Counterpoint: Homeless and helpless

CounterpointHomeless an

The biblically based holiday of Succot is winding down. Each year on Succot, known as the "Feast of Ingathering" because it is when the harvest season draws to a close, Jews pay tribute to the divine command to build a succa, a temporary dwelling place used by the Israelites in the wilderness after their liberation from Egyptian enslavement (Leviticus 23:34). The holiday is also designated as the "Season of Gladness," as Jews celebrate the fruits of their produce (Deuteronomy 16:14-15). It is not only the theological edict of building a "tent" in recognition of this desert holiday that is important, but also the symbolic thrust of Succot throughout Jewish history. After all, for almost two millennia, Jews found themselves living in a state of impermanence - never being able to settle down for an extended period with a secure roof over their heads. After the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jews lived the life of the "wandering Jew," poignantly portrayed as the people of the mythical "Anatevka" from the popular Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof - barely surviving exile, the Crusades, the Inquisition, pogroms and the Holocaust. WITH THE establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, it seemed that this transitory life had finally ended, despite numerous attempts by the Arab countries surrounding it to "drive the Jews into the sea." Yet at its outset, the nascent Jewish state absorbed 600,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries - a fact that is all too often overlooked by the world community when addressing the matter of refugees. Throughout Israel's 61-year existence, the country has continued to absorb Jewish "nomads" - even as recently as the early 1990s, when Russian and Ethiopian Jews arrived at its shores. Additionally, with rockets fired by Hizbullah and by Hamas, Israelis in the north and south have been forced to abandon their stationary status. Therefore, the construction of the succa has profound relevance today as it jogs our historical memory, demonstrating how tentative Jewish life can be even in our homeland. Because Israel is now a sovereign state, no longer dependent on the goodwill of another ruler, it is able to guarantee its sense of security. There is no choice because there is no longer an alternative for the Jewish people to live as a self-contained and self-defined community anywhere except in Israel. Israel has learned its lesson well, fending off Arab armies and terrorist organizations. But there are other lessons to be garnered from this holiday, which unfortunately Israel has failed miserably to internalize. So great is its failure that Jews could bring upon themselves another wilderness-like experience of uncertainty. If history is to teach us anything, then we should understand that just as no one could suppress the will of the Jewish people to gain its own national expression in the land of its forefathers after nearly 2,000 years of statelessness, so the aspirations of the Palestinian people to attain a sense of belonging and permanence must also be acknowledged. Unless a peace accord can be forged within a very short time, given the policies of Israel's governments - Labor, Likud and Kadima - the idea of Palestinians securing any foothold in a state that they can define as their own will be nonexistent (even though they are also to blame for this sorry state of affairs). They will be restricted to their own brand of succa, dictated by an intransigent Jewish nation that is incapable of interpreting Jewish tradition and history with any sense of universal understanding - a message expressed on Succot by the offering of 70 bullocks as atonement for the 70 nations of the world (Numbers 29:12-38). This practice, reinforced in rabbinic sources (Talmud Succa 55b), is also based on a prophetic vision that all nations will join the people of Israel in Jerusalem for Succot (Zecharia 14:16). THE POLICY of Israel toward the Palestinians contradicts the spirit of the holiday. We are witness to continued Palestinian house demolitions and constant denial of building permits to accommodate Palestinian natural growth, even as the government extends hundreds of licenses for the construction of homes in settlements beyond any reasonable interpretation of what constitutes Jewish natural growth. Add to this the increased expropriation of Palestinian lands, and is it any wonder that Palestinians feel a sense of ambiguity and doubt? If on Succot Jews are supposed to rejoice in the success of their harvest season, so, too, should Palestinians have the opportunity to exult in the fruits of their labor. But when religious settlers - often in cahoots with the army and civilian administration - deny the possibility of Palestinians gaining access to their land to reap their crop, then any Palestinian celebration at the turn of the agricultural calendar becomes an extended period of mourning. Succot is the last of the three pilgrim holidays after Pessah and Shavuot, each one bearing a semblance of universal contrition. Therefore, it is impossible to understand how a holiday that carries with it a message of atonement as manifested by an "offering" before the Almighty should today be construed as exactly the opposite. Furthermore, we speak of a "succat shalom" - a tabernacle of peace. Indeed, in our daily liturgy, we recite: "Cause us, O Lord, to lie down in peace, and raise us up, our Guardian, to renewed life. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace and guide us with Your good counsel." Sadly, good counsel, not to mention common sense, has yet to penetrate the crania of our political leaders. They have been infested with the grandiose notion of expansion at someone else's expense, which is manifested through a settlement enterprise that is tearing asunder the possibility of Palestinians establishing a state with any sort of territorial continuity or integrity. Palestinians will not accept a truncated nation, broken down into cantons, anymore than Israelis would. Such a state would represent a permanent impermanence - a never-ending succa. Israel's obdurate and parochial ideological understanding of what it means to be a homeless and helpless people, as it experienced throughout the generations, is slowly and steadily turning what can only be described as Palestinian homelessness into Palestinian helplessness. A homeless and helpless people become a desperate people, and desperation translates into an intensified state of conflict. Moreover, the international community, which once identified with our fight for independence, deeming it just and moral, will increasingly sympathize with the Palestinian struggle for independence. As a result, we could very well turn the historical clock back, undoing the comfort of sitting in our succa with the knowledge that once the holiday is over, we have little to fear from tearing down its walls - unless, of course, our behavior toward the Palestinians continues to undermine the meaning of Succot.•