by Tali Ruskin
A few weeks ago, I was traveling with a group of 35 American tourists, a Palestinian bus driver, and a Palestinian tour guide from Jenin (a Palestinian city in the West Bank) to Nazareth (a Palestinian city inside the Green Line). When we came to the Jalameh checkpoint, the soldiers pulled us over to an area for additional screening, where we joined tens of Palestinians, most of whom were Israeli citizens on their way home from shopping, visiting relatives, or working.
What followed for the next fifteen minutes was a routine exercise in ethnic profiling, in which 20-year-old Jewish Israeli soldiers, armed with heavy artillery, are empowered to make decisions about who is or is not fit to pass. After taking the two Palestinians off the bus for interrogation, several more soldiers came onto the bus to check our passports. One soldier stood at the back of the bus, pointing his gun down toward one of the few people of color in our group, staring at him in silence (not unlike the 44 seconds of silence that Netanyahu performed for the UN). When they finally asked him for his passport and saw that it was not American, they did not simply glance at it and return it to him, as they had done with the rest of the group. “Why?”, they asked him. Why was he traveling with a group of Americans? Where had he been? What had he been doing? Who had he stayed with? Did he have family in Jenin? Eventually, they returned his passport to him, and told us to take all of our stuff and get off the bus to go through the metal detector.
As I approached the trailer that contained the metal detector and soldiers checking IDs, I saw a mezuzah posted on the entrance. My heart sank. At once, I felt shame, sadness, rage, and disgust. I explained to my fellow delegates that the mezuzah is a Jewish ritual object that contains a scroll on which the following words from the Torah are written:
“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the doorposts of thy house, and upon thy gates.” – Deuteronomy 6: 4-9
It is one of many objects intended to remind us of our love for God and to bring God’s presence into every space in which we reside.
The checkpoint is absolutely no place for a mezuzah. Whereas the checkpoint is a place which thrives off of and breeds a cycle of hatred, the mezuzah is an object whose purpose is to remind us to love. The presence of the mezuzah at the checkpoint is a stark manifestation of the exploitation of Jewish tradition that is used to justify institutionalized racism in Israel. As evidenced by the soldiers’ actions on our bus, the checkpoint functions as a piece of the complex matrix of policies and practices that value – and thus privilege – the lives of some human beings over others. The checkpoint is a place where people are empowered by their government and the silence of the international community to humiliate, harass, beat, and kill their fellow humans, utterly violating the foundational Jewish principle that every human being is created in the image of God.
That mezuzah did indeed serve as a reminder to me. It reminded me that many Palestinians only know Jewish rituals and practices as symbols of occupation and oppression. It reminded me that we have much work to do in rescuing Judaism, a religion grounded in love and justice, from being hijacked by Zionism, a political ideology that privileges the lives of Jews over non-Jews. It reminded me that my fight for justice must come from a place of love for humanity.