Ramallah! With Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Hanan Ashrawi is still a player after all these years.  She is the only woman on the Fatah executive,  and she runs a Palestinian women’s organization as well.  Now, I don’t know if that organization is a front for something, but part of the time she is at PLO HQ, and part of the time with her organization.  I guess it was our luck that when we visited her, she was at PLO Headquarters.  We all know the terrorism, murder and horrors, both against the Jewish people and Israel and against their own Palestinian people, that went on from PLO headquarters in various countries.  At the same time, it was kind of a strange, surreal feeling standing at the entrance of glassy, brand spankin’ new PLO HQ high rise in Ramallah, with my big white kippa, taking pictures with my Indonesian friends.  The guards were actually pretty nice – they smile more than Israeli guards, but less than Indonesian guards.  Still, I felt totally comfortable – and welcomed – as a Jew and a rabbi at the PLO building.  I do think times have changed – of course that doesn’t mean that peace has broken out.


And actually, Hanan Ashrawi has not changed at all.  The 24 of us were ushered into a room with water bottles next to each of us – that was standard for all the meetings, except for with Prime Minister Fayyad we got also an extra orange juice, and some places gave us sweets as well.  I shook her had when I came in, and the truth is is that she really looks much better in person than on the camera.  She looks younger in person as well – even younger than I remember her looking in the 90‘s when she was CNN and Nightline every evening.  


Behind Hanan Ashrawi was the PLO flag, which I guess was not changed since a few decades ago: it still had the entire picture of Israel as Palestine.  And if front of us we were given some PLO letterhead stationary with the entire State of Israel as … Palestine.  I was going to ask her about this, but really, the thing that has changed the least is that Hanan Ashrawi is still saying the same lines she has said even since the 70’s when she began secret negotiations – according to her – with the Israelis as a representative of the  PLO.  Palestinians, according to her, have done all the compromise and all the giving.  The Two State Solution – which she knows is what everybody in the room (except for me) is desperate for, is rapidly running out of time, according to her, and it is all Israel’s fault.  Well, it’s also the fault of America and the Republicans.  Settlements, siege of Gaza, Price Tag people (who are, indeed an issue, but not the real reason for peace not happening), etc. etc. Palestinians have agreed to 22% of the land they really should have, and they are the victims and Israel is the Occupier, which wants to have the Jordan valley as well even if they give the Palestinians a little bit of land.  To me it was clear that if you fast-forward ten years, and Israel would give the Palestinians land, she will be saying the same thing – siege, Jordan valley, checkpoints, Jerusalem, return of refugees, etc. etc.  


Of course, she is smart and always has an answer that it is Israel’s fault.  My friend the Imam from Washington, Yahya Hendi, who had been denied entering Israel (from Jordan), but met us in Ramallah, asked Hanan Ashrawi: Isn’t it important for Palestinians to look at themselves for what they could do to improve things or help the process – he used the old Zionist term of “self-emancipation”?  Earlier, Rabbi Melchior had brilliantly done this and said that it is so easy to blame others, but you have to start by looking at yourself – and Peres said the same thing.  But Hanan Ashrawi said No!  The Palestinians are the victims here, and there is nothing they can or should be doing different.  All Israel.  But at the same time, “I don’t like the mentality of the victim…”  So she has it both ways…  But she does it so well!  


Some of the Christians in the group realized that her words were a bit of a snow job when she said about Hamas that they do accept a Two State solution, and that they have been amazingly flexible, and that “It’s going to take time for Hamas to get there…”  Her view was that having one side of the government that perhaps wants to destroy Israel: “We should have a right to pluralism… for people to disagree…”


OK.  That’s the picture. 


The one interesting part of the meeting was that she spoke about women in government in the Palestinian Authority – 25% of the ministers are women, there are 22 women judges, the mayor and governor of Ramalla is a woman – interesting.  She seems like on this issue she may be really doing some good, and she has some insight.  “Women go into civil society and good governance, but not into politics…” It was insightful, but interesting that there is that wall between good governance and the government itself.  She also said that women should control security, not men.  I did not see any women Palestinian guards or police.  But from the Israeli side, anecdotally on our trip, the women guards saved the day several times as far as civility and relating to our group.


Ashrawi: “We cannot use the Occupation as an excuse for all our sins.”  But she used it as an excuse to bash Israel and for the lack of peace.


So we left, with a picture, and smiles, but, frankly, disappointed that nothing had changed.


But then, we got in the bus and headed for the Palestinian governmental building to meet Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.  Again, Guards around Fayyid’s office were very polite – even friendly. Very fancy uniforms. 


I rarely use capitals in email, but FAYYAD!  I’m mamash choked up by who he is and what he’s saying. So refreshing. He is modest, he is honest, he is thoughtful, he says things contrary to his interest if they are true, and contrary to the common wisdom. He is self defacing and has a diminutive sense of humor. I had never met him, and I didn’t even know what he looked like.  He came into a very fancy room – with really nice leather chairs – and in a humble and even shlumped-over way, went around shaking our hands.  We felt the modesty that the Indonesian foreign minister exuded – and that is a high standard.  He seems more of an introvert.  He started by thanking us for being there and saying he was looking for advice from us, “We can certainly use it!”


Fayyad is the first leader I have heard who actually said not to panic that time is running out, that actually now is the time to push off the “time envelope” and that conditions are not right for an effective resumption of discussions. He was taking responsibility for not resuming peace talks, but rather than blame the Israelis, he laid out many factors in the world that would logically lead him to not wanted to have major negotiations at this time.  That is fine!  He said that the US attitude is that settlements (I use the term he used; I prefer the term “communities”) are illegal – or at least an obstacle to peace.”  Now that impressed me: he could have just left it at illegal, but he didn’t.  He wants to be honest that different American administrations have different attitudes.  He was just so logical – it was such a mechaya!  Of course the Palestinians would not want to sit down now and negotiate: American elections, Arab spring is diverting Europe’s attention, the European debt crisis, a right wing government in Israel where Netanyahu cannot get anything through.  Yes, he is the leader of the Palestinian government so he is pushing their side.  But he does so honestly, and it makes sense.  As Margaret Thatcher said of Gorbachev: This is a man we can do business with.


He is against the pre-occupation of getting the negotiating process going.  What that says to Israel is that they, too, should not be jumping in hoops to ensure the Palestinians come to the table.  


Fayyad said basically, let’s focus on the issues we can deal with, on issues that are important to Palestinians but that Israel – and the right or left wing in Israel – doesn’t really care about.  He talked about maintenance issues, security issues, issues that Israel can change on without it hitting the newspapers in Israel.  Oy!  This is such a smart man!  He didn’t even mention Jerusalem.  He didn’t obsess about settlements. He admitted that when Israel came in to the towns in Spring 2002 to restore security (at the hight of the Second Intifada), internal Palestinian security and control was bad.  Now, he says, things are much improved.  And, the fact that I could would around so comfortable with my kippa in Ramallah says that things are under tight control.  Importantly, he said that if you wanted to give the Palestinians hope, give them elections!  Now that didn’t work so well in Gaza, but at least he is taking internal responsibility for Palestinian problems.  


I asked a question about free markets, and he embraced it, and applauded the Chicago school of economics, and talked about developing the Palestinian pharmaceutical industry.  “One of my better days…” was when they initiated exports of a drug to Germany.  This is a man that is really taking Netanyahu’s idea of building up the economy first, before statehood, seriously.  Fayyad, said, and I quote, “We are not a country yet.”  I just cannot go on to much about this man.  When we were taking photos I said that it says a lot about the Palestinians that they have a Prime Minister like this.  It does.  They may have a lot of problems – they may still want to destroy all of the Jewish state – but Salam Fayyad cannot be ignored.  I was so excited that I whipped off an email to one of our more famous members who undoubtedly spent a lot of time with Fayyad and he agreed: a very good man.


OK.  I think you get the picture.  Worth going to Ramallah to meet Fayyad.


We got back on the bus, and I could not bring myself to go see Arafat’s tomb, which is right in front of Abbas’s palace like building. I did not want to accord him any honor. He died with blood on his hands – Jewish and Palestinian. Another rabbi stayed in the bus with me. 


And then it was off to the only Five Star hotel in Ramallah – though the charming, bustling city has other hotels and deserves more Five Star ones – Hotel Movenpick (Swiss).  We got an unbelievable welcome. Hot towels. Drinks. Quick service to get our rooms. Free wifi in room. Unbelievable. Smiles and attention from a huge staff who smiled throughout our stay.  I loved this hotel!


After freshening up, we headed for three Palestinian homes to meet the folks and hear their stories.  Our host, Najah and his wife and six kids.  Najah was a professor at Beir Zeit University.  And he brought in his 80 year old father and his mother, with her head covered.  She looked just like a Russian Babushka.  The grandfather looked like an old Arab Sheikh, and a prominent picture in the room had him shaking hands with a smiling Yassir Arafat.  This family had had Jews over before, and the grandparents, originally from Hebron, told stories about life in Hebron.  The family would regularly borrow money from a wealthier Jewish family which refused to take any interest.  But they were honest about the 1929 massacre, and that the Jews and Christians were squeezed out of Hebron, and that these were indigenous Jews who had lived there for hundreds of years.  In fact, they talked of Jews only being allowed to go to the seventh step near the Cave of the Patriarchs; not allowed to go in – that was only for Muslims.  But I don’t think the Muslims in our party got that.  I don’t think there is any realizations even in the modern, friendly Muslim community to the discrimination that Islam historically had against Jews.  These Palestinians know about that, and were honest about it. In fact the mentioned that there remained three formerly Jewish families in Hevron who converted to Islam so as not to be killed. 


The daughter Reem, studying at Beir Zeit: nothing against Jews, just Israel – people coming from abroad calling us terrorists… On the one hand, there is a basic anti-Israel attitude clearly embedded in the Beir Zeit student population – and probably almost all kids – but on the other hand, it was claer to me that this was not a well-developed angry and bitter feeling.  The kids were good natured, happy kids, living relatively normal lives.  But what impressed the Muslims in the group was that the kids had not been to Jerusalem for 10 years.  And it’s true that they would need a permit to get in, but it wasn’t clear how desperate they were to get into Jerusalem.  In any event, the whole family was good natured. The kids – ages 14 – 20  did not at all obsess on their anger towards Israel. In fact, their father,  Najah, complained that people today were just interested in cars and electronics and didn’t care about politics and fighting for the cause. 




They regaled us with a great story of Najah’s brother, a Fatah heavy who got into trouble with Arafat and Warren Christopher for, nebech, threatening a Christian man who married the woman the brother wanted to marry… He was jailed and exiled to Canada, but now he is once again buddies with the Fatah and living again in Ramallah. 


Our host family’s wife is name Rafika – Rebecca – and we discussed that it was like my Rachel’s name which in Hebrew Rivkah Leah!


We went back to the hotel, spending the night in Ramallah, and happy to do so.


A guard at the checkpoint the next morning was surprised I had been to Ramallah with a kippa.  But it was actually hard to leave Ramallah: It is important not to be lulled into a false romance for this warm, friendly welcoming people, who, as a people, are not yet comforable with the existence of a Jewish state, the state of my people.  But whether it was the hotel or the feel of the city and the people we met, it was hard to leave! We crossed the Qalandia checkpoint where I did some schmoozing with the woman guard to get us through, and Pisgat Zeev suddenly appeared – 5 minutes from Ramallah. Pisgat Zev and the Arab neighborhodd Beit Chanina (Arab) share a mall (Kanyon Hapisgah). 


Now, we are back in Jerusalem.  We had lunch with the foreign ministry which did a yeoman’s job of defending Israel.  Yes, soldiers had to go into the Al-Aqtza area, and even ask people to leave; but it was because rioters were throwing lethal stones on the Jewish worshippers at the Kotel below (this is a century’s old practice, unfortunately).  I just don’t think many in our group understand what Israel is facing.  But the Foreign Ministry was good.


The restaurant, Gabriel’s, made a great steak, and it was located in a charming new, outdoor mall on Shimon Ben Shettach just off of Shlomzion hamalka at Ben Sira.  Right near the house where Zev Jabotinsky lived when he was allowed into Palestine in the 20’s.  I hope and believe Jabotinsky would be OK with making peace with people – Muslims, Christians – who dwell in the Jewish state.  Once Israel is strong, and remains strong, that is when Jabotinsky believed it was time for partnership and cooperations with the Arab population in the Jewish state.  I agree!


After the lunch meeting I had to get out… Not only to see Jerusalem, but I felt this energy come over me to connect. Honestly, I felt like I wanted to walk up to every Jew and Palestinian and give them a big hug! Crazy!  I took a walk along the grassy train tracks on this beautiful sunny warm late winter day when Jerusalem was shinier than ever. Just a stunning walk down from Jaffa gate and city hall to Damascus gate into the shuk, saying hi to people and heading for the Kotel and beyond…


Tomorrow, President Shimon Peres.  Today we head for the kotel with the group.


Until then, from a sparkling Jerusalem,

Shalom al Yisrael


4 Responses to Ramallah! With Rabbi Asher Lopatin

  1. maryles1 says:

    What a courageous series of posts.

  2. Avi says:

    “Behind Hanan Ashrawi was the PLO flag, which I guess was not changed since a few decades ago: it still had the entire picture of Israel as Palestine. And if front of us we were given some PLO letterhead stationary with the entire State of Israel as … Palestine. ”

    You might just be the most liberal Orthodox rabbi out there on this issue (One state? Heretic!), so I don’t mean to pick on you, but while we actually physically take the entire country, you complain about the picture on her wall. As you said, “It is so easy to blame others, but you have to start by looking at yourself.”

  3. So you sat with people who daily attack Israel and Jews, who have spent the last 20 years villifying Israel in every country and international forum they could, who give aid and comfort to those who would murder Jews for the “crime” of living in Israel.
    Nice company you keep. Did the coffee taste good?

  4. eng4820 says:

    Kol haKavod, Rabbi! No place on earth is empty of reasonable people willing to work for peace, even if it isn’t quick or pretty. Who are we if we don’t seek them out and engage with them?

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