In 2011, I visited the land of Israel on a trip for American Jews, organized by an Orthodox yeshiva — kind of like Birthright, only more religious. I remember how holy it felt to pray at the graves of the matriarchs and patriarchs in Hebron, to dunk in the mikvah (ritual bath) used by the Arizal, Isaac Luria, legendary 16th-century Kabbalist, in the holy city of Tzfat. I remember how blessed I was to chant the Mourner’s Kaddish for my grandfather, on his yahrzeit (the anniversary of his passing), at the Western Wall.
As I gradually became aware of the great injustices, past and present, committed in that land, my prayers came to include prayers for justice. “May the deep, deep structures of inequality and dominance be lifted from the backs of Palestinians in Hebron,” I prayed. “May the Palestinians ethnically cleansed from Tzfat, now exiled in refugee camps and around the world, be able one day to return home. May the brutal military occupation end, here at the Kotel and across Israel/Palestine.”
I trusted there was something deeply human, and deeply Jewish, about those prayers.
When I returned to America, I decided, to paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, to “pray with my feet”. I put those prayers into action, as a member and, later, a staff person, at Jewish Voice for Peace.
And now, for doing so, I am banned from visiting the land of Israel by its current government.
My first reaction to hearing news of the ban was shock. Then there was sadness. My trip made a lasting impression on my spiritual life, as such pilgrimages have for Jews over centuries.
Will I ever again be able to kiss the stones of the Kotel, to pray at the graves of rabbis and luminaries, I wondered.
And yet, I know my newfound sadness pales in comparison to my Palestinian friends in Chicago, who still dream of being able to visit or return to their homeland, who still hold the keys to the homes from which they were expelled, passed down to them from their grandparents.
I believe that one day, I will be able to make such a pilgrimage again. Only next time, there will also be Palestinians on that plane. As I step off the plane and kiss the ground of the Holy Land, they too, will kiss the ground — because they are finally, truly, home.
Next time, when I am able to pray at the Kotel or Hebron, it will be a just place, where no homes are raided, no children are caged, no races or creeds are profiled, no people must live at the mercy of a checkpoint or under the barrel of a gun.
It is this vision of freedom and dignity for all that is so threatening and terrifying to present-day Israel. And like all great visions, it cannot be banned, legislated, or intimidated out of existence.
Israel will not succeed with this ban in intimidating American Jews away from joining JVP and supporting the BDS movement for justice and equality. Nor will it succeed in stifling the Palestinian call for justice, or in bullying people of conscience the world over out of supporting that call.
Next time I visit Israel/Palestine, its laws will be as just as its land is holy. And until then, I think of the classic meditation of Rebbe Nachman that I learned on my yeshiva trip.
“The whole world is a very narrow bridge,” he said, “and the main thing, is not to be afraid at all.”
Ben Lorber works as Campus Coordinator at Jewish Voice for Peace. He blogs at doikayt.com.