External Affairs

Photo Essay: A Yom Kippur Meditation

The widely scattered houses of the Palestinian town of Al-Auja dot the slopes on either side of Wadi Auja. Three or four Bedouin families live in each such tiny point.

Credit: Author provided

Credit: Margaret Olin

Dotting the slopes on either side of Wadi Auja are the widely scattered houses of Al-Auja. In most cases only three or four Bedouin families live in each such tiny point, some to the west, climbing the steep hill less than halfway up to the ridge that overlooks the Jordan Valley, others, like the homes of our shepherd friends today, further east, near the road to Jericho.

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Credit: Margaret Olin

The Al-Auja story is a long one; perhaps some day I’ll tell it in full. On April 21 this year, some 15 masked settlers from the Baladim outpost on the high ridge attacked with clubs and stones a group of Ta’ayush activists accompanying Palestinian shepherds to their grazing grounds. A moment of extreme violence: one activist with an open head wound, another with a broken arm, others seriously bruised. The police did nothing; but not long after this attack, which was filmed and widely publicised, the settlers were evacuated from the Baladim. We hear they may have come back.

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Credit: Margaret Olin

A little to the south sits the ranch-settlement, entirely illegal even under Israeli law but, like all settlements, extraordinarily privileged, of a settler called Omer. He has been there for eleven years or so, and gathered around him is a group of young, reputedly violent toughs. Hundreds of verdant palm trees tower over the land he has stolen. For the last many years, because of this settlement and the arbitrary boundary it has set in place, the Bedouins of Al-Auja East have had no access to their lands.

Yom Kippur

Credit: Margaret Olin

Ta’ayush took them back across the invisible but fateful border. At first they hesitated, knowing full well that we couldn’t be with them every day and every hour, and that they were vulnerable to all the weapons and wounds that the Occupation can easily bring to bear upon them. Still, we told them that if we persist, together, in the end it’s likely that they will regain the lands, or most of them.

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Credit: Margaret Olin

And indeed the first few times we went with them and the sheep, it was like returning to Eden. Settlers, soldiers, police all turned up, all equally taken aback and bewildered. I saw the shepherds weep tears of joy: they had given up on these rocky, thorny hills.

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Credit: Margaret Olin

Then the normal business of the Occupation took over. Day after day the soldiers, egged on, perhaps actually given their orders, by the settlers, or maybe the orders came from higher up, would produce the devilish piece of paper with map attached declaring these lands a Closed Military Zone. The boundaries drawn on the map varied from day to day. The Occupation can’t allow a Palestinian shepherd to graze on his lands without a struggle. So we were driven off time after time, and each time we came back. It’s the usual story. We have been through it in many places. Every time they drive us off at gunpoint, it hurts.

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Credit: Margaret Olin

Eventually, our promise will fulfill itself. There was a taste of it today. At dawn we set off with the herds, a long walk up and down the rocks, and three or four hours later we came home with them, the sheep full now of the thorns they love. The soldiers watched from a distance, not interfering. We spread out over the hills. The shepherds made tea. Apart from wind and sun and clouds, the white birds, the ravenous sheep chewing furiously, we heard only the silence of desert and stone. There is no sound in the world like the dusty sweetness of that silence. Two gentle donkeys made no sound.

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Credit: Margaret Olin

Strange, is it not, that what should be simple, natural, obvious, and right has to be fought for inch by inch? The Muslim theologians of the Middle Ages say that time is an infinite series of atomic moments called “nows,” aanaat. Each such temporal atom has to be created by Allah, moment by moment, an act of divine will and mercy. Each one is a miracle; life itself, the world and all that is in it, the mind and all that it holds, is thus entirely miraculous. Such was our morning in Al-Auja. One infinite atomic nows.

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Al-Auja, September, 2017. Credit: David Shulman

On the way back we stopped for cold drinks and flat pitta spread with za’atar at our favorite café on the outskirts of Jericho. It’s the eve of Yom Kippur. I don’t know how it came up, maybe it had to do with the fact that Arik skipped the morning prayers to come to Al-Auja today. He, too, was wounded when the settlers attacked in April. Now, for whatever reason, he tells the famous story, shaped by I. L. Peretz, hero of my youth, of the rabbi of Nemirov who disappears each day before dawn. The days are the days before Yom Kippur when one says the prayers for forgiveness, slichot. His disciples, a little puzzled, decide he goes up to heaven. A skeptic and rationalist, someone like me, arrives in the village and scoffs at this pious dream; he hides under the rabbi’s bed and, when the rabbi gets up before dawn, the skeptic follows him into the forest. The rabbi carries an axe. He cuts firewood and carries it to the hut of a penniless widow. As he enters the hut, he recites the first prayer for forgiveness. As he puts the logs into the stove and lights the fire, he recites the next one. By the time the stove is fully ablaze, the prayers have been said in full. When the skeptic, who has watched this, next hears the disciples say the rabbi has gone up to heaven, the skeptic says: “If not higher.”

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Credit: Margaret Olin

Another one of those atomic nows.

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Credit: Margaret Olin

I say, “I grew up on that story and others like it. That was when Jews were still Jews.”

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Credit: Margaret Olin

Arik laughs. All of us laugh. The Palestinian serving hot pitta and za’attar has been listening in, even he laughs, at us or with us. Look what’s happened to the Jews. Except, I think to myself, this story is about Arik.

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Credit: Margaret Olin

He asks me if I’m fasting tonight and tomorrow. No, I answer. I am going to Not Fast as an act of bearing witness, a moment of fleeting faith that god still exists.

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Credit: Margaret Olin

David Shulman is an Indologist and an authority on the languages of India. A professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he is an activist in Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership. His latest book is More Than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India, published in April 2015.

This was originally published by Touching Photographs.