Monthly Archives: December 2010

From the Side of the Oppressed: A Guest Post From Palestine

Here is a guest post from Marge Frank, one of the participants from our trip:

Brant asked me to post on his blog, as the only Israeli-American on our tour, in order to add this perspective to the discussion.  I am honored to do so, albeit a bit overwhelmed as to how to choose what to share. This has been the most amazing, depressing, overwhelming, and transformative experience of my life and I’m still reeling from the multitude of emotions I’ve experienced.

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A Day in Jenin, Return via Checkpoint

On our final full day in Palestine, we spent the morning and afternoon in the Jenin refugee camp. Our first stop was the Jenin Freedom Theatre.

The Freedom Theatre was founded by Israeli political and human rights activist Arna Mer Khamis in the wake of the First Intifada. Arna’s project used theater and arts to address Jenin’s childrens’ trauma, chronic fear and depression that resulted from the violence of the Intifada and the Occupation. Arna passed away in 1995 and her work has since been carried on by her son Juliano.

The Freedom Theatre’s theater building was destroyed during Israel’s military invasion of the Jenin refugee camp in 2002. It was rebuilt in 2007 and now flourishes with an array of amazing programs, performances and cultural events.

JRC member Joel Gratch at the entrance to the Jenin Freedom Theater

What makes the Freedom Theatre truly special is at the end of the day, it is about Palestinian solidarity – not simply another example of coexistence, dialogue or Israeli noblesse oblige. All who work at the Theatre, whether they are Palestinians, Israelis or internationals understand that above all, the Freedom Theatre is a form of Palestinian cultural resistance.

As part of our tour, we viewed these two films (at top and below) about the Theatre’s work. The films elicited a deeply emotional reaction from our group. When you will watch them you will understand why – and why we must learn about and support invaluable projects such as this.

After our visit, we toured the refugee camp, which has only partially been rebuilt since the Israeli military invasion in 2002. We then boarded the bus for our ride back to Jerusalem. When we arrived at Bethlehem (though we technically didn’t need to) we got off the bus and walked through the checkpoint in order to get a first hand look at this daily, signature Palestinian experience. We had the luck of arriving before rush hour – and of course of being American tourists who were undoubtedly being given preferential treatment by the IDF.

We waited in line and eventually arrived at a long, narrow chute that forced us into single file. One by one, we filed through a huge steel turnstile, which locked frequently with the flash of a red light and a loud buzzer. Once through the turnstile, were in a kind of an antechamber, in which soldiers spoke to us through a loudspeaker from a control room on the other side of thick glass. We were instructed to put our packs and metal objects on a conveyor belt/x-ray machine, and eventually emerged on the other side.

Those who have never seen an Israeli checkpoint cannot fathom how massive and extensive they are. This is something far beyond a mere road block or airport security line. Everything about this experience reminds you of your abject disempowerment; of the fact that you are utterly, frighteningly at the mercy of an armed power much greater than yourself.

It was impossible for us to begin to comprehend what it must do to Palestinians who has to endure such humiliation on a daily basis. And again: we weren’t even asked to disrobe, step away form the line, or wait for literally hours on end.

I didn’t take any pictures, but here are some images of the Bethlehem checkpoint from ActiveStills. They’ll give you a good solid sense of the scale of this massive checkpoint:

Stay tuned for some guest posts and final thoughts.

West Bank Realities Beyond the Headlines

Palestinian nonviolent leaders Iyad Morrar (left) and Bassam Tamimi (right) address our group, Ramallah, 12/26/10

On Sunday morning we visited a cafe in Ramallah where we had meetings with a variety of Palestinian leaders. We gathered into the upstairs room of a coffee house and met first with an official from the Palestinian Authority. But the highlight of our meeting was as visit from two prominent Palestinian nonviolent leaders: Iyad Morrar from the West Bank village of Budrus and Bassam Tamimi from the village of Nabi Saleh.

Iyad’s leadership in Budrus has recently become the subject of a new documentary film, which powerfully demonstrates how he brought together a wide coalition of villagers and solidarity workers to successfully keep the construction of the Separation Barrier from destroying their village. When I saw the film, my first impression was that while it was undeniably inspiring, it didn’t explain that Budrus is largely one isolated success story – and that the IDF is going its level best to suppress the Palestinian nonviolent movement through brutality at demonstrations and the widespread imprisonment of their leaders.

When I mentioned this to Iyad and Bassam, they agreed without hesitation.  There are in fact numerous examples of Israeli soldiers firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets directly at protesters. Just a week before our visit, an international protester in Nabi Saleh was severely injured after directly hit in the back of the head with a canister as he was trying to take cover (see below).

Tear Gas in Nabi Saleh, Dec. 10, 2010 Photo: Joseph Dana

I’ve been trying my level best on this blog to highlight the growth of nonviolent popular committees in the West Bank, which are enormously important and eminently worthy of our support. It was deeply gratifying to bring congregants to meet leaders such as Iyad and Bassam, who are resisting daily oppression with principled, moral steadfastness. Where are the Palestinian Ghandis, asks the American Jewish community?  Well, we just met with two of them in a Ramallah coffee house.

From Ramallah we headed due north to Jenin. It took our bus driver several attempts to find the right route as it is never immediately clear which roads are open and which are closed. We did however, sail through a checkpoint, which had been eased in honor of the Christmas holiday.

After passing through Nablus, we arrived at the town of Jenin, and gathered in the main office of the Palestinian Fair Trade Association. JRC has been selling PFTA olive oil for years, thanks to the leadership of member Lynn Pollack. The PFTA is the largest fair trade producers’ union in Palestine, with over 1700 small Palestinian farmers joined in fair trade collectives and cooperatives across the country. They work with olive farmers’ cooperatives through the northern West Bank and women’s village cooperatives that produce cousous, za’atar, sun dried tomatoes, olive oil soap, etc.

We then visited the PFTA’s main exporter, Canaan Fair Trade and were given a tour of their impressive facility by Administrative Manager Ahmed Abufarha (below). This multi-level operation is where coop farmers bring their olives to be pressed, stored, packaged and shipped and where their other products are prepared for export as well.

Much like our visit with Iyad and Bassam, our visit the Jenin fair trade community is an important reminder that there is a West Bank reality beyond the headlines that we read every day. Our job, we now realize, is to bear witness to these realities – to cultivate these relationships, and to do our part to extend them to the world upon our return.

After touring the Canaan Fair Trade facility, we broke up into groups and went off to our home visits. I was in a group of four JRC men who stayed with a family in ‘Anin – a West Bank village 15 minutes west of Jenin, just east of the Green Line.

Just like in Deheishe, we hit it off immediately with our hosts. For several hours, we sat in the living room of Awad – an olive farmer and retired captain from the PA police. Awad has ten children and received us with incredible graciousness. That’s Awad and his youngest, below, flanked by JRC members Ray Grossman, left, and Danny Newman, right

During the course of the evening, several men from the village gathered in the living room to meet us. Between our mutual English, Hebrew, French and pigeon Arabic, we were able to communicate quite well. At one point, we mentioned that we were American Jews and that I was a rabbi – a revelation that stopped them in their tracks somewhat.  After the initial bewilderment, however, our freewheeling conversation continued on and on. At one point, they pulled out the nargila pipe and we puffed away, I confess, with a fair amount of abandon.

Danny Newman, who is a High School math teacher talked extensively with another young man from the village who teaches High School Physics, comparing notes. Michael Deheeger, who speaks fluent French, spoke with another man who studied engineering in Algeria. I talked politics with a young man who wanted to know what I thought of Obama and if I thought he would be able to broker a peace treaty.

After a while, the young men asked us if we’d like to go for a walk through the village. While it had been a long day for us and it was starting to get pretty late, we all readily agreed. It was a mild evening with a dazzlingly clear night sky as we walked through the winding roads of ‘Anin. They showed us two of the natural springs of the village, which produce sweet, fresh water that runs off from a nearby mountain. We then stopped on the side of the road, built a campfire (which we were told was lit up there every evening) and sat around chatting, smoking locally made ‘Anin cigarettes.

'Anin by day

Like our experience in Deheishe, our visit was extraordinary for its simple ordinariness. For our part, we were taken by the humanity of our new friends, which is readily evident despite the obvious turmoil of their day to day existence. We were also moved by their genuine curiosity in us, their desire to get to know us better and host us in their village again. For me, and I think most of the members of our trip, this has been the most transformative experience: getting to know new friends and breaking down the politically-driven barriers that have long kept us from connecting in such a simple but immensely important way.

I do not hesitate to say we will continue to nurture these connections and will return to visit these new friends as soon as we can.

My next post will describe our final day in Jenin and offer some final thoughts. I’ll also post some thoughts from trip members, all of whom had been profoundly transformed by this journey.

Jaffa’s Bereavement Past and Present

Friday began with a trip to Jaffa – once a thriving Arab port city, now part of the Tel Aviv municipality. Jaffa was emptied of its residents in 1948 and today “Old Jaffa” is has been turned into a quaint artist’s colony. For most tourists who frequent Jaffa’s galleries and restaurants today there is little indication of the rich Palestinian cultural history of the city. And even fewer have any idea that there is a Jaffa slum neighborhood, Ajami, which is populated by internally displaced Palestinians and their descendants.

Our tour of Jaffa was led by Sami Abu Shehadeh (above), a Jaffa historian and community activist who was recently elected to the Tel Aviv/Jaffa city council. Sami began by explaining Jaffa’s history as port city and by recounting the long line of occupying forces that have left their mark on the city over the centuries. He then gave us a view into the Palestinian life of a place that only exists today in vestiges: a mosque that is now a fish restaurant, Arab homes that have been converted into stores and high scale art galleries, etc.

Our tour of Ajami was also intensely eye opening. Sami described how in 1948, the majority of Jaffa’s 100,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled in fear for their lives, crowding onto ships that took them to refugee camps in Gaza and Lebanon. Others traveled by foot to camps in Nablus or Jordan. The remaining 4,000 were rounded up and brought to Ajami, which was literally turned into a ghetto surround by fences and guard dogs. Sami said that his own grandfather, who used to be able to drive from Jaffa to Beirut, needed military permission to leave the neighborhood.

According to Sami, the trauma experienced by the Palestinians of Jaffa was really threefold. The first was the total destruction of their social reality as a result of their expulsion from their homes and the lives that they had known. The second trauma was economic: after their expulsion, the new Israeli authorities passed the Absentee Property Law of 1950, by which it could “legally” seize their properties. In many cases, these “absentees’” homes were their taken from them while they lived just a short distance away in their new ghetto.

The third stage of trauma Sami called “coexistence.” After the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, the new State of Israel began absorbing thousands of new Jewish immigrants from around the world by placing them in seized Arab property. When all of the homes in Jaffa had been occupied, the Israeli housing authorities began dividing the homes in the Ajami ghetto into apartments and housed Jewish immigrants together with Arab families. Imagine, Sami said, if you were forced to live together with the very people who were now serving in the army, and quite possibly going own to kill your own family members in Gaza or Nablus before returning home to live with you under the same roof.

Our tour of Ajami also included a neighborhood that was undergoing heavy gentrification, with multi-million dollar beachfront homes, renamed by developers “North Ajami.” Sami pointed out the irony that many of these rehabbed Arab houses used to be home to poor fishermen who lived near the coast – and are now inhabited by embassy workers and billionaire businessmen.

Later in the afternoon, our group attended a demonstration in Silwan, the neighborhood in East Jerusalem that we visited on Wednesday.

There have been weekly demonstrations held in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah every Friday for almost two years to protest the ongoing evictions of Arab residents and occupation of their homes by Jewish settler groups. The Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement sponsored Friday’s protest in solidarity with Adnan Ghaith, a community activist from Silwan who was recently handed a court order expelling him from Jerusalem for four months.

Below is a pic I took of of a young protester inside the Silwan peace tent. The peace tent has been standing since 2008 and has been slated for demolition by the Jerusalem municipality for being a “focal point for incitement.”

At the protest, I had the pleasure of running into peace activists Yonatan Shapira and Rami Elchanan (below). I met Yonatan last May when he visited Chicago and his activism has since become a huge source of inspiration to me. Both Yonatan (right) and Rami recently participated on the latest flotilla of boats attempting to break the siege of Gaza by bringing symbolic amounts of humanitarian aid to its citizens. (Click here to read more about their experience on the flotilla).

On Shabbat, Rami came to our hotel in East Jerusalem to speak together with our tour guide Aziz about their work in the Bereaved Parents’ Circle. I’ve written a great deal about this organization over the years, which I believe to be one of the most important peace and reconciliation groups in Israel/Palestine. Rami, who lost his fourteen year old daughter to a suicide bombing and Aziz, whose older brother died after being tortured in an Israeli prison as a teenager, both spoke movingly and openly about their pain, the anger, and their personal transformations as a result of their work in this amazing organization.

Later in the afternoon, we heard a presentation by Israeli journalist Orly Halpern, who, for my money is one of the gutsiest and most intelligent reporters on the Mideast conflict. Her talk on the pragmatism of Hamas was eye-opening to say the least. (And she did it all with her three month old Adam in a Snugli…) Check out Orly’s blog here.

Witness to Injustice From Deheishe to Hevron

 

Thursday is over and we’ve spent another night in the Deheishe refugee camp. Some thoughts, as promised:

As I mentioned in my last post, the main impression we’ve taken away from two nights in Deheishe with our host families was, quite simply, genuinely delightful time spent with wonderful new friends.

But of course it’s not that simple at all.

Just as it’s been impossible to ignore the truth of our common humanity, it was impossible for me to ignore the inherent inhumanity imposed daily upon the residents of Deheishe.

It was palpable in so many ways. During the course of dinner, the electricity cut out on us more than once. At one point, we sat in the dark and I looked out at the window at the bright lights of the nearby settlement of Efrat. From this vantage point I thought of their beautiful homes, their well-tailored landscapes, their swimming pools and I was just emotionally overwhelmed with the injustice of it all.

The people we have met in Deheishe are so gracious despite this reality – their children so smart, so filled with life and love – and all I can think of is the waste of it all. Such incredible human potential forced to live in a virtual box, with little hope for a viable future. I felt a similar feeling yesterday, in Wadi Fukin, where residents lived in the shadow of a fast growing settlement that pumped human waste into their village. I asked myself the same question: how can Jews, of all people, do this to another people? And how can we allow it to happen?

It is clear that there are two very different universes in this country: Jews live in one and Palestinians in another. It’s a reality that is impossible to ignore – and if there was any doubt, our trip to Hevron this afternoon drove this point home for us in a painfully obvious way.

I’ve written about the horrid situation in Hevron from previous trips. A few hundred Jewish settlers live in the heart of the city, protected by 2,000 IDF soldiers. Palestinian presence is severely restricted or is outright prohibited in the Israeli-controlled part of the city known as H2. As a result, what used to be the bustling main commercial area has been rendered a virtual ghost town.

Take a close look at the picture above. In the foreground you’ll see two Jews strolling down the center of the street, which is legally off limits to Palestinians. The men in the background are actually Hevron city officials, regulated by law to the narrow walkway on the side of the road. This is racially enforced segregation. By any other name we would call it apartheid.

As we walked through the streets, our Israeli tour guide, Kobi, told us about his army service in Hevron – how he personally witnessed the brutality of the IDF toward Palestinians, and how this experience sealed his own personal transformation from an extremist right-wing Kach supporter to an Israeli peace/justice activist.

We then passed through the checkpoint into the IDF-controlled area of the city and entered an area that is technically off-limits to our Palestinian tour guide, Aziz.  He asked me for my kippah, which he then put on his head so he could pass for a Jew and take us down Shehadeh Street (see below). Although Aziz was characteristically good-natured about it, it was profoundly disturbing to us. One member of our group said she was moved to tears to see Aziz, a Palestinian man, “protected” by my kippah in a Jewish-only part of town.

We walked back to our bus through the Palestinian-administered streets of Hevron (H1) and took some time to have lunch and do some shopping in the souk. Along the way Aziz and Kobi pointed out one prominent Jewish settlement that was built literally above the Arab shops. In the picture at the top of this post, you can the settlement marked by an Israeli flag. You’ll also see a chain link fence that was put up to protect the Palestinians below from garbage and debris that is regularly thrown down at them from settlers.

After Hevron, we visited Tent of Nations, a Palestinian family farm located south of Bethlehem. It is owned by Daoud Nasser (below), whose family has owned this land for four generations. His grandfather registered his land with the ruling Ottomans and the Nassars still have the original deeds of ownership from the Ottomans, the British and the Jordanians respectively.

In 1991 the Israeli military initiated proceedings to expropriate the Nasser’s farm, which happens to be located between two Jewish settlements in the Gush Etzion Block – which is considered choice real estate by the Israeli settlement regime.

Despite Daoud’s irrefutable proof of his family’s ownership of the land, the legal battle over it has stretched on for well over two decades – and the Nassar family has spent over $140,000 in legal fees to date. Last May, the Israeli military issued demolition orders because the Nassers added some minor but essential additions to their property. Thanks to an international solidarity campaign, they were granted a stay by the Israeli courts. At present, their case remains in Israeli legal bureaucratic limbo.

In the meantime, the Nassar family has used their land to establish “The Tent of Nations” an inspirational center that provides arts, drama, and education to the children of the villages and refugee camps of the region. Daoud and his family have also established a Women’s Educational Center offering classes in computer literacy, English, and leadership training.  Many rabbis and rabbinical students are familiar with Tent of Nations as a primary destination for Encounter – a well-known educational program that promotes coexistence by introducing Jewish Diaspora leaders to Palestinian life.

Daoud is one of my personal heroes – a gentle, visionary soul with a powerful, implacable moral core. I first met him last year when he passed through Evanston on a speaking tour – and it was a thrill for me to finally introduce him to members of my congregation. I can only say that after our painful experience in Hevron, ending our day with Daoud on his family farm was healing indeed.

Seeking Dignity Under Occupation

Our Wednesday began with a visit with Reverend Naim Ateek (above), founder and head of Sabeel, a well-known institute that advocates Palestinian Chrisitian Liberation Theology. As readers of my blog might know, I’ve long been an admirer of Reverend Ateek’s theological writings. In particular, his work has informed and challenged my own thinking about the Jewish conception of the land and the dangers inherent in wedding religion to power. It was a great pleasure to finally meet Reverend Ateek personally and to introduce him to members of my congregation.

To my dismay, Ateek has been unfairly and relentlessly attacked by the American Jewish establishment – largely, I believe, because he does not shrink from illuminating the problems that come with the land-centric nature of Zionist ideology. For myself, I’ve learned much from Ateek’s suggestion that Zionism represents a kind of “Constantinian Judaism” – i.e., a fusing of Judaism with Empire.

Whether or members of the Jewish community agree with him or not, I believe it would greatly behoove us to enter in dialogue with Ateek and others in the Palestinian Christian community – and I told him as much during our meeting. At the very least, it is my sincere hope that there might be Jewish leaders actively participating rather than protesting during the next American Friends of Sabeel conference.

After our visit we were joined by Meirav Zonsztein, (above) an Israeli/American journalist/blogger/activist, who led us on a tour of East Jerusalem. We first stopped at Gilo, a prominent development located east of the Green Line southwest of Jerusalem. Gilo is emblematic of a settlement considered by most Israelis to be part of the Jerusalem municipality, but its ongoing expansion has been severely encroaching upon Palestinian neighborhoods in the area. Gilo is but one of Israel’s many settlement projects that renders a viable, contiguous Palestinian state that much more remote.

We also stopped at Silwan, an Arab neighborhood located alongside the City of David outside the Old City. Silwan is currently the focus of a bitter struggle between Palestinian residents and an Israeli government that seeks to create a greater Jewish presence in East Jerusalem. In this case, the attempt to drive Arabs from their home is occurring under the guise of Israel’s historical “claim” to Biblical Jerusalem.

What makes this situation particularly galling is Israel has handed over the management of the archeological excavations to Elad, a private Jewish organization that seeks to “reclaim” Biblical Jerusalem in order to pave the way for the rebuilding of the Third Temple. Most visitors to the City of David excavations have no idea that their entrance fees to this popular tourist site fund this religiously radical organization.

To make matters worse, the Jerusalem municipality now plans to create an archeological park that will further decimate the Arab population of Silwan. According to a recent article by Israeli academic/activist Alice Shalvi,

The plans call for the demolition of 22 houses in the area, which the city claims were built without the necessary permits. (Ironically, the illegally constructed multi-story Beit Yonatan which towers above the overcrowded hovels of the village has not yet been evacuated and sealed, in defiance of a court order.) Few people are aware that the residents of Silwan, at their own expense, sought professional experts to draw up a plan which would enable them to engage in the kind of urban renewal that has taken place in other hitherto neglected areas of the city…The Jerusalem municipal authorities arbitrarily rejected the plan without even bringing it before the relevant planning forums.

Our group will return to Silwan this Friday to attend a major protest organized by the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement.

We then traveled into the West Bank to visit Wadi Fukin, an Arab village just east of the Green Line in the Gush Etzion bloc. In recent years, Wadi Fukin has been threatened by Israel’s planned construction of the Separation Barrier, which would cut off the village’s water source from numerous natural springs that the villagers use to irrigate their fields and orchards.

In a particularly inspiring example of coexistence and solidarity, the residents of Wadi Fukin were joined by residents of the nearby Israeli village of Tzur Hadassah in fighting the planned construction. Through a massive petition drive signed by hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians, Israel has for now forgone its plans to construct the wall – one of the very few success stories of its kind.

In the meantime, however, Wadi Fukin’s future is also being threatened by the expansion of nearby settlement Betar Illit. Ongoing construction of this populous and rapidly growing ultra-orthodox development is literally encircling the village and would likewise dry up Wadi Fukin’s freshwater springs. To add insult to injury, Beitar Illit regularly dumps its sewage into the village’s water supply, despite the repeated protests of village residents.

Despite these horrid hardships, Wadi Fukin is forging on with the help of Friends of the Earth -Middle East, an environmental NGO that has included the village in its “Good Water Neighbors” project. That’s Iyad Aburdeineh below, project co-cordinator of FOE-Middle East Wadi Fukin initiative, who led us on a tour of the village.

While in Wadi Fukin, our group was treated to a delicious lunch cooked for us the staff of the village’s Women’s Center. In all, it was impossible for us to be unmoved by the story of the village, one inspiring success story amidst an increasing dire situation in the Occupied Territories.

From there we traveled to Deheishe, a refugee camp near Bethlehem. Deheishe (below) was established as a refuge for 3,400 Palestinians who were expelled from 45 villages west of Jerusalem and Hebron in 1948. Originally simply a collection of tents, Deheishe is now a densely packed urban labyrinth of over 9,000 residents.

Adminstered by UNRWA, the camp is bordered to the north by the Jewish settlement of Efrat and to the south by Bethlehem. Like many Palestinian refugee camps, Deheishe has nowhere to grow but up – most of the homes have three stories and the camp seems to be in a constant state of vertical expansion.

Upon our arrival we were greeted by Deheishe resident Mazen Faraj, who coordinated our visit and introduced us to our host families. My group of seven was hosted by Nidal and Newarah and their three children, Haya, 18, Moad 17, and Tariq, 12, who opened their recently built home to us and were utterly gracious hosts to our intrepid little crew. They treated us to a delicious – actually sumptuous – dinner and we enjoyed each others’ company talking, sharing and laughing until the wee hours of the morning.

I spoke at length with Moad, who at one point took me out for a long night stroll through the winding alleyways of the camp, introducing me to friend after friend until it felt like I had met virtually the entire teenage population of Deheishe. After coming home, we continued to talk together as neighbors came and went through their home at a dizzying pace.

For right now, I don’t really know how else to describe our visit other than a genuinely delightful evening with wonderful new friends. I’ll share many more thoughts about our Deheishe soujourn in my next post. For now, suffice to say it today was an incredible journey for us all – and it has only been our second full day.

Much more to follow…

Jerusalem From a Shared Perspective

We’ve just finished the first full day of JRC’s Israel/Palestine study tour – which we devoted to understanding and experiencing Jerusalem as a “shared holy city.” While this might sound like an obvious fact, many Jews today (including myself) have been raised and socialized to regard Israel, if you will,  as a “Jewish city that just happens to be important to some other faiths as well.”

To this end we made a point of visiting and spending time at the three main holy sites of the city: the Western Wall, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Afterwards we met with two Shaykh Yusuf Abu Sneina, Imam of the al-Aqsa mosque and Rabbi Yechiel Grenimann of Rabbis for Human Rights. Tomorrow morning we’ll be meeting with Revered Naim Ateek of the Sabeel Institute to round out our visits with faith leaders.

Our tour is being led by Aziz Abu Sarah and Kobi Skolnick – who are Palestinian and Israeli respectively. Both Aziz and Kobi are remarkable individuals with powerful personal stories. Aziz is a native of Jerusalem who became radicalized at a young age after the death of his older brother at the hands of the IDF. He became active in the youth movement of Fatah and participated extensively in Palestinian resistance actions during the First Intifada.

Aziz has since become actively involved in Israeli-Palestinian coexistence work. He was one of the original staff members of the Bereaved Parents Circle and works with Rabbi Marc Gopin at the Institute for Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. Aziz and Rabbi Gopin have also founded Mejdi, a business that promotes coexistence through educational tourism and small business cooperation. (You can read an extensive interview with Aziz here.)

Kobi’s story is no less amazing. Born into a Chabad family in Israel, he moved to a settlement in the West Bank during his high school years. There he become a member of Kach – the Jewish extremist movement founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane that actively promotes violence against Palestinians. During his service in the Israeli army Kobi went though a personal transformation as he confronted the reality of the conflict.

Today, Kobi is highly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement – he was one of the original members of Breaking the Silence and now studies conflict resolution. He travels widely as a trained mediator and facilitator.

Among other things, the genuine friendship between Aziz and Kobi has powerfully affected the members of our group. Considering their respective backgrounds and personal journeys, their working relationship and very obvious affection for one another is moving and inspiring indeed. (The picture above was taken this morning at next to the Dome of the Rock. That’s me in the middle, with Aziz on the left and Kobi on the right.)

Tomorrow we’re off to tour East Jerusalem and Bethlehem before spending two nights in the Deheishe refugee camp. Stay tuned.

Is the FBI Criminalizing Curiosity About Israel/Palestine?

This past summer, Sara Smith, a young Jewish woman from Chicago, visited Israel/Palestine with two Palestinian-American friends. Sarah had never been and was interested in seeing for herself what life was like for Israelis and Palestinians. As she would later put it, “I went there so I could make up my own mind and talk about what I saw.”

On Friday, December 3, Sarah received a phone call from an FBI agent, who asked her if she could come in to answer some questions. When she asked what this was about, he said he “was not at liberty to discuss it.” She asked if she would need a lawyer present; the agent said it was up to her but that she was not in any trouble and that they just wanted to ask her a few questions.

Understandably alarmed, Sarah told the agent that she wanted to consult a lawyer and get back to him. She repeated that it would be easier for her if she knew what this was all about. He replied that it had to deal with the trip she had taken over the summer, adding ominously, “I think you know which one I’m talking about.”

Sarah later learned from her lawyer that she, along with her two friends, were being subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury.

Lest you think that Sara might be an undercover Hamas operative or a naive young radical, let’s let her father introduce her to you:

I don’t think I need to speak in defense of her character. While she was in high school, Crain’s Chicago Business had a special edition called the “100 Most Influential Women in Chicago” and they chose my daughter as being one of Chicago’s six most influential and up-and-coming women high school students. Crain’s Chicago Business chose her partly because they saw she was willing to travel to different parts of the world and see for herself and to make up her own mind about what was happening over there. Evidently, the FBI thinks that there is something criminal in doing that.

I myself have done similar trips as Sara more than once. So have many of my friends and colleagues. This Sunday, I’m going to leave with 20 members of my congregation to visit Israel/Palestine so we can, yes, learn about “what life is like for Israelis and Palestinians.” (More on that very soon.) Is this now standard operating procedure in our country: visit Israel/Palestine to get a real look at the conflict, expect a subpoena from the FBI?

If this all sounds sadly familiar, you might remember that back on September 24, the FBI raided the homes of anti-war activists in Minnesota, Chicago and Michigan and issued subpoenas to 14 of them. To date, they have all refused to testify and US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has since withdrawn the summons. However, he recently reissued subpoenas to three Minnesota women who are facing “indeterminate imprisonment” if they continue refusing to testify.

It’s beyond egregious. Back in September, it looked like freedom of dissent was now a potentially punishable crime. This definition of “crime” has now apparently been extended to include honest curiosity about the world around us.

Please visit the website of the Committee to Stop FBI Repression to learn more and for details about how you can take action. Click here to sign a petition that tells President Obama, Attorney General Holder, US Attorney Fitzgerald, et al to stop this growing FBI campaign of repression now.

On Rabbis and Racism

According to signator Rabbi Yosef Scheinen (left), head of the Ashdod Yeshiva: "Racism originated in the Torah"

From Ha’aretz:

A number of leading rabbis who signed on to a religious ruling to forbid renting homes to gentiles – a move particularly aimed against Arabs – defended their decision on Tuesday with the declaration that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews.

Dozens of Israel’s municipal chief rabbis signed on to the ruling, which comes just months after the chief rabbi of Safed initiated a call urging Jews to refrain from renting or selling apartments to non-Jews.

Needless to say, the reaction to this noxious ruling has been nothing short of thunderous throughout Israel and the Jewish world. Israeli politicians from Netanyahu on down have publicly called out the rabbis on their racism. The New Israel Fund is disseminating “Rabbis Against Religious Discrimination” a statement that calls upon Israeli rabbis to “take a strong public stand” against “this painful distortion of our tradition.”  At last count, 880 rabbis from around the world have signed on. Even the ADL has joined the fray in denouncing the ruling.

It’s been heartening to hear such an immediate and powerful Jewish communal response. Still, for all of the brouhaha, I’m struck – and fairly troubled – that there has been very little discussion of the fact that these rabbis are on the government payroll at all.

Indeed, it’s very easy to criticize rabbis such as this, but in truth, the mere existence of racist rabbis in Israel shouldn’t come as much of a shock to us. Truth be told, prominent Israeli rabbis have been disseminating xenophobia for some time now. Every religion has its religious extremist “spokespeople” – and Judaism is certainly no different on this score.

No, the real problem here is not the horrid personal beliefs of a handful of individual rabbis – the core issue is a political system that sees no problem in granting state authority to them – or to any clergy, for that matter. For me, this is the most disturbing aspect of this whole sorry episode: at the end of the day, these rabbis are ultimately part of a larger infrastructure of intolerance that inevitably results from wedding religion to nation-statism.

I was very happy to read that some left-wing Israeli politicians have gone as far as to call for the firing of the rabbis in question, but in the end, I’m just not convinced that this problem ultimately stems a few “rogue employees.” The real problem, I fear, has to do with a nation that claims to be both Jewish and democratic – but is finding it increasingly difficult to square that circle.