Cities of Refuge

In ancient times, the bible tells us, there were special places designated as ‘Cities of Refuge’ where people could go who had caused another person’s death unintentionally. There, a person guilty of manslaughter could find asylum and be safe from revenge. 

I read this in a recent New Yorker Magazine, in an article about people who have killed another human being by accident – hitting a toddler who runs into the street, for example, as a young college student drives slowly down a quiet residential avenue looking for an address: a flash of blond hair in the corner of her eye, to the left near the headlight; a slight bump, and the next thing she remembers is being curled up under a bush, wondering what that sound was that filled her head, until she realizes it is the sound of her own screaming. 

I have to force myself to keep reading because these stories terrify me – not only because they are unbearable in their own right, but because I am afraid that I will be pulled into unwanted communion with the people who have somehow caused the death of another human being by accident. I had heard of Cities of Refuge before, but now I am struck by the depth of the wisdom that the designation of such a place reveals. I imagine a timeline stretching back to the beginning of civilization, densely populated by unwitting, unwilling fellow killers seeking mercy. I think about soldiers and policemen who kill by mistake, or by accident, about the blurry distinction between manslaughter and murder, and of how desperately we need Cities of Refuge now. 

The original Cities of Refuge included Golan and Hebron. I see these names and think how odd it is that I was just in Hebron a few weeks ago. It was late September, the time of the grape harvest and of ripe figs. That day in Hebron, we ate breakfast in a tiny café; bought cookies covered in sesame seeds, and drove through the famous hills of Hebron with their immense limestone quarries. Hebron Gold Limestone is mined from huge, terraced pits, lion-colored and luminous, the sun bouncing off the steep cuts gouged in the earth. On the highway, we drove behind a big rig hauling a block of stone the size of a garden shed. We were on our way to buy straw to mulch the garden at a Palestinian center for nonviolence in the West Bank. The office of the straw-seller consisted of sagging couches and an armchair beneath a cluster of trees whose leaves were white with dust. I could see into the open shipping container that served as the night watchman’s bunkhouse: a mattress, a television, a broken table, an electric kettle, and an air conditioner. As we negotiated price and quantity, the men offered us thick, bitter coffee redolent with cardamom, carefully poured into small paper cups and served on a dented tray.

As I daydream of Hebron, images appear of a map showing other famous cities in the Occupied Territories that, in my fantasy, have also become Cities of Refuge. They are filled with repentant Jewish settlers who, fervently - and understandably, believe that they belong in the Holy Land, but have realized that their settlements were built on stolen property, and they are now deeply sorry. Cities of Refuge are everywhere: Golan and Hebron, yes, and also Ramallah, Gaza, Nablus and Bethlehem, all filled with repentant settlers seeking protection. In the Ramallah of my imagination, the settlers are offered food, shelter, and people to cry with - the very people they have displaced. I see Jews and Palestinians grieving together and comforting each other for the harm their people have done. This fantasy brings me a surreal sense of hope.

Gingerly, I continue to allow my attention to wander. In an idle moment, as I’m flipping through news headlines on my iPhone, I come upon a story about the town of LaPlace, in the heart of ‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana, where the world’s only neoprene factory is located. Here, people of all ages, especially children, are dying of mysterious cancers, brain tumors, respiratory failure and kidney disease. Neoprene: the word conjures surfers, and divers, and soft zippered cases for laptops. This story catches my attention because in a few weeks I am going scuba diving. I love the ocean and want to witness its beauty. I want to be in it in places that are still intact, and so I’m going scuba diving - in a wetsuit made of neoprene from a factory that is slowly killing the people of LaPlace, Louisiana. The scale tilts and I slide toward the guilty in need of refuge. My culpability is not far-fetched: I may be a few steps removed, but I cannot claim ignorance or innocence. 

Within the concentric circles of responsibility, if direct murder is at the center of the circle, then the next rung of violence is complicity. Beyond that is the killing in my name, as a citizen and a Jew. I belong in all these overlapping circles: the ones that radiate out from my automobile, my cell phone, my ancestors, my government and the companies with whom I do business. This understanding is not new, but for some reason the juxtaposition of reading the New Yorker article, visiting the West Bank and buying a wetsuit have created an inescapable immediacy that haunts me. I dream a newspaper headline: Inadvertent Killers. 

A colleague who worked with child soldiers during the Liberian civil war once told me of his visit to a camp filled with children who had been forced to become killers but wanted to go home. He did his best to reassure them that their families still loved them. As he left, the children wanted to know: Is there Mercy enough for us? 

The Cities of Refuge, if they existed now, would be full to overflowing. Perhaps then the harm would subside and Mercy would take its place, but we would need to grow our hearts big enough to withstand it. We are lazy in prevention as well as repair: faced with the overwhelming scale of our sins, it is still easier to regret than to transform.

As a diver in love with the ocean, what is my relationship to this neoprene factory, and the people who are dying because of it? As an American and a Jew, specifically as the granddaughter of men who worked to found the State of Israel (and a cousin of a man who is a orthodox settler on the West Bank), how do I come into right relationship with both Palestinians, and settlers in the Occupied Territories? My only refuge now is to live an adequate response.