ebal.
We stopped at the Samaritan Museum, where the grandson of the high priest and another young woman explained their history before the current high priest – the 137th generation – came to talk to us.
In 721 BCE, the Assyrians invaded, destroyed and exiled the population of the Northern Kingdom. Samaritans believe that those who remained are descendants of the original Israelites. However, when the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, they did not accept the Samaritans, so the Samaritans separated and settled near Mount Gerizim, which they believe G-d chose as his only holy place.
Samaritans say they are descendants of the Northern Kingdom’s tribes, while rabbinical sources regard them as descendants of the Assyrian colonizers who converted to Judaism. Either way, their name, Shomronim, comes from the Hebrew word shomrim, “keepers of the law.”
Today, Samaritans number about 800, half living in Kiryat Luza, half in the Neveh Marque neighbourhood of Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. All Samaritans are citizens of the state of Israel, and those in Holon serve in the IDF and speak Hebrew as their main language.
Shechem is mentioned in the Book of Genesis after Abraham arrives and offers a sacrifice to G-d at Alon Moreh. Jacob then came, pitched his tent and bought the land here, and Joshua made it a city of refuge. The bones of Joseph were brought here from Egypt for burial.
The three holiest places to Samaritans are where Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed, where Joshua placed 12 stones when the Israelites entered Canaan and where the Israelites re-erected the Tabernacle. According to the Samaritans, these events all took place on Mount Gerizim.
Samaritans believe in G-d, Moses and the Torah, and base their traditions on the Torah. They speak ancient Hebrew; however, their mother tongue is Arabic. They practise ritual circumcision. They observe dietary laws. They can marry non-Samaritan women who convert, provided they are virgins when they marry. They observe biblical holidays but not post-biblical holidays, such as Purim or Chanukah. They await the Messiah.
Samaritans observe Passover, and I once attended one of their Passover celebrations. They keep alive the tradition of the Passover sacrifice, as described in the Hebrew Bible. Prior to 1967, the Jordanians only allowed them to ascend Mount Gerizim for the Passover celebration. Since the Six Day War in 1967, the Israelis have allowed them free access to the mountain.
Our trip winds up
Our adventure ended in a church in Taybeh for lunch, where we arrived cold and wet. Due to a power outage, caused by the rain, a long grill with burning charcoal was brought out so that we could warm our hands. Taybeh is the last all-Christian community in the West Bank and the home of Taybeh Brewery, one of the few breweries in Palestine.
We returned to Jerusalem around 6 p.m.
Hopefully, another trip to Shechem will take place in the spring, after the rains end.
Sybil Kaplanis a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel. She also writes stories about kosher restaurants on janglo.net for which her husband, Barry Kaplan photographs.
Everything is political in Israel; there’s no escaping it. Pick a corner, a street sign, a building, there’s potential for argument. So, you can imagine what it’s like to take a tour of an area as contentious as the West Bank, which, thankfully, was quiet with respect to violence when we visited. Not surprisingly, our guide almost took on the role of spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority.
Abraham Hostel, in the heart of Jerusalem, offers a three-day West Bank tour. The tours include Nablus (biblical Schechem), Jenin and the refugee camp that borders it, Jericho, Ramallah and Bethlehem.
It was eye-opening for me. For one, the media frequently portrays Palestinians in the West Bank as living in squalor, often involved in conflicts with the Israel Defence Forces. We saw bustling markets, shopping centres, corporate plazas, sports cars, and plenty of American restaurant franchises, such as KFC and Pizza Hut.
Our tour guide was a wannabe biblical scholar and archeologist. “Personally,” he told us, “there could never have been a Jewish Temple.” It’s impossible, apparently, to build on top of solid rock, he explained.
He gave a brief history of the term Palestine, correctly stating that Roman invaders, Vespasian and Titus, in the first century, renamed the region from Israel/Judah. But why, particularly, call it Palestine? “Hmm,” he said, taking a moment to think. “Because they liked the name.” Not, as many scholars believe, because the Romans sought to call the area after the Jews’ sworn enemy, Philistines, to rub salt in the wounds.
While at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, our guide gave his take on the Gospels, contending that it wasn’t the case that Jesus’s mother, Mary, couldn’t find a room at an inn – rather, the Jews forbade Mary to have a room because she was ritually unclean after childbirth. And that, he said, was the unwritten explanation of the manger/barn scenario.
He then proffered his views on Jews. “Since anyone can become a Jew,” he said, “they’re not really tied to the land.” Meaning that anyone who has converted, or was born to converts, has no connection to Israel.
And, he added, since the parcel of land called Judah, from which the name “Jew” was derived, was only a fraction of modern Israel, today’s Jews should only have rights to those ancient borders.
Quoting the Torah – “if you bless Israel, you are blessed; if you curse Israel, you will be cursed” (Genesis 12) – our guide insisted that the “Israel” referred to in this verse has never meant “the nation of Israel” (which it does), but only refers to the patriarch Jacob, who was later named Israel. The underlying message was that there was no concern about being cursed if you curse Jews.
For good measure, he asked, pointing toward the refugee camp, “Doesn’t it say ‘love your fellow’ in the Torah? That’s one of the top commandments.”
Almost no tour anywhere is complete without the commercial aspect – wandering through the souvenir shops and markets.
At the ice cream shop, our guide claimed, “Palestinian ice cream is made with real cream, not like the Israeli version!” At the spice store, he spoke about how Israelis use cheap ingredients in their Zaatar, but not Palestinians. And, he said, “Even Israelis agree that Palestinian beer is better than the sewer water in a can they make.”
The hero worship of Yasser Arafat was astounding. Virtually every street corner in Ramallah had a wall-sized poster of him. My trip was in November, so these displays were likely timed for the anniversary of his death. Schoolchildren took a field trip to his tomb in Ramallah for a commemoration and photo opportunities.
Our guide made every effort to politicize the tour, down to the free lunch. He said there wasn’t such thing as “Israeli couscous,” only co-opted “Arab-Palestinian couscous.” Scholars and culinary experts differ, saying that Israeli couscous was created in the 1950s in response to food rationing. Alas, more was still to come from our guide.
While he had our attention, he showed us illustrations of how Palestine in 1947 comprised modern Israel and the West Bank, while today, the Palestinians only have small, scattered autonomous dots in the Palestinian Authority. As for the Palestinian part in this development, he said, “just a couple of bus bombs” derailed the peace process, but only temporarily.
Dave Gordonis a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications around the world.
While the three stated goals of the boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) movement are an end to Israel’s “occupation” of “Arab lands occupied in June 1967,” equal rights for Arab Israelis and the right of return for Palestinian refugees (bdsmovement.net), its real aim is the destruction of Israel. As BDS activist Norman Finkelstein succinctly explained in a 2012 video, the ultimate result if the BDS’s three goals are achieved is: “There’s no Israel. That’s what it’s really about.” And, indeed, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has said, “I will not accept a Jewish state.”
In a Jan. 19, 2016, interview Fatah Central Commitee member Tawfiq Al-Tirawi said: “a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders [i.e. limited to the West Bank and Gaza], with Jerusalem as its capital, is just a phase.” While initially suggesting giving Jews plane tickets to leave the region, he says, “I want to live together with them” in “Palestine, in its historical borders, and we want all the Palestinian refugees [to] return to their country.” Omar Barghouti, a BDS leader who apparently studied at Tel Aviv University for a time, acknowledged during a University of Ottawa talk in 2009, “if the refugees were to return, you cannot have a two-state solution like one Palestinian commentator remarked, you will have a Palestinian state next to a Palestinian state rather than a Palestinian state next to Israel.”
There are many other myths perpetuated by the BDS movement and its supporters, which point to it being antisemitism disguised as anti-Zionism, the denial of the right of Jewish people to live in peace and security in their own homeland. Examples follow.
BDS supporters talk about boycotting products from the Israeli “invasion of Palestine.” Jews did not invade nor did they steal the land. Thousands of Jews were already living in the region before the state of Israel was established, and Jews used to call themselves Palestinians. Jews are indigenous to Israel. Jerusalem was the capital of the Jews. Even during the British Mandate, banknotes, coins and stamps had the initials of Eretz Israel (Land of Israel). And the Jews who immigrated to Palestine, as Israel was then called, as a reaction to the ethnic cleansing and genocide they suffered in European and Muslim countries, bought their properties, as returning Jews had been doing for decades.
The Arab Palestinians rejected the United Nations partition of the land (77% for Arab Palestinians and 23% for Jewish Palestinians) in November 1947, and have yet to establish their own state. After the War of Independence, it was not Israel but Jordan and Egypt that occupied illegally Cisjordan (Judea and Samaria, or the West Bank) and Gaza, respectively.
Abbas, Barghouti and others also have accused Israel of genocide. Israel has done no such thing. While its military has been forced to act against terrorism, it has not set out to deliberately wipe out an entire people. The Palestinian population is growing, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. At the same time, 1.7 million Arabs make up 20% of the Israeli population.
The charge of apartheid is another false accusation. As Dr. Kenneth Meshoe, South African politician, president of the African Christian Democratic Party, aptly put it: “Israel apartheid is a lie.” Every Israeli citizen has rights and freedoms. All minorities in Israel, including Arabs, can study in universities, are allowed to become professionals, businesspeople, athletes, work in public sector jobs and hold seats in the Knesset. In the current Parliament, Arab Israelis occupy 14 seats. As an anecdote, the sentence of Israel’s Supreme Court of former prime minister Ehud Olmert was read by an Arab Israeli judge, Justice Salim Joubran. Could that happen in an “apartheid” country?
Another issue BDSers protest is that of Israel’s blockade on Gaza, despite that it is legal, according to international law and the San Remo Manual, given that “relations between Israel and Hamas (which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007) are in the nature of armed conflict.” What would be illegal is if Israel let only some boats seeking to break the blockade pass, as a blockade must apply to every ship unless special permission is given. For more on this, see the article by Prof. Ruth Lapidoth (jcpa.org/article/the-legal-basis-of-israel’s-naval-blockade-of-gaza).
The blockade is needed to prevent terrorist groups from getting more weapons. Hamas’ charter specifically states their will to destroy Israel. More than 15,000 missiles in the past 15 years have been launched from Gaza at innocent Israeli civilians, leaving in their wake deaths, injuries and billions of dollars in damages, in addition to three wars and continued missile and rocket fire at Israel, combined with ongoing incitement against Israel and Jews on Palestinian TV and in schools and training camps.
The security fence – yet another mark against Israel in BDSers’ views – is also a legal method of self-defence. While it is not ideal and while some of it (less than 10%) is an imposing concrete wall as opposed to a wire fence, it reduced terrorist attacks by 90% in its first many years. While terrorist attacks have since increased, there are still fewer than before, and the barrier is a part of the reason for the decline.
As to the BDSers’ demand for the right of return. “The Palestinian demand for the ‘right of return’ is totally unrealistic and would have to be solved by means of financial compensation and resettlement in Arab countries,” Egypt’s then-president Hosni Mubarak noted in 1989. As Barghouti correctly observed, if Israel were to absorb the more than six million Palestinian Arab refugees, Israel as a Jewish and democratic state would disappear.
Refugees, as defined by the UN Relief and Works Agency, are “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict” – which began when Arab countries attacked the newly forming state of Israel – and their descendants. Approximately 750,000 Palestinians fled or left Israel by choice because of that conflict, and more left after the 1967 Six Day War, which was also the result of Arab aggression.
As former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler wrote in a 2014 Times of Israel blog and has spoken and written about elsewhere, there is another aspect that must be considered when speaking of the rights of refugees: “the pain and plight of 850,000 Jews uprooted and displaced from Arab countries – the forced yet ‘forgotten exodus,’ as it has been called – has been expunged and eclipsed from both the Middle East peace and justice agenda for 67 years.”
Another question more people need to ask of BDS supporters is about the lack of protest when Egypt considers building a wall on her border with Gaza, blockades Gaza, destroys neighborhoods adjacent to her border with Gaza to create a buffer zone and destroys tunnels used for arms smuggling, kidnapping of civilians and soldiers and infiltration for attacks.
If BDSers really were concerned about Palestinians, they would be protesting the treatment by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas of their own people, the lack of basic human rights and freedoms that people living in the West Bank and Gaza possess. But they’re not. Instead, they focus their sights on Israel, their ultimate goal its destruction.
Silvana Goldemberg is an award-winning author of more than 20 books and magazines published in Spanish and English throughout the Americas. Originally from Argentina, she is currently based in Richmond.
The Jordan River is “the only river on planet earth that on its good days is a few feet wide, and people claim that it has a bank 40 miles wide.” (photo from Beivushtang via Wikimedia Commons)
Settlements or Jewish communities? West Bank or Judea and Samaria? East Jerusalem or eastern Jerusalem? Those are some of the language choices that journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are faced with each day – and those choices should not be taken lightly, experts say.
“It’s the terminology that actually defines the conflict and defines what you think about the conflict,” said Ari Briggs, director of Regavim, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that works on legal land-use issues. “Whereas journalists’ job, I believe, is to present the news, as soon as you use certain terminology, you’re presenting an opinion and not the news anymore.”
“Accuracy requires precision; ideology employs euphemism,” said Eric Rozenman, Washington director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).
At the conclusion of his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell argues that writers have the power to “send some worn-out and useless phrase … into the dustbin, where it belongs.” Many Jewish leaders, organizations and analysts wish to do just that with the following terms, which are commonly used by the mainstream media in coverage of Israel.
West Bank: Dani Dayan believes the “funniest” term of all that is used in mainstream coverage of Israel is West Bank. Dayan is the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization representing the municipal councils of Jewish communities in an area that the Israeli government calls Judea and Samaria, in line with the region’s biblical roots. Yet, media most often use West Bank to describe the area in reference to the bank of the river situated on its eastern border.
“[The Jordan River] is the only river on planet earth that on its good days is a few feet wide, and people claim that it has a bank 40 miles wide [spanning across Judea and Samaria],” Dayan told this reporter. “There is no other example of such a thing in the geography of planet earth. That proves that West Bank is the politicized terminology, and not Judea and Samaria, as people claim.”
Member of Knesset Danny Danon (Likud) has said it’s “ridiculous” that West Bank – a geographic term that once described half of the Mandate of Palestine – has “taken on a political meaning that attempts to supersede thousands of years of Jewish tradition.”
“The correct name of the heartland of the Land of Israel is obviously Judea and Samaria,” he said.
Rozenman, the former editor of the Washington Jewish Week and B’nai B’rith Magazine, draws a distinction between the context of Palestinian and Jewish communities in the area. “If I’m referring to Palestinian Arab usage or demands, I use West Bank,” he said. “If I’m referring to Israeli usage or Jewish history and religion, etc., I use Judea and Samaria. Israeli prime ministers from 1967 on, if not before, used and [now] use Yehuda and Shomron, the Hebrew from which the Romans latinized Judea and Samaria.”
West Bank is fair to use, “so long as it’s noted that Jordan adopted that usage in the early 1950s to try to legitimate its illegal occupation, as the result of aggression, of what was commonly known as Judea and Samaria by British Mandatory authorities,” added Rozenman.
Dayan, meanwhile, prefers to call Palestinian communities in Judea and Samaria exactly that. “The area is Judea and Samaria and, in Judea and Samaria, there are indeed Palestinian population centres, and that’s perfectly OK,” he said. “We cannot neglect that fact, that yes, we [Jews] are living together with Palestinians. And, in Judea and Samaria, there is ample room for many Jews, for many Palestinians, and for peaceful coexistence between them if the will exists.”
Settlements: Judea and Samaria’s Jewish communities are often called settlements, a term that can depict modern-day residents of the area as primitive.
Settlements “once referred in a positive manner to all communities in the Land of Israel, but at some point was misappropriated as a negative term specifically against those Jews who settled in Judea and Samaria,” Danon said. “I prefer to use ‘Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria’ when discussing the brave modern-day Zionistic pioneers.”
Dayan said that “settlements” is not pejorative, but still inaccurate. “It’s a politically driven labeling in order to target those [Israeli] communities,” he said. “Most communities in Judea and Samaria are not different from any suburban or even urban community in Europe, in the United States, in Israel itself, or elsewhere.”
It’s a question that defines the debate over Israel’s policies and the state’s grand strategy: do Israeli human rights organizations monitoring the occupation merely serve as a fig leaf, adding an ethical patina to what is a fundamentally immoral situation?
Four months into his new position as head of B’Tselem, having come from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Hagai El-Ad and I spoke by phone recently about this and other issues. [To read the JI’s interview with El-Ad, click here.]
Given that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was supposed to be “temporary,” El-Ad is well aware that “at some point the term loses its meaning.” So, as he took the helm of B’Tselem last May, the organization issued a position paper provocatively named 47 Years of Temporary Occupation. As El-Ad put it, B’Tselem is shifting its focus from “fighting against human rights violations under occupation to a strategy [emphasizing] that the occupation will forever violate the human rights of Palestinians.” To this end, B’Tselem is now trying to end the occupation – not just help manage it.
It’s a laudable goal. But how achievable is it?
B’Tselem is starting with some concrete steps, however limited. For one, they have recently announced that they will not cooperate with Israel Defence Forces military investigations around Operation Protective Edge. Calling it “theatre of the absurd,” El-Ad believes that the military investigation system is one intended to “always result in impunity.” And this protected military violence is a necessary “lifeline of the occupation.” Hence, the need to squelch it.
As far as the bigger picture goes, El-Ad was cautiously optimistic: probably a necessary blend for anyone in human rights work in the Israel/Palestine morass. He takes comfort from what he sees as B’Tselem’s mission being fundamentally buttressed by the very human rights discourse extant in Israel. That the concept of human rights is a “relevant currency” in Israeli politics gives the organization an important starting point by which to leverage societal consensus. Though without the clout or mandate to engage in electoral lobbying efforts, working to end the occupation must be done very much at arm’s length from the policy sphere. Still, it’s a start.
El-Ad adds that he invites others to see what they can do “in their own communities” to disrupt the idea of the occupation as “business as usual.”
OK, so most of us can agree that the occupation is an undesirable situation, but what about the argument, issued frequently by Israel’s most strident defenders, that the status quo is a security imperative? If Hamas didn’t launch rockets, the thinking goes, the war in Gaza wouldn’t have been necessary. And, if West Bank Palestinians didn’t seek to blow up Israelis, the checkpoints and night raids and (the various) separate roads could be dismantled. And we all know about the apartheid, uh, separation, ahem, security wall.
Trading off between security on one hand, and human rights and ending occupation on the other, is a false dichotomy, El-Ad explained. In Gaza, “we’ve encountered time and again the theory that using more and more force will provide the desired outcome. But that’s not really working.” When it comes to day-to-day military policing in the West Bank to ensure the safety of Israeli citizens, we all know the chicken-egg argument: the internal checkpoints would be unnecessary were there not settlements (illegal under international law) to protect, hence, B’Tselem’s claim, in its 47 Years of Temporary Occupation document, that settlements are “the heart of the matter.”
Now that the fighting in Gaza has died down, B’Tselem is reflecting on its work compiling data on casualties, monitoring international humanitarian law violations – including by Hamas – and collecting first-person testimonies, attempting to put a face to the Palestinians in Gaza. El-Ad is quick to note that the media coverage in Israel tended to be one-sided, with little coverage of the war experience for Gazans. As an antidote, B’Tselem relied heavily on social media and web coverage to get additional information disseminated, despite a hacking attempt that left their website site crippled for a few days.
After talking to El-Ad, I’m left with a strange combination of hope and cynicism. As someone who cares deeply about seeing an end to the occupation, I’m buoyed by the fact that the head of Israel’s most important human rights organization has this broader goal top of mind. At the same time, absent the apparent political will in the top echelons of the Israeli government, I can’t escape the belief that intelligent, passionate and committed Israeli change-makers like El-Ad are too often left clapping with one hand.
Mira Sucharovis an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. A version of this article was originally published on haartez.com.
If there was any doubt that Jews around the world have strong feelings and opinions about Israel, it was disabused by a major new paper produced by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI).
Jewish and Democratic: Perspectives from World Jewry was released several weeks ago at a conference in New York state. It is the result of 40 discussion groups and seminars around the world, as well as questionnaires and an analysis of existing research. The process included participants from much of Canada, though none from Vancouver.
The diversity of comments and the consensus that appears from the document are not particularly startling, but they are interesting for their quantification of some things we probably already assumed. The most significant “finding” seems to be that Jews around the world take great interest in Israel, its security, future, successes, failures and ethical challenges.
The report was undertaken in response to Israel’s Ministry of Justice considering legislation that would codify Israel’s Jewish and democratic character “at a time when different ideological groups within Israel hold conflicting views of how these components should be prioritized.” Israel has always tried to be democratic and Jewish. Long-term concerns are that high Arab and low Jewish birthrates could imperil the Jewish majority and, therefore, the Jewish and democratic system, particularly if some resolution is not found for the stateless Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. More immediately, tensions have existed over questions of whether Israel is Jewish enough and/or democratic enough. Given the range of opinion on the matter, efforts to pin down the perfect recipe for a democratic Jewish state will be like nailing Jell-O to the wall.
We suspect that any proposed legislation will flounder in a tsunami of pilpul, much like the continual but inconclusive debate over “who is a Jew,” which revives itself several times in this report. Even so, the discussion is worth having and the report is full of provocative nuggets.
Jews of all ages are apparently more willing to criticize Israeli policies than was the case several decades ago. In considering Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” nature, the most common concern among Diaspora Jews is the inequality between Jews and Arabs within Israel, as well as political and military control over non-citizen Palestinians in the West Bank. Concern over treatment of Bedouins also arises. As small minorities in their home countries, Diaspora Jews have a “special sensitivity to minority rights,” says the report. (We like that the report uses the term “world-Jews,” which sounds like a hip neologism, like “world music.”)
Many participants express concerns over the enforcement of Orthodox standards in civil society. One comment is that Israel is now a “Jewish Orthodox democracy.” Another participant asserts that, “As a Jewish state, Israel needs to be pluralistic and Jewishly diverse.”
Previous research has indicated that many Jewish Americans (and others) resent that the Kotel has a strict gender separation and that enforcement is controlled by the Orthodox. At the conference where the report was released, one Conservative woman expressed her view: “Our support of Israel is unambiguous, it’s wall-to-wall. But I want to know there is a place for me where I can put on my tallit every morning. May I do that in the state of Israel and not have things thrown at me? Will the government arrest me? Is there a place for me in Israel?”
It turns out we’re not so different, Diaspora and Israel. Nearly three-quarters of Israelis disapprove of the way their governments handle religious issues.
Overall, the report suggests that Diaspora Jews on the far right prioritize Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic nature, while those on the far left view Israel’s Jewish character as an anachronism. The majority, the report says, want to have it both ways – and believe it is possible to do so.
Despite recent suggestions of a weakening of the bond between Israel and Diaspora Jews, particularly among young people, Jews in diverse countries overwhelmingly declare themselves connected with Israel and identify as Zionist. The report acknowledges that some younger Jews, particularly in the United States, as evidenced in the Hillel movement, are reacting against strictures laid down by their elders over what are appropriate views to hold on topics around Israel. The report takes some pains to note that these young people do not necessarily disagree with the broader consensus around Israel, its Jewish and democratic nature or other factors, but do resent being told what they are allowed to believe, hear and say.
Breaking news? Not much. Still, the report – and, most especially the constructive dialogues that went into creating it – is a sort of snapshot in time of the Diaspora’s thoughts on Israel. Beyond the details, which are themselves interesting, is the tremendous consensus that we care about Israel very, very deeply.
In 1948, there were an estimated 856,000 Jews in Arab and Muslim countries, from Algeria to Iraq. The estimated Jewish population in 2012 was 4,315 – 3,000 of whom are in Morocco alone.
Four months after the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development’s November 2013 report “Recognizing Jewish Refugees from the Middle East and North Africa,” Canada’s Cabinet accepted one of its two recommendations. The next day, on March 4, Parliament “concurred in” the report.
As the United States pushes for at least a framework for a peace agreement in the coming weeks, the Palestinian side will continue to use as a significant bargaining chip the millions (under the unique definition of “Palestinian refugee”) of people seeking a “right of return.” The parliamentary committee recommended that Canada officially recognize these displaced persons and, secondly, that our federal government “encourage the direct negotiating parties to take into account all refugee populations as part of any just and comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts.”
Responding to the committee’s recommendations, Cabinet made nice noises, concurring heartily with the first recognition, which is, ultimately, merely symbolic. On the second recommendation, the Conservative government resorted to diplomatic verbiage, saying, it “understands the positive intent underlying this recommendation but, at this time, Canada has offered its support to the peace process as presently structured.”
During the Israeli War of Independence in 1948-49, somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000 Arab Palestinians were made refugees. History – and the Arab countries in which these refugees found themselves – has not been kind to them. The 1967 war created more refugees, while placing those Arab Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank under Israeli control.
This history, which includes a definition of refugee known nowhere else in the world – one that is passed down from generation to generation, exacerbating rather than ameliorating the refugee situation – is well known. Yet, it is remarkable how many otherwise well-informed people are unaware of the Jewish refugees throughout the Middle East in the same era. To varying degrees, life for Jews in Arab- and Muslim-majority countries deteriorated rapidly after the 1948 war, and hundreds of thousands were either forced to leave their homelands or found it prudent to do so. The 1967 war finished the job.
But even the Jews who migrated to Israel during this period have often acknowledged that they were not comfortable assuming the role of historical victim. First of all, Jews who were forced from Arab and Muslim countries were welcomed (discrimination and economic disparities affecting Mizrahi Jews notwithstanding) by the new state of Israel, which they helped to build and strengthen.
Compared with the Arab Palestinians who had been displaced and who were, and still are, held in a form of statelessness, the Jewish emigrants were absorbed by Israel and the other countries to which they migrated, including Canada. More significantly, those who went to Israel joined a country that was absorbing refugees from Europe, whose experiences of statelessness had been more harrowing and catastrophic. Faced with new fellow citizens who had lost not only their material possessions and their ancestral villages, but also entire extended families, most of their civilization and even their mother tongue, the Jews who migrated from the Middle East and North Africa often found it best to keep their own tragic experiences closer to the vest.
Small nonprofit groups like JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) have kept this history alive. On the political front, in 2008, the United States became the first (and so far only) country to official recognize the Jewish refugees. More than a year ago, Liberal MP Irwin Cotler tabled a motion that Canada should recognize these forgotten refugees. In the parliamentary committee hearings, Canadians, including some refugees themselves, told personal stories of this history.
The government is on the right track. It is a matter of righting the historical record and of simple justice that, when Palestinian refugees are considered in the process of reconciliation, so should Jews who were forced from their homelands in the same era. But it is necessary for Canada, as the vaunted “honest broker” we claim to be, to demand that Jewish refugees also be considered among the many difficult historical realities that must be resolved for a lasting and just peace to be realized.
The intensifying Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have caused opponents of a Palestinian state to revive former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir’s 1969 canard that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.” However, “Palestine denial” is less a debating point than a conversation- stopper: if there are no Palestinians, then there is no Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and thus no need even to discuss West Bank policies. One problem: Palestinians do, in fact, exist.
In December, Israeli diplomat Danny Ayalon posted a YouTube video entitled “The Real Truth About Palestine,” in which he claimed that Palestine is a place, not a nation: “Like Antarctica, the Amazons or Sahara, naming a place doesn’t create a nation of Antarcticans or Saharans.” And in a recent Front Page Magazine essay, Hoover Institution scholar Bruce Thornton referred to “the so-called Palestinians” and stated that the very idea of a Palestinian nation is but “a device for promoting the incremental war against Israel.”
In 2012, three U.S. Republican presidential candidates endorsed Palestine denial: Newt Gingrich called Palestinians “an invented people”; Rick Santorum said “there are no Palestinians … all the people who live in the West Bank are Israelis”; and Herman Cain referred to “the so-called Palestinian people.”
Palestine denial, like Holocaust denial, is easily refuted. Most historians, since the publication of Benedict Anderson’s book Imagined Communities three decades ago, have accepted that every people is invented, some very recently.
Italian consciousness dates to 1764 and, until 1871, Italy wasn’t a country. Earlier residents considered themselves Neapolitans or Venetians or Florentines, and their primary loyalties were to their religion or ruler. But “Italian” is not a timeless identity, nation, or people.
Before a UCLA professor coined “Asian American” in 1968, Americans whose backgrounds were Chinese or Filipino or Japanese weren’t really part of a unified ethnic group. Yet the government now applies census and voting-rights laws to Asian Americans as if they existed – which, today, they do.
Czechoslovakia, carved from former Austro-Hungarian territory containing mostly Czechs but also Germans and Slovaks, lasted from 1918 to 1992. But the state was only partially successful in creating a unified Czechoslovakian identity out of those ethnicities. The joke among Jewish historians is that there were Czechs and Slovaks, but the only Czechoslovaks were the Jews of Prague.
Being Jewish is itself an invented identity. Though Judaism is thousands of years old, it’s not ageless. Ancient concepts of tribes and kingdoms differ greatly from today’s nation idea. In fact, Hebrew has a different word for biblical peoplehood (am) and modern nationhood (l’om). Jewish nationalism traces only to the late 1800s, when secular European Jews faced rising nationalist antisemitism in their countries of residence, as expressed in France’s Dreyfus Affair and the Russian pogroms. The central Zionist myth of uninterrupted but dispersed Jewish nationhood with consistent identity tracing to biblical times and finally gathering in modern Israel is historically inaccurate.
Palestinian identity and peoplehood started in the early 20th century, but intensified after the events of 1948 and 1967. The Palestinian nation then developed a strong sense of shared history and future, grievance and aspiration. It has a flag, a shared language (Palestinian Arabic), particular cuisine and a varied literary canon.
Palestine denial is hackneyed and utterly predictable. Its followers boast of the following 1977 citation by Zuheir Muhsain of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s pan-Arabist faction: “The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel.” The obsession over a hoary 35-year-old quote from a Palestinian with a minority viewpoint suggests no other textual evidence exists.
Deniers also champion Mark Twain’s 1867 Innocents Abroad, always using the same passage, which describes Palestine in part as a “desolate country” where Twain “never saw a human being on the whole route.” But this 68-word mantra, presented as a single coherent opinion, selectively combines sentences and phrases from pages 488, 520 and 555 of the travelogue. Never mentioned are Twain’s half-dozen anecdotes about encounters with Arabs in Palestine. Innocents Abroad actually offers more support to the Palestinian narrative than the Zionist one.
Finally, West Bank residents are purportedly just a motley collection of Arab economic migrants, not a unified nation. Of course, the United States was also populated by economic migrants, and everyone recognizes the American people.
Denial rhetoric invalidates Palestinian rights by contradicting common sense and nearly all nationalism scholarship. It also leads to very strange questions. Are Italians a nation? Do Pakistanis (a 75-year-old identity) deserve a state? Should we tell a person who says she’s Asian American, “No, you’re not”?
Opponents of a Palestinian state can raise many legitimate points. But the “myth of Palestine” is not one of them. The idea needs to be retired, so real discussions about the Israeli and Palestinian futures can start.
David Benkof has a master’s degree in modern Jewish history from Stanford. He teaches Hebrew in Jerusalem. He can be reached at [email protected].