By Rabbi Giddeon D. Sylvester
[16 January 2014] - Life at a West Bank yeshiva was the closest thing to paradise I could imagine. Assured that our yeshiva would always remain part of Israel, we were oblivious to the conflict and the millions of Palestinians living around us. We simply enjoyed studying on a beautiful campus with gorgeous gardens. Nothing could have been more serene.
Last week, I got a glimpse of another side of West Bank life. Accompanying a group of lawyers from the British-Zionist group Yachad, I visited the military courts
outside Ofer Prison just a few minutes' drive from the heart of Jerusalem.
The word "court" conjures up images of grand edifices graced by lawyers in gowns making eloquent and persuasive speeches before distinguished judges. These courtrooms were very different. They were grimy, prefabricated trailers surrounded by a labyrinth of high walls and presided over by uniformed soldiers.
In the dock sat rows of teenage Palestinians, some of them handcuffed, all of them shackled. For the most part, their crimes were petty. The trials were conducted in Hebrew, a language they could not understand, but with the assistance of the clerk of the court who translated for them, one by one, they confessed to illegally entering Israel in search of work. None were suspected of terrorism. The soldier responsible for judging the cases was clearly bored as he handed down their prison sentences.
Between trials, lawyers scurried in to snatch a few words with their clients. In some cases, this was their first meeting. The rest of the prisoners took advantage of the break to gesticulate across the room to their anxious parents who were only permitted to sit at the back of the room.
Every few minutes, another round of shackled teenagers were ushered in for trial. One was accused of stone throwing. But his case ended abruptly when his defense lawyer protested that he had never seen the incriminating evidence; it had mysteriously disappeared. The young man was returned to jail until it could be recovered.
A 16-year-old boy was next up. He had already been charged with stone throwing; now shooting and bomb making were added to his indictment. Asked if he had anything to say, he shook his head and was escorted back to prison until his paperwork could be updated. I will never know whether "throwing stones" was a euphemism for what is often hurling lethal rocks. On the other hand, I will never know if "shooting and bomb making" was really what they did, or whether these were upgraded charges, a common way of forcing a plea bargain and a compromise over the sentence. As they were sent back to their prison cells, it was hard to know who was innocent and who was guilty among this seemingly endless line of young Palestinians, on trial for fighting the occupation or simply trying to feed their families.
For the British lawyers there was much to chew on; intricate discussions about the Geneva Convention, the rights of the child, and the legality of soldiers trying prisoners.
As an Israeli, I too am concerned for the security of my family, and that is my priority. Thus, I am grateful for the army that protects us. But watching these trials, the Middle East conflict reeked of the banality of evil. Where I had expected to see terrorists, I saw young kids, as fashionable and as cocky as my own. Instead of defiance and revolution, I saw rows of worried parents hoping to catch a glimpse of their children. And instead of tyrannical Israeli judges, I saw bored military bureaucrats.
In yeshiva, they promised that we were setting the stage for the imminent arrival of the messiah. But at the military court I did not witness a great battle of Armageddon, nor the wolf and the lamb lying down together. They weren't even practicing for their big day.
While politicians dither in peace negotiations, our courtrooms are filled with pawns playing out their roles in a far greater conflict; frustrated young Palestinians who sneak out of their villages to make a living or to vent their aggravation on the country that controls their lives, and soldiers charged with the impossible task of controlling and subduing them.
There is very little glory in any of it. The Messiah seems out of sight, and in the meantime, the ruffians, rogues, fanatics and bureaucrats are running the show, perpetuating their own stubborn, nationalist agendas, oblivious to each other's rights and talking war rather than seeking the compromises that all of us need to live side by side.
Someone, somewhere needs to bring justice and loving-kindness to this land, extinguishing hatred and preparing the lions and lambs to live together .
Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's rabbi in Israel He also serves as Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel for T'ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.