Joseph's Tomb is Burning

by Moshe Dann (October 2012)


From the hilltop at the end of a dirt road that led from Mt. Bracha, the Jewish community overlooking Shechem, Aaron scanned the dense Arab city below. The rest of the boys in yeshiva had taken a late afternoon break. He hadn't told anyone where he was going, knowing the Rebbes wouldn't approve, and afraid his friends would reveal his plans. Tall and lanky, he pulled his large kippah tighter and rubbed the soft stubble of beard that made him look older than his age. Tucking his tzitzit inside his pants, he took a deep breath and stepped toward the edge of the hilltop.

Wails of muezzins hung in the air between Mt Eval and Mt Grizim, rising with the wind, piercing, insistent, calling the faithful to prayer. A hot dry breeze scraped through the trees, a hamsin, filled with dust and sharp pungent odors of burning animal waste. Squinting, he focused on a cluster of buildings, rooftops suspended in the late-afternoon haze, colors dulled by heat and neglect, until he spotted the small darkened roof that he was looking for: Joseph's Tomb.

He wondered if snipers in the town could see him. Dubbed the "terrorist capitol of Palestine," Shechem, or Nablus as it's called in Arabic (from the Latin, Neopolis – New City – a name given to it by its Roman conquerors) is one of the most ancient cities in the world -- and one of the most deadly. It's been that way throughout history, he thought. Nu,nu, his Rebbe would have shrugged.    

Why here, Aaron wondered? Why was this the first place that Yaacov (Jacob) settled when he returned to Eretz Yisrael 4,000 years ago? Didn't he know that it was inhabited by a vicious Canaanite tribe? Was the price he paid such a bargain that he couldn't refuse? Had he hoped that buying a piece of property would indicate his desire to live in peace with his neighbors? Did he want to teach them the ethical monotheism that he'd learned from his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham? He should have known better, Aaron thought. He should have been more careful when one day, his daughter, Dina was kidnapped and raped by Shechem, the son of Hamor, the local ruler. Was she hanging out like the girls at Kikar Zion? Did she flirt? He knew of girls that went with Arab boys. Some lived with them and even got married. But Dina was not that kind. 

Only a few Arab boys hung out at Kikar Zion at night, into drugs and booze, like other kids he knew, confused, angry, in pain. There's no difference when you're on the street, trying to survive. Jewish girls hiding in Arab homes in East Jerusalem and Arab villages, escaping from their families. And some, hooked and hungry, pregnant and rejected, took an offer of seeming protection. As second or third wives, beaten and threatened, unable to ask for help, they lived in fear as virtual slaves. Aaron knew of guys, sometimes haredim, who tried to "rescue" them, whether they wanted to be saved, or not.  

Was it like that when Shechem offered to "marry" Dina, rather than free her and even offered to circumcise himself and his entire gang as well, in order to join Yaakov's tribe? Yaacov's sons knew it was a trick, but the gang was powerful and cruel, so they agreed.

"Then," as the Biblical story relates, "on the third day, when they were in pain … Shimon and Levi, Dina's brothers … entered the city and wiped them out." Aaron imagined the bloody scene, war and revenge, and no peace.

Nearly four hundred years later, on their way back into Eretz Yisrael, having escaped from Egyptian slavery and survived forty years of wandering in the barren deserts of Sinai and Moab, the Jewish People, led by Joshua, entered Eretz Yisrael, conquered Shechem, built an altar on Mt Eval and erected stone tablets that announced a new civilization, a new awareness - Torah. But why among such ruthless, unforgiving people, Aaron wondered? Why here?

Aaron imagined the scene: an army of six hundred thousand Jewish soldiers and their families, and millions more gathered on the mountains before him, the entire Jewish people, "women and children…strangers and native born," Cohanim, from whom he was descended, dressed in white, as he did on Shabbat, Levites carrying the Ark of the Covenant; Joshua blessed them and then "read all the words of the Torah, the blessings and the curses, according to everything that is written in Torah, not a word that was different from anything that Moshe commanded…"    

Promises to be kept and fulfilled. During the years of slavery and desert wandering, the Jews had protected a small box, a sarcophagus.

"And the bones of Yosef, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, they buried in Shechem, in a section of ground which Yakov bought from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem for a hundred qesita and it became an inheritance for the children of Yosef." 

The words pounded inside Aaron, a drum of consciousness, as if  part of that ancient crowd standing on these barren mountain slopes, sons and daughters of slaves returning to their homeland, pieces of his own life, an ancient puzzle embedded in his soul.

Shechem, brutality and blessing, hope and despair, symbol of Jewish return to their holy land and holy places, Jews in danger and in conflict with its inhabitants -- an enigma. Obscured by Arab homes and shops, Aaron could barely make out the small gutted building which covered Joseph's Tomb, a place he knew well. In 1982 a yeshiva had been established there; fifteen years later, his older brother, Efriam had joined the yeshiva, Od Yosef Chai, when he finished his army service. Aaron had visited him several times with the family. Od Yosef Chai, the words that Yaacov cried out when he learned that his son, Joseph, whom he thought was dead and mourned for 17 years was in fact alive, and was the viceroy of Egypt. Yosef, then and now, his grave a symbol of Jewish connection to the land, burned by Arabs and all but abandoned by the government of Israel.

Efriam had studied at the compound, protected by a small IDF unit. Totally neglected during the Arab occupation, before 1967 and then again after the Oslo Accords, the yeshiva had renovated the site, including an adjacent building and the tomb, providing access for thousands of Jews who came there to pray. They studied under an ancient tree next to the tomb that marked the burial spot. The Arabs knew the history of the place as well and during the Mamluke period, about six hundred years ago, they built a cenotaph, a large stone structure at this and other burial sites venerated by Jews. Then, called 'Sheikh Yusif's tomb,' it was forbidden to Jews.

Recovered and rededicated by Jews after 1967, Joseph's tomb symbolized a divine promise and purpose – Galut (Exile) and Galuot (Ingathering and Return), and, eventually Geulah (Redemption) – living amidst blessings and curses, an alien wanderer no more and yet still persecuted, Joseph's Tomb was home. 

Sweet Efriam. Strong Efriam. Aaron worshipped him. His touch, his hugs, the way he prayed intensely, his laughter and enthusiasm. But after the Oslo Accords were signed, the government turned all the Arab cities over to the PA, including, of course, Shechem. Jews were allowed to study in the yeshiva only during the day, evacuated at night. Efriam had moved to Bracha, to be as close as possible to Joseph's Tomb. 

One Shabbat morning, hearing that Arabs were attacking the yeshiva, Efraim had run out of shul in the middle of prayers and rushed, unarmed and alone to see what was happening. He'd left his wife and newborn son at home. On the way, Arabs stabbed him to death. The army found his body in a wadi on the outskirts of Shechem wrapped in his blood-soaked tallit.  It was a springtime of death; then came the summer of 2000.

Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, 5760, Arabs rioted throughout Israel. A few days later, the Shabbat of Repentance before Yom Kippur, Arab mobs attacked the tiny compound that housed Joseph's Tomb and the yeshiva. The students and teachers had been evacuated earlier and, guarded only by a small group of soldiers, the tomb became the focus of the mob's rage. Hundreds of Arabs surrounded the building, firing into it and throwing gasoline bombs at the tomb's thick walls and into the yeshiva. The ancient building did not catch fire right away, but a soldier inside the compound was critically wounded. Throughout the day, the government, led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a former general, and IDF Commander Shaul Mofaz, tried to negotiate with the mob. As the injured Israeli soldier bled to death, permission to initiate a rescue operation was refused. At the end of the day, after the IDF evacuated his body, along with the remaining solders, the mob descended on the tomb and yeshiva buildings, burning them completely, inside and out. Even the ancient tree in the courtyard was not spared.

Pictures of the Warsaw ghetto flashed before Aaron's eyes, German officers standing in front of smoking ruins. Jews, some of them his age, fought back. It took the German army a month to wipe them out. Photographs haunted him, lines of naked Jews waiting to die, faces peering at him through barbed wire fences, piles of bodies. His best friend Tzvi, had been murdered waiting for a ride on his way back to school, a drive-by  terrorist shooting. His teacher, Rav Benny was gunned down in his home by Arab terrorists on Shabbat. His friends Kobi and Yossi were slaughtered by Arabs in a cave near their community of Tekoah where they used to play. Buses and cafes blown up by Arabs, a generation of hatred, a culture of death. Jihad.  

It made no sense. Nothing made sense anymore, not school, not even family. No one he could count on, no one to protect him. Classes seemed irrelevant. One day he'd packed a knapsack with clothes and went to live on a hilltop with friends who had also left school, young people like him, learning to build homes and work the land, studying holy books and making their own way. Most got married and began raising families, working where they could, living in old metal shipping containers, tents and reinforced plastic trailers, caravans, struggling to find their place in the world and sometimes at odds with it. His parents had objected.

 "Don't come to me when you get into trouble," his father had warned.

"I won't," Aaron replied. His mother remained silent in the kitchen.   

The Israeli police considered these young people enemies, troublemakers, "religious fanatics" and often seemed more interested in protecting Arabs. One day while Aaron was tending a small flock of goats and sheep, several Arabs from the nearby village entered Bracha accompanied by policemen and accused his friend, Yochanan, of stealing their animals. Yochanan protested, to no avail. Relying only on what the Arabs claimed, the police turned the animals over to them. When Aaron tried to intervene, he was arrested and beaten up. Held in jail for 2 weeks, treated as a criminal, he began to feel like one – not because of what he was accused, but his growing alienation from "the Medinah" (Medinat Yisrael -- the State of Israel), from being an Israeli. For him, being a Jew was all that mattered. But how should one be "Jewish" and "Israeli"? Could he be one without the other?

The judge ordered him jailed for two months; he learned that justice depended on who you knew and who you were. The police and courts were there to make it seem that there was some reason and fairness – law and order – but that was a lie. The Medinah, his country was a lie. He celebrated his eighteenth birthday in jail. 

Returning to the yeshiva in Bracha, he tried to study. The words flew off the page of Gemara Sotah; Ikvita HaMoshiach, The days of the Messiah. It was all there. Reb Yitzhak had explained: Am Yisrael was being torn apart by the Erev Rav, the mixed multitude of non-Jews who attached themselves to the Jewish people, pretending to be Jews and then betrayed them.

The struggle was not just between Jews and Arabs, but among Jews themselves -- believers and non-believers, observant and secular. For Aaron the government seemed to have no respect for Jews, or Judaism. They sought to destroy the connection between Am Yisrael (The Jewish People), Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel), and Torat Yisrael – the pillars of Jewish civilization. 

Born in Israel, Aaron felt chained to the Galut. A Jew, he felt seduced and threatened by materialism and secularism; alone, an island, struggling amidst chaos and confusion, he would fight back. But how? This was the 'fire of purification,' he'd been taught. Just as metals must be heated in order to remove the dross, so the Jewish people must suffer in order to realize …

Realize what? he thought. Didn’t we suffer enough in the Holocaust? Wars and Arab terrorism?

No, not enough, Reb Yitzhak insisted. G-d's plan is not for us to know or understand; we are only required to have faith. Aaron wasn't comforted. What faith is there in persecution and punishment? What sins did Jews commit to be slaughtered like animals?

I don't want to be killed like that, Aaron promised himself. I won't be helpless. I'm going to fight back. But with what? Against whom? Who's the enemy? The Arabs? The police? The clean-shaven little judge sitting in black robes under an emblem of the State of Israel? The furious Prosecutor, demanding that he be jailed?   Aaron remembered sitting in the courtroom, his hands and feet shackled. A year before, when he was 17, he'd been arrested for trying to stop the police from tearing down a tent he and his friends had put up on a barren hilltop. The army had sent scores of soldiers with bulldozers to rip it down; the police beat him up in the jeep on the way to the station -- Jewish policemen.

"We'll teach you," they yanked his payot and kicked him between his legs. He remembered pictures of Jews in Europe being beaten, their beards being torn out. Aaron and his friends were thrown into a cell with addicts and criminals. The guards punched them in stomach before they left, slamming the heavy door behind them, their laughter echoing in the corridors.

Bruised and bleeding, he'd felt more deeply scarred inside. "Do not forget me, God, nor hide Your face from me; I trust Your loving kindness; I will prevail and exalt Your holy name…"  Aaron choked back tears.

"When we fight back," he whispered, "we win. Even if we lose, they see that we're not going to give up. Look at the Arabs; they fight and they lose, but they don't give up and they get what they want. So victory is not whether we win, but that we keep fighting. Fighting back gives self-respect." Smiling bravely, the new friends sang themselves to sleep with Psalms.

As the sun fell behind the horizon, leaving a thin trail of light, Aaron moved carefully down the side of the hill. At the bottom he looked back at the lights in Bracha and hesitated. A thin crescent of moon carved in the sky contrasted with one atop an illuminated greenish minaret. His head wrapped in a piece of cloth, hoping that he would not be discovered, he headed towards the tomb, following  the narrow deserted streets, the cool night air filled with pungent odors of dinners. Unsure of the way, he stopped. A group of men watched him as he ducked into an alleyway and found himself in a courtyard. Turning quickly, he looked for a way out.

Suddenly a voice in Arabic confronted him. "What are you doing here?" Aaron was afraid to answer. A young man approached. "Who are you?" he asked again. Aaron stared at him and then tried to step around him, but the Arab blocked his path.

"Jew!" the Arab suddenly blurted. "What are you doing here?" He grabbed Aaron and pulled him into a corner. Aaron tried to get away. "Wait," the Arab said in Hebrew, "I won't hurt you; but you must explain."

"Joseph's Tomb," Aaron said, his voice shaking. The Arab nodded and looked around. 

"I'll take you there; it's not this way. Follow me, and," he said, taking off a black-and-white checked keffiyah from his neck and giving it to Aaron. "Wear this."

Holding the keffiyah, Araon was unsure what to do. Perhaps it was a trick to lure him.

"Don't worry. I won't hurt you. I was treated in an Israeli hospital when I was a kid," he told Aaron as they walked along a passageway. "The doctors thought I would die. They saved my life. Now, maybe it's my turn to save someone. If you're caught, you'll be cut up into little pieces and fed to dogs. Do you understand?" They stared at each other and Aaron nodded.

He led Aaron through a maze of alleyways until they arrived at the tomb. Aaron's heart raced when he saw the building. The original structure had been ransacked and burned, littered with trash and the remains of burned tires, holes hacked into the walls and ceiling, splotches of green paint and Arabic writing. His breath filled with the smell of soot and smoke, he remembered the way it was.

"What's your name?" Aaron asked.

"Ahmed."

The door of the building was locked. Aaron peered through a window.

"Not this way," Ahmed said. "There's an opening in the back." He guided Aaron to a hole in the fence that surrounded the site and they climbed through. "This way." He pointed to a small rusted piece of metal. Pushing it away, they crawled inside. Aaron touched the cold stone cenotaph, running his fingers along its shape as if he could decipher the Braille of its meaning, a connection to the bones that lay beneath him and thousands of years of prayers uttered there. I've made it.

Ahmed crouched in a corner. "Thanks for bringing me here, but shouldn't you go?" Aaron asked. "Isn't it dangerous for you…?"

"I'll stay for a while. I'll go with you."

"Why?" 

"I was born here. I know this city. Without me, you'll never get out alive."

"But why do you want to do this for me?"

"I was taught to hate Jews; killing them was a holy act. But I never understood why. In the Sunna, the tradition, it says, 'No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.' I used to wonder, 'Why not the Yahud (Jews) too? Didn't they have the right to live the same as us? If we're supposed to be good to everyone, doesn't that include Jews?' When I asked my father he beat me and threw me out of the house. But I still wonder, 'Why the Jews,' and why someone like you risks his neck to get to this place."

Aaron took a water bottle from his knapsack and drank, and then offered the bottle to Ahmed.

"You know how it feels to go to a special place, like where your grandparents are buried. It's part of me. I can't explain it, but it's why I'm here and why I stay. Lots of Israelis have given up; many leave."

Ahmed laughed, "Yeah, my brother lives in LA."

"I want to raise my family here. I want them to know what it means to be a Jew living in Eretz Yisrael, Eretz HaKodesh (The Land of Holiness). I don't care how much money I make, or how much power I have. I want to be a good Jew, to live with the Land."

"But this is my land too. I was born here too. My ancestors were here and my history. You, your people came here and stole everything from us..."

"We didn't start a war; you did. Anyway, this land belongs to the Jews…

"This land is holy to us … You see, one of us will win, and we're stronger in our spirit. You may have a stronger army, but we'll overcome that with our hearts."

"With suicide bombers … martyrs…"

"Yes, people willing to give up their lives, my cousin…"

"But for what? To blow up a bus, or a store? "

"We'll wear you down. Sooner or later …"

"Then why did you risk your life to save me? Why don't you just leave?"

"We're taught that you're the enemy. I'm not sure if it's really true, but I can't get away from it." He stopped and shook his head. "Yes, the government is corrupt…"

"So is mine…"

"I live in a different world…I don't know where I belong… I don't know what to believe…"

Suddenly Ahmed covered Aaron's mouth with his hand. There were sounds outside. Someone was shouting and banging on the door.

"They found us," he whispered to Aaron. "Maybe they'll go away." But the noise grew louder. "Give me your shirt," Ahmed said, taking his off and giving it to Aaron. If they find us here they'll kill us."

Aaron was reluctant to take off his shirt. "Why?"

"Trust me, and don't say a word. Understand? Throw away your kippah and tzitzit, and your bag." Wrapping the keffiyah over his face, Aaron followed Ahmed out through opening.

As they emerged, a group of men confronted them. "What are you doing here? Why were you in there?"

"We're just having fun. I live nearby, the house over there," Ahmed pointed. "My cousin," nodding to Aaron, "he's from Ramallah, can't talk, a bit crazy."

One of the men pushed Ahmed. "Let's have some fun with them."

"No, leave them. I'll talk to his father," an older man with a Kalchnikov rifle waved them away.

They ran through the alleyways until they arrived at Ahmed's home.

"Can you get back okay?" Ahmed asked. Aaron nodded and began to run up the narrow paths towards the lights on the hilltop far above him. Pausing behind a tree to catch his breath, he turned and saw Ahmed surrounded by a group of men and then several with sticks began beating him.

Aaron slipped into the doorway of a building and watched, afraid to move. Ahmed's crumpled body lay in a pool of blood. When the men left, Aaron dashed out and pulled Ahmed behind a building. From a balcony above them a woman was hanging clothes; she stopped and looked at him. Aaron was afraid she would alert others.

"Ahmed," Aaron whispered. Ahmed opened his eyes.

"What? You? Fool! Get out! They'll kill you."

"Can you walk?" Aaron asked. "Hold on to me." Balancing Ahmed on his shoulders, Aaron half-carried him up the hill.

"They found your kippah and tzitzit inside," Ahmed whispered.

When they reached the edge of the settlement Ahmed was spitting blood. Aaron dropped him at the gate and ran to Rafi's house. A medic, he'd know what to do, Aaron thought. The guard at the gate shouted after him. Rafi's wife opened the door and screamed. Emerging from one of the rooms, Rafi peered at him. Aaron realized he was covered with blood.

"It's me, Aaron," he wiped his face. "We need help." Rushing out together, Aaron explained to Rafi what had happened. 

"Who's this? An Arab? What's going on?" Rafi knelt next to Ahmed, trying to understand Aaron's story. "We've got to get him to a hospital. He's dying. Internal bleeding." Rafi called for an ambulance; within minutes it arrived and they placed Ahmed inside. Soon the police arrived as well.

"What happened?" they demanded. 

Aaron tried to explain, but Omri, the head-shaven, overweight officer in charge was impatient. "Bull shit," he shouted at Aaron, slapping him across the face, and then grabbed him and threw him against the wall. "You killed him, you little son-of-a-bitch, and you're trying to cover it up. You bastard, you're the one we want." Aaron tried to pull away. "Take him down," Omri shouted and several policemen jumped him, knocking him to the ground. He struggled to breathe.

Handcuffed, they slammed him into the side of a police van and then threw him inside. "We're going to take care of bastards like you," Omri warned. "You fanatics with your gods and messiahs. You're causing all the trouble."

In the interrogation room Omri began punching him, hoping Aaron would fight back, an excuse for another beating.

"You and your tomb. Well, we'll give you a tomb. Yours." And smashed his face into the table. Aaron tasted blood. He felt dizzy. Omri slapped him again, knocking him to the floor. Another policeman kicked him between the legs, another pulled his head back by his hair. Omri hit him in the stomach again. At first Aaron tried to protect himself, but then curled into a ball on the floor. Another kick to his kidneys. And another to his head.

When he regained consciousness he was lying on a cold cell floor. His body ached, but he'd survived. He tried to get to his knees, but then vomited. The door burst open and Omri and two guards pushed his face into what had come out of his mouth. He tasted its slimy bitter warmth.

"We're going to get you. You'll never bother us again."

Aaron said nothing. He'd heard stories of what the police had done to his friends. Lying with his face against the floor he thought about Kever Joseph, Yosef HaTzaddik in Pharoah's dungeon.

A week later, in court, shackled hand and foot, the prosecutor read the charges: Aaron was accused of killing Ahmed in cold blood. Murder.

Rioting in Shechem, the Arabs called for revenge. The Shabak warned of fanatical groups of settler gangs roaming the area. Peace Now demanded the destruction of outposts and settlements. Israeli TV newscasters called for a purge of the "Jewish terrorists." The government vowed a crackdown. 

The next day the papers headlined: "Ritual murder! Messianic cult! Religious settler tortures Arab to death." 

II  Gush Katif


I remember the sea. Papa would walk with us to the beach in the late afternoons when the workers had finished picking and packing tomatoes in the hothouses. Tall palm trees along the way swayed in the wind; the beach was almost always deserted, the waves gently rolling in, sometimes a ship far away, almost touching the reddish sun that hovered on the horizon. At night some of the older kids built bonfires there, sang songs about life and love and the Land of Israel.  

After school, I would wander through the plastic-covered hot houses that had been built in the dunes, alone or sometimes with friends, gathering left-overs, climbing ladders, the smell of warm earth and plants growing. And it seemed sometimes that the undulation of the sea was like the earth, the humid smell of earth like the fresh salt smell from the sea, in which, with all its differences, was some hidden intimate connection. 

In the evening, sitting around our dining room table, I and my seven older brothers and sisters would share our worlds, and the secrets we were forever discovering, bursting with flowering and fruit, and burying in the sand, the lush Mediterranean breeze settling around us, the sounds of crickets, metronomes of passion and curiosity, cuddling us to sleep. Papa would listen to the radio, watch TV, or talk politics with his friends.

Thirty years ago, when my parents moved to Gush Katif, in the Gaza Strip, there was nothing but sand dunes. A few small broken-down buildings scattered along the beach were all that remained from the time when Egyptian army officers had built summer homes and the Strip was primarily used as a base for fedayeen, terrorists who raided the kibbutzim and towns across the Israeli border. Raised on Saad, one of those kibbutzim, my parents had married when they graduated from high school. A few years later, ten years after Israel conquered the Strip during the 1967 "Six Day War," they'd been among a group of young couples who encouraged by the government to build new communities near the desolate beach. Living in shacks, connected by a single dusty road that ended near the last building, a caravan-synagogue, they created thriving communities that became home to a thousand families, people who knew each other, who celebrated simchas and mourned together.

The local Arabs didn't seem to mind. Ruled harshly by their Egyptian masters during that occupation, they welcomed the Jews who brought prosperity and modernity, schools and hospitals. The only city during the Egyptian occupation was Gaza, 20 kilometers away, and a few small villages and Bedouin encampments. Arafat and the Oslo Agreement changed everything. Terrorist gangs took control of Arab towns, supplied with weapons smuggled from Egypt and donated by the Israelis, European countries and the United States. Gaza became a terrorist haven.

Gaza, where the Philistines took Samson and bore out his eyes. Gaza, emblem of shame and violence and festering refugee camps, teeming with horse and donkey-drawn carts that vied with cars and trucks along palm tree-lined boulevards, swirling with dust and rage. Gaza is rage. Gaza is revenge. 

My father had taken me to the nearby village of Khan Younis when he needed to buy supplies, our pickup truck sometimes filled with produce to be sold or traded, shops and stores of strange sweet smells that tingled through me as I waited for him, dangling bare feet, sipping fresh juices my father brought me. 'My little prince,' he introduced me to dark rugged faces, eyes peering through their kaffiyas. It was 1993, the year that Rabin signed the Oslo Agreements with Arafat, turning over Gaza and Jericho to the PA; I was seven years old. It was supposed to be the beginning of peace. More towns and villages were turned over to the PA during the next few years, as terror attacks became more frequent.

Mordecai, my uncle was killed in Kfar Yam, a small community near the Egyptian border. One of the Arabs who worked for him stabbed him to death with the knife they had used to cut bread together, in the place where they raised flowers, in a business they shared. Mordecai, my mother's brother was a communist, raised with the idealistic philosophy of the kibbutz, 'to each what they needed…' Mordecai's widow, my aunt Atara, raised their three young children, my cousins, alone. Sometimes she would come to us for Shabbat, staring off towards the sea as we played around her, as if waiting for her husband to return. We sang and ate and worked, oblivious of what awaited us.

There had often been talk of turning the entire Gaza Strip over to Arafat, along with Yehuda and Shomron, even parts of Jerusalem. No one took it seriously. We, that is my parents and their friends, dismissed such ideas as nonsense. The politicians talked; everyone talks. We turned off. Left-wing commentators and politicians demanded unilateral withdrawal. We laughed; who could be so stupid? Soundly defeated in elections, the Left thundered, but we felt safe. Arik Sharon would protect us, we thought. He fought against terrorists. He supported the settlements and the outposts. We forgot that he also led the evacuation of Yamit, a Jewish community that had been built in the Sinai after the Six Day War and was destroyed in 1980 as part of Israel's agreement with Egypt. Well, maybe for peace, we hoped. 

My brothers were in the army when Arafat launched his terrorist war. Rosh Hashana, 2000. "Who will live and who will die," we prayed. On Succot, after the prayer for rain, there was a sudden cloudburst in the distance. After sundown, two officers came to our door. Yoram, my second oldest brother had been killed. An ambush near the settlement of Netzarim. Mama screamed and fell into Papa's arms. A breeze from the sea. We held each other and cried, Yoram missing in us. We buried him in Gush Katif's cemetery the next day, an army escort, a volley of gunfire in his memory, names of his comrades cut in stone, his name now among them, sand and sea drawing around us as we stood together, silently, as if nothing else was allowed, an emptiness that nothing could fill.

When Sharon announced his plans to destroy the Jewish communities in the Strip, Papa said it would never happen. Bibi wouldn't let us down. The people would support us. Our government would protect us. Rabbis led prayers. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated. Orange ribbons fluttered from windows and cars, people wore orange plastic bracelets. We believed.

Muhammed, head of one of the extended families that worked for us, leader of a group of families that were related and lived in the nearby village came to my father one night and begged him, 'Don't let this happen,' he pleaded. They hugged. Our hothouses supported five families. 'We are like one family,' he reminded Papa as they stood together on the porch, a gentle winter rain trickling off the roof. Mama poured tea.

"We will not let this happen," my father assured him. "They promised; they can't do this. It's wrong – for you, for me." Papa looked at me, as if to give us strength. "We've worked together for almost 30 years," he said. "You helped me build this house and I helped you build yours." A strong handshake, a smile against the grey sky of winter, 2005.

Nine months later, after Tisha B'Av, the fast day commemorating tragedies inflicted on the Jewish people, the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians 2500 years ago, and the Second Temple by the Romans 2000 years ago, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto – the day after Tisha B'Av, the army of the Jews came to tear down our house. Dressed in black, they came with faces and hearts of iron and steel. We pleaded. My father showed them pictures; they looked at us without eyes.

My brothers and sisters linked arms. "There will be no violence," my father said. "Not against our army."  They placed a shipping container on our lawn, crushing the flowers my mother had watered in the morning. We removed as much as we could, stuffing the container with the things of our lives, bits and pieces we did not want to leave behind. Decisions: what to take and what not. There was no place for birds, cats and dogs. No pets allowed. 

The hothouses. "You'll be compensated," the government clerks promised. New homes. A new life. For the good of the country.

Memories stumbled through the night as we packed and hardly spoke, echoing our souls dug deep into the soil and sand. 

There will be other land, new homes. It's an order. We are only following orders.

The black uniforms stood outside and did not look at us. Our brothers and sisters. They watched us as we packed. By evening we were finished. We were taken to a bus, "Tours" painted on the side. Papa started to get on, then suddenly turned around facing the sea, took a deep breath and then, falling to the ground, wept. It was the first time I had ever seen him cry. Two policemen picked him up and put him on the bus.

They took us to hotels. We ate the Medinah, we shit the Medinah, we puked the Medinah. I and my friends, children of the Strip, rode up and down the elevators and when tourists wanted to get on, pressed several buttons and got off at whatever floor came next. We smeared food on emblems of the Medinah.

We understood. We are all strangers, guests, refugees passing through with our little suitcases, hanging out in a foreign country we called home. Tourists at the hotel babbled to us in German and Japanese; we spoke in Hebrew. 'My country made us prisoners,' we wrote on the windows, and we waited. 

'It will only be for a few weeks; a vacation,' the government clerks said, the sour lady that was assigned to our group from the Medinah. We prayed. Happy New Year, we had no home. Gathered in large communal succahs, dozens of families, longing for our own succas, we remembered the last Succot, the lulavim and etrogim we took from our backyard, now we too, in temporary dwellings, wandering Jews in the desert, Jews expelled from one country or another, escaping from hatred and persecution. Why do they hate us? I wondered. Only a few more months the Medinah promised.

When winter came, we had no coats. The younger children were bussed to schools. Some tried to escape, hiding in bathrooms and bus stations. We gathered in Zion Square to squander time, mess up, drink and smoke. I had dropped out of school and worked at odd jobs, painting apartments of people who had homes, carrying packages and pizzas to people who had homes. From the roof of the hotel I tried to smell the sea.        

We lived out of suitcases, some wandering from hotel to hotel, seeking friends, trying to make sense out of the rubble of our lives; some families moved into kibbutz guest houses and temporary shelters. The community of Atzmona stayed together in a tent camp built in an industrial area near Ashkelon, near the sea. We needed the sea. Groups of families tried to hold on wherever they could find a place, one ghetto or another, one refugee camp like others. 

Only a few more months, the Medinah promised.

Men sat in the hotel lobby staring out at the street, or watched TV; some tried to look for work, but no one wanted an old outcast farmer.

The Medinah would build us new homes, they promised. The Medinah would find us jobs, they promised. The Medinah listened to our problems and did nothing. We sang Hatikvah wearing our orange ribbons, symbol of our loyalty, and our naïveté. We painted the Star of David in our flag orange, symbol of our alienation and our honor, that we would not be broken.

The Medinah's social workers and psychologists came "to help us adjust," and the politicians came with their empty promises, and the endless delegations of American organizations, the Federations and the synagogue groups, and then they went home. They had homes.

I wanted the sea. One evening a few of us snuck out and took a bus to Tel Aviv, and built a fire on the beach. At dawn we prayed Shacharit, facing Jerusalem, facing home and no place to go, a Temple Mount without a Temple, buildings with furniture and people, clerks and politicians of the Medinah, judges and policemen, robed and uniformed, law and order, and no home. I stepped into the water, sinking into the sand, letting the ripples flow around my ankles as the sun rose like a giant balloon into blue sky and white clouds, the colors of my country, the colors of betrayal.                


III

Rafi believed Aaron's story, but he wasn't sure; maybe he'd been duped. There was only one way to find out -- get back to Joseph's Tomb and see if anything had been left there inside. The following week was Rosh Chodesh. A special bus had been arranged to take Jews from the area to the tomb to pray. He would take that bus.

A half-hour before midnight a bus waited in the center of the settlement. Rafi greeted the other men as they boarded, friends carrying prayer books and weapons. They knew that even though the bus was bullet-proof and protected by an army jeep, if the Arabs attacked, they could be wiped out.

Singing Hasidic songs, they clapped their hands as the bus moved slowly down the road towards Shechem past the checkpoint. The road which, during the day was filled with Arab traffic, workers and businessmen, was now deserted. A few yellow Arab taxis waited for stranded travelers, cigarettes of the drivers glistening in the darkness. They passed the first buildings on the edge of town. There were no streetlights. Whispers and the engine whirled in the silence. Most of Shechem's residents were asleep, hopefully. A second jeep pulled alongside. A third waited at the entrance to the tomb. Soldiers looked nervously towards the city.

A PLO flag flew from the dome, walls plastered with picture posters of "martyrs," terrorists who had blown themselves up killing Jews at malls, in stores and on buses. Palestinian heroes. And of course, portraits of Yassir Arafat. An officer opened the gate and several others stood by as the Jews descended from the bus, headlights turned off in the tense silence. 

"Half-hour," the officer ordered, looking at his watch. "That's it. Not one second more, and we're out." 

While the men began to recite Psalms, Rafi rummaged through a large plastic trash container in the corner. "I found it," he suddenly whispered. The others looked at him with surprise. Rafi held up Aaron's torn tzitzit and kippah. "He was here. His story's true."

The following day, Rafi went to the police station with what he'd found. They refused to believe him. Omri snatched the bag containing Aaron's tzizit and kippah from Rafi.

"How do we know you didn't plant it there? How do we know it's his?"

"That's up to a judge," Rafi said quietly as Omri pushed him out.

In court, the judge reluctantly examined the items. The Prosecutor objected.

"This proves nothing. He or his friends could have planted the items, or maybe they aren't even his. Anyway, it doesn't prove anything about the murder."

"Alleged murder," Adi, Aaron's lawyer objected. The judge glared at him.

"This person is violent," the Prosecutor continued. "He has attacked policemen and security personnel and has been engaged in illegal activities. We demand that he be kept in jail until the end of proceedings."

"Illegal activities?" Adi protested. "He lives in a hilltop. That's illegal?"

"This court will decide," the judge said sharply. "He does seem to be a danger to society…"

Rafi passed a note to Adi, his lawyer: "There was a woman on the balcony who saw it." 

"Your honor, there may have been a witness," Adi announced to the startled Prosecutor.

"What was he doing at the Tomb, anyway?" the judge demanded, pointing a finger at Aaron. "Didn't he know it's forbidden…?"

"Forbidden to Jews?" Aaron stood up. "Nonsense. This place is written about in the Bible. It's one of the places our Patriarchs bought 4,000 years ago. It belongs to the Jewish people, to every Jew."

"Sit down, young man, and shut up," the judge shouted at him as the guard yanked his arm.

"No. You shut up," Aaron said clearly. "You think because you sit above me and wear black robes it means anything to me. This is not Jewish justice, nor Jewish law…"

"Contempt of court," the judge rapped. Two policemen moved in front of Aaron.

"You think I'm afraid of you?" Aaron tried to stand again. "You're no better than the Kapos in the Camps…" The policemen pushed him down.

"Six months for contempt and another six months for insulting a public servant."

"I don't care if you give me six years, or sixty years. You're a fraud."

The judge stood up. "This court is adjourned. Until I call this case again, he stays in jail."

"But your honor…" Adi tried to intervene.

"And if I hear another word from you, you'll be in the same cell," the judge slammed the file closed and walked into his private chambers.

"Why did you have to open up your mouth…?" Adi turned to Aaron.

"Because this is all bull shit. The judge, the police, all this court crap. You believe in it; I don't. Don't you see? They don't give a damn about what happened. You want to play their game. I don't. They think I'm a criminal because I went to Joseph's Tomb, but that's not why they want to punish me. They don't like what I think. That's what this country has become."

"Aaron, you've got to be smart…" Adi said as the police pulled Aaron by his handcuffs and led him from the courtroom.

"No, Adi," Aaron turned back. "You've got to be a Jew." 

"I am a Jew," Adi replied sharply.

"Yes, and you're part of this little 'Law and Order' festival. You're part of the corrupt system that sees me as a criminal, a danger…"

"I'm trying to help you … to defend you …" He straightened his black robe.

"But you're part of it. I'm not. They talk about 'Law and Order,' but it's their laws and their order. Yes, I am a danger to them. Anyone who opposes them is dangerous. Especially when you want to go to Joseph's Tomb, or anywhere else they declare doesn't belong to us. They think they'll stop me. We'll see."

"You've got to play the game…"

"No, that's just the point. If I play their game, they've won. Sixty years ago when Jews were building settlements they were called 'pioneers' and 'heroes.' Now they call us criminals."

"But then we didn't have a State. Now we do, and we have to respect its laws."

"The Medinah exists for itself, for its power. It's your Medinah, not mine."

"And for you. Without it, where would you be?"

"I'd be building, no matter who or what. When 'The State' no longer stands for Torah, for justice, for the Jewish People, what purpose does it have? To keep people like me in jail? To throw Jews out of their homes and destroy communities, like Gush Katif? In Yehuda and Shomron? To help build a Palestinian Medinah?  If that's your Medinah, I want no part of it."

"We make mistakes… I'm not saying that everything the State does is great, but that's what we have … "

"So, as long as you don't challenge them, it's okay. They need to break people like me to show they're more powerful. They need to throw kids who were protesting against the expulsion into jail to show who's boss. That's all. That's your State. Protect the corrupt politicians, the wealthy, the politically correct – and crush the rest of us into silence. Not me, God forbid."     

The guard began to push Aaron down the corridor. "Adi," Aaron turned around, "this isn't about me, it's about the right of every Jew in the world to live in Eretz Yisrael. No Medinah can stop that. Kever Yosef is just a symbol of what's happened to us. The Medinah is only interested in power. The people who think we can exist by holding on to Tel Aviv will lose; there's nothing to fight for there."

"A Jewish State, democracy…"

"It's not 'Jewish' and not a 'democracy.' The test of that isn't whether Jews can live in Tel Aviv or Mea Shearim; it's on the hilltops of Yehuda and Shomron, in Shilo and Hebron, and Kever Yosef."

Suddenly the doors of the judge's chambers burst open. The judge stood in the opening, red-faced, clutching his black robe, his eyes, blue and burning.

"I heard what you said," he shouted at Aaron. "You're a criminal. You hear me? A criminal. You're nothing. Nothing. Crap. You and your friends are ruining this country with your extremism, your messianic ideas.  You think you can do whatever you want? I'll show you who's boss. I'm the boss. Get it? I make the rules, not you. There's no hole deep enough to put you in. That's where you belong."

Aaron thought of Joseph in Paro's dungeon. "I'm not afraid of you, or your prisons."

"Well, you should be. And you will be. I'll make sure that you receive the punishment you deserve, you little criminal, you killer…"

"But, your honor, he hasn't been tried yet …" Adi tried to interject.

"I don't care. I've seen his file. I've talked with the police and the Prosecutor, and, yes, the Shabak. They have a thick file on him," he pointed at Aaron. "And the evidence: he was covered with the victim's blood. Yes, we're going to get you and the rest of you hoodlums."

"Your honor … " Adi stepped between them.

"Get out of my way!" the judge pushed Adi.

"Judge Roni," his secretary came out of his office with a cup of water. "Take it easy. Calm down. Have a drink…"

 The judge waved his hand back, splashing water over her.

"What the…" she gasped.

"Oh, my god, I'm sorry," the judge turned her trying to wipe her with his robe.

"Keep your hands off me," she warned.

"Okay, I was only trying…"

"Pervert," she snarled. The judge slipped and fell. At the other end of the hall a prisoner started screaming as other guards rushed in. Offices emptied to see what happened.

Suddenly a large group of Haredim that had been standing quietly near the entrance surged into the hallway. One of their clan who had been arrested for throwing stones was being brought into court. The guards rushed to stop them, but were soon overwhelmed by the mob. 

In the confusion Aaron picked up a paper clip from the floor, bent it and pushed it into the lock on his handcuffs. They opened, and stuffing them into his pocket, he walked down the corridor and out of the building. He ran quickly towards a bus that was just about to pull away from the curb, its back doors still open as a lady struggled to lift a baby carriage. Helping her with the carriage, he sneaked on and headed for the shuk, Machane Yehuda. It was only a few stops, but when he arrived police cars were already waiting near the entrance. Slipping off the bus, Aaron headed down a narrow side street towards the home of an old Yemenite Kaballist he'd visited several times.

Nissim listened, closed his eyes and then nodded. "I know a sheikh in Shechem. Many years ago he came from Baghdad to visit family in Palestine, and then he stayed. We became friendly. He had Jewish friends in Iraq. We used to drink coffee together when he came to Jerusalem. That was before the Intifada. Maybe he can help." He picked up the phone and began speaking Arabic.

"He knows the story," Nissim said, hanging up the phone. "The boy's father is a cruel man. He beats his children and his wives." He sighed. "But now you must go back and turn yourself in."

Aaron stood up. "I can't. I'm afraid what they'll do to me."

"Yes, I know, but trust me, this is what you must do. I'll go with you." He made several more phone calls and then, taking Aaron's arm, walked out to the street. "By the way, how did you get out of the handcuffs, and what did you do with them?"

Aaron explained, pulling the cuffs out of his pocket. Nissim smiled and put the cuffs into his own pocket.

"Where did you learn to open handcuffs like that?" he asked as they got into a cab.

"When I was in jail. Sometimes it works, sometimes not." 

When they arrived at the police station, a burly policeman grabbed Aaron. "Leave him alone," Nissim said. "He's with me. He came back on his own." The guards objected. "Let me talk with the captain," Nissim demanded.

When the captain came out to see what was going on, he smiled. "Reb Nissim, you captured him for us," and winked.

"No, Shmulik," Nissim patted his arm, ''he came to tell me his story and now he wants to come back. Don't hurt him. He came back on his own." Pulling the handcuffs out of his pocket, Nissim put them into Shmulik's hand. "A little present."

"I'll see what I can do," he put his hand on Aaron’s shoulder. "Take him to my office. Give him something to drink. And cancel the alert. He’s my responsibility. I'll take care of it."  

Waiting outside the courtroom before the trial began, Nissim spoke quietly with the Prosecutor, a young lady wearing a black robe over her tight pants suit. Holding a stack of files, she listened, but said nothing. When the judge entered the courtroom, Aaron was brought in. Nissim sat near him, in the front, and then stood up and asked to speak.

"This is my court. Who gave you permission…?"

"I have no objection," said the Prosecutor. "Let him speak."

"You honor," Nissim began, "this boy is telling the truth. The victim was beaten by his father and a gang. Aaron tried to save him."

"Nonsense! I don't believe you. We have a police report."

"New evidence…" the Prosecutor began.

"He's a criminal. He escaped …" the judge sputtered.

"And he came back," Shmulik stood at one side of the room.

"I don't care," the judge slammed his desk. 

"Your honor, my friend, a sheikh in Shechem knows what happened."

"Did your friend see what happened? How does he know? I don't believe any of you. The boy's guilty. We have evidence. He's a murderer."

"Your honor," Adi interrupted. "There was a witness. A woman. One of the wives of the dead boy's father." Adi turned around and motioned to a heavily clad woman sitting in the back to join him.

"I am Fatimah,” she said, standing next to Adi. "Second wife. My husband, he is very angry, beats me, the children. You see? No eye." She pointed to a dark empty socket. "This boy tried to help Ahmed. Ahmed's not my son. Son of first wife."

"Prosecution," the judge called out. "Aren't you going to say something? Do something?"

"No, your honor. I'd like to put this boy away as much as you, if he's guilty, but now I'm not sure."

"Fool. What do you think? I'm not going to stand for this in my courtroom. We'll get someone else to prosecute…"

"Ah, your honor," an older well-dressed man who'd been sitting in the back of the courtroom stood up and walked forward.

"And who are you. What right do you have… my courtroom…"

"Your honor, perhaps you don't remember me. I'm Judge Meir Yizthaki. Retired now, some years, but I volunteer on the Judicial Review Board. Reb Nissim asked me to attend. I think we need to have a little talk, in private, in your chambers."

The judge frowned. "Recess. Now!" 

"And the accused …?" Adi asked.

"Up to Prosecution…" Judge Roni waved his hand towards her.

"Bail, in my custody," Nissim suggested.

"No objection, your honor," the Prosecutor replied.

Outside, Nissim and Aaron hugged. "We're going to have a little celebration tomorrow tonight," Nissim said quietly, turning to Adi. "Want to come?"

"Maybe. When? Where?"

"Midnight. There's a bus. We're going to Kever Yosef,  the Holy Yosef."


IV

Aaron remembered the words of Rabbi Moshe Harlop, one of Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook's closest students. In his book, “Maayanei HaYeshua,” he explains that the most important mitzvah for Am Yisrael in any generation is the mitzvah that the nations of the world most oppose: settlement of our homeland, Eretz Yisrael.

The closer we get to the time of the Messiah, writes Rabbi Harlop, the more the nations of the world will intensify their opposition to Jewish settlement, because the way holiness comes into the world is through the settlement of the Land of Israel. Led by Jews, it's the fulfillment of divine prophesy.

"And you shall know that I am the L-rd when I shall bring you back to the Land of Israel." This is symbolized by Jewish sovereignty over three places, the Temple Mount, Hebron/ Machpelah and Shechem/Joseph's Tomb – all places which were purchased on behalf of the entire Jewish people for eternity. When Jews control these areas, it paves the path for the Messiah.

Preventing Jews from controlling these sites and from returning to Eretz Yisrael obliterates Jewish sovereignty and the truth of Torah, the Revelation.

Restricted by Israeli law and Muslim/Arab bigotry and intolerance, the presence of Jews at these sites confirms a prophetic vision. 

"The Blessed G-d of Israel will reward your efforts," Aaron remembered the words of Rav Yitzik. "And your deeds will bear fruit. The Holy Merciful God, Lover of Israel, who watches over us does not forget us even in the darkest times.  'From prison he went out,' as it's written, just like Yosef HaTzadik." Amain ken yihi ratzon! (Amen, may it indeed be thus!)


V

The darkened bus was filled, men and women sitting in separate sections, whispering, saying Psalms, an army jeep following them as they approached the IDF checkpoint on the road leading to Shechem. There was no traffic; weary soldiers leaned against the concrete barriers or talked in a small enclosure, paying no attention. 

A second jeep drove ahead of them as they approached the Tomb. As the doors opened, a hail of rockets, gasoline bombs, gunfire and stones hit the convoy. It was over in a matter of minutes. Headlines in the morning papers announced: "Settlers invade Arab shrine in Shechem. Arabs riot. PM urges restraint."


VI

Aaron stood with hundreds of mourners in front of the settlement’s community center and synagogue. Six bodies lay outside on wooden biers, wrapped in shrouds. Screams pierced the stillness as husbands, wives and children, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters spoke memories and pain, words of Torah and grief. Kaddish, as the harsh morning sun simmered in the cloudless sky of summer. A group of teen age girls hugged each other as they wept for their teacher. A young boy fell next to one of the bodies and was raised by his older brother.

Aaron felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned and hugged his father, their eyes blurred, searching for comfort, for meaning in the emptiness that filled the yard, as if, for a moment, they were entirely alone, wrapped in a silent embrace. He felt the warmth of his father’s body, hands on his back, a familiar smell. Slowly, silently the bodies were carried to ambulances that would transport them to the cemetery in Jerusalem. Arm in arm, Aaron walked with his father to his car.

“Do you want …” his father began. Aaron hesitated, unsure of what to do. He closed his eyes and felt the hot metal with his forehead, a clump of hardness stuck in his chest, wanting to be a child again.

“You came…” Aaron whispered.

“For you. For them,” his father said. “We were neighbors in Gush Katif.”

Aaron remembered the palm tree-lined street that stretched between their homes, their playground in the dunes and the indomitable smell of the sea.  


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