Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tisha B’av and Ganei Tal

I started noticing the small signs just a few days after I arrived. In truth, they were unmistakable. A note in a car here; a comment there. But only over the last few weeks has it begun to sink in to me. Today, on Tisha b’Av, the day we set aside to commemorate and mourn Jewish tragedy and loss, I find myself focused on the evacuees from Gush Katif, specifically the citizens of Ganei Tal. Three years ago, almost to the day, the government of Israel evicted the citizens of the twenty-one communities that comprised the Jewish towns throughout the Gaza strip. Then it destroyed their homes, one by one, until the lives that they had spent the last three decades building were nothing but piles of rubble.
In truth, my new life rests firmly on their tragedy, giving me a small, vague sense of guilt. Personally, I had nothing to do with the expulsion from Gush Katif. Politically, I opposed the plan. So then why do I feel guilty? I’ll explain.
Because the residents of Gush Katif refused, under any circumstances to believe and accept that their government would actually carry out the eviction plan, they made almost no plans for the day after. Following the disengagement, they found themselves dazed, homeless, and bereft of their possessions and livelihoods. After spending three months in temporary lodging, the government sent the people of Ganei Tal, en masse, to a small caravilla-city on the outskirts of a small yishuv called Yad Binyamin, found in the Sorek region about twenty miles west of Jerusalem. In addition, the Torat Chaim Yeshiva, formerly located in Neve Dekalim, the largest settlement in Gaza, relocated to a new home in a formerly closed school in Yad Binyamin. Almost instantly, a small, lazy town of thirty families found itself host to a community several times its size with a yeshiva to boot. The residents of Ganei Tal settled into their new, albeit tiny homes, tried to find jobs, and rebuild their lives following their eviction from the only home that they had known.
This being Israel, someone realized that there might be money to make in Yad Binyamin. And he – actually they -- were right. Yad Binyamin presented a wonderful real estate opportunity. Just a forty-minute drive from Jerusalem, thirty from Tel Aviv and sitting right on the brand new Highway 6, Yad Binyamin could offer large, spacious homes within reasonable commuting distance of good jobs. Moreover, with the yeshiva anchoring the community and the Israeli residents of Ganei Tal serving as a base, the community would attract Torah oriented religious Zionists looking to buy new homes outside of the regular overpopulated areas. Two years ago the building began, and Yad Binyamin has experienced a tremendous period of growth and expansion – as well as skyrocketing home values for those lucky enough to have bought their homes on paper at the beginning.
Today, Yad Binyamin continues to expand at a breathtaking pace. New families move into their homes weekly. I watch from my back porch as the construction on our new shul continues apace, hopefully to be completed in time for Rosh Hashanah. Today, the residents of Ganei Tal find themselves not on the outskirts of Yad Binyamin, but in the heart of town. Their arrival marked the beginning of the explosive growth of Yad Binyamin. Without their presence, I have no doubt that I would not be living here either.
Having just moved into my new home – large by Israeli standards, I walked to shul one morning through the caravilla-town of the residents of Ganei Tal, and realized that these residents lived not in nice homes, of brick and concrete like mine, but temporary small homes made from converted trailers. This past Shabbat my son said to me, again while walking to shul, that it was a good thing that we didn’t live in one of those houses. “Why?” I asked him. “Because our lift container was almost as big as those houses. There’s no way that we would have been able to fit our stuff into one.” Of course he was right. Our lift (a forty-footer, holding way too much stuff) was indeed almost as big as a trailer. And these people have lived in these trailers, every day of the year for the past three years, still waiting for their government to approve the construction of their new homes.
Last night, after reading Eichah, I visited the exhibit just put on display by the residents of Ganei Tal about their yishuv. I found myself unexpectedly, but profoundly moved. The exhibit graphically describes the birth of their yishuv in 1970, literally out of the sands of Gaza. They displaced no one. They took no unclaimed land. The Arabs of the area, they told me, informed them that the last people to plant successfully in the sands of Gaza were Abraham and Isaac. And yet they planted – and the earth, at least in their hothouses – sprouted forth. Every progressive photo documents the growth of the yishuv, the construction of even more and larger hothouses, to accommodate their ever-expanding agricultural industry.
Of course, on tables lie burnt shells and rockets; mortars that landed within the yishuv, fired at the residents for the crime of living in Gaza. And finally, the wall of the fallen; men and women who died in terrorist attacks, living their daily lives, traveling to work or walking near their homes. There aren’t many – five or six. But that’s five or six too many.
I learned about some of daily life in Ganei Tal; the community center, the makolet (small store); the municipal building and the shul. Another wall simply presents pictures of houses – beautiful homes, large even by American standards. The homes were surrounded by green grass, plants, trees – an oasis in the desert.
And as I looked at those pictures – those magnificent, gorgeous homes, I thougt of the homes the very same residents occupy today, a fraction of the size, stuck in the center of a town, as nice as it is, that they did not choose. And I turned to the next wall – a wall of Ganei Tal today – to find pictures of piles of rubble where homes once stood, and the shul – the only building left standing by the Israelis - now a shell of concrete, looted of any material that might be of any value.
Today, on Tisha B’av, I find my mind filled with thought of the people of Ganei Tal. My feelings are not really political. While I realize that many Israelis seethe with anger over the disengagement and even dream of returning to Gaza when the army inevitably reenters Gaza, I’m not so sure. In some ways, we’re far better off without the responsibility and demographic obligations of a million and a half Arabs who hate us. But Tisha B’av isn’t about politics. It’s about national and personal suffering. And as a nation – as a people, we suffered for two reasons: we suffered because the government of Israel felt that we needed to destroy Jewish communities, for whatever reason; and we suffered because we caused wonderful people, our Jewish brothers and sisters – immeasurable pain, pain that they still feel to this day, and probably will feel for the rest of their lives.
In America, I never gave them a second thought. Tsk, tsk – a terrible thing, the evacuation from Gaza. But these are real people, with real challenges and problems, struggling to make a life for themselves each and every day. And on Tisha B’av we need to ask the important questions: what did we do to cause their suffering? How did our behavior fail to save them, and us, from their fate? And, perhaps most importantly of all, what will we change to ensure that what happened to the people - the mothers and fathers and children of Ganei Tal, never happens again?