December 11, 2001 Update

Letters from Israel

Tuesday, December 11, 2001

Dear family and friends,

Sunday evening, the first candle of Hanukah, I attended a grand ceremony at a local high school on the occasion of its renaming in honour of the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The ceremony was in many ways a peace rally. On the stage a wall had been decorated with peace slogans, quotes from Rabin and artistic graffiti, just like the walls of the Tel Aviv square where Rabin was assassinated by a lone gunman six years ago. "Peace will be victorious", "Let the sun rise", "Only peace", "Tolerance, co-existence and dialogue are the way", "The nation supports peace", "For me peace means no hate, only love and happiness", "We always seek the dove", "A strong nation makes peace" and "Peace is compromise".

Speaker after speaker passed on a similar message, from the guest of honour, Rabin's daughter and deputy defence minister Dalia Rabin-Filosof, to the headteacher, local education ministry officials and various parents.

There was something surreal about the whole thing. The area around the school was tightly cordoned off, and Dalia Rabin was escorted in by a posse of heavily armed border guards who then took up positions around the room. With the current security risks no one was taking any chances. In the middle sat the audience, on the stage the peace wall, and above a screen showed continuous footage from Yitzhak Rabin's life, focusing on his years as prime minister, including his famous handshake with Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn and his receiving of the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Arafat. Arafat is fighting a war against us, the armed guards were there because of his war, and we were sitting there celebrating the nonexistent peace. It felt as though no one in the room had heard the news for the past 14 months.

And yet in context it was not so weird. As I wrote last time, people here are hungry for peace and many are not prepared to hastily relinquish the sweet dream that Israelis have clung to these past 8 years. The children performing peace songs and readings that evening have known nothing but the Oslo years. Last night their teachers and senior education ministry officials promised that they will continue to teach this peace curriculum as part of the legacy of the late Prime Minister Rabin.

No one knows the horrors of this war like Deputy Defence Minister Rabin-Filosof, yet she too made it quite clear that her eyes were on a future peace. "You can either be with the pessimists who say there is no hope, or you can be an optimist and believe that there will be peace" was a common theme running through all the speeches. There may be war now, but children here are still being trained for peace and dialogue with the enemy.

This week, Hanukah, marks three years since Jason and I moved to the ancient-new town of Modi'in. By the standards of Modi'in we are almost old timers; the modern city is less than six years old. In the context of history we are only the latest generation of Jews who have made our homes in this historic region.

More than any other place, Modi'in is associated with the Festival of Lights. Ancient Modi'in was home to the Maccabees or Hasmoneans, the priestly family who led the Jewish revolt against Greek Seleucid rule in the second century BCE. Hanukah celebrates their victory over the tyrannical Antiochus and their liberation of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Subsequently, they founded a dynasty of Judean kings which ruled until the Roman takeover in the first century CE.

This Hanukah is extra special for Modi'in, as the town celebrates officially being designated a city, with the population now over 35,000 residents. A variety of special events are planned this week to mark Modi'in's new status. Prime Minister Rabin laid the foundation stone for the city in 1993, not long after he laid the foundations for the Oslo Accords. It is thus fitting that this city which was born under Rabin's premiership should have a school named for him.

Later Sunday evening, the first in what it is hoped will be a series of annual seminars about the region's history was held. Like the school naming ceremony, the first lecture was linked both to Rabin and Hanukah. Rabin was amongst the Israeli commanders who fought in this area during the War of Independence in 1948. Back then Jerusalem was under siege. Already the Arab armies, led by Jordan's Legionnaires, had captured the Jewish villages to the north and east of Jerusalem: Neve Ya'akov, Beit Ha'arava and Atarot. Gush Etzion, the Jewish area to the south of Jerusalem, had also fallen to the Jordanians, as had the Old City, the ancient heart of Jewish Jerusalem.

In an attempt to break the siege on Jerusalem, a massive military campaign was launched. Codenamed Operation Danny, its objective was to link the beleaguered Israeli communities that lay between the Tel Aviv area and Jerusalem, creating a safe corridor to bring supplies to the city. Some of the most crucial battles of that campaign were fought in the Modi'in area, battles that decided the very future of the nascent state and prevented the Jews of western Jerusalem from suffering the fate of those killed and expelled from the areas which fell to the Arab armies.

As the lecturer noted, it is particularly fitting to retell this story on Hanukah. The Maccabean uprising against the Greeks was launched in Modi'in with the aim of redeeming Jerusalem; in 1948, the battle for Modi'in was crucial in defending Jerusalem.

Moving from the modern to the ancient, the second lecture of the evening was by an archaeologist who has excavated Modi'in-area sites from the Hasmonean and Bar Kokhba periods. The Bar Kokhba rebellion, the last great Jewish revolt against Roman rule, took place three centuries after the Hanukah story and also began in the Modi'in area. The archaeologist described the secret tunnels and caves used in those days by the rebels. In some of those caves, including one in modern Modi'in, coins were found which had been minted by the rebels. They were inscribed in ancient Hebrew with the legends "for the freedom of Jerusalem" or "Jerusalem, the Holy City". Again, Modi'in was vital for the defence of Jerusalem.

He also showed diagrams explaining the excavations currently taking place on the edge of town. Recently an ancient synagogue has been found dating back to the Hasmonean era, making it one of the oldest synagogues ever found. (Last summer I went with a few friends to watch the dig in progress) If funding is obtained, the site will hopefully be properly preserved and developed for visitors to see the treasures unearthed from ancient Modi'in.

One family who won't be together to enjoy all these special Hanukah events in Modi'in are the Nachembergs. The mother of the family, Chana, was seriously wounded in the bombing of the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem last August. She remains in a coma, now in a longterm care facility in Tel Aviv. Last week I met her parents for the first time at a pre-Hanukah gift fair in Modi'in. Such warm, gentle people. They said that Chana is gently being weaned off the respirator, and they recently took her little girl, Sarah, to see her for the first time since the bombing. Little Sarah played with her crayons by her mother's bedside. I'm not in the habit of making appeals, but anyone with a little time is invited to visit the website a family friend made for Chana. The family need all the support they can get. Bring this family some Hanukah warmth. Please visit:

I was just getting to bed that night when I heard the news of another shooting in our area. A young man from Dolev, a Jewish village northeast of the Modi'in area, was shot in the spine while driving home on a local road. He's now hospitalised in serious condition, but responding well to treatment. Tracks from the ambush site led to the Palestinian village of Harbata, just north of Modi'in, close to the town of Kiryat Sefer. I've lost count of the number of similar attacks which have taken place on that road, a small local route, used mainly by residents of the villages of the northern Modi'in area.

Happy Hanukah from Modi'in, the home of the Maccabees.


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Copyright 2001 by Leiah Elbaum.