Category Archives: JRC I/P Study Tour 2010

Tent of Nations Told to Stop Working its Own Land – Be Ready to Act!

Friends of Tent of Nations has just shared this upsetting letter from Daoud Nasser (above left):

Dear Friends,

Today, the 14th of  February at 1.30 PM and as we were working on our land, specifically in the tree of life orchard, we found on three different places ,  papers with maps signed by the civil administration of Judea and Samaria which is the Israeli military government.

The papers say that we have to stop working  on the land specified on the map, because they declared it as a state land. According to them, this land doesn’t belong to us but it is a state land and we are cultivating it. The papers also say  that if we want to challenge this order, we can appeal against it within 45 days in front of the military representative office.

It is a shock to receive something like that after 21 years of legal battle defending our land and the right to it in front of Israeli courts.

We sent those papers to our attorney in Jerusalem and he is going to appeal against it within the next days.

This is just to inform you about what happened today, please be aware that the situation might get worse, please be prepared in case actions are needed. In the meanwhile, our attorney will appeal against it and we will see what kind of reaction we receive”

We will keep you updated and will inform you about our next steps and how you can help.

Thank you so  much for your support and solidarity. Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers.

Blessings and Salaam.

Readers of my blog should be well acquainted with my friend and personal hero Daoud Nasser. Last year I wrote about Tent of Nations and my visit, together with twenty JRC congregants, with Daoud on his family farm.

This new development is just the latest in a long history of harassment courtesy of the military administration in the West Bank – an institution that provides the shameful “legal” cover for Israel’s outright theft of Palestinian lands. Please stand by – I will forward any further news from Daoud and let you know how you can act on his behalf.

“Social Justice” Israel Trips Must Not Cover Up Oppression

Here is a guest post by Michael Deheeger, who you may know from the radio interview about our JRC Israel/Palestine Study Tour last year.

Michael grew up in my congregation and has worked for several years as in Chicago as a political activist and a community organizer. His most recent job, from which he has just resigned, was as Program Director for AVODAH: Jewish Service Corps in Chicago.

On October 26, I resigned from my position as Chicago Program Director for AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. Each day I have spent in this job has been a blessing, but I have no choice in light of AVODAH’s decision to co-sponsor a 10-day “service-learning” trip to Israel with the American Jewish World Service through their joint initiative Pursue: Action for a Just World.

AVODAH and AJWS agreed to this trip as a grant stipulation for funding from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, a prominent donor in the Jewish nonprofit world, major supporter of pro-Israel causes, and Pursue’s principal funder.

I believe it is irresponsible for social justice organizations to organize a trip that focuses on “diversity, poverty and social integration” without meaningfully, and publicly, addressing Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian land, systematic oppression of Palestinians across “Israel proper” and the Occupied Territories, and enforced exile of Palestinian refugees.

I believe doing so contributes to the “normalization” of a deeply abnormal oppressive situation – presenting Israel as a liberal democracy with nothing more than the usual challenges rather than a state which imposes an ethnicity-based military regime on millions of people. It perpetuates the idea that it is acceptable to ignore Israel’s daily abuses of Palestinians in the pursuit of cultural, religious, financial or other interests.

Similar Jewish “social justice”, artistic, LGBTQ and environmental trips are often used to mount a facade of democracy over Israel’s state-sponsored human rights abuses.  It is well known that Israeli government ministries and American Jewish organizations have been collaborating on an extravagantly funded “Brand Israel” project designed to improve the country’s image abroad by “avoiding any discussion of the conflict with the Palestinians.” Arye Mekel, former Deputy Director-General for Cultural Affairs with Israel’s Foreign Ministry, has described this strategy as a way to “show Israel’s prettier face.” I have no doubt that the Schusterman Foundation has a similar agenda for this Pursue trip.

Through this trip, AVODAH and AJWS become active participants in covering up oppression, whether that is their intention or not. They publicly lend their organizations’ names and reputations to injustice, violating the social justice principles enshrined in their missions which inspired me to join AVODAH’s staff in the first place.

My decision to resign is informed by my support of the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Initiated in 2005, BDS is a call endorsed by the great majority of Palestinian civil society groups as a nonviolent strategy to pressure Israel into ceasing its systematic oppression of Palestinians.

I believe in listening to people fighting their own oppression when they lay out a strategy to achieve their human rights. For the overwhelming number of Palestinians, BDS is that strategy.  Being strong allies and taking our lead from people directly impacted by oppression is, in fact, a philosophy deeply held by organizations such as AVODAH and AJWS.

I decided to write about my decision in the spirit of Tokhecha, or sacred rebuke, a central value of Torah:

Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him” (Leviticus 19:17)

Rashi’s interpretation of “incur not guilt” is “Do not embarrass [them] in public.” My goal is not to embarrass or shame AVODAH or AJWS. I love and respect AVODAH, which is staffed by dedicated and thoughtful individuals, and which remains committed to open discussion on this and other issues among its participants and alums.

However, this trip communicates a public message – that these organizations are willing to overlook Israel’s oppression of Palestinians in exchange for funding. It therefore requires a public response.

My understanding of Tokhecha is that it includes the responsibility to help those to whom it is directed make amends. I echo the call put out by AVODAH alums and current Corps members that AVODAH and AJWS commit publicly to “never sponsor an Israel trip in this way again.”

We in the Jewish social justice community have a choice. On the one hand, we can stay silent and try to avoid provoking the ire of powerful donors like the Schusterman Foundation. On the other hand, we can publicly oppose, or at least not cover up, the oppression Israel commits directly in our name.

I have faith that our community, increasingly, will choose the latter, and that as BDS continues to gain traction among young Jews, there will be a growing cost in staff and participants for organizations that allow themselves to be used as cover for the oppression of Palestinians.

JRC Israel/Palestine Study Tour Featured in +972!

Aziz Abu Sarah has just posted a wonderful piece in +972 about our JRC trip to E. Jerusalem and the West Bank last December:

To my knowledge this is unprecedented, a delegation of Jewish congregants sleeping in Palestinian refugees homes, eating from their food, playing games with their children and grandchildren—a few even smoking hookah all night long with the youth of the camp. They talked about music, life, culture, romance, and–against my advice–even politics. The host families were the average Palestinian families and not the elite Palestinians. Some family members did not speak English, yet they did not have a problem communicating. They proved that the language of humanity transcends any linguistic boundaries…

Some Jewish extremists claim that if a Palestinian state is to be created, the Jews will not be able to visit their holy sites in the West Bank. They argue that Palestinians would not grant them the freedom to worship there. This argument is the basis for many settler justifications of the Occupation.

Nineteen Jews proved that this notion is not necessarily true. The Palestinian families in Deheisheh Refugee Camp did not mind hosting Jews, not just in hotels but rather in their homes. They stayed under the same roof, with no protection, no weapons or checkpoints. They were safe because they came as friends, not as enemies. They came with flowers and gifts, not with guns.

JRC Israel-Palestine Trip Featured on Chicago Public Radio

Our JRC Israel/Palestine Study Tour was featured today on the Chicago Public Radio program, “Worldview.” I was interviewed along with trip participants Marge Frank and Michael Deheeger for an extensive and quite wide-ranging conversation about our experiences.

The first half of the program featured an powerful interview with Israeli Palestinian solidarity activist Joseph Dana, whose important work I’ve cited on this blog on several occasions. All told, a pretty important hour of radio.

Click here to give a listen. I strongly encourage you to tune in for the entire program; if you choose to listen to our interview alone, click here.

Lessons In Humility – A Guest Post From Palestine

Photo by Mike Okrent

Here’s a guest post by Lynn Pollack, another participant from our JRC trip to Israel/Palestine:

I was one of the people on the recent JRC trip to the West Bank and Israel, but having visited three times before in the last few years I didn’t think I had that much to learn.  After all, I had devoted much of the last decade to advocating for a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians – a peace that includes an end to occupation and a beginning of real equality.  What could possibly move me on another visit?   Arrogant, huh?  Well, yes, and on this trip I was humbled many times.

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Initial Impressions and Later Reflections: A Guest Post From Palestine

Photo by Rich Katz

Here’s a guest post by Michael Shapiro, another participant from our JRC trip to Israel/Palestine:

Let me first thank Rabbi Brant Rosen for his vision and leadership in organizing this trip and for his astuteness in working with Aziz and Kobi.  They were articulate, deeply knowledgeable, warm and witty guides, but through their life histories and their relationship modeled the struggle for mutual understanding between their communities.  I am also grateful to Rabbi Rosen for the invitation to post on his blog.

The trip gave me a deeper understanding of the way the conflict burdens the lives of Palestinians.  It was no surprise to me that the weight of military occupation could be oppressive, but I now have a more acute sense of what it is like for those whose daily lives include humiliation and harassment at checkpoints or for those separated from farms, jobs, schools, and families by a wall built on their own land.

I will not forget hearing Marge Frank translate our Jenin host’s anguished and angry account of being made, more than once, to strip to his underwear at a checkpoint he had to pass through on his way to work in Israel. Nor will I forget the head of the Budrus Popular Committee, who led his village in a successful non-violent protest that resulted in a rerouting of the wall.  These and other equally indelible memories have deepened my understanding of the conflict and of the unconscionable injustice and suffering inflicted on the Palestinian people by the occupation and settlements.

In some instances, however, I have found that distance and reflection have placed initial impressions in a wider context and introduced  “complications,” a word that can sometimes mask moral callousness if not moral cowardice, but can sometimes challenge simplistic thinking by focusing  on  thorny realities. I would offer three examples.

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Hear O Israel, The Land is One: A Guest Post from Palestine

Here is a guest post from Leon Fink – another a participant of our JRC trip to Israel/Palestine. (Leon and his wife Sue toured Israel for a week before our group arrived):

An intense two-week, late-December trip to Israel/Palestine (the first segment visiting classic Israeli sites, the second as part of a synagogue-sponsored “listening tour” of Palestine) has left me with myriad impressions but one overall conviction.  Like it or not—and I know many American Jews as well as Jewish Israelis do not—both the welfare and future of Israelis and Palestinians are indelibly linked.  And the sooner the Jewish community recognizes the need for a common, dual stewardship of the Biblical Land, including both its human and physical resources, the better. 

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Aziz Blogs: “My Brother’s Kippah”

You might remember my post last week from Palestine, in which I described how Aziz Abu Sarah, our Palestinian tour guide, put on my kippah in order to enter the Jewish-only section of Hevron.

Now Aziz himself has just written a moving piece in +972 about his experience:

As we approached Shuhada Street I was thinking of a way to stay with the group. I wanted to show them Abu Seneineh neighborhood, where my ancestors came from before moving to Jerusalem 80 years ago.  I wanted them to see my aunt’s house and share with them my childhood memories about Hebron. So, I found myself devising a plan that would allow me to pass through without raising the soldiers’ suspicions.

Before arriving to the street, I asked Brant, the congregations’ rabbi, for his “kippah” (skullcap). I put it on my head and walked straight up to the Israeli soldier at the entrance of the street. I told him (in Hebrew) that I have a  Jewish group touring from Chicago that wants to walk through. He only had one question: “do you have any Arabs with you?”  I answered confidently, “No, they are all Jews,” and that was all we needed to get inside the “Jewish area.”

I was amazed by what a kippah could do. Suddenly, I was not suspicious and was transformed for the soldiers from an enemy to a friend.  The kippah became my entry visa, my access papers. I felt like it was my “shibboleth” into an elite club and the kippah was like the card I swipe to get in.

JRC in Israel/Palestine: My Final Thoughts

JRC Israel/Palestine Study Tour Participants 12/21/10 (Photo: Rich Katz)

My turn:

Our JRC Israel/Palestine Study Tour has been over for almost a week now, but I think I speak for everyone when I say it was a transformative experience for us all. I’ll also say that I am bursting with pride and admiration for my fellow JRC travelers.

I don’t know for sure, but I’m fairly certain this was an unprecedented Jewish congregational Israel tour. Most trips of this kind generally offer what I’d call a “hermetically-sealed” experience of Israel: an itinerary that remains largely west of the Green Line, offering participants a decidedly Jewish-centric perspective. I think most would agree it’s unusual for a rabbi to bring nineteen of his congregants on a trip that focused almost exclusively on East Jerusalem and the West Bank, spending the night in refugee camps, meeting with Palestinians, and learning from Palestinian civil society activists.

If I ever had any doubt, the reaction we encountered from those we met along the way drove this point dramatically home for us. Whenever we introduced ourselves and explained what we were doing, we’d invariably get the same open-mouthed reaction from our hosts. As the Israeli reporter Orly Halpern wrote me immediately after meeting with our group:

It was great meeting your open-minded and courageous congregation, Brant. Courageous because they were willing to hear the Other.

So yes, I’m very proud. Proud that we could take such a trip, and particularly proud of the congregational members who stepped forward to participate in it. Each and every one of them was willing to be deeply challenged – to lower their their ingrained defenses enough to face very real and painful truths – a reality that often directly contradicted the image of Israel with which they were raised.

Jewish Settlement in the heart of the Muslim Quarter (Photo: Rich Katz)

To be sure, it’s one thing to read about Israel’s oppression of Palestinians in the newspaper or hear about it second-hand; it’s quite another to witness it right in front of you where it’s impossible to rationalize or explain away. These congregants were willing to go places – literally and figuratively – where most American Jews remain resolutely unwilling to go. They were ready to let down their guard and be touched and transformed by what they saw.

And they were. Over and over and over again.

There will undoubtedly be those who will criticize us for taking a trip such as this, who will claim that our tour was “not balanced,” that is was unduly “biased,” that we didn’t take time to hear from the “other side.” I can’t help but be struck that these kinds of concerns are never raised when Jewish congregations organize Israel trips that pay scant attention to Palestinians and Palestinian life. And I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone in the American Jewish establishment criticize Birthright trips for being too “one-sided.”

I also believe that in our obsessive need to achieve balance, we conveniently ignore the fact that this is an inherently unbalanced conflict. As trip participant Marge Frank so eloquently put it in her previous guest post, “When one people is being oppressed and occupied by another, there is only one side to the story: that of the oppressed.” For most American Jews, it seems to me, the truth of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is impossibly difficult to admit – and so we habitually explain it away, rationalize it, or deflect it in the name of balance.

With Daoud Nasser in one of the natural caves on his family farm, Tent of Nations (Photo: Rich Katz)

At the end of the day, the experiences I wrote about on my blog this past week weren’t mere isolated examples of Israeli bad behavior. The home demolitions in Silwan, the attempted expropriation of Daoud Nasser’s family farm, the dehumanizing checkpoints, the racial separation and settlers’ harassment in Hevron – in the end I believe these are all part of a larger fabric of persecution. As painful as this might be for us to admit, these are not merely exceptional blemishes on the face of an otherwise healthy state. If any of us had any doubt about this, it became painfully difficult for us to deny once we saw it with our own eyes.

Kobi and Aziz, Hevron (photo: Rich Katz)

While our group experienced some profoundly dark truths, however, we also bore witness to very real signs of hope: the resilience and dignity of the Palestinian people and the inspiring example of those Israelis who stand in solidarity with them. In this regard we had no more powerful example of than Aziz and Kobi, our Palestinian and Israeli tour guides – two very courageous men who have transcended their own painful pasts and are now devoting their lives to reconciliation, justice and peace. As every member of our group will agree, they were truly our guides in every sense of the word.

For myself, I’m irrevocably committed to this journey now – and I am heartened beyond measure to know that there are American Jews who are willing to take it with me.

Busy Hevron street, (H1) (Photo: Rich Katz)

Shehadeh St. in Hevron (H2), now rendered completely off-limits to Palestinians

Demonstration at Silwan Peace Tent, E. Jerusalem 12/24/10 (Photo: Rich Katz)

Translation: "There is no holiness in an occupied city." Silwan demonstration, 12/24/10 (Photo: Rich Katz)

Jerusalem Has Other Lovers, Too: A Guest Post From Palestine

Silwan, E. Jerusalem, 12/24/10 (Photo: Rich Katz)

Here’s a guest post by Liz, another participant from our trip:

Looking back, it becomes clear to me that I fell in love with Jerusalem years before I would ever meet her.

We finally did meet for the first time in 1987, when I went to Israel on a high school summer program. Arriving instantly confirmed my feelings. I saw the forests of trees that I helped to build as a little girl all those times I answered the JNF’s call to give money to plant a tree in Israel. I saw the beautiful Jerusalem stone buildings everywhere. I saw Jews, feeling safe after the Holocaust, walking around proud to be there. I knew I was in love.

Subsequently, now that I was in love, I planned to spend my Junior year of college abroad in Jerusalem. But the Gulf War was launched the semester I was supposed to go and I was stuck in the US, separated from my lover. I missed being in Jerusalem so much that I told myself if I couldn’t go Junior year, then I would go for graduate school. I lived in Jerusalem from 1992-1996 and received my Master’s degree in English and Hebrew Literature from Hebrew University.

I was still in love. I was a young woman in my twenties living in Jerusalem walking the streets with pride — as though my whole life had led me to live, work, and study in this beautiful city. I deserve to be here, I am welcomed here, I need to be here.

Having just returned from the JRC trip to Israel/Palestine, I can’t get two things out of my mind. First, that my love for Jerusalem still runs very deep. And second, that it does for others even more so. Having stayed in the West Bank once before as a facilitator for Hands of Peace (a Chicago-based Israeli-Palestinian coexistence program), I was not blind to the Palestinians’ plight. For many of the Palestinians with whom I stayed, I was the first Jewish person they had met who wasn’t a soldier. They were hospitable, generous, and hungry to tell their stories. I listened, and when I returned to Chicago, I read everything I could.

This JRC trip, however, was very different. It was incredible to go with a group of Jews who had agreed to put themselves in emotionally vulnerable, uncomfortable situations which would require a lot of thinking, reflecting, and feeling. It was as though we all walked out onto a tightrope, knowing we could not go back.

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