Galilee Diary: Behind Bars

Rabbi Elazar…encountered a very ugly man… and said to him, “How ugly you are! Is everyone in your town as ugly as you?” The man answered, “I don’t know, but go tell the artist who made me what an ugly vessel He created.” Rabbi Elazar …prostrated himself before the man and begged for forgiveness.
-Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 20a-b (for whole story and context, read more)

A few weeks ago I got a call from a social worker, a relative of a friend, who works in an Israeli prison; she called to ask me if I would volunteer to give a class in the context of the “Tolerance Week” being held in the prison, in observance of Yitzchak Rabin memorial day (a common theme in schools and other institutions around that day). She was particularly interested in the topic of Jews and Arabs, as the prison population is mixed. I said yes, then hung up and wondered why; I have no experience with prison chaplaincy – indeed I’d never been in a prison – and I had no idea what to expect or how to prepare. One idea I had, which the social worker liked, was to show a film clip of the Jewish-Arab youth circus and have a discussion about how common challenges can break down barriers. Fortunately I had other ideas in reserve, because when I got there there was no functioning DVD player. I also prepared the story quoted above, which deals with themes of stereotyping, acceptance of the other, authority, repentance, forgiving, and pride – all in a story with just three characters and a donkey, with a simple plot but layers of possible understandings. And as backup, I read up on Muzafer Sherif’s famous “Robbers’ Cave” experiment from the 50s, which I thought would make for an interesting conversation.

It turned out that the prison was actually a regional jail; i.e., not a facility for long-term incarceration, but one for holding men who are in various stages of processing and trial in the court system, from the north of the country. Thus, the population is not stable, with residency ranging from days to months. Some are innocent, some are guilty – of offenses minor to major. The population, like that of the Galilee, is about half Arab and half Jewish. Eight men in a cell, meals eaten in the cells, two exercise walks a day, everyone in civilian clothes. Because of the high turnover, there is not a serious work or education program, but various short-term activities and classes. The social worker commented that it is mostly the Arabs who opt to participate in these, for reasons she hasn’t figured out. And indeed, after she went around cell to cell and invited the men to a “lecture on acceptance of the Other,” the little classroom filled up with 15 Arabs and one Jew in the first cell block; in a session in a second cell block the ratio among the participants was about 2:1.

As the men settled in their seats I was thinking, am I really about to teach Talmud to Arabs in prison? Not the rabbinate I had prepared for. We did introductions, and it turned out that most of the men were from towns and villages not far from Shorashim, including several that I frequently visit. Neighbors. They loved the story, and had a lot to say about it as we went through it step by step. The discussion (in Hebrew, of course) was lively, the collective unpacking of the characters and themes of the story was thoughtful, and its relevance to everyday interpersonal relations as well as to larger social themes was clear to them with no prompting. We all had a good time.

In one group we had a few minutes left and I presented the “Robbers’ Cave” results (an experiment at a summer camp, showing that the best means for defusing intergroup conflict is a common challenge). The men agreed, and suggested that the difficult challenge of living in a prison forced the Jews and Arabs to stick together and get along. Not sure where to go with that metaphor.

In any case, I told the social worker I’d be happy to come again.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah, a daily e-mail on a topic of Jewish interest. Sign up now to add 10 minutes of Jewish learning to your life each day!

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Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

About Rabbi Marc Rosenstein

Marc Rosenstein grew up in Highland Park, IL, at North Shore Congregation Israel. His first visit to Israel was as a high school student in the first exchange of the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) program in 1962. He was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1975, and then served as assistant rabbi at Community Synagogue, in Port Washington, NY. Rabbi Rosenstein was a teacher and also a principal at the Solomon Schechter Secondary School in Skokie, IL. He also served as the principal at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, PA. In 1990, he made aliyah, moving to Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee, founded in the early 1980's by a group of young American immigrants. He is presently the director of the Israeli Rabbinic Program of HUC-JIR, as well as the director of the Makom ba-Galil, a seminar center at Shorashim that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence. Marc is married to Tami (originally from Waukegan, IL), a speech clinician working with handicapped infants and children. They have three children; Josh, Ilana, and Lev.

6 Responses to “Galilee Diary: Behind Bars”

  1. avatar

    “The social worker commented that it is mostly the Arabs who opt to participate in these, for reasons she hasn’t figured out. And indeed, after she went around cell to cell and invited the men to a “lecture on acceptance of the Other,” the little classroom filled up with 15 Arabs and one Jew in the first cell block; in a session in a second cell block the ratio among the participants was about 2:1.”

    Why is this so? Why so many more Arabs than Jews attending these talks? Just curious….

  2. avatar
    Gerald Fleischmann Reply November 28, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    Interesting that I came to this blog intending to address the same item: “The social worker commented that it is mostly the Arabs who opt to participate in these, for reasons she hasn’t figured out.”

    A few years ago, I visited Israel on a tour with my congregation from Southern California, the birthplace of Toastmasters International. Being a 15-year Toastmaster with deep interest in carrying its benefits to all, I was aware that in the Middle East there were 80 or so such clubs – all in Arab countries, but none in Israel. I’d inquired at TI Headquarters what the problem was with Israel, and they noted that several attempts had been made, but so far, none successful.

    I took with me about 20 pounds of Toastmasters magazines, brochures, pamphlets, and other marketing materials. I explained Toastmasters’ benefits and distributed all I had to hotel managers, some businesses, a college, and some of my wife’s mishpacha living near Jerusalem. With zero response.

    I came to the conclusion in speaking with many Israelis about Toastmasters that Israelis are overwhelmingly adept at speaking already. It’s the listening part that seem to be their short suit. The same mechanism may be operating in Israeli prisons. If so, I guess I’d have done better speaking with Israeli Arabs.

  3. avatar

    Mr. Fleischmann has a good point. Because Arabs comprise about 20% of Israel’s population, it is incumbent upon Israeli Jews to have a better understanding of their Arab minority. But I’m concerned also about Arab countries (e.g. Egypt, Libya, Iraq, etc.) that have no Jews left because of wholesale expulsion. Because there are no Jews any more in any of those countries, there is no incentive on the part of most Arab populations to gain a knowledge or understanding of either Israel or Jews in general. I’m afraid their prejudices and stereotypes of both Jews and Israel will persist for a long time to come.

  4. avatar
    Gerald Fleischmann Reply November 29, 2012 at 1:02 am

    I do agree with Mr. Clumeck that it will be a long time for prejudices to be overcome. I’m afraid holding on to our concern about the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands serves no positive purpose. My question is more along the lines of: How can more Arabs and Jews communicate better with each other? (I.e., speak AND listen to each other.) You might guess that my solution starts with enough Israelis taking a shot at learning more about the second half of that process, through Toastmasters. I believe that large numbers of Israeli Toastmasters alone is not sufficient condition for Middle East peace, but that it is a necessary condition for same. And right now, many Arabs in many countries have a significant head start on Israel in this regard. They are among a quarter million members in 116 countries around the world who are happily learning these skills and rising in the international ranks of that excellent organization.

  5. avatar

    “Holding on to our concern about the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands serves no positive purpose.”

    The problem with that is that most Arab populations outside Israel are fed an unending stream of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel vitriol. Many young people in the Arab world grow up hearing that Jews are “alien” to the Middle East, among other lies. Some are completely unaware that Jews ever even lived in their countries.

    In my opinion, peace means acknowledging everyone’s narratives. Everyone’s. To exclude the narrative of North African & Middle Eastern Jews is to erase history, and I see nothing positive in that.

  6. avatar
    Gerald Fleischmann Reply November 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    I must clarify. The issue here is: how are Jews to ever pierce the propaganda barrier that is built up and perpetuated by the Arab press, and sadly, that is abetted by far too much of the general mass media? We must not forget about it, but we cannot just hold on to it by ourselves in that isolation – that does no good. I believe there must be a middle ground where meaningful communication and understanding can take place.

    The Jewish-Arab Youth Circus is one such middle ground, but it seems like a rather expensive solution with only limited potential. Toastmasters Clubs not only encourage communication among adults, but also conduct Youth Leadership Programs for teens. These happen in classrooms or anywhere they can, at very low cost.

    I believe the Middle East is ripe for both Arab-Jewish adults and youth to take part in such exchanges of their narratives in Toastmasters’ mutually supportive, non-threatening, and friendly environment.

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