I finally returned to Yericho, Jericho after ten years. The last time I was there, guiding tourists, was just before the Oslo War broke out in October 2000.
I have been to the “City of Palms” or “The back door of Jerusalem” many times – when it was safe – before the Oslo “peace.” Since the 1993 Accords, when Israel rolled out the red carpet for Yassir Arafat and the PLO, many did not feel very comfortable taking tourists into Jericho and some scratched it off the touring map.
True, armed Arabs and posters of Arafat were not encouraging but I did continue to visit. The charming Shalom al Yisrael shul with its beautiful mosaic floor from the times of the Talmud, and the little yeshiva above it where a handful of students “held down the fort” studying Torah were a must visit.
We would dance with the young idealist scholars, encouraging them and they encouraged us. It was a bizarre situation. “Palestinian police” with assault rifles on the outer perimeter and non-uniform armed Israeli guards sitting on the porch eyeing each other suspiciously.
It was clear that this situation would not last. And so in October 2000 when Prime Minister Barak offered Arafat 97% of his demands including half of Jerusalem, the old terror chief gave the signal for a terror wave that eventually took thousands of Israeli lives. “Palestinian police” opened fire on their Israeli counterparts on their joint “peace” patrols. The weapons we gave them came in handy. Turns out it wasn’t about land after all.
Another causality of the Oslo war was the closing of the Oasis casino. Arafat, and it turns out, his Israeli partners (the same person who was negotiating with Arafat about the future of the Land of Israel!) had to now manage without the million dollars that bused in Israeli gamblers spent daily.
Since then Jericho is closed to Jewish visitors. Well, almost.
Every Rosh Chodesh a handful of dedicated Jews try to scrap together a minyan for the joyous once a month prayers in the ancient, now forlorn little shul.
Leaving Jerusalem very early, we travel east through the Judean Desert liberated in the Six Day War. This was to be a bittersweet experience.
The plain mosaic stones, dusty and worn after 1500 years seemed to shine for us that early morning.
As I said, I have viewed these stones many times before, but this was different. Today I came to pray and keep them company – for a few fleeting stolen moments. The little chipped red hearts on the floor seemed to burst with joy and achieve a color I had never noticed before. Our hearts beat together with the living stones on the floor that Rosh Chodesh.
Before entering Jericho in our armored bus, we waited for our IDF escort. Five military vehicles accompanied the strange group of Jews who insist on not abandoning Jericho. They would simply not let go! The commander briefed us on how we must behave in the alien territory. “Operation Joshua” as he named it was about to be launched.
Operation? Were we behind enemy lines on some daring raid? It would seem so. What was a natural, simple activity years ago has become a complicated, risky military operation requiring special military and political preparations and permission.
Oy. What have we done to ourselves? This was the first city that Yehoshua conquered 3500 years ago. I wanted to apologize to the soil under my feet. I felt ashamed before Eretz Yisroel, abandoned by her children for another.
Jewish presence was in self-imposed exile. Jericho welcomed her sons home again in 1967 but they chose to trade her away. Trade? No, Give her away to strangers. Strangers? No, enemies – cruel enemies. The City of Palms, the City of Yehoshua is an Arab city. Dovid HaMelech vanquished the Philistines and Israel’s leaders brought them back.
As I compare the city with the one I knew before the “peace process,” I see a new creation – large billboards announcing foreign aid from the world over, especially the USA. Everyone is busy erasing any trace of Jewish life in our Jericho, making sure it remains an orphan of Jewish History. Yishmael and Esav have found a common goal.
We were escorted out of the city after time spent davening and then cleaning up the area as the little shul returned to its month of isolation and longing for her children.
I thought of the words of that Jericho native, Rachav, as she told Yehoshua’s two spies: “We have all heard of the miracles of the Exodus and your victories. Our hearts have melted for your God is with you” (Yehoshua 2:10)
Would our leaders today only believe the words of that Jericho lady!
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