Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
“You’re so beautiful!” a middle-aged American woman in a modern Orthodox Jewish headscarf called out across the street to a complete stranger as I was walking through the northern Israeli town of Safed the other day. Anywhere but Safed – also known as Tzfat – and I might have been more startled. But in this mountain-top retreat for Jewish mystics, both of an Orthodox and of less conventional persuasion, the public outburst of peace, love and understanding seemed entirely natural.
Depending on your national cultural references, it’s hard to capture the spirit of Safed precisely – it is part hippie-haven, part devotional centre for hordes of black-clad Hassidic Jews; part Taos, New Mexico, part Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I have tried to sum it up in a story today. While the Orthodox who flock there in the hundreds of thousands every spring to pray at the graves of the founders of Kabbalah mysticism would doubtless take exception to the idea, for an international audience it is probably Madonna who has done most to put Safed on the map lately. The Queen of Pop, whose interest in Kabbalah has drawn many other non-Jewish celebrity emulators, paid a brief visit last year, while on tour in Israel.
The town originally came to prominence when a Roman-era Jewish sage, taking refuge nearby, penned what is viewed as the foundational text of Kabbalah, the Zohar. After a period when it was better known as the biggest Crusader fortress in the Middle East, Safed acquired new fame in the 16th-century when Ottoman rulers let Jews expelled from Spain settle there. They brought back to the Holy Land a Kabbalistic tradition that was substantially reinvigorated by rabbis in Safed. The town, where some believe the Messiah will appear, has since then been one of four holy cities for Jews, alongside Hebron, Tiberias and Jerusalem.
As a town housing both Arabs and Jews, Safed saw violence in the decades leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. In that year, Safed had a substantial Muslim Arab majority, including the 13-year-old Mahmoud Abbas – now the Palestinian president. Most became refugees as Jewish forces swept through the Galilee. Aside from a mosque, turned into an art gallery, and some Israeli public monuments to the war, there are few reminders of their presence.
In recent months, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem have taken to the streets in protest over businesses operating on Saturday – the Jewish Sabbath when ritual law bans Jews from working. At times, the demonstrations have even turned violent, like a conflagration in July over a parking lot near the Old City. Most of the ultra-Orthodox ire has been directed at the Jerusalem municipality.
Last week, the Shabbat Strife took a surprising turn with some ultra-Orthodox taking aim at the world’s biggest electronic chip maker for keeping their new Jerusalem plant open on the Jewish day of rest. Though the building is located in an industrial park on the outskirts of the city, it is nearby a religious neighborhood that strictly observes the Sabbath laws.
Israel’s leading paper, Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote an article about health concerns raised by Israel’s Ultra Orthodox media: kissing mezuzahs. A mezuzah is a tiny encasement holding a piece of parchment with a Jewish prayer enscribed on it. Mezuzahs are nailed to most doorways inside a Jewish home, and traditionally, Jews will touch the mezuzah and kiss their fingers when entering a house. An ultra-orthodox journalist decided to ask seven doctors their opinion on whether this tradition could be dangerous in the Swine flu era.
Good morning, children.
Today we are going to learn about two common rhetorical tricks that help greatly with the cynical manipulation of arguments.
First, disingenuousness. The Oxford Shorter English Dictionary defines disingenuous as “lacking in frankness, insincere, morally fraudulent”, in the sense of pretending not to know what you in fact know very well.
Samaritan High Priest Abdel Moin Sadaqa was relaxing on his porch watching Al-Jazeera on a wide-screen TV when we dropped by his home to talk about his ancient religion. "I like to keep up with the news," the 83-year-old head of one of the world's oldest and smallest religions explained as he turned down the volume. Told we wanted to make him part of the news, more precisely part of a feature on Samaritanism, he sat up, carefully put on his red priestly turban and proceeded to chat away in the fluent English he learned as a boy under the British mandate for Palestine. Our interview with him and other Samaritans were the basis for my feature "Samaritans use modern means to keep ancient faith."
Visiting the descendants of the biblical Samaritans was the last stop in a series of visits in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank I made after covering Pope Benedict's trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Leaving Jerusalem with Ivan Karakashian from our bureau there, we drove through Israel's imposing security barrier to Ramallah, picked up our Nablus stringer Atef Sa'ad there and then drove north along the web of priority roads that link the spreading network of Israeli settlements in the West Bank back to Israel. Signs of the Israeli-Palestinian face-off were all around -- Israeli army patrols and checkpoints, guarded Jewish enclaves flying the Star of David flag on the hills and Palestinian villages with their mosques and minarets in the valleys. The tension seemed to melt away, though, when we turned onto a narrow road to wind our way up Mount Gerizim to the Samaritan village of Kiryat Luza.
The latest front in the ongoing conflict in Israel between ultra-Orthodox Judaism and less observant movements -- the subject of a brief blog yesterday on Faithworld -- heated up with a front page article in the Jerusalem Post on Thursday that quoted an ultra-Orthodox parliament member calling Reform Jews, among other things, "trecherous backstabbers to Judaism".
The rather harsh, though not unprecedented, comments were reportedly made by Moshe Gafni from the religious United Torah Judaism party. Gafni is chairman of Israel's finance committee and was quoted in a phone interview following a high court decision that ordered federal funding of non-Orthodox Jewish conversions.