My Word: Succot and the ghosts of intifadas past

"Over the last year in particular I have noticed the Palestinian narrative focusing on the message that the Jews don’t belong here."

A succa in Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A succa in Western Wall
It’s the flimsiest of structures but provides the strongest of arguments about what we’re doing here. The succa. The booth constructed for the weeklong Tabernacles holiday – whose roof must be open enough to see the sky – reminds us of the temporary structures in which we lived as we crossed the desert for 40 years during the Exodus from Egypt on our way to the Promised Land.
I say “we” because I can’t imagine becoming “the wicked child” of the Passover Seder, the one who cuts himself of from the rest of the community.
The story of the Exodus is part of our DNA, I tried to explain on a Radio New Zealand Nights show broadcast last week. It’s who we are. It’s also why we’re here.
Over the last year in particular I have noticed the Palestinian narrative focusing on the message that the Jews don’t belong here. They’re invaders.
MK Jamal Zahalka (chairman of the Joint List’s Balad faction) recently screamed at Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount: “Get out of here! You have no place here! You are not wanted here! By what right are you here?” “Imagine how you’d feel if somebody were to decide to take over Wales,” I heard a pro-Palestinian activist trying to explain to a British broadcaster last year.
But that absolutely misses the point.
I don’t want to harm the feelings of the Welsh, although perhaps they’d be relieved to know that with all the flow of migrants from the Middle East to Europe, the Jews are staying put and not intending to conquer Cardiff.
We (there’s that first person again) wouldn’t want to settle en masse in Wales because it is, well, foreign. The language might be beautiful, but it’s not Hebrew – the language of the Bible, our language.
You might be able to grow wheat and barley there, but what about the rest of the Seven Species? Israelis complained loudly (in Hebrew, of course) about the price of tomatoes ahead of the holiday, but when it comes down to it, we’re a people who need olives, figs, pomegranates and dates.
Part of the joy of living in Israel – and there is lots of joy, even in the difficult times – is that you can watch the pomegranates ripening on the trees and know you’re getting close to Rosh Hashana. Distribution points are set up for palm fronds for the succot roofs. The Four Species – the palm, etrog, willow and myrtle – are readily available, sold in stands set up just ahead of the holiday along with decorations for the booths.
Succot are put up everywhere: hotels, restaurants, hospitals, military bases and work places.
You just couldn’t do that so openly, so naturally, anywhere else in the world.
Israel is the only country where one of the selling points of luxury residential buildings in many neighborhoods is that apartments are built with staggered “succa balconies.”
Israel is probably the only country where all new buildings are equipped with anti-rocket safe rooms.
Succot and safe rooms: Could there be a more Israeli combination, I wondered, as friends in the South rushed for shelter in rocket attacks last week.
For not all is well: Rockets from Gaza are still intermittently being launched on Israel; rockets now and again come from Syria, too, some of them in error, others as part of an effort to draw Israel into the conflict there (and no doubt get the blame) as the Cold War makes a heated comeback in an area where Muslims are butchering Muslims by the thousands.
And there is a wave of Palestinian violence that the Israeli authorities are loath to call an intifada, but has already taken too many lives since the start of the Jewish New Year less than a month ago: Alexander Levlovitz, killed as he drove home from a Rosh Hashana meal in Jerusalem; Eitam and Naama Henkin, shot dead in front of their four children in a roadside ambush near Itamar last week; and Rabbi Nehemia Lavi, slain as he rushed to help Aharon Banita, who was murdered in the Via Dolorosa, where his wife and one of his two young children were wounded. Chillingly, local Arab vendors did nothing, or worse than nothing – they jeered and spat as Adele Banita staggered down the narrow alley trying to alert the nearest police officers. Now, they’re complaining that business is bad. Tourists are being scared away.
As usual, the victims, no matter where they lived, are depicted as “settlers,” that peculiar subspecies whose lives apparently don’t count. (Yes, that BBC website headline “Palestinian shot dead after Jerusalem attack kills two” hurt. The twisted logic that turned the terrorist into the victim was like twisting the knife with which he had killed Aharon Banita and pouring salt on the wounds of his wife, Adele.) The official excuse (do the terrorists need an excuse?) is the Jewish presence on the Temple Mount.
That alone should give a clue to the reason Israelis want to live in Israel and not in Wales or somewhere similar.
We didn’t choose this part of the Middle East out of perversity. It’s home.
And here lies the crux of the conflict.
The Palestinians and their supporters see Israel as some external force, temporary conquerers, colonials who don’t belong. With enough terror attacks, rockets, war and sufficient international isolation, the Jews will leave, goes this thinking – despite the evidence that it has failed in the Arab killing sprees and wars from the 1920s on.
Strangely, it has the reverse effect: Adversity brings Israelis together.
When the going gets tough, we run for home.
When wars break out, we mobilize literally.
Years ago I had a fascinating conversation with an ultra-Orthodox journalist who recounted his memories of being called out of synagogue on Yom Kippur, receiving a blessing from his rabbi as he set off for the front in the war that broke out 42 years ago.
Among his wartime recollections were trying to find out the halachic minimum dimensions permissible for a succa that had to be built protruding above a front-line trench without risking the lives of those sitting in it.
Never did the booth, or life, seem so precarious.
THOSE WHO worry about the current situation have good reason, but they should never forget just how far we’ve come.
Terror is not an existential threat. Israel is not a tiny dot in a huge question mark. It is a fact.
The Iron Dome anti-rocket system, while not foolproof, provides unprecedented levels of protection. And I salute the elite forces who managed to nab the Henkins’ suspected killers from where they were hiding in Nablus.
Finding and arresting a terrorist in a hospital bed in a hostile area requires courage.
The world seems to lack the moral courage to admit that the killer isn’t the one who needs to be pitied, but the families and the four orphans.
Life goes on – cautiously – but it continues.
While mourning the dead, and fearing for an escalation that could cause a far greater loss of life, Israelis are doing what Israelis do best.
Friends have raved about concerts from Bon Jovi to Maestro Zubin Mehta. Parks and nature reserves have been full of visitors.
The streets of Jerusalem aren’t empty (except in the welcome rain).
Jews came to the capital to celebrate the holiday for the traditional blessing of the priests or just to soak in the atmosphere, and thousands of Christian pilgrims marched to show their support for Israel.
As Simhat Torah ended, people went out to dance in synagogues and town squares.
BDS be damned: Huge business acquisitions are being made such as Facebook’s partnership with Israeli satellite company Spacecom and Europe’s Eutelsat to help connect millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa to the Internet and Israeli pharmacology giant Teva’s acquisition of the Mexican company Rimsa.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas proudly raised the Palestinian flag outside the United Nations last week but also raised the level of anti-Israel rhetoric.
Israeli Arab MKs, including Ahmad Tibi and Zahalka, did their part to fan the flames.
The people they are supposed to represent deserve better.
All decent people, everywhere, should speak out against violence and terror.
There are also Jewish MKs playing with fire, whipping up hysteria and playing into the hands of those who’d rather the Jews be anywhere else but here (or on this planet).
The answer isn’t to hastily declare the construction of new communities over the Green Line. The prime minister needs to decide what areas are absolutely nonnegotiable and strengthen them, be it in the Etzion Bloc, Ma’aleh Adumim, Ariel, the Jerusalem neighborhoods or elsewhere.
The government should also invest in improving facilities and infrastructure in Israeli Arab neighborhoods. Because it’s the right thing to do. Like it or not, we’re in this together.
And Israeli Arabs need to decide what they want. Do they want to enjoy peace and prosperity in the Holy Land or a never-ending holy war in which there can be no winners? What’s the model for their children: Syria or Singapore? The Palestinians, meanwhile, would do better to focus on building up the state they say they long for than trying to destroy Israel and taking Jewish lives.
And once a year we Jews will continue to put up our temporary booths. Temporary but ancient; flimsy but giving us strength. A natural part of the scenery.
[email protected]