Saturday, August 9, 2008

Jewish Tradition & Justice in Palestine

Zochrot is the feminine form of "Remembering" in Hebrew and is the name of an organization in Tel Aviv where I volunteered for the last week of my trip. Zochrot [Remembering] is a group of Israeli citizens working to raise awareness of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948.

Zochrot does many programs including tours of destroyed Palestinian villages within the 1948 borders of the Israeli State; educational programs about the Nakba (catastrophe); sign-posting where Palestinian villages once stood; art actions (ie. posting life size photos of refugees in the villages where they are from); and they recently hosted a conference to discuss different paths for the implementation of return for refugees from/to the Tel Aviv area.

On August 6th, Zochrot had a program different from its norm. Two Jewish community leaders/teachers from the United States came to lead a discussion about engaging Jewish tradition in a way that might be a useful lens for Zochrot's work. Eitan, Zochrot's director, introduced the program. He explained that for secular Jews in Zochrot Judaism has meant only Jewish nationalism- which is at the root of the problems they aim to confront. When we were told we would be looking at a text from the Talmud, the participants looked skeptical- Talmud!? But we began to study the following text...

Pleimo asked Rabi: “With regard to someone who has two heads – on which of them does he lay tefillin?"

We discussed- was this a metaphor for something else? Why was Pleimo asking this question? Perhaps it was legitimate, someone had two heads and they needed guidance about how to pray. Perhaps Pelemo was testing this important Talmudic Rabbi regarding his views on any one who was different. Perhaps Pelemo was mocking the entire tradition of asking challenging questions.

He [the Rabbi] said to him: “Either get up and be exiled, or accept upon yourself excommunication!”

We discussed- Why did the rabbi reply this way? What did it say about Pleimo's question? The Rabbi was expressing that Pleimo's question was out of bounds of what was acceptable. Either the Rabbi was offended because Pleimo was mocking; because a two-headed person deserved no regard; or because the concept of a two-headed person itself was offensive or absurd and thus out of bounds.

Meanwhile, a man came.
He said to him: A baby was born to me who has two heads. How much must we give to the priest?

We discussed- What does this say about Pleimo's question? About the Rabbi's answer? This shows the Rabbi in a bad light. The problem Pleimo brought was reflective of a real life situation that needed regard. Or perhaps this man with the two-headed baby was also an outsider, bringing a problem that would offend the Rabbi.

An old man came and ruled for him: you must give him ten Selah (monetary unit) (twice the normal amount).

We discussed- What does this say about this text? What issues does the text address? The old man lends legitimacy to the question and puts the Rabbi's authority into question.

We were also taught about liberation theology and were asked to bring the following line of questioning to our analysis of the text-- who was it written by? who was it written for? and largely, where did power lie amongst the characters of the story (the person with two heads, Pleimo, the Rabbi, the man with the child, the child with two heads, and the old man)?

We finally got to this- This text brings up the experience of those who raise difficult but important issues- especially about/for those in marginalized positions to those with authority or others who believe that the issue is outside of the bounds of what is legitimate. It goes beyond the idea that your audience thinks the issue is offensive- because moreso, they see the issue as impossible, not true, not existing.

This is true for Zochrot, an organization that raises a history of Palestinian expulsion before during and after the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948. Even when Zochrot has concrete evidence (they do tours of destroyed Palestinian villages, for example) Israeli society attempts to deny the legitimacy of what they are teaching.
By the end of the program, the Zochrot members were surprised that a piece of Talmud could describe their experience in the world so well.

This study session was potentially the first of many for Zochrot- looking at Jewish tradition as a context for debate and understanding about their work in Israeli society. For me, the night became a look at, on the one hand, how upsetting it is that for secular Israelis Judaism has become equated with a dangerous nationalism; and on the other, how exciting the possibilities are for reclaiming and transforming Jewish tradition as meaningful and strengthening to the work of seeking justice in Palestine.

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