The ancient Jewish town of Peki’in rose to national consciousness due to rioting last week. The layered story of the town is much deeper.
Peki’in made headlines after a stormy night of clashes between Druze youth and police who had come to arrest five local vandals. The community members saw the incident as a case of police barging in and using excessive force against an organized committee that destroys cell phone antennas in the interest of protecting local residents from cancer. Other residents blame Israel for Westernizing their children and blame Arab parties for radicalizing them.
Still, none of that explains how in the course of the night of October 30, 2007, four of the eight Jewish homes in the sleepy town were burned, with their residents’ possessions still inside.
The Old Jewish Priests of Peki’in
Ilan Hai-David Tuma-Shechter wears a baseball cap. You wouldn’t know he was Jewish if you saw him in the Peki’in marketplace. He knows everyone by name, exchanging blessings with the older residents. The young people mumble and avert their eyes. Some look at him suspiciously.
Tuma-Shechter is one of the last three members of three Kohain (priestly) families (Tuma, Ouda and Zenati) who have lived in Peki’in for 2,000 years. “We say 2,000 years, but it is likely that our families lived here even before the destruction of the Holy Temple,” he says, “making our way to Jerusalem for our two-week ‘[Temple] reserve duty’ in Jerusalem and returning afterward.”
“Peki’in is like no other place in the world,” he says while standing next to the cave where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai hid from Roman persecution and is said to have composed the central work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar. Citing Kabbalistic works, Tuma-Shechter says Peki’in is an acronym for “Pe’er Kedusha Yesod Anava Yichus Netzach” (roughly translated: “The majesty of holiness is rooted in humility – and is an everlasting lineage”).
Tuma-Shechter’s grandfather, Chacham Yosef Avraham Tuma HaKohen was a leader of the Jewish community. He saw the Jews of Peki’in banished from their homes in 1938 by Muslim rioters, after which they lived in what they refer to as the “Hadera exile.” A few years later they began to return to Peki’in to work their land, but remained in Hadera. Chacham Yosef lived until 107, two years after he and his grandson returned to the village for the first Pesach (Passover) back in Peki’in in 1963.
The return was accompanied by the refurbishing of the ancient synagogue, as well as financial assistance facilitated by President Yitzchak Ben-Tzvi, who was very interested in various indigenous and Diaspora Jewish communities. “Ben Tzvi came and was very impressed when he saw us really working the land,” Tuma-Shechter recalls. “He wanted to return us to our property and to our synagogue. The synagogue, which dates from 1873, is built on the site of a study hall built by R’ Joshua Ben-Hanania in 200 CE. The synagogue features stone tablets reputed to be from the Holy Temple. Today both Ben-Tzvi and the Peki’in synagogue appear on the 100-shekel bill.
It was then, on the first Passover back in Peki’in, that Tuma-Shechter promised his grandfather that he would one day return to make the ancient city his home. After he was evicted from his home in Sinai as part of Menachem Begin's treaty with Egypt, Tuma-Shechter made good on the promise.
Since the Return
Following the Jewish return to the town, anti-Jewish attacks in Peki’in were rare, all residents point out. The coexistence of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze was much-spoken about, although the Muslim and Jewish communities in Peki’in are miniscule. “We attribute it to the spring that runs through the center of town, which everyone relies on. It was blessed by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and brings peace between the residents,” Tuma-Shechter says.
The tiny Jewish community has not lived without hardship, though. Life in Peki’in sometimes seems similar life in the exile. “Cars are stolen, swastikas painted, property vandalized and car windows smashed, but never any bloodshed or physical harm,” Tuma-Shechter notes in a hushed tone. “My grandfather always told me I would need a ‘lev lavan’ (literally a white heart - but Tuma-Shechter explains that it means the ability to suffer abuse with humility and not be drawn into conflict) to live and remain in Peki’in.” He says that attempts to complain to the police have resulted in threats by the authorities to arrest him. “They accused me of vandalizing my own property. I’ve sat there in the police station and cried like a child, asking ‘How can you say that?’”
Tuma-Shechter is eager to introduce his friend and neighbor Salah Bakri. “When my grandparents returned from Hadera, Salah’s grandfather heard that residents were planning on killing them,” Tuma-Shechter says. “He asked them to sleep in his house. We are alive because of one another and we are obligated to tell of it.”
Bakri is ashen-faced when speaking about the riots. “I was really worried the other night that the youth would injure my neighbor,” he says. “The youth who took part in this are not religious.”
The mustached owner of an old community olive-press, Bakri has three sons in the IDF. The oldest is on reserve duty, carrying out operations in Ramallah. Another son serves in the police. “He was not sent here that night, but he came home to make sure everyone was alright.”
Salah Kheir owns the Peki’in Hotel, on the town’s main road high above the rest of the town and just a short walk from the cave of Rabbi Shimon. He was the town’s youngest mayor, elected at the age of 23 in 1978 and re-elected repeatedly until 1993. Under his watch, the village developed into the tourism jewel it is today, with Kheir proudly describing every aspect of Peki’in.
He is also eager to blame the police, the media and “extremists, Druze and Jews” for the riots and any unrest that has befallen his peaceful hometown.
“Any problems we have were taught to us by the Jews,” he says with an apologetic smile. “There is a general decline in Israeli society. That is all we are seeing - nothing more complicated than that. There are shooting and killings at nightclubs in Tel Aviv and there are these youths here.”
And who are the youths who took part in the riots that left 16 police wounded and four Jewish homes burned to the ground? “They come back from the army, they are no longer interested in the Druze religion and they get involved in Balad and other Arab political parties and are radicalized,” he says. “The fact that there is inequality is a problem that must be fixed but it is irrelevant to what happened here. In the IDF we are completely equal - but afterwards it is a different story.”
Pressed to cite examples of inequality, Kheir says places like Peki’in do not receive the kind of municipal budget allocations that Jewish cities receive, and lamented that Druze are underrepresented in state companies like the Israel Electric Company and Bezek, Israel’s semi-private phone company.
He concedes that the examples point to the nature of electoral politics and life as a 2% minority with decentralized representation in several political parties. He also concedes that the problem is more related to the Israeli culture of ‘protectzia’ and corruption than it is to racism. The complaints are quite similar to those voiced by new immigrants. “Minister Avigdor Lieberman is actually one of the only people in the government that really understands the problem,” he said. “When we talk about discrimination, I think we are often misunderstood. We know the nation loves us. Even the politicians also love us when they come to visit. But translating that into action is the problem.”
Kheir reflects for a moment and chooses to bring up a shameful episode in Israel’s recent history to illustrate the root of how he says the Israeli Druze feel wrongs. “The greatest symptom of the problem was the treatment of the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA). They were also considered ‘blood brothers’ until one day we left Lebanon and they were thrown to the dogs.”
The SLA fought side by side with the IDF in southern Lebanon until Israel withdrew from the region in 2000, under then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s hasty unilateral withdrawal. The fighters who did not want to face imprisonment or death had but a few hours to round up their families and flee to Israel, where they have been living in northern towns ever since. Many have complained of neglect and lack of benefits, and some have even chosen to return to Lebanon to face trials and retribution at the hands of Hizbullah terrorists rather than remain in Israel.
A Dutch reporter who joined the conversation midway asked Kheir: “Is there a lot of anger at the land expropriations by the government?”
Kheir: “That was decades ago,” he says with a wave of his hand. “It may still be a sore topic but it is not an issue today.”
Hai-David Tuma was annoyed with the suggestion: “You should know that the Jews here also had their land expropriated, so it is not a Druze-Jewish issue.”
The Antenna Conflict
“Orange placed an antenna in Peki’in years ago,” Kheir recalls. “The Antenna Committee broke it and burned it. It is no secret. There are posters and flyers everywhere warning residents that if they erect an antenna, the antenna and the room below it will be destroyed and burned. This is what happened and the police did not do anything,” he said.
“But when it is a Jew, suddenly the police enter the village like they are going into Gaza,” Kheir lamented. “It was clear to us that people had antennas concealed in rooms, so the committee purchased a detector and found there was one hidden in a chicken coop in New Peki’in, [a Jewish agricultural moshav located three kilometers away].”
The antenna issue is not limited to Peki’in, residents point out. Cellular antennas have been destroyed by local residents in the Jewish towns of Ra’anana and Givatayim as well. “I am not a professor or a doctor, but it is impossible to ignore [the fact] that the incidences of cancer have skyrocketed since the erection of cell phone antennae in the region,” Kheir says.
All the residents of Peki’in also use cellular phones extensively, however, and are glad there is reception throughout the village. “What can I tell you?” Kheir says sheepishly, when asked whether similar correlations with cancer could be drawn with the devices themselves. “We can’t live without cell phones so the antennae become the targets.”
Residents are quick to embellish rumors and word spreads from family to family very quickly. “The man with the antenna said, ‘I want to give them all cancer,’” Bakri said with certainty.
When “delegates” of the Antenna Committee decided to burn down the antenna in New Peki’in, using IDF-issued grenades and firebombs, a single police cruiser showed up.
The youths had a yelling match with the police (and destroyed the cruiser, according to some reports). No arrests were made.
The police surrounded the village in the middle of the night. Local youths knew they were coming and were marching through the streets with metal bars. Locals, aside from Kheir –none willing to have their names published - admit that shots were fired in the air prior to the police’s entry to the town.
Media Believed Police Over Us
“The media reported, without question, that we kidnapped a female officer and held her hostage – really making us out to be terrorists,” Kheir complained. “The police abandoned a female soldier in the middle of a tense situation and tried to focus and embellish this story in order to cover up their own misdeeds – to shift the focus.”
Police and the soldier herself described the scene differently. They said she was dragged on the ground and stabbed several times – saved only by her flak jacket and suffering from a stab wound on her thigh. Another officer was wounded in the head by a barrage of blocks and stones being thrown from the rooftops as he tried to rescue her, they say.
“What do you expect when someone comes into your village with guns,” Kheir says, insisting that once the mob realized she was a woman she was treated with the utmost care.
“We kept her weapon with her. She said “take my gun, just don’t hurt me.’ We purposely brought her to where the whole community was gathered – to the prayer room. The young people said they should release the people who were arrested for just walking out of their homes before we release her.”
The police admitted releasing six of those arrested in return for the female officer.
Though residents unanimously blame the riots at least partially on the police, a little-reported aspect of the incident and its aftermath is that the police hospitalized in the clashes were also almost all Druze.
Asked if the whole affair will lead to a decline in Druze enlistment in the police or Yassam riot squad, Kheir says: “What, destroy 60 years because of one macho-ist idiot who gave the order to storm into the village? No way.”
The New Jews
Five new families of young Jews joined the three priestly families in recent years, largely sticking to themselves and living in the immediate area surrounding the synagogue. The families were not as connected with local life as the elder Jews, but sought to bring Jewish life back to the ancient city.
Local residents regarded them with suspicion. Druze police and IDF officers came back from service in the Disengagement and at various outpost evictions in Judea and Samaria with a newfound animosity for visibly National Religious Jews and rumors began, similar to those regarding the cellular antennas. “They would say that they were right-wing extremists,” recalls Tuma-Shechter. “I would tell them, first of all they are not, and second of all, what do right-wingers have against Druze?”
Four out of five homes of the new Jewish families were burned during the riots. The families have yet to return to Peki'in. News reports stressed that the ancient synagogue was not attacked. That is not exactly true. Margalit Zenati, the elderly scion of the priestly Zenati family and keeper of the key to the synagogue reports that a grenade was hurled into the synagogue’s courtyard in the heat of the riots.
Everyone expresses their hopes that co-existence will return to Peki’in. Peace has physically returned to the town, but the streets are empty of tourists, the town’s main economic staple. “It may take two, five, even ten years to undo the damage, but we will still be here,” says Kheir.
Margalit Zenati says she is not going anywhere either. “Jews are always welcome in Peki’in and nobody should be afraid to come visit,” she said.
(Photos: Josh Shamsi, Arutz-7 Photojournalist)