A Jewish Response to Israeli Checkpoints

The Israeli army restricts Palestinians’ freedom of movement for the sake of security. How can we strike a balance between serving one people’s freedom at the cost of another’s?

Emil Salman

When I, as an Israeli Jew, approach a checkpoint in a vehicle, I may have to wait, I may have to answer some questions, I may have to open the trunk for inspection; all before I pass through on my way to my destination. The feeling I have is of minor inconvenience balanced by acceptance of a reasonable price to pay for security.

That is not the case for Palestinians living outside the 1967 borders.

I met Sam Bahour last month whilst on an Encounter trip to Bethlehem, where he related his story. Bahour was born in Youngstown, Ohio, to a Lebanese-American mother and a Palestinian father who immigrated to the United States in 1957. His father and generations before in his family were born in Palestine, on land in Al-Bireh, next to Ramallah. Bahour has a degree in computer technology from Youngstown State and an MBA from a joint program between Northwestern University and Tel Aviv University.

Since relocating back to his ancestral home, he has been part of a group that founded Palestine Telecommunications Company. As a businessman coordinating telecommunications networks in the region, Bahour depends on face-to-face meetings with clients and contacts, traveling back and forth between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Initially and for 15 years, as an American citizen, Bahour traveled in and out of Israel on his U.S. passport with a tourist visa. He would periodically have to leave the country and return to renew his status. He married a Palestinian woman and they built a home in Al-Bireh, where they have two daughters. In 2006, his passport was stamped with “last permit” which left him with an impossible choice: leave or overstay his visa. With the help of Israeli friends, Bahour joined the Campaign for the Right to Enter and succeeded in making his case for permanent residency, which the Israel Defense Forces ultimately granted.

In an article for Cleveland.com, Bahour writes:

“[A]s a U.S. citizen who for 15 years traveled at will, I was now, for Israeli purposes, classified as a Palestinian. The day I was given my ID card, I lost my freedom of movement. Today, the only way to get to Jerusalem, Israel or my Israeli alma mater, Tel Aviv University, is to make a request to the Israeli military for a permit, which is rarely granted.”

Bahour told us he has diabetes, the side effects of which make waiting in line for up to several hours under cramped conditions particularly uncomfortable. After he crosses the checkpoint by foot, someone has to wait to pick him up or he has to take public transportation.

As Bahour finished relating his story, he expressed his frustration with the marathon of just living. In conclusion, he challenged the group I was with to “be Jewish.”

What did he mean?

"Palestinians and Israelis are bound by religion, history and fate to live on the same land,” he explained to me in a phone conversation after the trip. “That ‘living’ must be decoupled from the notion that either side has the exclusive right to dominate the other. It is in this spirit that I work day in and day out to help my people see the future through a lens free from occupation and to help Jews whom I cross paths with to see the present as inseparable from Judaism's pillar of social justice."

My wife Debbie, our three children and I arrived in Israel in 1996, within a year of when a Jew had assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. This was also a time when Palestinian suicide bombers were regularly blowing themselves up on buses along with innocent bystanders. Our family knew people who were killed in attacks. Our girls’ schoolmates and immediate family members of their classmates were murdered.

With the completion of the security fence separating Jerusalem from the West Bank, our lives regained a sense of normalcy, which we highly value and for which we have much gratitude.

From a Jewish perspective, how are we to balance the competing values of protecting ourselves and safeguarding the needs and rights of the other who dwells among us? Where does reasonable security end and the degree to which we can restrict the movement of another people begin?

The principle of din rodef, as presented in the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, allows for preventing and even in extreme cases killing someone who is pursuing you. The Rambam, Maimonodes, is firm that to take the life of someone who could have been stopped with lesser means is murder. Even without a Sanhedrin (Supreme Court from Temple times) to enforce din rodef, from a Jewish values perspective, the implication is very clear: We are responsible to only do what is required to protect ourselves – and no more.

We are reminded and enjoined many times in the Torah, and with particular relevance as Passover approaches, to love the ger, the other, to look after the needs of widows and orphans, those less fortunate than us, because we know in our kishkes, deep in our innards, what it feels like to be oppressed. It is our obligation. Nowhere is it written that the ger has to love us.

I am troubled that I do not have satisfactory answers to my questions. However, as at our Passover Seders, sometimes the questions are more important than the answers.

For a moment though, think about approaching a checkpoint. Imagine what it might feel like not to be in one’s car but on foot, to wait, be interrogated, perhaps wait some more, all the time wondering when or even if you will come out the other side. And then, contemplate whether this is really what we need to live securely.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.