Around this time every year, Jews plan their return to synagogue for the high holy days. Rosh Hashanah, followed by Yom Kippur, mark the beginning and celebration of a new year and the day of atonement, where forgiveness is asked for all that was done that hurt others. This year it has me thinking about one of the most important and, yet, least discussed lessons of the Holocaust, the failure of Rabbinic leadership during a time of community crisis. I can tell you firsthand that this isn't something spoken about in Jewish Day Schools.
I doubt there will be any mention in your Rabbi's sermon of the recent savage beating in West Jerusalem that almost killed Jamal Julani by young Jewish teenagers. Or of young yeshiva students who firebombed a Palestinian taxi, severely burning a family of 6. The youngest of those responsible was 12. Even my Rabbi's sure to be thoughtful sermon will probably not mention nice Jewish boys who daven, study Torah, eat kosher and throw Molotov cocktails at passing taxis.
And even if there is mention of these incomprehensible violent acts towards innocent Palestinians, I would bet my High Holy Day pledge that your Rabbi will not make a connection between this behavior and what happens at the Kalandia checkpoint everyday. But there is a connection that I think warrants discussion, and action in the coming new year.
The Kalandia checkpoint is an opening in what Israel calls "The Security Fence" and what Palestinians call "The Apartheid Wall." Regardless of what you call the wall, the checkpoint acts as a modern gate to the city of Jerusalem and is run by Jews.
After experiencing Kalendia first hand, I came away realizing that until you have walked through the checkpoint as a pedestrian, you remain ignorant of the mechanism and tactics employed to humiliate and dehumanize everyone who passes through it. Which means you are not fully capable of participating in the Israeli-Palestinian discourse.
I travelled to Israel in June 2010 with 11 classmates as part of my graduate studies in architecture. We were asked develop our own projects and encouraged to find one with "an uncanny truth." The only requirement was that it be in Jerusalem.
A week before we were scheduled to leave, Israeli commandos raided the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara on its way to Gaza and killed 9 activists. I watched the video of Jewish naval commandos rappelling down ropes from hovering helicopters over-and-over for clues to defend Israel's behavior to my classmates, instead of coming to the immediate conclusion that this raid was poorly planned, poorly executed, used excessive force, led to the unnecessary loss of life, played directly into the hands of the activists, and hurt Israel in many ways, including damaging its relationship with Turkey. The narrative of "Israel as underdog" had changed. David had become Goliath, and Goliath was stupid.
I wanted to comprehend the Jerusalem beyond the traditional tools that architects use, and developed my own methodology to understand Jerusalem's urban condition.
I drew what can be described as a psychological map; the city as seen through the experience of residents interacting with it. Ten in-depth interviews were conducted with a range of residents. From their answers an understanding of the city emerged.
Residents who had to deal with checkpoints coming into the city were profoundly more negative and pessimistic than those who didn't and seemed frustrated beyond hope. I became curious about the checkpoints from their responses, and decided to visit myself. I went to Kalandia checkpoint multiple times to conduct research in this specific urban condition, with the goal of finding an architecture project with "an uncanny truth."
As an American Jew predisposed to being sympathetic to Israel, I went to Kalandia with the understanding that the checkpoint was a necessary security apparatus to protect residents of Jerusalem from terrorists attacks.
After walking through the Kalandia checkpoint, I came away with a different understanding. The checkpoint can be understood as a circulation machine with the need for security and while the term "checkpoint" is militaristic, their function is similar to an airport or border crossing. Someone needs to evaluate your papers and evaluate you before allowing you to pass or refusing you entry.
The way the checkpoint at Kalandia works is something else entirely, something totally foreign. The experience of going through it remains beyond easy description or comprehension.
The physical description is straightforward. There are two basic buildings. The first building functions as a waiting area before you allowed into Israel. The second building is the procession into Israel. The waiting area is approximately 72' x 48'. There is a roof for shade cover and the walls are open like a cage allowing air to circulate.
On the other side of the wall there was a big box, approximately 12' wide and 16' long, that has 3 windows facing the waiting area. Between the box and the waiting area there was another layer of metal caging. CCTV cameras and speakers are attached to the outside of the box. The box would randomly yell at people in the waiting area; the volume was jarringly loud.
Waiting is a big part of the experience. The first time I was at the checkpoint, I was with 5 classmates and we were forced to wait approximately 45 minutes before we were allowed back into Israel after an evening in Ramallah. This was late at night, and the checkpoint was empty. During the day a similar tactic is used. People often spend hours getting to Jerusalem when it should take minutes.
The process of getting to Jerusalem begins when you enter one of two chutes that are 18" wide by 30' long. The chutes are half the minimum width required by architectural code for a passageway, making the chutes more like something livestock would be required to walk through to be transferred from point "A" to point "B" than a human.
At the end of the chute is a revolving door. This revolving door is operated electronically and sometimes it would move smoothly. Other times there would be long pauses between allowing people in.
Once you pass through the revolving door you enter a wider space and have to pass through another electronically controlled revolving door. The same tactic is used here to control the door. Once you are past this, you walk through a metal detector where you put anything you are carrying through a scanner.
You then turn and face the wall to your left, this turns out to be the first place you see the face of this monster. It is the face you might see on a travel brochure to Israel, a young Israeli soldier who received Kalandia duty as part of their mandatory army service. You are asked to show your ID.
If you are approved for entry to Israel you walk down a long corridor and exit a door into Israel. From there you can get back on a bus, or taxi that will take you to wherever you want to go in Jerusalem.
On my last trip through the checkpoint I was with a colleague who has a pacemaker. He is not allowed to walk through medical detectors on doctors orders. We walked to a gate that was labeled "Disabled" and pushed the call button. There was no response. We pushed again. Again no response. After 1.5 hours of trying to talk to someone to have him hand searched, we were turned back. There was no medical accommodation for him to pass through the checkpoint. The entrance to the city of Jerusalem was closed to him even though his hotel and his belongings were in Jerusalem, he had an American passport and, unlike Israeli citizens, a legal right to be there.
An Arab woman let us know that Americans are allowed to ride on the bus through the checkpoint. We exit the humiliation machine and take the bus back to Jerusalem.
On others trips I observed women with babies, children, school kids, elderly and infirm people passing through, all subject to humiliation. A mother holding an infant is not a terrorist, kids going to school are not terrorists, but the humiliation machine doesn't discriminate. It enrages all who interact with it; a dumb machine designed to humiliate and de-spirit humans in the guise of performing border security.
If people are going to be let into Jerusalem through a security apparatus, it doesn't make sense to create an apparatus that is so onerous and upsetting that it leads to less security, not more security. I believe the radicalization of stake holders can be read as a signal of larger systemic issues with the checkpoint system that is dangerous to Israeli society.
These buildings are temporary structures, which means they are almost as easy to take down as they are to put up. What this also means is that their temporary nature can be used in an attempt to control memory of place. This is a dangerous and short-sighted policy that the Israeli government is engaging in. Because even though it's inevitable that this humiliation machine will transform over time, become more humanized and start to function more like a border crossing, the memory of the people who experienced it is not going to go away, and that memory will become indexed as a collective memory within the Palestinian culture, which will then be connected to Jewish rule of Jerusalem. No consideration in their operation is given to the understanding of the historical consequences of their operation. Literally, the short-term view does not have a long-term perspective. This is an "uncanny truth."
You can actually see this process happening online. If you go to Google Earth and turn on 3D models, and "fly to" Kalandia, you will see a 3D model of Kalandia checkpoint and the wall. Ask yourself why are people spending their time 3D modeling the Israeli military apparatus at Kalandia?
There are some very simple short-term programmatic, functional and behavioral adjustments that can immediately improve conditions for Palestinians and start to make Israel safer, as well. There is no security reason not to implement them immediately.
All IDF soldiers that work at checkpoints should speak Arabic. The time it takes to pass through the checkpoints should be reduced from hours to minutes. Israeli citizens and media should be allowed to visit Kalandia. Israeli ambulances should be able to operate at Kalandia. The pedestrian and automobile conflicts outside of the checkpoints should be removed so that entering the checkpoint on foot is safe. Standardized architectural code should be adhered to. All the signs should be clear and readable in Arabic, Hebrew and English. There should be accommodations and express entry for people with medical issues, elderly, infants and young children. Any space that sees thousands of people every day needs functioning bathrooms and working water fountains. There needs to be daily maintenance to clean floors, remove garbage and maintain bathrooms.
In Israel, certain places that are very close have perceived distances that are so great that they prevent even the idea of traveling there. Kalandia is such a place, but on a map Kalandia is only 6 miles from the Old City.
Next time you visit Israel, go. Next time your friends visit Israel, ask them to go. Next time your Rabbi visits Israel, insist they go and report back to the community.
This is how you get there.
Go to the the East Jerusalem Central Bus Station across from the Damascus Gate in the Old City. Take bus number 18 that goes to Ramallah and ask the driver to let you off at Kalandia. When you get off the bus at Kalandia, before entering the checkpoint, I recommend taking a walk along the wall so that you can see what other visitors are saying about Israeli treatment of Palestinians on the world's largest protest canvas.
The term "Existential Threat," which has been used in response to Iran developing a nuclear weapon is a perfect phrase to describe the long-term threat to Jews everywhere because of Israelis' mistreatment of Palestinians at Kalandia checkpoint. Jews have built a machine so toxic that it even makes the people who operate it sick with an illness that has infected Israeli society, as evidence by the lynching of Jamal Julani and a 12-year-old boy who throws Molotov cocktails at passing taxis. How else can you possibly explain this behavior?
As a North American Jew, reading this, please consider that if your support of Israel is uncritical across the board, that makes you culpable for perpetuating the conditions at the Kalandia checkpoint. Your behavior gives the Israeli government permission to act in ways that are antithetical to your Jewish values. I believe that if North American Jews demanded change, the Israeli government would be forced to change.
The reason I'm sharing my experiences about Kalandia is so that the moment Rosh Hashanah is over you can act with purpose and work within existing and established Jewish organizations and structures and also leverage your own network that supports Israel to demand more humane treatment of Palestinians at the Kalandia checkpoint. Because of what I have witnessed and experienced firsthand, I understand that if you care about Israel you must also care how Israel treats Palestinians.
I encourage you to act with a sense of urgency on the issue of Kalandia, because while your life might not depend it, the lives of Jews in future generations certainly will.
Shana Tova 5773.