A Bareheaded Rabbi in Palestine

I’m sorry to ask, but could you take that off of your head?” my tour guide asked, as I stepped off the bus.

We were standing in the heart of Palestine, and I wished to neither offend others nor endanger myself, so I complied. I stood bareheaded in Rawabi, the first modern city to be built in Palestine. I’d been here before, amazed at the scale of the building project, the businesses and hi-tech work spaces, the 3-D movie theaters and enormous amphitheater. I’d met Bashar Masri, the founder of Rawabi, several times before, and have left each time inspired by his vision of a modern, secular Palestinian city. Rawabi gives me hope that the typically dysfunctional and often belligerent Palestinian and Israeli leadership wouldn’t have the last word on the prospects for peace.

Our tour guide this time was a wonderful young man, eloquent and sophisticated, warm and inviting. He spoke of the tolerant and liberal democratic community they are creating, how people of different backgrounds and religions would be welcome.

Then he asked me to take off my kippah.

I took it off, stunned by the request.

Just hours earlier, my AIPAC Progressive Rabbinic Mission visited Ramallah to meet with Saeb Erekat, Secretary General of the PLO, and to learn from Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. We were instructed by our staff to not wear kippot while in Ramallah, so as to not spark any violence in Ramallah by wearing kippot typically worn by Israeli settlers. I never remove my kippah, but this was a case of pikuach nefesh, preserving life, and I understood its need.

I did not expect this to be the case in a decidedly modern Palestinian city.

When Yaakub (I’ve changed his name) asked me to remove my Kippah, he did so respectfully, and politely. There was no malice, neither in his tone nor in his language. That only made it slightly less bad.

I gave thought to why he might have made this request, why it was deemed necessary. We were, after all, a group of tourists in a new city-project that hosts groups spanning the Jewish world: AIPAC, J-Street, Jewish Federations, and Synagogues all bring groups to marvel at the spectacle and vision of a well-planned and funded Palestinian city. It is a place that gives me hope. That hasn’t changed. I’m not sure anything really has. But I wasn’t invited as the Jew that I am to be part of the wonder. I had to leave part of me behind to be welcomed.

Perhaps it was a question of safety in Rawabi, where Palestinian workers from all around the West Bank might see my kippah as provocative, given their surroundings. Maybe the built up resentment of Rawabi’s residents and visionaries, given Israel’s history of delaying the project with limited access to water and permits led to the request. Maybe it isn’t even a policy, but Yaakub’s concern for me, a decision he made on the spot.

Least likely, but never far from my old Jewish heart, it might simply be that Jews aren’t welcome in this modern Palestinian city. Perhaps it isn’t Jews that aren’t welcome, per se, but rather outward signs of Jewishness. There are a few Israeli companies participating in the tech start-ups at Rawabi, and soem young Jews have apparently participated in internships and fellowships there. But there is no Hebrew anywhere in the city (though I did spy sacks of concrete with Hebrew names of Israeli companies in some of the unfinished construction sites). It clearly isn’t some Judenrein (free of Jews) nightmare from the Jewish past I experienced, but being asked to remove my kippah and walk bareheaded by a spokesperson for an emergent example of liberal, democratic society was simply shocked me.

I contemplated this while walking around Rawabi’s beautiful streets. I recalled some of the income inequality statistics Shikaki and other Arab Israeli civil activists shared with us, about the political realities in the West Bank, of the impact of occupation on generations of Palestinians, and remembered that I was experiencing a society vastly different from the Israeli world just miles away, a world I know far, far better. I called to mind the bitterness and resignation of Erekat, a career negotiator for a broken political system, Chief Negotiator and Secretary General of a Palestinian government elected to a 3-year-term over 11 years ago. I closed my eyes and saw again the Rachel checkpoint I visited this morning, where thousands of Palestinian workers are screened by Israeli security Police on their ways into Israel to find work, a daily experience that is frustrating at best and degrading more often. The reality of all I’d witnessed today began to sink in.

And I realized: All I was asked to do was take off my Kippah. I was a visitor. I was invited on a very special tour of a very special place. Yes, I didn’t like it. But I wasn’t being forced to do anything. I am free to come and go. I was granted a privileged audience with the founder of a billion-dollar project. We rabbis were blessed to witness a grand unfolding, envisioned by a native child of Palestine who is devoting his life and skill to advancing his People’s national dream through a combination of spectacular architecture, international investment, start-up entrepreneurship, and cosmopolitan culture.

As the visit tended, I shook Yaakub’s hand and thanked him for the tour. He took me aside and apologized for asking me to remove my Kippah. I said to him, “I don’t understand why it was necessary to take off my Kippah, but I appreciated how gently and politely you were.” He smiled and welcomed me to return someday soon.

Then he handed me his business card. We’ll be in touch.

I really didn’t like taking off my Kippah. But, 30 minutes later, it was back on my head as I boarded my air-conditioned bus and I headed to visit an Israeli settlement and bear witness to their story, too.

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