Longing and Belonging
Do the Eritrean community belong in Jerusalem?
Jerusalem has many stories, most are shrouded in myth. This has never stopped any nation nor religious persuasion from incorporating these legends into their collective history. One story builds off another, a tale springs three more — so entangled is this web of narratives that to dismiss one is to dismiss them all.
Some, concern themselves with the truth of it all, as if a subjective account could ever lend itself to an empirical objectivity. I once stood at Tel Hai, where the one armed man recited his famous last words. “he cursed in Russian” someone recounted. “He never said those words”. “Does it matter?” I replied?
His words, whether said in actuality or not, fueled the hearts and minds of the fighting forces of a nation on it’s way. There is a truth in a story that lies deeper than fact. When mobilizing a nation, a religious people or a movement — stories are told to give content to an idea.
Yet, time and time again there are those who try and dismantle the stories of others, as if doing so will lend credibility to their own. They conveniently pick and choose ‘facts’ that bring ‘real truths’ to light while perpetually ignoring the existence of such myths within their own story.
Did King David truly exist? Does it matter? His stories merely reflect our feelings of belonging to this city. The feelings are real, the stories that give them a voice are merely a vehicle to this end, one of many.
I hold that Jerusalem belongs to us all. I was not born into this mindset. My schools and communities in the past have long dismissed the stories of others. It was over time that I came to understand that one can not pick and choose. To be a Jerusalemite is to accept that each community of people who dwell within our city, tell the stories that give their existence and their actions meaning. It is due time we accept that we all belong to this city. That another communities ‘feelings of belonging’ do not mitigate my own, but rather empower us all to be better residents who care about the future of our home.
So let me tell you a story, one that has entangled itself into many of our own, a tale that should sit in our minds in the coming days, weeks and months as the powers that be try to dismiss it and its peoples connection to our city. It begins 3000 years ago, when a great and wise king ruled over Jerusalem. Solomon, whose name incorporated the very wholeness he inspired, was said to have been known and highly regarded not only by his people, but by the many monarchs who came to share tidings at his door. One of these monarchs came from the land of Sheba , she is mentioned in accounts by all Abrahamic faiths who describe her wisdom and beauty to be one that no one, not even Solomon himself could resist.
Back in her kingdom the story would continue to tell of a son, born of their union. King Menelik I; the founding ruler of the Solomonic dynasty, whose descendants asserted power in the 13 century and began a line of succession that would last for over a thousand years.
While Ethiopia plunged into uncertainty in the 1970s with the demise of the royal family, the rise of Communism and finally the civil war that would split their country in two — The Ethiopian church; born much like the Solomonic Dynasty, in the twilight of myth and history, would uphold the legends of the past. Legends that held within, a yearning to Jerusalem, a city of peace and wholeness. A city that beyond it’s spiritual significance was also the physical home to many Ethiopian royal family members, clergy and pilgrims for longer than any Jerusalemite can remember. Even with the emergence of Eretria, the church stayed united and when the situation grew dire, when they had to leave everything behind and flee their homes, many followed their story back to their church in Jerusalem. They were not leaving to a new place, they were returning home. A home away from home — a concept that should ring familiar for most Jews.
In those first years of their arrival, the churches in town and the old city turned to their place of refuge. Hundreds of mattresses decorated the courtyards of these two establishments, and when asked by authorities for their destination, almost all Eritrean refugees named the church as their address. I have met many of these precious people, and what struck me time and again was how similar their descriptions of Jerusalem were to that of my parents and my own. How one can yearn for a place they have never been to, how one can return to a place they were not born in. To ignore their story, to dismiss it, is to dismiss our own stories and our feelings of belonging. Both of our stories go back to the dawn of history, both of our people visited and lived in this city for thousands of years. The Eritrean community’s return to Jerusalem, is no different from that of our own.
In the last few months pressure has been intensifying around the presence of these homebound refugees. With the US under Trump in similar pursuit, turning a blind eye to our regions transgressions — Bibi and his xenophobic government have systematically been making it impossible for these people to call this place their home. This, despite the fact that many have been here for decades and speak Hebrew as natives. There are those who have done national service, and there is an entire generation who do not even speak the language of the country they are being “returned” to.
The most recent decrees have taken us to a new low, as the government began hiring it’s closed minded citizens to take part in the mass deportation. Many of those forced back to their countries of origin will not live long under the current regimes, for many this is a death sentence. Yet, without tire, both the state and people who constantly victimize themselves in context of the holocaust, fail to see the resemblance between countries that sent Jews back to their death, and our own actions. To top it off, comes the double standard between white illegals who are for the most part ignored, and the refugees, primarily from African countries who are being targeted, incarcerated and deported, even though they should be protected by law.
In this weeks Parsha, the exodus begins. 600k Israelites set out on a journey across the Sinai Desert on their way to the promised land. Our story of strangers, that begins with Noah and Abraham being foreigners to their respective communities, is brought to a new high, as god slaughters the first born of every Egyptian, and sends us on our journey to forge new social constructs in a new land.
We are forever instructed to remember the exodus upon our arrival in the holy land — “Remember, you were a stranger in the land of Egypt” the text will instruct us 28 times — more than any other commandment in the bible, as if to drill in deep what god knew we would surely forget. That one day, a group of god's people would once again venture across the Sinai into the Holy Land on their way to Jerusalem. This time it would not be shrouded in myth, but be told in vivant accounts of horror and suffering. That we would close our hearts to them and inasmuch to god, dismiss their annals in a feeble attempt to assert our own historical chronicle — and in doing so, divorce ourselves from the very ideas structured into our lives by the stories told by our people since our inception.