The Jewish sages would kiss the rocks of Akko upon entering the Land of Israel.
Adverse possession is a centuries-old legal theory that transfers valid title in real property to a squatter. The rationale is that good land shouldn’t go to waste. Hence, the true owner’s neglect is said essentially to have invited the encroachment. Many parts of undisputed territory in Israel appear to be undergoing this phenomenon in spirit if not in law. The old city of Akko represents but one example.
During a recent backpacking sojourn through Israel, I myself debated whether to visit this city. Five days earlier, three southbound rockets had been launched from Lebanon toward Akko with only one of the explosives having been intercepted. Nevertheless, I risked the trip, reasoning that, if my time had come, I would be equally vulnerable at a café in Haifa as I would 30 minutes northward, exploring streets the Rambam walked nearly 1,000 years ago. Besides, after three weeks pinging around Eretz Yisröel, only two days remained until my return flight to the United States. So, I took my chances and caught the train.
The Akko train station lets out across from the parking lot of an open-air meat market. It was nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit that day and the smell of dead chicken blood overpowered. A five-minute cab ride later, though, I was inside the old city, admiring the historic markers affixed to fortress walls barely worn despite centuries of relentless seaspray. The engraved plates told of many sages who over the last 5,000 years had passed through this, one of the oldest working ports in the world.
Sadly, the series of engraved plates — some of which have been scratched out — is the extent of the Jewish imprint on this town. Indeed, local synagogues are listed on a legend at Akko’s front gate amid other “Places of Interest” directly following sections labeled “Churches,” “Mosques,” and “Parking Lots,” respectively.
Yes, there are tunnels built by the Templar Knights and Inns in existence since the Ottoman Empire. But what I was there to see could only be reached by tripping over Tonka trucks and tricycles down a little-used alleyway. Indeed, so infrequently is the path to Beit Ramhal traveled by Jews in search of a place to daven together that Arab children have claimed its front door as a vacant play yard.
Beit Ramhal’s caretaker
Granted, the tiny gem that is Beit Ramhal cannot compare with the artistic splendor of the Tunisian synagogue just beyond Akko’s old city walls. In fact, in absence of the Beit Hamikdash, the Or Torah is easily the most glorious shul one could hope to ever see. Still, Ramhal, however humble, easily fits ten men. Ten men who never come, according to the Ramhal’s faithful caretaker. Between lessons about the deerskin Torah on display, and the pomegranate ink with which it was inscribed, he shrugged at my persistence about the shul’s disuse and waved that it hasn’t had an active minyan in decades.
Now, I am not a man and do not plan to move to Akko just to make sure someone says Shema there twice daily. But the sudden realization that this gateway to Israel for so many ancestors has been given up for lost to the forebears of its one-time conquerors grieves me to no end. I am not a woman who succumbs easily to tears and, yet, I wept deeply at Ramhal’s house of study and several times since then over the lack of a religious quorum in Akko.
“Beit Knesset Ramhal”: Knesset means Assembly
Ultimately, my great epiphany that day was that our ongoing struggle over borders and territorial authority is a farce for so long as Jewish men willingly surrender town by town, inch by inch, in Israel and in America, through their failure to appear. In a city such as Akko, where Jews comprise roughly 75% of the population, but largely live at the margins of history (i.e. outside the city gates), a new history is being written of a people who gave away their hard-won political and property rights by exhibiting inertia in later asserting them.
I can only hope when I return to Israel in Spring that I find a miraculous reversal of the despair-worthy trend I have recounted here. In the interim, I would entreat you to consider whether Judaism generally and Israel specifically, Sir, isn’t worth your vote. If you find that it is, I would encourage you to make the time — whether it’s thrice a day or once a month — to vote with your feet and show up, as G-d commanded, for your minyan and for your community at large. I’ve seen with my own eyes the negative impact your absence is having already.
Lisette García is earning a master’s degree in political management from The George Washington University. She anticipates putting her additional skills as a Freedom of Information Act attorney to work for NGO Monitor in Jerusalem from May through July 2014.