Galilee Diary: Dropping in on the neighbors
The Sanhedrin was exiled … from Yavneh to Usha, from Usha to Shefaram, from Shefaram to Bet She’arim, from Bet She’arim to Zippori, from Zippori to Tiberias…
-Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 31b
The Hebrew-Arabic web magazine, www.dugrinet.co.il, sponsored by our educational center, recently presented another Friday morning Galilean excursion, to the Arab city of Shefaram. The focus was “Jewish Shefaram;” our guide was a local Orthodox tour guide who specializes in tours aimed at “strengthening Jews’ connections to their roots in the Land of Israel.” About thirty of us gathered on a beautiful, sunny morning, at a gas station at the entrance to the town. We put flags on our antennae, consolidated cars to some extent, and set off as a caravan into the winding, congested streets of the old core of Shefaram. Our first stop was the roof of the massive citadel, built in the 18th century by Daher el Omar, a Bedouin leader who managed to carve out a semiautonomous fiefdom in the Galilee for a few decades – and whose rule was characterized by enlightened policies regarding economic development and minorities. Remnants of his fortifications can be seen in cities and villages throughout the region. We met there with the vice-mayor, who spoke of the town’s history, geography (sprawling), and demographics (about 35,000 people: 60% Muslim, 25% Christian, 15% Druze, whose separate neighborhoods spread out in different directions around the citadel) – and who dwelt on its “Israeliness,” which seemed to refer to the lack of inroads made there by the Islamic movement, and to its integration into the general secular culture of the country. He pointed out the impressive music center, and mentioned the annual international pantomime festival. And he spoke of the Jewish history of Shefaram, dating back to the Second Temple period.
From there we walked a few blocks to the synagogue, marked by a large sign. Villages all over the Galilee included Jewish populations from ancient times up to the 20th century; these were neither Ashkenazim nor Sefardim, but “Mista’arvim,” Jews who adopted the local Arabic language and culture while continuing to live an Orthodox life style. These communities dwindled in the 20th century both on account of rising tensions and because of the economic attractions of the cities. Shefaram’s last Jewish family left in the 1920’s, leaving the synagogue key with a Moslem family, who made sure to preserve and protect the building over the years. It functions today as a sort of informal museum and a testament to a heritage of coexistence.
Our last stop was on the outskirts of town, at the tomb of Rabbi Judah ben Baba, one of the “ten martyrs” of the Hadrianic persecutions; according to tradition he was executed by the Romans nearby for violating the prohibition of ordaining rabbis.
An interesting conversation developed, both on-line and on the tour, as to the “message” of such a visit, which could be:
1. A reaffirmation of our roots here, a statement that we were here all along, that we never gave up our claim, never abandoned the land – and never will. Thus, our presence in Shefaram could be seen as an act of Zionist assertion, reminding ourselves and the Arabs that this land is and has always been ours. Thus, some see such tours as important and praiseworthy, while others are uncomfortable with them.
2. A reminder that we lived together here harmoniously in the past and can do so in the present. A Jewish “roots tour” in Shefaram is simply that: tourism, helping the economy, bringing people together, finding a shared past and a present opportunity for positive interaction and cooperation.
I don’t know if it is a blessing or a curse that even just walking around in this country has to have ideological meaning.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah.