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Sermons at First Parish Church

A Plan for Existence, a Plan for the Sublime

Sunday, December 2, 2013
Joel Wool
First Parish Church of Groton

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to speak. I’m going to share some words that may not be easy to hear; all I ask is that you listen.

I had the pleasure of walking through the desert this summer (August 2013). For those who haven’t traveled there, let me assure you—the Holy Land isn’t all sand and scarcity. Like any place, it has its share of abundance.

Yet five miles north of Be’er Sheva, the largest city in the Negev, I found myself staring at the most unfathomable emptiness I’ve ever seen. This is Al-Araqib — an unrecognized Bedouin community.

If one were trying to prove that the imaginary landscape of camels, sand dunes and Ottoman bazaar the western world has painted over the entire Middle East were real, one might point to the Negev. This is also the place where many claim the Biblical injunction to make the desert “blossom as a rose” is coming true. A site of conflicting visions.

Humans have a funny way of seeding plenty where we want it to be, a mix of ingenuity and cruelty. Be’er Sheva is ancient, inhabited by empire after empire, and thriving. Israel’s “water city” has grand plans for reinventing the arid sands as paradisiacal garden, a blueprint repeated in Jewish National Fund projects across the region.

In the desert, ragged flaps of an abandoned tent whip back and forth in the wind. Valleys hold rubble from houses that once stood proud. A grove of strange shrubs are beginning to come up from the dirt; without a guide, the whole scene would be a complete mystery.

Fortunately, I’m not alone — the last family to reside here welcomes me to join them for coffee beneath a tent that looks much like the one in the distance. A young boy rides his horse over the crest of the nearest dune and plunges down into the curve of the hot sand. In the moment, he’s beaming.

These are the strongest people in the world.

Al-Araqib has become the focal point of the conflict here in the Naqab — the Arabic name for the desert. A government plan to resettle the Bedouin, the Prawer Plan, will displace as many as 40,000 Arab Israelis, full citizens, away from their traditional homes. They’ll be replaced by military bases, industrial facilities and new settlements, Jewish communities.

The family still staking out their claim to land in Al-Araqib camps out in the cemetery — the only place the government won’t touch — but leaves a single structure out in the contested area as a point of protest. The olive groves have been bulldozed as part of a plan that purports to green the desert. On Wednesday, November 20th, this village was demolished for the 57th time.

Before 1948, the Bedouin in the Negev were composed of eight big tribes, 100 clans, and a complex weave of relationships. Neither the British nor the Ottoman Empire recognized their claims to land, but they didn’t interfere, either. After 1948, things began to decline. Israel, in 1965, rezoned much of the desert as agricultural space — meaning no homes could be constructed; new homes could be put under demolition order.

Many Bedouin were relocated to seven townships over the course of the next twenty-five years. The original plan had called for a single, gigantic ghetto. Noticing resistance to resetting, the government put out a call for Bedouin to submit land ownership claims during the 1970s. All of the 3000 claims submitted were denied.

This ongoing struggle is often omitted from the media coverage of the area. To give one example, a November 17 article in the Boston Globe details the emerging water partnership between Massachusetts and Israel, a union sparked by Governor Deval Patrick’s visit to the Holy Land in 2011. The Globe paints a serene image of Yatir — an area forested in the last 50 years — and commenting on the country’s innovative water technology, quotes the director of a nearby winery: “This is the main war in Israel… the war against the desert.”

Missing from the article is a plan for the Yatir Forest released in 2011, the same year as the Governor’s visit, which marks two Bedouin communities as unoccupied territory. Residents who are denied “basic services including water, electricity and sewage” watch as illegal settlers arrive in a caravan financed by the Jewish National Fund and wait just outside their village. Within two years, the settler outpost has access to basic services and the Bedouin communities are approved for demolition.

How rarely do we contemplate the way the places we see began? Much less, the places we don’t see.

If we see only dust, it is miraculous to see cities arise from dust; if we see arid expanse, it is miraculous to find groves of trees emerging lush and green.

The neighborhood I call my home now, Dorchester, is an old neighborhood. Before it was annexed to Boston, and even after, it founded much of Boston. The country’s first public elementary school, the Mather School, and the city’s oldest religious congregation, First Parish Church in Dorchester, are just two examples. Later, it became many other things. A beacon of civil rights — Martin Luther King, Jr. called it his home for years in the 1950s. A working-class Jewish community.

If you read the papers today, you’ll read about violence that inures as if the very streets are inured to it — as if this were the site where wrath came into being, as if there were nothing but dust before it.

The Jewish community in Dorchester was thriving. A high density of synagogues, schools and delis, the vibrant promenade down Blue Hill Avenue, marked a richness that often goes unremembered. This was a strong community — not necessarily one wealthy or well-educated, not one free of tension, but one content and rooted.

That neighborhood changed. Hillel Levine’s Death of an American Jewish Community chronicles the immense consequences of Urban Renewal, and the intentional violence of banks and brokers that came along with it. Policies of redlining and blockbusting ushered in a shift that sent working-class Jews fleeing out of town and packed people of color into tight clusters, degraded housing, business districts without business. Levine takes his lens to Dorchester, but similar stories are told across the nation.

By limiting loans for African Americans to specific neighborhoods, lenders curtailed opportunities of a historically oppressed people. Meanwhile, real estate brokers staged break-ins that incited fear into the working class Jewish community, freeing up the housing stock.

Either we flee, or they kill us. Either we live here, or they live here.

Now, as the nation struggles to emerge from a housing crisis, there is a strange echo. Predatory loans and recession have resulted in the same neighborhoods across the country suffering from default, foreclosure and eviction. Alongside this — at least in Dorchester — come warning signs of gentrification: an influx of young people, students, artists (though there were many before), a shortage of housing.

Where is the plan that will allow people to exist together?

You can imagine the neighborhood might have difficulty finding luck with the press: even human-interest stories tend to focus on resilience rather than strength, on reaction instead of growth. It was vindicating for me, after a six-part Boston Globe feature on the incredible violence in the 68 Blocks at the center of Dorchester, to see a follow-up that focused on the redevelopment of a vacant lot into a hub for community. A place for potlucks, bicycle repair, urban gardening, art classes — a place for all kinds of people to come together.

When we allow communities to plan themselves, they grow, they flourish.

We get into danger when we succumb to the entropy of the world, believing “nothing makes sense” or, without questioning, that “everything happens for a reason.” Both of these theories operate on a frame of nothing — either there’s no explanation or there’s nothing we can do about it.

In Al-Araqib, the olive groves, the homes, the people, are gone. Accepting that erasure means accepting a worldview that whatever was, whoever was, is incompatible with what is coming.

It means denying our own complicity.

We in the United States are investing in, and profiting from, companies whose bulldozers take down homes and clear trees, whose staff design surveillance protocols and military technologies that are used to force innocent people off their land. Pension funds meant to care for seniors in retirement retain holdings like Caterpillar, the mechanical muscle behind home demolition.

We allow our own government to serve as a partner to these projects and others, provide unrestricted aid. I’ve focused my comments today on a few stories — but this aid has grievous effects on thousands of people who desire only peace.

Many Jewish families have charitably and nobly put blue boxes marked “Jewish National Fund” on their tables, given to a cause marketed as environmental, restorative, even transformative. It is painful for them, for me, to hear the destination of those dollars, to consider who had to be removed for that next tree to be planted.

This year, two days after Americans broke bread for Thanksgiving, activists worldwide took part in a “Day of Rage,” non-violent resistance to protest the displacement of thousands of Bedouin. And Jewish families lit candles for Hannukah — insisting that there is yet hope, that we can keep the light burning in dark times.

These candles are still burning. People are immensely strong. Yet many in this world are running out of time. They’re being erased from the map, planned out of existence.

We give so many reasons to avoid obligation, to excuse inaction. I don’t have the time, I don’t have the strength, or sometimes — I don’t know enough yet.

I’d ask only that you make a commitment to learn by doing, in the way that feels right for you. You can answer a call for aid by makinga sixty-second phone call to your elected officials; by looking critically at the investments you make and those of the schools, churches, workplaces you belong to; by supporting Israel/Palestine as a Congregational Study and Action issue for Unitarian Universalist churches nationwide. Right now the UUA is considering a curriculum of peace and human rights and every congregation has a vote to give.

Either them or us. If we cannot move on from Either / Or to a frame of growth, we’ll never be able to plan for existence, much less coexistence. To do that, we need to uproot, and defund, the structures that are forcing us apart.

My friend Rafat, a Bedouin activist, has a picture of himself wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, a symbol of vigilantism made iconic by the film V for Vendetta. But looking at the photo album — seeing him stand next to hundreds of outraged Bedouin — he hardly seems like a vigilante. He is, however, a symbol of resistance.

I joked to Rafat that this isn’t the first time Jewish people have been lost in the desert. Maybe the architects who designed a Blueprint for the Naqab just needed Moses to come lead them out of peril.

We’re in the wrong part of the Jewish calendar to be talking about Exodus, but the ideas of place and displacement raise up an essential moral struggle in the Land so many call holy and home.

The land where tear gas rolls over the sand dunes like fog.

The only land where bulldozers evolve from olives.

The hope for coexistence isn’t an illusion, it’s what happens when we pull back forces that are so afraid of harm or so intent on profit they become engines of destruction. When we pull back, we see growth, we see a sublime future.

In Al-Araqib, the boy whose name I’ve lost to the sands points past the invasive shrubs to another plant climbing its way out of the dirt. He only speaks a few words of English, so I don’t understand at first.

“That’s an olive tree,” he says. “Regrowing.”

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1 Powder House Road … P.O. Box 457 … Groton, MA 01450-0457 … 978-448-6307 …   …  

Created 2013-04-21