One of the most difficult challenges posed by my life among the Palestinians is how to answer the question of whether I believe in God. Many of them are shocked and personally offended when the response is in the negative. Sometimes, to justify myself, I say, “I wish I could believe, but apparently, I’m already a lost cause.” At least I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut when people say “Allah will help,” “Allah will punish” or “Allah is with us.”
In the past, when I was taking notes about yet another family that had received a demolition order for their home from Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank, or yet another orchard or field that the Jewish democratic state had stolen from the Palestinians in broad daylight, I would spit out in frustration, “I don’t quite see Allah helping you.”
Go explain to a Palestinian that a sentence like that is a legacy of your Jewish parents, who while in Germany’s Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and the Shargorod Ghetto in Transnistria never even dreamed of looking for the lost God. And faced with people whose loved ones have been wiped out by an Israeli bomb, a drone-launched missile or a single bullet, I anyway stood speechless.
With time, I learned how to avoid lying while also not outing my heresy. But the eve of Yom Kippur is the most suitable possible moment not only for such an outing, but also for recounting the story of the late Shukriya Barakat from the village of Nabi Samwil, northwest of Jerusalem.
For decades, she resolutely battled every Israeli attempt to buy or steal or take over her land through every trick of forgery and fraud that the experts in Jewish redemption of the land could devise. She continued living in the village even after Israel destroyed its ancient houses one morning in 1971, and also after it declared the village’s lands a national park in 1995 and turned it into an archaeological Hasidic Disneyland.
She even continued living there after Israel severed the village from the rest of the West Bank and neighboring villages, like Beit Iksa and Al-Jib, in 2000, with the result that it was gradually emptied of all its young people, who couldn’t stand the draconian rules that forbade them to go through the checkpoint with more than one carton of eggs or necessitated months of waiting to secure an entry permit for someone’s new wife. Together with Hebron’s Old City, the destroyed villages of Latrun and the empty Jordan Valley, Nabi Samwil shows the continuity of Israel’s vision of expulsion and its modern tactics for implementing it. One Ramadan nine years ago, I sat under the domed roof of Barakat’s home and wrote down what she told me about the cruel forces that sought to empty the hilltop of its Palestinian residents. And suddenly she asked me, “Do you believe in God?”
I writhed, and finally decided to tell her what I was still doing back then – interviewing Israeli soldiers, mainly reservists, who had participated in the Cast Lead offensive in early 2009. I would go to them with Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of Breaking the Silence. And when we left those meetings, usually late at night, our heads stuffed with testimony, Shaul would sit in the car and quote a friend of his, who, like him, was raised in a religious Jewish home: “There’s no doubt that our place in hell is assured.”
Shukriya Barakat listened with interest, aimed a searching gaze at me and said, “I understand. You don’t believe in God, but you do believe in hell.”
This belief of mine has been bolstered more than once by a God-fearing Jew who observes the religious commandments. That is Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich. The Jews, he boasted in one of his Twitter spats with MK Ayman Odeh a few days ago, “have been the world’s most welcoming hosts since the days of Abraham our forefather, and therefore you [the Palestinians] are still here. At least for now.” Smotrich is just one of many. But when we warn the world that Israel’s messianic Jewish Zionist camp is fantasizing nonstop about a final expulsion of the Palestinians and preparing a hell on earth here, attorney Smotrich’s frankness provides us with the smoking gun.