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Seeing the 'other' on Yom Kippur, in Jerusalem

On Yom Kippur in 1967, the Year of Forgetting, I put on

my dark holiday clothes and walked to the Old City of

For a long time I stood in front of an Arab’s hole-in-the-wall

not far from the Damascus Gate, a shop with

buttons and zippers and spools of thread

in every color and snaps and buckles.

A rare light and many colors, like an open Ark.

I told him in my heart that my father too

had a shop like this, with thread and buttons.

I explained to him in my heart about all the decades

and the causes and the events, why I am now here

and my father’s shop was burned there and he is buried here.

When I finished, it was time for the Closing of the Gates

He too lowered the shutters and locked the gate

and I returned, with all the worshippers, home.

(By Yehuda Amichai, “Jerusalem 1967”, translation by Stephen Mitchell as published by NPR)

If one were to place Jewish holidays on a continuum ranging from those between oneself and fellow man, i.e. those grounded in our surroundings, and those between man and God, Yom Kippur would at the very edge of the latter end of the scale. It is the day most clearly intended to gather for dialogue with oneself and with God.

That is where Amichai’s poem draws its power, and the reason I love it so — even on this day, or perhaps especially on this day, it doesn’t cease seeing those people around us, the Other, in this case the Arab shop owner in Jerusalem’s Old City.

He stands and speaks with him, even if in his heart, even if it’s a difficult conversation, instead of going to prayers, and imagines the store as the Holy Ark of a synagogue, nothing less. His conversation with the Other, his ability to see the Other at all, winds up taking the place of prayer on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. That is astonishing to me.

By the time I write this Israel will have already placed a full military closure on the Palestinian territories ahead of Yom Kippur. East Jerusalem will be completely shuttered. Millions of people will be imprisoned in their homes so we Jews can speak with God. What value does such prayer have if it necessitates such a violent injustice, one that erases the Other from our field of vision?

Illustrative photo of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walking past an Arab shopkeeper in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Gil Yaari/Flash90)

Illustrative photo of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walking past an Arab shopkeeper in the Old City of Jerusalem. (Gil Yaari/Flash90)

This article first appeared in Hebrew on Local Call.

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    1. Bus189

      Perhaps you don’t care about your own life and the lives of your children. The rest of us do. Hence, the value of keeping them safe justifies whatever actions we need to take to make that happen.

      As for Jerusalem itself.. A couple of days ago a resident of East Jerusalem murdered two Israelis. There were celebrations held by his family and neighbors about his ‘heroic act’. In such circumstances it makes perfect sense to make sure that people that see the murder of Jews as heroic are kept away from the people who they would like to see murdered.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Bus189 – Every Palestinian living in East Jerusalem lives with the constant low level fear that their neighborhood will be demolished tomorrow. Now here’s an interesting question: how much violence comes from Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship and who have some rights (although they are third class citizens) versus the violence that comes from the disenfranchised Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza? It’s a non zero number for both groups, but what’s the ratio?

        Reply to Comment
        • Bus189

          That is an excellent scientific question. I do not know the answer to it. I do know that there have been cases of Arabs in East Jerusalem with Israeli citizenship which have carried out terrorist acts. Their status also can not be equated to those of the Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank. As far as their rights are concerned they have all of them except for the right to vote. They can work/live anywhere in Israel.

          Honestly though, I don’t believe your premise that the Arabs in East Jerusalem live with a constant low level fear that their neighborhood will be demolished. If that were the case I doubt they would tempt the bulldozers by launching terrorist attacks on Israelis. They attackers know that their individual house might be destroyed, but to say that Palestinians think their neighborhoods would be demolished is an exaggeration.

          In any case, we are not going to grant the Arabs in the WB and Gaza citizenship because we are not going to hand our fate over to them. As it is we do not get along with the Israeli Arabs terribly well. If their numbers were reinforced by granting citizenship to the Arabs in WB and Gaza then the country would not be manageable and it would collapse into civil war. We might win that war but it would be very bloody and probably lead to partition/ethnic cleansing. And if we lose that war we will all be expelled or exterminated. It would be a really stupid move that we would be complete morons to make it.

          So, even if the answer to your question shows that Israeli Arabs carry out far fewer acts of terrorism (which is certainly true), then nonetheless the granting of citizenship to all the Arabs and turning us into a minority is not a policy option we are ever going to pursue because the current position and actions of the Israeli Arabs is not indicative of what is likely to happen were they to turn into a majority reinforced by Arabs from WB/Gaza/Lebanon/Syria that have been raised on a steady diet of hating Jews. We see what happens to minorities in the Middle East and we are not about to play a game of Russian roulette with all chambers loaded.

          Reply to Comment
          • Bruce Gould

            @Bus189: You may want to talk to some human rights workers about the situation in East Jerusalem; if you live in Israel just go to the ICAHD offices and ask for a tour.

            6 million Jews live right smack dab in the middle of 6 million Palestinians, and they have a fondness of home demolitions, land theft, administrative detentions, checkpoints and more. I agree with you that Israel is in a very, very interesting situation.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Eve Ilsen

      This breaks my heart. When I lived in Jerusalem, I could visit Arab acquiantances, could pop down to Beit Lechem for pastry, could walk the Olld City without fear or shame. Now I walk with both fear and shame.

      Reply to Comment