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Born Free

A haftorah of unpopular decisions and profound prophecies

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The Jalama checkpoint, near the West Bank city of Jenin. (Saif Dahlah/AFP/Getty Images)

If the fanatics have their way, Ilana Hammerman might spend the next two years in prison.

An Israeli journalist, Hammerman befriended a teenage Palestinian girl and was heartbroken to learn that, like most Palestinians in the West Bank, the girl—writing about the encounter in Haaretz, Hammerman called the girl Aya to protect her identity—was confined to her village by a Byzantine system of roadblocks and restrictions that renders travel virtually impossible. Unable to drive even to the nearest large Palestinian town without spending hours in blazing corrugated-metal kennels, subjected to searches and sometimes denied entry just because, Aya was preparing for a summer filled with idle days, confined to her village, succumbing to boredom.

It wasn’t the most horrid story one can hear in the West Bank, but it touched Hammerman deeply. If Aya’s childhood wasn’t allowed to transcend the thicket of politics and prejudice that entangles everyone in the region, she thought, then all was hopelessly bleak. Hammerman made a suggestion: She would smuggle Aya and two of her cousins into Israel, drive them to Tel Aviv, and show them what life was like in the big city, just an hour’s drive away but beyond their imagination.

This, Hammerman was well aware, was against the law. To get Aya and her relatives into the country, she would have to lie to soldiers and policemen. And the border, she realized perfectly well, was heavily guarded for very good reasons. Still, the thought of young girls under siege struck Hammerman as categorically evil. The Israeli law book, she reasoned, also included the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom, enacted in 1994 and promising every man and woman, regardless of his or her ethnicity, “no deprivation or restriction of the liberty of a person by imprisonment, arrest, extradition or otherwise.”

“All of these rights,” Hammerman wrote in a recent article in Haaretz, “are denied the civilian Palestinian population living in the occupied territories under Israeli military control: Their lives, dignity and property are violated; their privacy and intimacy is not respected; and their private premises are entered without their consent. But, above all, their liberty is restricted: They are not free to leave their country, to move within it or to choose their place of residence at will. They are denied their liberty by arrest and imprisonment. Indeed, since 1967, approximately 800,000 Palestinians have been arrested and imprisoned for various periods of time by the Israeli military jurisdiction to which they are subject.”

With Israeli law pitted against Israeli law, Hammerman chose to err on the side of dignity and freedom. In May, she loaded Aya and her cousins into her car, drove to a checkpoint she thought would be more lenient, blurted out a few words in Hebrew to the soldier standing guard, and sighed with relief when she was waved right through. Once she hit Tel Aviv, she took her young charges to a museum and a mall, watched with delight as they frolicked on the lawn of Tel Aviv University and sprinted on the beach, bought them each some ice cream. It was two in the morning by the time she drove them back home; a few days later, reading Hammerman’s account of the day in Haaretz, a settler organization began a campaign for her arrest.

As Hammerman’s self-appointed prosecutors are self-described religious Jews, they may want to spend this Shabbat pondering the weekly haftorah. Awarded his divine mandate, the prophet Jeremiah is warned not to expect an easy ride.

“And I will utter My judgments against them concerning all their evil, that they left Me and offered up burnt-offerings to other gods and they prostrated themselves to the work of their hands,” God tells Jeremiah, preparing his servant for the coming calumny he’s sure to face. “And you shall gird your loins and arise and speak to them all that I command you; be not dismayed by them, lest I break you before them. And I, behold I have made you today into a fortified city and into an iron pillar, and into copper walls against the entire land, against the kings of Judah, against its princes, against its priests, and against the people of the land. And they shall fight against you but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to save you.”

It is unlikely, of course, that those modern-day Israelites who still prostrate themselves to the work of their hands—the separation walls and the checkpoints and the armaments they firmly believe to be their sole measure of protection—would summon the wherewithal to take in a touch of prophecy. Now, as in Jeremiah’s time, they would likely adopt an imperious tone and talk about security and its neverending demands, or ragingly recite all of the evils, great and small, perpetrated by the nations who criticize Israel, or find a thousand and one excuses with which to extenuate the senseless brutality of the occupation.

Never mind: Now, like then, we still have women and men who are wise enough to understand that sometimes the path to righteousness leads straight to an ice cream parlor in a nearby-faraway town and who are courageous enough to drive there, roadblocks be damned.

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J Carpenter says:

Israeli policy/practice/attitude v. Palestinians = ghetto.
God bless those who take the high road, submit to a Higher Law: love God, love your neighbor. Politics has subverted faith.

asherZ says:

Leibovitz blames Israel what he sees as a state of misery for the Palestinian West Bank residents. Similarly much of the world blames the deaths of nine terrorists on the Gaza flotilla on the naval embargo of the Gaza coast. The blame of course rightfully belongs to Hamas (who were elected by their Gazan constituents) and the Palestinian Authority, who refuse to negotiate directly with their adversaries. The truth is that freedom and independence is not the main motivation for the majority of the Palestinian people. Elimination of the “cancer in their midst” and the “Zionist entity” is their primary goal. Whatever inconveniences exist for the Arab residents is due to the rockets launched and buses and pizzerias blown up by their own “martyrs”. Leibovitz undoubtedly would have objected to Pinchos’ act of “brutalty” in this weeks Torah reading from receiving from God the Covenant of Peace for having eliminated the evil in the midst of his people. The dead bodies and missing limbs of the victims of Palestinian terrorism are part of the “thousand and one excuses” that Leibovitz somehow trivializes. I hope he will not be sitting in that ice cream parlor in the nearby-faraway town if the roadblocks were to be removed and a sweet suicide bomber succeeds in her mission.

asher Z says: “I hope he will not be sitting in that ice cream parlor in the nearby-faraway town if the roadblocks were to be removed and a sweet suicide bomber succeeds in her mission.”

asher Z makes a good point Liel. You can’t separate the plight of the Palestinians from the plight of the Israelis. They are both trapped in a negative symbiotic relationship. It seems that the choice that the Israelis have is whether to be the oppressor or the oppressed. Yeah, it sucks to be in that position. But what would you choose?

rivka says:

Hey I was wondering if anyone out there, maybe Liel if you’d be kind enough and have a minute to spare to satisfy the curiosity of a loyal, if not always in agreement, reader. I wanted to know what the lyrics of the Balkan Beat Box’s song “Ramallah Tel-Aviv” mean. Here’s a link:

I only understand a few hebrew words here and there. Maybe it’s a political song? Anyway, the beat, chaval alhazman! Toda raba raba.
Shabbat shalom.

Miha Ahronovitz says:


Your comment is simply a politically correct classic diaspora-jew-me-too parroting that any Israeli abuse, is justified. One thing we have is a different moral standard. When terrorists hijacked planes, we never even contemplating doing so. When they sent suicide bombers, we never ever will take an autistic child, wrap in a bomb and sent him to die.

Simply the status quo in Palestine, as described in Liel’s article violates any Jewish ethical standard and will not survive if we believe in our tradition. I do not not what the final solution should be, but we can not keep all normal citizens in kennels at cross border and preach that we are amply justified to do so.

Regarding the parshat of zealotry of Pinchas, a butcher by profession, it requires, like Balak and Bilaam a mystical interpretation as the literal interpretation is no different from blunt comment you made about this article

miha says:

In the book “Crossing Qualandiya” by Daniela Norris and Shireen Anabtawi, there the following story. Car with three Palestinians (mother, father and a toddler girl) travels on a lonely highway. Next to one ultra-orthodox settlement, they are attacked with stones from all directions. One stone hits the little girl in the in the head. She bleeds profusely. Mother is desperate. Soon will be the start of evening curfew. Finally an Israeli military car drives by. The woman makes desperate signs for them to help. The soldiers have strict orders not to stop car in the West Bank, as they are many dangerous provocations. The car continues to drive, but twenty yards later is stops. From the back door of the car, a soldier, actually an older reservist came out. He helps immediately the girl and takes her and her mother to a hospital. After two days she out of danger, while the mother and father do not know how to thank the man. People asked him: “Why did you stop, against orders and common sense?” “Because”, the man said, I have a home a little girl, and for a while I thought it was my daughter”

You can buy the book on Amazon.

miha says:

Here are the Arizal teachings in Parshat Pinchas, quotes by asherZ

– Anger distracts the soul from worship. In fact it is form of idol-worship

– The person feels, at least for that moment, that he knows better than Gd what should be happening

– The way to prevent anger is to ensure that one’s power of judgment is always mitigated by mercy

– Try to re-experience the pristine vision of insight (joining and unifying chochmah with binah)

Reference: The Arizal on the Torah, Ego versus Anger

Robin Margolis says:

Dear Liel:

Another thoughtful essay. Thank you!

Robin Margolis

virginia says:

So many things make us see red like tailgaters. Our emotions are ptovoked by facts and propaganda. I try to remember Rabbi A. J. Heschel’s prayer “Pour holiness into our moments.”


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Born Free

A haftorah of unpopular decisions and profound prophecies

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