Why I Worry About the Trend to Dwell Apart
As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights, there is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.
-- Numbers 23:9
The synagogue at Shorashim faces south – toward Jerusalem. As a creature of habit, I have sat in the same place for 26 years, along the windows on the west wall. The view is across the lawn and playground of Shorashim, over the Hilazon Valley and the Arab village of Shaab on the other side, out to Haifa Bay. In the course of those 26 years, the landscaping here has matured and the trees have grown, so that I just noticed that Shaab has finally become invisible from my seat in synagogue.
The metaphor is telling. Out of sight, out of mind.
It is under a mile to Shaab – five minutes by car, 20 on foot. There are about 5,000 inhabitants. We still hear the muezzin, but perhaps because the trees have grown, his voice seems fainter; and apparently, with modernization, more families are holding their weddings in catering halls instead of in their courtyards, so we hear the blasting music – and the firecrackers – less frequently now. I have been to Shaab many times over the years, to bring groups of North American Jews to visit the school, to meet with educators and students there. I know, maybe, 10 people. Scattered individuals from Shaab come to Shorashim as builders or cleaners. Otherwise, while we are all citizens of Israel, we inhabit separate worlds and speak separate languages. Our kids go to different schools. If we encounter each other, it is at a mall or a factory or a garage in Karmiel. And in my experience of 26 years, the separation has not lessened or softened.
My neighbors in Shorashim tried (and failed by a couple of votes) to pass a charter provision that would exclude non-Jews from membership – expressly out of fear that Arabs would “invade” and “take over.” Now they have moved on to a new fear – of Orthodox Jews who might do the same thing. It seems that Shorashim is a microcosm of Israel, which is in turn a microcosm of a world in which identity trumps ideology, in which, seeking the comfort of community, we feel compelled to surround ourselves with people just like us – and to see everyone else as a threat.
A few years ago, I met with some residents of an Orthodox rural community not far from Shorashim, who had grown up in Haifa, attending Orthodox schools but living in a mixed neighborhood, meeting all kinds of people on the street, at the playground, at the local grocery store. They complained that moving to a pastoral rural Orthodox community had sounded idyllic until they discovered that they were living in a homogeneous ghetto, and that their children would be both protected from and denied the human experience they had had growing up in a city.
The young Syrian architect, Marwa al Sabouni, has argued (in a TED talk) that one of the factors that led to the explosive disintegration of Syria might have been the heritage of the French colonial architects and planners, who saw the heterogeneous old cities, with their dense and intimate mixture of ethnicities, religions, and classes, as primitive and inefficient. Broad avenues and spacious new neighborhoods did not reproduce this mix, but allowed the development of a mosaic of homogeneous, self-contained areas with distinct identities. Group identity came to transcend loyalty to place and to become the basis of a new, exclusive, concept of community. I suspect she romanticizes the “old city” somewhat. But I worry about where we are heading.