June 11, 2021: Taybeh Junction. Texts and Photographs: David Shulman

I don’t know if you have seen a family living in terror.

Like Abu Odeh’s. It’s an extended family, with many children and grandchildren and cousins and collateral lines, like most Bedouin families. They live in the hills near Taybeh Junction, on the ridge overlooking the Jordan Valley. In good times—now a distant memory—there would be seasonal migrations, for example in the hot summer months; then back to their home base in the autumn, and later to winter quarters. This year, as the sun got hotter and the summer barley harvest approached, Abu Odeh set up his tents and sheep-pens at the top of a rocky hill not far from the junction—not in the cultivated wadi, where he would usually pitch them. He was afraid.  Last week, on June 7th, the Civil Administration arrived with its bulldozers and demolished everything— tents, sheep pens, watering troughs, solar panels, all the flotsam and jetsam of Bedouin life. They had no right to do it, even under Israeli law, even under the draconian rules of the Occupation. The family, along with their sheep and goats, was left without shelter in 40-degree-plus Centigrade heat. Several of our activists who witnessed the deed, and protested, were arrested.

But what the army did last week was only a small part of the story. You can read an earlier installment here. The true terrorists are the brainwashed, vicious teenage settlers and their no less vicious mentors in the illegal outposts that have sprung up nearby. Over the last weeks, they have several times come close to killing Arik Ascherman, who, through sheer, superhuman perseverance, has managed so far to save the lands for the rightful owners and the Bedouin renters.

Arik also sowed the wadi at Taybeh with seed, working mostly alone because the Bedouins are too frightened to come there. Recently they said to him, “Look what the settlers have done to you, a Jew and a Rabbi; just think what they will do to us.” They were very close to giving up, to migrating to somewhere far away. That would mean that the fertile fields in question would end up being stolen by the settlers.

It’s harvest time. The barley—what is left of it after the settlers repeatedly invaded the fields with their cows and sheep– has ripened. So who will harvest it? Not the Bedouins, because of the terror, even though we would be there beside them in the fields. But if the crop isn’t harvested, they will lose tens of thousands of Israeli shekels (the cost of fodder for the sheep), as happened last year and the year before. By the way, these Bedouin families are very poor; it’s a subsistence economy. That’s why we are here today—six Israeli Jews, harvesting in lieu of the shepherds and cultivators, at Arik’s initiative. It’s a first, something that cuts across one of the fundamental principles of Ta’ayush, from the beginning. We work side by side with the Palestinians, never in their place.

A field in Hebron, 2015. credit: Margaret Olin

You can see the dilemma. There was some debate. I thought it through. We are fighting literally for every millimeter of Palestinian land. The war is fought hour by hour on the micro-level, on the ground. We can’t let the Taybeh wadi and the rocky tableland above it be swallowed up. We will harvest with Arik and bring them the grain.

credit: Arik Ascherman

The last time I harvested in the early summer, in Jinbah in South Hebron, I had only a rusty sickle in my hand. This time the whole process has been upgraded. We have three motorized scythes that run on petrol. It’s still hard, heavy work and therefore satisfying. You grasp the long pole in the middle where your finger can press on the gas so the blades go into action.

Breugel, The Harvesters, 1565. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Still, like in the Brueghel painting, you sweep through the grain in an arc, cutting open a space in the field. The problem is that what is left after the settlers’ intrusions is maybe 20% barley and 80% thorns and straw, what the Bedouins call geshsh. For the first hour or so I try to cut the grain without the thorns that surround almost every sheaf. But it’s more or less impossible to maintain this existential distinction. Eventually, we decide that we will harvest barley, straw, and thorns alike, and the sheep and goats can decide what they want to eat of this dry blend. Goats, as I know from long experience, do relish the thorns; I’m not so sure about the sheep.

It’s hot, dusty—the chaff flies up toward your eyes—and we have to keep our eyes open in case a gang of violent settlers descends upon us. After a while, I mostly forget about them. Arik thinks they won’t come today. Behind me and the other two scythes come the rakers, who gather up what has been cut and stuff it into big plastic sacks. That’s also rough going; and you have to jump up and down on the sacks, from time to time, to compress the grain. By some odd law of physics, the more we cut and rake, the more there is left to do. The field in the wadi stretches toward infinity. After some hours, we’ve hardly made a dent. To complete the harvest of this one patch—about 450 dunams, that is some 110 acres—will take many days. Arik has volunteers working all day, nearly every day except Shabbat.

Maybe it’s those endless thorns, maybe it’s the Sisyphus-like sensation, given the constant threat—but at some point in the afternoon I say to Arik, “So the only thing standing between our Bedouin friends and their final expulsion by the settler thugs….”

Arik finishes the sentence: “….is us.”

There’s an interesting halachic problem that I am wrestling with. The Torah says, several times, that when one harvests a field, one must leave some sheaves behind, and also leave a corner of the field untouched, “for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow” to glean (Deuteronomy 24:19; Leviticus 23:22). By now I’ve become a raker, while Arik is on the scythe, shaving every last clump of grain in our patch, like a barber engrossed in the final touches of a haircut. There are still quite a few spots where barley sheaves remain standing. Should I pluck them by hand? Or am I supposed to leave them for the settler predators? But in this case, the poor and the vulnerable are the Bedouin shepherds for whom we are harvesting. I consult with Arik, who says it’s an interesting question, to which he has given some thought. Then he offers a ruling. There is, he says, anyway no chance that we could harvest every sheaf. So let us cut whatever little grain we find today.

By 3:00 it’s time to bring what we have harvested to Abu Odeh, now living a few kilometers down the road into the Valley. It takes three trips back and forth. The shack that serves as a granary is filling up. Abu Odeh carries himself with the breathtaking dignity of the Bedouin male. His son Odeh serves us tea. There’s another problem. Since the army destroyed the family’s encampment, herds of sheep are now living without shelter at the temporary site farther up the hill. There aren’t enough sheep pens; the first few nights after the demolition, father and son had to stay awake all night to keep the sheep from scattering over the slopes. What is worse, by day the heat is so overwhelming that the sheep are wilting in the sun and may not survive. There is an urgent need to build some simple structures to shield them, but this too costs money—a lot of money—and the work has barely begun. It’s been a long, hot day, I can’t think beyond my next sip of cold water, but Arik is fully concentrated on how to save these sheep. He discusses the plan with Odeh and his father. Arik wants to protect all living creatures, including the settlers who sought to kill him.

Spending a day with Arik is like studying the Talmud for a year. There is a single overriding idea—that every human being, indeed every being, was created in the image of God. I’ve heard him quote the verse many times. It’s not something Arik believes, the way a person might believe this thing or that thing. It is something he knows, and knowing, lives.

This week we saw our granddaughter Laila perform the role of the miller’s daughter in the classic Hebrew version of Rumpelstiltskin composed by Avraham Shlonsky for the stage. Laila has acting in her blood. Rumpelstiltskin, you’ll recall, is the imp who can spin straw into gold (for a price). I’ve known rather a lot of people who have the opposite talent of spinning gold into straw. Today I saw a good man making gold from barley and thorns.

I asked Arik as we worked if the harvest has convinced the Bedouins to abandon thoughts of leaving, and he said: “Yes, for now.” In the evening, when I told Eileen about this day, its doubts and satisfactions, she said: “You don’t have to ask that question. They have gained another year to live their lives on the land. And every minute of working the land is an act of resistance.”

credit: unknown

Text and photographs (except where noted) David Shulman © 2021

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