It is midnight. It is cold. We are headed in.
Olive green clad soldiers are on every street corner, armed to the teeth. Siren lights and a few dim streetlamps provide the only illumination.
Amidst the military movements, an eerie silence prevails.
I am at the vanguard of thousands of Jews who will tonight pour into the Arab village of Khif El Halat in Samaria in the West Bank to pray at the tomb of Joshua, heir to Moses, who conquered the land for the Israelites more than 3000 years ago.
The Jews are allowed to pray here only four times per year. Tonight, the anniversary of the death of Moses and the succession of Joshua, when he became the Israelite leader, is one of those nights. The Jews cannot pray at other times because it is simply too dangerous and they may pay for their prayers with their lives.
So the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) arranges a military operation involving scores of soldiers, armored vehicles, and drones to secure the area for the Jewish insertion four nights a year. Even then, the Jews can only go in to pray late at night when the risks are reduced.
I have become used to these military prayer operations, having attended two already in Nablus at Joseph’s Tomb. I have become accustomed to the strange feeling of requiring an army to keep you alive while reciting David’s Psalms. I have become used to the inaudible hum of darkened streets, seemingly bereft of inhabitants. I have become somewhat inured to proceeding, knowing you are a walking target and feeling so grateful every fifty feet as you see a group of Israeli soldiers, their fingers on the trigger, hands at the ready, for any sign of trouble.
I begin the twenty minute walk through the village. Immediately, I see Yossi Dagan, the head of the Samaria Regional Council, surrounded by senior IDF officers. Young, polished, and extremely charismatic, I quickly interview Yossi on Facebook Live to ask him why a battalion is required for Jews to pray. He says it should not be that way, that the government must do more to ensure that Jewish men, women, and children can pray without fear.
I continue with Facebook Live, walking with three of my children, trying to give the viewers a sense of the real Middle East. Not the New York Times version, which falsely portrays Israel as an occupier and Arabs as victims. No, the truth. That no Arab anywhere in Israel would ever need an armed guard to pray at any Muslim holy site. That on Fridays in Jerusalem you can watch thousands of Muslim youth walking toward the Temple Mount for prayers and they have nothing to restrict them and nothing to fear. They walk right by Israeli police and soldiers without missing a beat. No one would even think of harming them.
But here we are. Hundreds of Jews, trying to pray at the tomb of one of the greatest Jewish leaders of all time. Sneaking into an Arab village. In the dead of night. With a small army whose only purpose is to stop us from being massacred.
I watch my children as we walk the silent streets. My daughter Rochel Leah, a seminary student in Jerusalem, turns to me. “Tatty, how could they possibly secure this entire village and make it possible for us to pray? A sniper can be hiding anywhere?” I confess that I really don’t know and mumble something about needing faith. But I am very proud to see all my children walking fearlessly, oblivious to the danger, feeling confident that they have a right as Jews to pray without hesitation.
We come first to the grave of Caleb, Joshua’s fellow spy, sent by Moses to check out the land. Like Joshua, Caleb tells the truth. The other ten spies live in terrible fear of the land’s inhabitants. They appear invincible. “We saw giants in the land … and we appeared in their eyes as if we were cockroaches, and so we appeared to ourselves.” (Numbers 13:33) The spies’ insecurity caused them to appear tiny and loathsome — not just to their adversaries’ eyes, but even to themselves. But Caleb and Joshua have a different view. “Let us go up and seize the land because it is easily within our power.”
The ancient words could not be more fitting to my current circumstances. As we pray at the grave I am well aware of the fact that only a tiny minority of Jews would ever come to a place like this in middle of the night for prayer. Even in Israel we have been taught to fear our neighbors. That they are giants, while we Jews, small in number, are pygmies. We must cower.
Praying at Caleb’s Tomb, I feel a sense of empowerment. Yes, the Arabs are my brothers, created equally in the image of God. I wish to live alongside them in peace and harmony. But just as I am no better than them, they are no better than me. We must all be neighbors. We have no reason to fear them and they have no reason to intimidate us. None are giants. None are pygmies. All are human. All are brothers. Peace will come with them making peace with the fact that we are not going anywhere. They must stop trying to murder us.
I think to myself that the Arab village we are currently in has no fence around it, no barbed wire. None of the Arab villages in the West Bank do. They don’t need it. There are no terrorists trying to infiltrate their communities to slaughter their children. They live unmolested. Indeed, the easiest way to immediately distinguish between an Arab village and a Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria is by whether the community is surrounded by a fence. Nearly all the Jewish settlements are ringed in barbed wire, to stop killers from coming in and slitting their throats, like they did to the Fogel family in March, 2011.
We continue walking and a few minutes later we reach Joshua’s Tomb. It is a glorious site, illuminated in soft light. There are hundreds of worshippers crammed inside. Olive green soldiers with massive armored vehicles ring them. Most of the worshippers are Orthodox and observant. They pray loudly and fervently. But there are many secular Jews present as well. And though they pray more silently than the Orthodox, they also seem to pray more inwardly.
Perhaps they came tonight to prove a simple point. That no part of the Holy Land should be beyond the reach of earnest prayer, and that no man should fear anyone but God alone.