Peacebuilder Reflections – Holding the Pain

Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg is the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi.  She serves as a spiritual director, peace and justice educator, and teacher of Mussar (a classical Jewish system of spiritual development).

My recent trip to Palestine and Israel with a group of 20 justice-minded rabbis began with a tour of  the remains of the Palestinian town of Lifta, in present-day greater Jerusalem.

I greeted the day with excitement and trepidation.  I knew that the Palestinian Arab residents of the town had been evacuated in late December 1947, in the context of what Israelis call the War of Independence (1947-8) and Palestinians call the Nakba.  Knowing just a bit of the story, I knew it would be a powerful experience.

It was all the more emotional for me because of my friendship with Lama Rimawi, a member of my Sisterhood chapter, and the co-chair of the Sisterhood’s Israel-Palestine Committee (on which I also serve).  Lama’s mother’s family had been refugees from Lifta.  Lama holds the town very close to her heart, as a family treasure and place of deep pain. She even uses a photograph of Lifta as her zoom background.

We stood at the entrance to Lifta, receiving a briefing from a remarkable organization called Zochrot.  According to its website, “Zochrot is an NGO that has been working since 2002 for exposing and disseminating historical information about the Palestinian Nakba in Hebrew, with a view to promote accountability for the Nakba among the Jewish public of Israel . . . .” We were deeply moved to learn about Lifta in particular and about the larger project of recognizing Palestinian towns and villages that were destroyed or evacuated in 1947-8.  Honoring one another’s wounds and traumatic memories is a key component of peacebuilding.  

But for me, Lifta was personal.  My heart beat rapidly as I followed the tour guide’s every word, hoping he could help me to find Lama’s family home.  We could not find the house.  But I discovered something else.

Lifta is located just below the road that leads out of Jerusalem on the way to Tel Aviv.  Standing in the valley where the beautiful town was located, I looked up and was surprised to see how close we were to the road - an important part of Jerusalem’s current landscape.  And then I looked further up and recognized a neighborhood of Jerusalem that was very familiar to me.  

“Is that Giv’at Sha’ul?” I asked the tour guide urgently.  “Oh yes,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation.  “It’s built on the ruins of Deir Yassin.”

I almost felt my heart stop beating as I took in the shocking news.  Deir Yassin was the site of a massacre of some 100 Palestinian villagers by Zionist fighters in April 1948, as they sought to  break through the Palestinian blockade of Jerusalem.  

Much is disputed about what happened to Palestinian towns and their residents during the War of 1947-8.  Zochrot has documented 600 destroyed villages —  a number so mind-boggling that I struggle to absorb it.  Others say that 400 villages were either destroyed or the villagers evacuated and not allowed to return.  Many Jewish Israelis believe these accounts to be propaganda.  “Our” fighters simply could never have done such things.

But even among Jewish Israelis, the name of Deir Yassin is well known, considered to be the exception to the rule, a place where Zionist fighters massacred Palestinian innocents in order to prosecute their aims in the war.

My heart began to race, because Giv’at Shaul was where I lived in a rental apartment during my junior year of college.  It was a very important year in my development.  It was the year I discerned that I was called to enter the rabbinate.  It was a time of tremendous learning and personal formation.  The apartment was beautiful, with a breathtaking view of the outskirts of Jerusalem.  Had I known to look, I could easily have seen the ruins of Lifta from my window.

Obviously, I did not know at the time that I lived on ground where Jews had killed innocent Palestinian men, women and children.  None of us knew.  The story was buried at the time, because it was so shameful and painful.  There is such a temptation to bury the remains and the memories of the times when “our side” did terrible things.

Even after the shock subsided, I still reeled from the things I had learned.  I have long understood how deeply harmful Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has been to Palestinians and to Israelis as well.  I have come to believe that it is my right and my duty as an American Jew and Jewish leader to recognize when Israel acts in harmful ways.  My love for Israel and support for the state must be based in truth, not in denial and avoidance.  For many years I have been able to navigate this in relationship to the occupation.

Though I certainly know people who talk about Israel’s “sins” in 1947-8, I have never been through a deep grieving process about these events.  I had never fully moved past denial that such things happened or that they were really serious and widespread.  Dealing with 1967 was easier; the 1948 issues seem more foundational, related as they are to the establishment of the state itself. 

My head spun and my heart ached for weeks after returning from the trip.  How could I let in this new set of painful truths?  How could I find more space inside to absorb the agonizing information that I had long kept at bay and, at the same time, hold onto my lifelong connection to Israel?  I knew that this was spiritual practice, central to the art of dialogue.  I have encountered information that hurts my heart, and, at the same time, my visceral attachment to the land is unchanged.  These realities are paradoxical, and they both live within me.  I need to cultivate the ability to hold more of the truth alongside the love that is in my heart.  In so doing, I become more deeply committed to truth, to love and to peace.  This is the work of peacebuilding.

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