Jun. 17, 2009

Just three weeks before the reading of the Torah portion about Balak, the king of Moab (Numbers 22-24), former US president Jimmy Carter visited Gush Etzion. In that Torah portion we read about the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam, who was asked by King Balak to curse the nation of Israel, as he feared “this people [who have] come out of Egypt… cover the face of the earth, and they dwell across from me…”

Refusing Balak’s offers of honor, Bilaam, who wished not to bless Israel but to curse it, says that he can only say the words that God puts into his mouth, and adds, “Even if Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God,” a comment that Rashi says indicates Bilaam’s mind-set of avarice.

Finally, God allows Bilaam to make the trip. A long and fascinating digression follows about his donkey and an angel in his way, but the bottom line is that, much to Balak’s shock and horror, Bilaam (to his own surprise) blesses the people of Israel, for those are the words that God puts into his mouth.

Carter paid his visit to Gush Etzion 61 years after it fell to the Jordanians, 42 years after its children returned to rebuild, 30 years after the signing of the Camp David accords between Menahem Begin and Anwar Sadat (the highlight of Carter’s career) and two years after the publication of his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, sharply critical of Israel.

But most significantly, his visit came one day after receiving the “Palestine International Award for Excellence and Creativity” from the Palestinian Authority, in an award ceremony at which he declared, according to The Jerusalem Post, “I have been in love with the Palestinian people for many years… I have two great-grandsons that are rapidly learning about the people here and the anguish and suffering and deprivation of human rights that you have experienced ever since 1948.”

Some of the residents of Gush Etzion were nonplussed at the idea of having a visit from Carter. What could be accomplished by hosting a man who has so maligned us?

He was to visit the Neveh Daniel home of Shaul Goldstein, the head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council. My first question was, “Why not Kfar Etzion, where the returning children found scraps of Torah scrolls that had been burned by the marauding Arab armies?” And why not show him the exact area that was settled in the 1920s, then abandoned in the 1930s due to Arab hostility, then dismantled after Arab riots, resettled in the 1940s and finally, again, in 1967?

I wanted Goldstein to show him the bunker into which in 1948 Arabs threw grenades that killed the wounded who were huddled there. Most of the others, men and women, had died fighting; a handful were taken into Jordanian captivity. Only the mothers and children had been evacuated months earlier, to Jerusalem.

Some Gush residents didn’t want Carter to set foot near any of our quiet communities. Local e-mail postings were fiery with demands that Goldstein not meet with someone who has expressed such virulent anti-Israel opinions. Other opinions ranged from “it’s best to ignore him” to “he hasn’t been president for 28 years.” One man wrote, after the visit, “I’ve always said that we should reach out and provide hospitality to VIPs, diplomats and reporters.”

A CASUAL BROWSING of the Carter Center Web site reveals that as recently as 2007 Carter gave an address at Brandeis University in which he demonstrated extreme and total ignorance about the geography, demographics and even traffic patterns of the area, when he said about Judea and Samaria, “…their choice hilltops, vital water resources and productive land have been occupied, confiscated and then colonized by Israeli settlers. Like a spider web, the connecting roads that join more than 200 settlements in the West Bank, often for the exclusive use of Israelis, Palestinians are not permitted to get on those roads… This divides this area into small bantustans, isolated cantonments.”

Anyone who has traveled through Judea and Samaria would be astonished at those words. The roads are replete with both Jewish and Palestinian vehicles, and it is the Jewish communities – settled on barren land – that are isolated. In addition, there is abundant Palestinian land outside of the Jewish communities which is richly cultivated, and kilometers of land that lie fallow.

Realizing that Carter’s visit was a done deal, some Gush residents suggested creative ways to demonstrate. My favorite was that of one woman, who had seen a banner in Jerusalem with a large picture of a Native American and the words, “Let me tell you about land for peace!”

In the end, Carter came, and in addition to local officials, met with victims of Palestinian terror, like Sherri Mandell, whose son Koby, 13, was murdered in a cave near Tekoa, and Ruth Gillis, whose husband Shmuel, a hematologist from Hadassah University Medical Center, was shot dead on the road from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion. Goldstein spoke passionately about the history and roots of Gush Etzion.

At the end of his visit, Carter declared to TV cameras, “I think I’ve done more listening than talking this afternoon… This particular settlement area is not one that I envision ever being abandoned… this is part of the settlements close to the 1967 line that I think will be here forever.” Goldstein said, “He said he saw things here that he never saw before. He was never here before.”

Aye, there’s the rub. He (like many others) was never here before.

When Balak hears Bilaam’s blessings and asks, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and you have blessed them!” Bilaam replies, “Must I not speak that which the Lord put in my mouth?” Balak takes Bilaam to three different locations, each time hoping for a different outcome, but it is always the same. That which God has planned cannot be undone.

Bilaam’s blessings are some of the best known in Jewish liturgy and lore, such as the treasured, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! Stretching out like brooks, like gardens by a river… like cedars by water…” What an apt description of Gush Etzion.