Reflections on a dig and a village by Brian Bronfman 

The group’s third day in Israel – Sunday, March 1st – started with a fun surprise and finished with thought-provoking interactions.  The two experiences were linked by one thing: the coronavirus… but don’t worry, nobody in or near our group got ill.  Here’s what I mean.

Our day was meant to begin with a tour of the Soda Stream factory, but we learned the previous day that it had been cancelled by the company, along with all other tours, because of their fear that visitors could bring in the coronavirus, especially given that even a possibility thereof could shut down the company through quarantine.  Scrambling for a replacement activity, our guide Noam along with Rabbi Grushcow came up with a surprise activity: digging in the ruins of an actual archeological site!  And this was legitimate: tour groups dig with spades and use other equipment including sifting tools in a search for fragments of pottery, bones (from food), charcoal, and other things.  The work is done in caves that were homes from 2000 years ago (100 BCE).  They had belonged to people who didn’t want to convert to Judaism and when being forced to do so, simply took off, leaving a series of abandoned homes behind them.  The fact that there was an effort to force their conversion also led to a discussion of the extent to which Judaism, which for centuries has prided itself on being a non-proselytizing religion, may historically have been so, at least if you go far back enough in time or at least to certain specific eras.

The caves in which we dug and searched had chalk surfaces – the ground was quite smooth and rather sticky, leaving mud clinging to everyone’s footwear.  As I understand it, this dwelling dated back to the time of the Maccabees, in the Post-Hasmonean period.  We were actually digging in basements of a very wealthy community that had made its fortune through olive oil, which was used in food, cosmetics, and pharma (for skin care).  The story behind the caves, built from civilizations developing and collapsing, reflects the diversity of the land that’s always existed, with interactions between Jews and non-Jews, sometimes peaceful and sometimes not.  Ours was one of 5000 Idumean caves, carved for storage, shelter and safety.  This was a really fun activity, and something more unique than what had originally been planned.  Our group found many pieces of pottery, some of which were quite sizeable, along with little bones and other “treasures,” topped off by a particularly important find: a round object that was likely either a button or a stamp… which won’t be known until it – along with our other finds – get sent to specialists who will analyze the material and determine what items are worth of being kept and catalogued.  What a cool morning!

We then travelled to the Bedouin town of Lakiya.  There we started with a visit of the Community Centre, whose central tasks include overseeing the community’s sports and recreation, crisis management, offering paramedic and first aid training, and acting as a place for open dialogue among residents.  The latter is appropriate for a town whose name means, “the Meeting Place.”  Lakiya’s deputy mayor spoke to our group, as did the head of the Community Centre.  They explained the situation for the community, which pays its taxes but which receives highly inadequate services from the state in return.  As an example, the average student in Lakiya receives 8 times less in financial support for his or her education than the equivalent Jewish Israeli student.  The result of these inequalities is a community that struggles and that feels like second-class citizens, a shame because Lakiya wants to live in peace and harmony, and wants to contribute and feel true belonging to the state of Israel.  The positive side is that our group could see the potential for this contribution and belonging.  At present, starting with the garbage lying in the street – the first thing you notice upon arrival – through the ramshackle dwellings found scattered in the town and especially the “unrecognized” portion of it, there is still a long way to go in order to get there.

And yet, the amazing resilience of Lakiya’s residents is clearly evident when hearing the words of people like Dr. Amal Alsana, Ph.D., who now lives and works in Montreal as the director of the McGill-based International Community Action Network (ICAN), but who grew up in Lakiya and happened to be there doing post-doctoral research.  Amal spoke to our group in very moving and captivating terms, describing her childhood as one of 11 kids in her family, her fight for rights and positioning within that family unit, and her subsequent efforts to achieve the same thing for women in her community, for Bedouins in Israel, and for peace and human rights in general.  Amal’s story was told at Temple as part of last year’s Yom Kippur services.  She, along with other leading women from her community, spoke to us with words and emotions that will stay with our group forever.  One of the women summed up the community’s priorities as, “More education, less violence.”  Amal also led us through a short tour of the town.  And that is where coronavirus comes in again.  We were supposed to stay overnight with some of Lakiya’s residents (mostly Amal’s extended family), but one potential host expressed fear of our bringing coronavirus into their community.  The WhatsApp chat that ensued among community residents led to these overnight stays being cancelled (we stayed at a local kibbutz instead).  It also led to an experience that took place when Amal took us up a hill to overlook the town and see the difference between the recognized parts of Lakiya and the part that was unrecognized and unserved by the government.  As we stood on the hill, a series of young children (elementary school aged) started approaching us, some of whom were covering their mouths with their shirts or their hands, and some of whom were saying “corona.”  These young people were fearful of us, and weren’t too thrilled that we were there.

Amal spoke to them in Arabic – as she explained, it was in a respectful way that didn’t antagonize them or exacerbate the situation.  As the children came closer, an interesting thing happened:  they started to see behind their fear, began to smile more, started saying, “Salaam” (hello) to people, and began asking questions.  When Gail took out her iPhone to show them pictures of the igloo that she had built in her backyard, and Simon and I followed suit by showing them winter scenes the likes of which they had never imagined, the barriers were broken and the kids were all excited to meet us and interact with us.  Eventually, they left for home with smiles and good-byes, their entire perspective of these threatening strangers turned around through interaction and dialogue.  Through several experiences sitting in the open tents that Rabbi Grushcow has often talked about, and through this experience with the children of Lakiya, the value and role of dialogue and interaction in breaking down barriers, creating understanding, dismantling stereotypes, and building peace has been tangibly felt through this trip, and we are all the better for it.