I write to you this high holiday season from Amman, Jordan, where I’m working at a UN school for Palestinian refugee girls as a Fulbright teacher. Living 45 miles from Jerusalem has never felt farther. These high holidays I’ve been enjoying apples and honey on my own, hiding my religion not to deceive the Jordanians who have so warmly welcomed me into their country, but for my safety from those who may not be as kind.
As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about exile and Jerusalem. The haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah offers some words of comfort: in it, Jeremiah predicts the return of the Israelites from exile, and that they will be rewarded for their perseverance.
Jeremiah and I are not the only ones with exile and dislocation on our minds this fall. Jordan is also host to two million Palestinian refugees, 116,953 of whom will be educated by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) system this school year, and about 200 of whom will be my students. Like me, they long for Jerusalem. Wall hangings and murals show hands reaching for the Dome of the Rock, and my colleagues talk about Jerusalem the same way I do: with love, and a passion threaded through generations of our people.
As a Jew, their yearning is something I understand very deeply. And yet I struggle. How am I to reconcile my Jewish yearning with Palestinian claims to the same holy land?
These are political questions more than religious ones, yet as a stranger in this strange land I am also looking to familiar scripture for answers. The Torah readings for the high holidays provide some: in the birth of Isaac to his old and barren mother, we see the possibility of the impossible; in Hagar and Ishmael in the desert, we see mercy in the most dire of straights; and in the binding of Isaac, we see God asking us to make life and death choices, and to be prepared to sacrifice that which we hold most dear.
This is the time of year to reflect on all of these themes. As we settle our balances, we must also ask ourselves: Have we believed in the impossible? Have we been prepared to make difficult choices? Have we shown mercy towards others?
I’m afraid the answers are no, no, and no. The two-state solution is made more impossible each day by naysayers who encourage settlement growth, segregated highways, and other racist policies. The settlements force Israel into a position where it will either need to grant citizenship to all Palestinian residents of the West Bank, ceding its Jewish character, or deny them citizenship, ceding its democracy. Yet people like Naftali Bennett have proudly dedicated themselves to the latter, proposing alternatives in which Palestinians are second class citizens. We avoid making difficult choices every time we let this slide, and put annexation ahead of Israel’s Jewish and democratic future.
Mercy is also hard to come by. Settler violence is on the rise, as are incomprehensible attacks on Palestinians by Jewish extremists. But even as a Palestinian toddler was burned in his home by Jewish arsonists, many in Israel and back home in America have only hardened our hearts. Much of this violence has its roots in American Judaism: thousands of American Jews now live as settlers in the West Bank, and the organizations which support them thrive on American Jewish charitable donations. But instead of showing compassion, too many among us have responded with the continued dehumanization of Palestinian youth.
In the face of this, as American Jews we must ask ourselves: Have we done enough?
In the coming year, even as we recognize the ongoing threats to Israel’s security, we will also need to examine ourselves. We will need to stop the flow of our charitable dollars to the settlements. We will need to speak up when we hear Islamophobic rhetoric in our own communities. We will need to invest in organizations that promote sustainable democracy within Israel’s 1967 borders, not violence outside them.
It is interesting that the story of the scapegoat also appears in the readings for Yom Kippur. But we can no longer afford to cast our sins onto others. We must take responsibility. We must make sacrifices. We must give voice to our values and act on them. That is how I am trying to reconcile my deepest ideals with those of my Palestinian colleagues. Because my students are not scapegoats: they are strangers in this strange land, too. They are my neighbors. And they are yours.
Maddie Ulanow, a Washington native, is doing a Fulbright year in Amman, Jordan.