As I’m sure you know, Tzedek Chicago has received a great deal of attention – some might call it notoriety – for calling ourselves a “non-Zionist” congregation. But contrary to what our most cynical critics might say, we didn’t choose this label for the publicity. When we founded Tzedek Chicago last year, used this term deliberately. We did so because we wanted to create an intentional community, based on specific core values. Our non-Zionism is not just a label. It is comes from our larger conviction to celebrate “a Judaism beyond nationalism.”
This is how we explain this particular core value:
While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.
I think it’s important that we named this value out loud. We need Jewish congregations that refuse draw red lines over the issue of Zionism, or at best to simply “tolerate” non or anti-Zionists in their ranks as long as they stay quiet. We need congregations that openly state they don’t celebrate a Jewish nation built on the backs of another people. That call out – as Jews – a state system that privileges Jews over non-Jews.
However, I realize that this core value begs another question – and its one I get asked personally from time to time. It’s usually some variant of: “Saying you are non-Zionist only tells me what you’re not. But what is it that your Judaism does celebrate?”
It’s a fair question – and I’d like to address it in my words to you this morning.
Even though I’ve been back from the Center for Jewish Nonviolence delegation for almost a week now, I’ll take this opportunity to end this series with some final closing thoughts. There’s so much I wasn’t able to cover – and so much more to say about what I did – but I do at least want to highlight some of my major takeaways from this amazing experience.
To start: I have no doubt in my mind now that a genuine diaspora-based Jewish movement for Palestinian solidarity is rapidly growing. It’s real, it’s broad based and its gaining some serious traction. When I was first invited by CJNV founder Ilana Sumka to join this delegation, I went to their website and read that the trip would include Jews who come from a wide spectrum of organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street, Open Hillel, If Not Now and Students for Justice in Palestine. I will admit I was dubious. It was simply unprecedented for a Jewish organization to bring such an ideologically diverse array of Jews together to stand in solidarity with Palestinians.
But I also knew that if anyone could build such a Jewish coalition together, it was an organizer such as Ilana, who invests her head and her heart in creative and inspiring ways. The mission and values of CJNV are powerfully straightforward: the conviction that all individuals are equal based on our shared humanity and therefore have the right to be treated equally under the law; a commitment to principles and practices of nonviolent resistance; and unwavering opposition to Israel’s unjust occupation.
In our group there were obviously real political differences (i.e. BDS, the specific meaning of “occupation” and one state vs. two) but in the end we weren’t there to debate our issues – we were there to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. Because of our diversity we had a real strength in numbers; indeed it’s hard to dismiss 40 diaspora Jews openly responding to a call from Palestinians to stand with them in their struggle. It will be even harder next year, when CJNV organizes 200 diaspora Jews to answer the call. I have no doubt in my mind that there will be at least that many participants – if not more.
I also believe that this movement is the real deal because the majority of participants on this delegation were Jewish millennials. I’ve seen this coming for a while now: back in 2010 I wrote that there was a growing generation of young proud Jews who were openly rejecting the Jewish establishment’s orthodoxy on Israel. And I noted that they were “growing in number (and) rapidly finding their voice.”
Well, I’ve believe they’ve found their collective voice. Journalist Peter Beinart, who has also been warning the Jewish establishment about this phenomenon for some time, attended our action and later wrote in Ha’artez that after talking with these young activists, he “realized how formidable a challenge they’re likely to pose to the American Jewish establishment in the years to come.”
Another takeaway from this experience for me was the critical importance of solidarity as a discipline as well as a value. Far too often, leftist activists approach this kind of work using what I would call a “liberal benevolence” paradigm – i.e. helping oppressed people on their own terms rather than taking their lead from those who are most directly affected by this oppression. It was very clear to us through the course of this delegation that the leadership of CJNV had cultivated genuine, longtime relationships with Palestinians activists and Palestinian resistance groups on the ground. And every step of the way, we were reminded that the actions we undertook were at the request of our Palestinian partners.
It was crucial for us to understand that in the end, this is not ultimately our struggle – and that as diaspora Jews we have real power and privilege that we cannot take for granted. On the contrary, we were there to leverage our privilege to support the Palestinian struggle and to shine a light on a system that privileges one group of people over another in such blatant and immoral ways. In Susiya, the only reason the Palestinian villagers could return to visit their original homes was because as Jews, we could purchase tickets to an archaeological park for our entire group. In Hebron, we were well aware that as diaspora Jews, we could garner publicity about Tel Rumeida to an extent that would never be afforded to Palestinians alone. We were also we aware that as diaspora Jews, we were treated far better than the Palestinian activists from Youth Against the Settlements, who were arrested virtually on the spot by the IDF and Israeli police as we continued to work and sing.
It is our hope that through our privilege, we were be able to spotlight the courageous leadership of Palestinian nonviolent leaders such as Aziz and Eid Hathaleen of Umm al-Kheir, Nasser Nawaja of Susiya, Issa Amro of Hebron and Zuheir Elrajabi of Batan al-Hawa and so many others who engage in resistance every single day in their communities. It has been our honor to get to know them, to support their struggle and to do what we can to bring their work to the attention of the world so that many more might stand with them as well.
Yet another gift from this delegation: the opportunity to get to know the Israeli members of the Palestine solidarity community. It is too often said that there is “no longer such a thing as the Israeli left.” While this may be true politically, there is a small but thriving movement of Israeli grassroots activists who actively support the Palestinian struggle and are themselves worthy of our support. I’m referring to groups such as Tayush, All That’s Left, Rabbis for Human Rights and Breaking the Silence among others, who join direct actions, document abuses, help rebuild homes and provide legal support with their Palestinian partners. These Israeli activists are intensely stigmatized and marginalized by Israeli society – and are too often physically harmed in the process. To my mind, however, they are all that remains of the Jewish ethical soul in Israel. As the far right continues its inexorable political ascendance, I do believe these activists are among only ones left standing between sanity and the abyss. It was such an honor to work alongside them as well.
One final takeaway:
I mentioned in an earlier post that our Cinema Hebron action took place at an old factory owned by Jawad Abu Aisha. The Abu Aisha family is in fact, a venerable family in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron. Like many families there, they originally had amicable relations with the Jewish communities up until the late 19th/early 20th centuries. This relative peace was tragically rent asunder in 1929 when growing Arab-Jewish tensions resulted in the brutal murder of 67 Jews in Hebron. The trauma of this moment remains fixed in the memory of many Jewish Israelis. What is lesser known is that many more Jews would have been killed had they not been saved by their Palestinian neighbors.
The Abu Aisha family were among those neighbors. And to this day they keep a sacred record of their family’s redemptive act in 1929:
The paper that (Muhammad) Abu Aisha keeps in his pocket … is a faded photocopy of a page of “The Hebron Book,” a deluxe album that was published at the start of the 1970s in order to perpetuate the memory of the Jewish community that lived in the town until the massacre in 1929. Even though he does not read Hebrew, he knows very well what is written on the page, an account of those among the Arabs of Hebron who risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors. At the bottom of the page is a blurred photograph of two men embracing. “This is Ya’akov Ezra and this is my father, Hamed Abu Aisha,” says the elderly man.
As radical Jewish settlers began to move back into the heart of Hebron in the 1980s, the Abu Aisha family, like many other Palestinian families in that area, became targets of harassment and abuse. For at least two decades now the Abu Aisha family lives in what is known as the “caged house” in Tel Rumeida, with iron bars across their windows to protect them from settler violence. Their house and its adjoining properties are considered prime real estate by the extremist settler community who has been gradually encroaching on their property with the tacit permission of the Israeli civil authority.
But as our group worked alongside Palestinians from Tel Rumeida to clear garbage and weeds from the Abu Aisha’s property that Friday morning, I couldn’t help but think of the time not so long ago when the Jews and Palestinians lived together, side by side, not separated by “sterile roads” and caged windows.
And I couldn’t help but think that in some small redemptive way, our action might somehow be bringing Hebron that much closer to such a time once again.
Sunday, July 17: We spent most of our day in the Palestinian village of Silwan, just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Like Hebron, Silwan is being targeted by extremist settlers who are moving into the heart of their community, displacing residents in the process.
Our visit began at the Ir David (“City of David”) archaeological park. I first visited Ir David in the early 1980s, when it was a relatively small site where civilians could come and sift through the dirt for pot shards. Today, Ir David is nothing short of an archaeological Disneyland – and this is not an exaggeration.
As we approached, we walked alongside a slick mural with a David’s Harp mascot. The site itself was massive and felt like a state of the art theme park, packed with families and schoolchildren. Near the ticket booth, we could hear harp music softly playing in the background. On the surface at least, it would appear that this is a place for Israelis of all ages to have fun making Biblical history come alive. But there is a seriously darker side to the history of Ir David.
Ir David is run by Elad, a private settler association that seeks to claim land and create a Jewish majority in East Jerusalem. Elad’s founder is David Be’eri, a former deputy commander of an Israeli special forces unit. After starting Elad in 1986, Be’eri targeted his first home in Silwan: pretending to be a tour guide, he collected information about the the owners of the house (the family of Musa El Abassi). He then learned that some members of the Abassi family were living abroad – which meant the property could be confiscated under Israel’s Absentee Property Law of 1950 (which allowed Israelis to move into homes vacated when Palestinians fled or were expelled during the 1948 Nakba).
Our host was longtime Silwan leader/activist Zuheir Elrajabi. After lunch in the Al Bustan neighborhood, Zuheir took us on a short tour along Silwan’s narrow winding streets. Because of its proximity to Ir David, Al Bustan is a prime target for Elad; residents there have been living in real fear over the “legal” status of their land and property rights. Current plans for the area call for the demolition of 88 homes inhabited by 114 families (1,123 individuals) in order to construct a “King David’s Garden.”
We then walked up to Batan al-Hawa, another Silwan neighborhood targeted area by extremist Jewish settlers. This effort has been organized by Ateret Cohanim, an organization seeking to create a Jewish majority in East Jerusalem and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. (Take a close look at the pic below and see if you can spot the home occupied by Jewish settlers):
In some cases, families are evicted for adding on to their homes without a building permit (which are almost never issued to Palestinians). In other cases, Ateret Cohanim does research to see if any of the homes or buildings were owned by Jews prior to 1948; if so, they use legal means to “reclaim” Jewish ownership. (Perversely ironic considering the Absentee Property Law of 1950 invoked in Al Bustan argues exactly the opposite: that Palestinians expelled from their homes in 1948 forfeit the right to return to their homes).
Zuheir took us through the increasingly narrow streets of Batan al-Hawa, taking time to show one such home, a building with several units. All have been taken over by Jewish families except for one. The new Jewish residents have put a large metal door in the main entrance so the Palestinian family must ask the Jewish residents to open the door for them each time they need to enter or exit. The small number of settlers hire armed security guards to accompany them wherever they go – during the course of the day it was impossible to ignore these men with their wearing bullet proof vests walking up and down the streets of Silwan.
The situation at another home was even more dismal. The original owners, the Abu Nab family, had lived in the building since 1948, after their family was expelled from their home in present day West Jerusalem. Last year, it was ruled that Jewish settlers could take over the building because it was discovered that a Yemenite Jewish family owned it in the 19th century. As Zuheir showed us the front of the home, a large armored van pulled up and two security guards came around. An ultra-orthodox woman holding a baby with a toddler at her side got quickly out the van and walked quickly into the home with the guards following close by.
Most of the Abu Nab family have left the home except for a remnant that lives in a small structure at the rear of the building. Since that time, the settler family has thrown garbage down on and around their home and knocked their satellite dish off of their roof. In order to enter and exit the building, they must go up a small ladder in the rear of a home two houses away (first pic below), cross the roof of the home next door, then go down a long ladder to the ground where their small house is located (second pic below).
CJNV and All That’s Left had been asked to help the the Abu Nab family and their neighbors to clean up the area around their home – so for the rest of the afternoon we worked with them to haul garbage out of the site under the watchful eyes of the settlers and their security guards. In the clip below, taken and narrated by CJNV staff Shlomo Roth, you’ll get a good idea of how we spent our afternoon:
That evening, we engaged in another form of “Existence is Resistance.” In conversations with Zuheir and other leaders in Silwan, it was determined that we should take the opportunity of our visit to help the Batan al-Hawa neighborhood organize a block party in front of the Abu Nab home. The community felt that a party would be just the thing, given the day to day stress of eviction and dispossession constantly hanging over their heads. It would also give the children of the neighborhood the opportunity to run free and play – something they rarely do because of the narrow streets and intimidating presence of the armed security guards.
So while many of us were helping clean up the Abu Nab home, others from our group helped decorate the street with balloon and signs, chairs and tables. Then, as evening fell, our revels began. (See clip at the top of the post and below):
I think many in our delegation would agree that the Batan al-Hawa block party was one of the emotional high points of a trip that had many such moments. On the one hand it felt like a normal everyday party with children running, laughing and dancing, plenty of food, great music blasting. But during it all I was keenly aware that this “normal” party was nothing of the sort – it was something that rarely, if ever occurs in the oppressed environs of Silwan. Given the injustice inflicted every day on the residents of Silwan, even an ordinary party is itself a form of civil resistance.
About halfway through the party, we saw three men hauling something large wending their way through the crowd. As they got closer I could see it was the broken-off satellite dish we had hauled up out of the garbage piled next to the Abu Nab home. We placed it up against a wall at the end of the block. The dish was now a piece of art. Festively painted with a green and yellow peace sign, it bore the message: “Welcome to Batan al-Hawa”- “We Love Silwan.”
This past Friday, I had the honor to participate in an incredible, unprecedented mass action of civil disobedience in the H2 section of Hebron – in the heart of Israel’s unjust and illegal occupation.
I’ll start with a little bit of history:
In 1968, a year after Israel conquered the West Bank, a group of radical religious settlers led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, led a group of followers to a hotel in Hebron – with the government’s support – to observe a Passover seder. When it was over, they refused to leave; and following a negotiation with the government, they were allowed to create a settlement to the east of Hebron that they named Kiryat Arba Since that time, Jewish settlers gradually moved into Hebron proper. Over the years tension gradually increased in Hebron. Things changed drastically in 1995 after Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in the Ibrahimi mosque. Fearful of reprisals, the IDF imposed increasing curfews and restriction of movement on the Palestinian population.
In 1996, as part of the Oslo agreement, Hebron was divided into two sections: H1 and H2. H1 is locally governed by the Palestinian Authority and is home to approximately 120,000 Palestinians. Tens of thousands of Palestinians live in H2 along with 600 Jewish settlers. Since the Second Intifada, Israel increased their security crackdown on this part of the city, blocking off major streets to Palestinians – most notably the main commercial road, Shuhadah Street. (The army refers to them as “sterile roads”).
Virtually every Palestinian shop in H2 has been closed and their doors welded shut by the army. Because the Palestinian residents of Shuhadah St. are not allowed to walk on the road, they must enter and exit through the rear of homes because they cannot leave their own front doors. Because of these measures – and the ongoing harassment and violence at the hands of Jewish settlers – what was once the busting commercial center of Hebron has become a ghost town. 42% of its Palestinian homes are empty and 70% of its Palestinian business have been shut down.
We visited Hebron earlier this week and it was a truly chilling experience. Our group went on a tour led by Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli army veterans who are speaking out about the abuses the IDF are committing in Hebron. I did a BTS tour in 2008 during my first real foray into the reality of contemporary Hebron. Today, the situation there is even more dire if such a thing is possible.
Before we started our tour, we witnessed an incident in which a settler attacked an Israeli photographer and damaged his camera. As it turned out the photographer was the celebrated photojournalist Oren Ziv. who was accompanying a private BTS tour for Irish author Colm Tóibín. The incident was captured on film by a member of our delegation. He gave a copy of the video to Ziv so he could press charges against the settler for damages. (We never found out whether or not he actually succeeded).
As we walked down Shuhadah St., the intimidating presence of the settlers was impossible to ignore. At one point we saw Tóibín and his tour guide on the side of the road. A car with two settlers drove up and the driver proceeded to scream obscenities at them for ten minutes.
Hebron’s settlers are truly the most brutal, ideologically extreme and heavily armed of the entire settler movement. They walk and drive the streets with impunity and full protection of the IDF. As is the case throughout the West Bank, Jews are governed by Israeli civil law – and as a result the army cannot and does not intervene when settlers harass Palestinians. However, since Palestinians are subject to military law, they face dual oppression from soldiers and settlers alike.
After our BTS tour we walked to the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron to meet with Issa Amro, founder/director of Youth Against the Settlements. YAS is an increasingly powerful and important Palestinian nonviolent organization; among other things, it sponsors the annual Open Shuhadah Street campaign and regularly organizes/empowers the youth of Hebron.
Issa is truly a visionary leader in the Palestinian popular resistance movement. He has been arrested and detained countless times for his activism but has clearly become well known throughout Hebron as force to be reckoned with. Palestinian activists such as Issa tend to infuriate the Israeli military because their principled commitment to nonviolence cannot be quelled militarily. Although he and his comrades have been arrested and detained numerous times, YAS has come to represent a ray of hope for the Palestinian residents of Hebron.
We met Issa in the YAS center, which has an interesting history all its own. Originally Palestinian-owned, the building was taken over by settlers several years ago. But through a methodical campaign of legal pressure and nonviolent resistance, the settlers were eventually evicted and it was turned into YAS’s central headquarters. Last November, the center was raided by the IDF and temporarily declared a “closed military zone” (I’ll get back to this term later). Still, Issa and YAS remain steadfast.
On Thursday we prepared to return to Hebron for our nonviolent direct action, which had been almost two years in the planning by YAS and the Israeli anti-occupation collective All That’s Left. The Center for Jewish Nonviolence was invited to be part of this action as well so that its message could be strengthened through the solidarity of diaspora Jewry. CJNV has cultivated a strong relationship with both YAS and ATL and other Israeli/Palestinian partners on the ground. It is truly a sign of the times that diaspora Jews are joining this increasingly broad-based solidarity movement.
The goal of the action was to begin the process of turning an old metal factory in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron into a movie theater: Cinema Hebron.YAS chose to build a movie theater so that the isolated, segregated Palestinian residents of H2 could have a place to come together in community – to experience even a little slice of normalcy in this intensely abnormal, unjust environment. It was also designed to be a statement to the settler community that the Palestinian residents of Hebron will continue to resist the theft of their property – and that Jews from around the world are ready to stand in solidarity with them.
The factory is owned by Jawad Abu Aisha, the patriarch of a prominent family in Tel Rumeida. As was the case with the YAS center, Jewish settlers were gradually encroaching toward this particular property – and based on past history, it seemed it was only a matter of time before it was taken it over completely. Tel Rumeida is heavily desired by settlers and has long been one of the tensest areas of Hebron. (This past March, Tel Rumeida made the news after a solider was filmed shooting a wounded Palestinian in the head while he was lying in the street.)
We spent all day Thursday preparing for the action, which was prepared down to the most minute detail. Our plan was to go to the old, cluttered site, begin the process of cleaning it up and announce our intention to turn it into Cinema Hebron to the press. Inevitably the IDF and police would show up and eventually declare it a “closed military zone” – their standard operating procedure when dealing with protests.
Legally speaking, the military needs to get a signed order to declare a closed military zone, but they often dispense with that pretense. Our plan was to keep cleaning up the site until the soldiers returned with their order. In the meantime, we would put up a mock marquee, pass out Cinema Hebron popcorn, give interviews to press, chant and sing, and do our best to clean up the site before they soldiers and police ordered us out.
There were 60 participants all told – 40 from CJNV and another twenty from Youth against the Settlements and All That’s Left. Our group split up into three “pods” – Green (those who would work until the soldiers returned but would not take an arrest), Yellow (those who would would be willing to be arrested if it was deemed necessary by our leaders) and Red (those who would stay until they were arrested.)
As an extra precautionary measure, we drove to the site in separate vans to the site. Unfortunately, the military was somehow tipped off that there was some kind of action being planned for Hebron that day – and the van coming with ATF activists from Jerusalem was stopped en route. Our CJNV delegation all made it in safely, however. We gathered in an old metal warehouse until we were given the word that our tools had arrived. Then we put up the marquee and got to work.
The site was heavily overgrown with high weeds and all kinds of scrap metal everywhere. As we started raking, hauling, piling junk we sang a every Jewish song and civil rights chant we knew. In short order settlers started to gather, peering at us through the front gate. The IDF and police arrived soon as well – we worked for about an hour or an hour and a half before they actually entered the site. They began arguing with the Palestinian owners and after some back and forth, they eventually fell back and we continued with our work.
After another hour or so, they returned and announced that the area was closed military zone. At this point, the some members of our delegation left and the rest of us sat down in the middle of the site, continuing to chant and sing. A police officer came up to us and told us that our presence on the site was illegal and if we did not leave in two minutes, we would be arrested (below). When our two minutes were up, they started to physically remove us (see the clip at the top of this post). They shoved us to the back of the site, gathered us together and ordered to take out our passports. They then asked the six Israelis from our delegation to take out their identity cards and led them away. We were sent out in the other direction and told to leave the site.
At that point we gathered together and discussed what to do next. It seemed clear to us that the Israelis were targeted because they were easier to process – and that the authorities likely wanted to avoid the bad publicity of arresting internationals. When we received word from our lawyers that our six friends had been taken to the police station in Kiryat Arba, we decided to walk there together and demand their release.
After walking for only ten minutes or so we were stopped by five soldiers who told us we couldn’t continue because the area was (you guessed it) a closed military zone. We refused to leave and said we simply wanted to visit our friends in the police station. Thus began a stand off, during which the lead soldier called his commander four or five times. They clearly had never dealt with a group like ours and were somewhat bewildered that we wouldn’t leave when ordered. Finally Issa arrived and argued loudly with the soldiers. I’m not sure how he managed it but we were finally told we could continue along a detoured route.
We eventually made it to Shuhadah St., continued down the road, passed the Ibrahimi Mosque and headed up a hill that led us in the direction of Kiryat Arba. As we walked in, we were joined by soldiers who silently walked alongside us. It quickly became clear to me that they weren’t there to impede us but rather to protect us from angry settlers. (I’m fairly sure this was the first time the residents of Kiryat Arba had ever witnessed a group of singing diaspora Jews walking down the street wearing “Occupation in Not Our Judaism” T-shirts ).
We finally arrived at a gated area and faced yet another gauntlet of soldiers. After yet another round of back and forth, we were sent around to the front gate. Then we walked down a residential community to the end of the street where the police station was located. We talked to the guard at the front gate and explained we wanted to see our friends inside. After other policemen gathered we were told that our six friends were indeed inside but that we would not be allowed to see them. At this point, increasing numbers of residents from the neighborhood had come to mock and taunt us. Many of them filmed us with their cell phones. Eventually we sat down on the ground in front of the station gate and began to sing and chant once more.
The leaders of our delegation were in cell phone contact with the lawyers and our friends inside, who told us they could actually hear us singing and calling out their names. They were in the process of being interrogated by the police one by one but were otherwise fine. By this point quite a crowd had started to gather around us. We kept on singing as more police cars arrived. The original officer came back to us and told us that this was an illegal assembly – and that we had two minutes to disperse before they arrested us.
After talking with our lawyers, we decided against taking an arrest. They told us they believed our friends would likely be released in several hours, adding that our arrest would not help their cause and might even hinder it. So after spending an hour at the station we got up, walked together down the street and gathered near the front gate. As Shabbat was getting closer, we sang Shalom Aleichem and Lecha Dodi together with our other songs. Then together, we walked to a YAS home in H1 to meet up with the rest of our crew, eat a late lunch, debrief, share stories and nap after our physically/emotionally exhausting experience. Eventually we boarded our bus and returned to Susiya, in the South Hebron Hills where we would spend our Shabbat.
That evening just after a gorgeous sunset, we made a circle on a rocky hill and I began to lead our Shabbat service. As I prepared to lead Lecha Dodi, the prayer that welcomes the Shabbat bride, I heard someone shout. I looked up and saw two cars pulling up. Our six friends got out, grinning ear to ear as we cheered their arrival. After lots of hugs and laughter, we all continued with our service.
Shabbat had arrived.
(PS: You can read about our Cinema Hebron action here and here and our Shabbat in Susiya here).
This morning the Palestinians of Susiya returned to their original home, if only for a brief moment.
Khirbet Susiya is a village in the South Hebron Hills where until recently, Palestinians lived for at least a century. The people of Susiya originally lived in caves and maintained a simple agrarian life, cultivating fields and shepherding their flocks. Everything changed when Israel began to archaeologically excavate their land in the 1970s, eventually uncovering an ancient synagogue underneath a mosque on the land. In 1983 a new Jewish settlement, also called Susiya was established nearby. In 1986, Israel expelled Palestinian villagers and expropriated their land. They moved to an area close to the settlement of Susiya and the original site of the village; in 1991 they were expelled from this site as well. They eventually went to live elsewhere on their cultivated farmland, where they still live today.
The people of Susiya have been engaged in a constant fight to remain on their land where, like the Bedouin residents of Umm al-Kheir, they under the constant threat of demolition and expulsion. Their struggle has gained the attention of solidarity activists in Israel and around the world – and their cause has now even reached the EU and the US State Department.
This morning, our delegation went to Susiya to help them briefly return to the site of their original homes. It is now located in an archaeological park; as is the case in so many other sites around the country Israel uses archaeology to lay claim to the land – and highlight its Jewish history in a manner that erases the memory of any people who might have lived there before.
Today’s action was undertaken by the Center for Jewish Nonviolence along with the Israeli anti-occupation collective, All That’s Left. The plan was fairly simple. We met the villagers in Susiya and walked down the road to the entrance of the archaeological park. We then bought tickets for Jews and Palestinians alike and just entered the site.
At least three generations were represented, including adults and elders who remembered their life before the expulsion as well as children who were seeing their families’ original home for the very first time. The children ran ahead immediately, peering down into wells, running up and down the stairs of the ruins. It’s hard to describe the emotions we felt as we watched parents and grandparents showing their children their place where they played as when they were young.
We gathered at the site of the synagogue and heard from village leaders who told us stories about their life in their village before the expulsion. In the picture above you can see Nasser Nawaja (in the blue shirt) and his father and mother speaking to our group, with CJNV leader Isaac Kates Rose interpreting their words for us. We also heard from Fatma Nawaja, who related to us in depth her memories of when Israeli archaeologists first came to their village. At first their relations were quite friendly she said, and they would often offer the workers food and drink. They had no idea, said Fatma, that this project would one day cause them to be expelled them from their homes.
She also told us about the village midwife Haji Sara, who delivered many of the young people who were present at our gathering. Haji Sara was no longer alive, but Fatma made a point of telling us how much this moment would have meant to her. Later, when we toured the site, we were shown the cave that was Haji Sara’s home (below). It is now used to house a multi-media presentation on the archeological site.
While we were fully prepared for the IDF to interrupt our visit (and had a nonviolent contingency plan in place), thankfully this did not occur. It was truly a blessing to be able to experience this visit without the traumatic presence of soldiers to remind the villagers of the brutal reality of their life under occupation. As it turned out, as we walked back to Susiya, we saw a green bus filled with soldiers roaring toward the archaeological park. About ten minutes later it passed us, heading back in the opposite direction. (Mission accomplished).
It seemed to me that there was something very Jewish about this witness of the exiled returning to their homes. Of course I was also aware that it was our own Jewish privilege in an ethnocentric nation-state that allowed this to brief return to happen at all. We can only hope that this moment offered us all a glimpse of a future when all Palestinians will be able to return to their homes
Tomorrow we’re going back to Hebron, then back to Susiya for Shabbat. I will be reporting on something very special in my next post.
Today we spent a second morning/afternoon in Umm al-Kheir. While one half of our group continued to clear the field for zatar planting, the rest of us went to the other side of the village to rebuild one of the thirty five homes that was destroyed this past April.
Our group was led by a village leader named Eid Suleiman Hathaleen, who did his best to explain the complex, Kafka-esque bureaucracy behind the IDF’s practice of home demolitions and land confiscation. The IDF’s Civil Authority relies on an arcane mix of land laws from the Ottoman, British and/or Jordanian administrations – the three legal systems that once governed what is called today the West Bank. One such law states that those who claim rights in rocky land must prove that they cultivated at least 50 percent of the entire parcel – otherwise, the entire parcel will be deemed state land and Palestinians will be left with no rights whatsoever. For this reason, we are helping the villagers expand their tillable land.
As I mentioned in my last post, the Bedouin residents of Umm al-Kheir purchased their land from the Palestinian town of Yatta over 6o years ago after their expulsion from the Arad region of the Negev desert. In the picture below Eid and his father Suleiman Hathaleen the patriarch of village, shows us the original document that gives his family their rights to the land.
Despite their clear legal right, Eid and his fellow villagers are constantly on the verge of eviction and the regular reality of home and structure demolitions. The Civil Authority can demolish homes and structures for any number of reasons: it can claim the area to be a military “firing zone,” it will deem a house over 35 meters to be unlawfully high, or it might respond with demolition orders for any structure based on complaints from settlers.
The neighboring settlement of Carmel has lodged several such complaints against the people of Umm al-Kheir; once, for instance they sued the village over the smell of manure, which resulted the demolitions of their chicken coops and sheep/goat pens. Perhaps the most bizarre complaint occurred over the aroma of baking bread from the village’s communal taboun (oven). Yes, they were actually forced to go to court to keep the Israeli army from demolishing their stove.
As we prepared to our work rebuilding the home, Eid explained that it was being constructed in different location than the original since demolition orders still apply to any homes or structures built on the same sites. By rebuilding in another spot, the entire bureaucratic process would have to be started from the beginning, and could take up to a year or more to be completed.
There are several new temporary structures donated by the European Union in different locations throughout the village. They are simple metal boxes, essentially four walls without floors. Our job was to take the rubble from the demolished homes and haul them to the new sites to create a floor for one of the new structures. In the picture below, a few of us are shoveling rubble into wheelbarrows to bring over the new home. The picture beneath it shows the final product of our work – not a complete floor yet, but hopefully a good start:
On our way back to the fields, Eid took us on a short detour to show us his art studio. Among other things, Eid is a talented self-taught artist who makes miniature trucks, bulldozers and helicopters from scraps he finds from his village, most of them from demolished structures (see pic below). As he explained it to us, these models (which are so intricate that the steering wheels of the vehicles actually move their tires) constitute a form of artistic resistance – i.e. making something constructive out of acts of destruction. There is of course a profound irony that Eid creates for instance, the very Caterpillar bulldozers that regularly come to destroy his village. Of course this is an intrinsic part of his artistic intention. (You can see more of Eid’s work, contact him or order items from his website here).
Our group then returned to newly cleared field to plant hundreds of zatar plants (pic at the top of this post). While summer is not the traditional time for planting, it was important for the people of Umm al-Kheir to get the plants into the ground as soon as possible for the above mentioned legal reasons. After the planting, the villagers quickly installed irrigation pipes to keep the ground well watered.
I’m sure that some reading these words might be asking why they are working so hard to rebuild homes or sow plants that were all too likely to be demolished or uprooted by the IDF? The answer of course, is that this work is a very disciplined and steadfast form of resistance. The goal of Israel’s draconian military/legal bureaucracy is ultimately to make things so intolerable for the people of Umm al-Kheir – and so many other Palestinian communities throughout the West Bank – that they will eventually be driven from their homes. However, it is all too clear to us that their connection to their land, their homes and their communities is unshakeable. As Sulieman Hathaleen, the patriarch of Umm al-Kheir recently said to a reporter,
We went through so many catastrophes: 1948, 1967 and now the settlements, which have taken most of our land. They left us with nothing. And now they want to expel us. But we will not leave.
I believe him.
After lunch, we traveled to Hebron to tour Area H2 with a guide from the Israeli organization, Breaking the Silence. I’ve written about Hebron and BTS several times before (here and here, for instance.) For now I will only say that the situation in Hebron is even more appalling than ever – if such a thing is even possible. After the tour however, we met with Palestinian non-violent activist Issa Amro (below), the inspiring founder of direct action group Youth Against the Settlements. YAS is truly one of the bright lights in the dark reality that is Hebron and is becoming most well known for its Open Shehudeh Street campaign.
I will have more to say about Hebron, Issa and Youth Against the Settlements in future posts. Stay tuned.
For our delegation’s first day in the field we traveled to the Bedouin village of Umm al-Kheir in the South Hebron Hills.The Bedouin residents of Umm al-Kheir came to this region over 60 years ago, after they were expelled from Tel Arad (in the Negev desert) by the Israeli military. After coming north, they purchased this land from the Palestinian village of Yatta and lived there peacefully until the mid-1980’s, when the Jewish settlement of Carmel was built directly next to it.
Since that time every structure in Umm al-Kheir has endured a series of home and structural demolitions. Meanwhile, since Umm al-Kheir is not officially recognized by the Civil Authority of IDF, it has no access to electricity or water and must depend on solar panels and trucked-in water to survive. The entire town is essentially remains under demolition order; the reality of this constant threat has become a part of daily reality for the people of Umm al-Kheir. The latest occurred this past April, when the IDF destroyed six homes and left 35 villagers homeless.
The village looks as you might expect, with small metal homes and pens for their sheep and goats. They have also constructed a larger structure to serve as a community center and have begun to clear out land for agricultural use. For the people of Umm al-Kheir, existence is resistance.
As I wrote in my previous post, the village of Umm al-Kheir asked the Center for Jewish Nonviolence to help them finish clearing out their land and to plant grow zatar (thyme). This agricultural work is itself an act of defiance – and a statement by the villagers to the military Civil Authority that they intend to remain on their land even as they live under the constant threat of expulsion.
After we arrived, our group was warmly welcomed by our host Aziz and were given a brief history of the village and the current state of their struggle with the military and the settlers who regularly harass them. We then spent the morning clear out their field of rocks and weeds to make the ground viable for planting:
Take a close look at the picture above. Just behind the three members of our delegation you can see the proximity of the village to Carmel, which lies just beyond the chain link fence. As we worked, it was impossible to ignore the presence of this settlement, filled with beautiful homes and green lawns literally looming over the village. At one point a soldier drove up on the Carmel side of the fence, got out of his car, and watched us for the duration of the afternoon.
During our rest breaks, we had the chance to talk with several of the villagers and play with the children. At one point, we were joined by a small group of young people celebrating, carrying one of their friends on their shoulders. We were told that he had just passed his High School matriculation test (the equivalent of the SAT in the United States) and was now eligible to apply to University. They joyfully taught us a Bedouin song so we could join in the celebration with them.
As has always been the case whenever I’ve visited Palestinian villages or refugee camps, our hosts showed us profound and gracious hospitality. After work, we shared a delicious lunch together, after which there was more singing and an awesome dance performance by the children of the village. Needless to say, it was a day of many mixed emotions for our delegation. We return tomorrow to finish clearing out the field and start the planting of hundreds of zatar plants.
After lunch our delegation visited the village of Susiya, where will working later this week (stay tuned.) We also visited Al-Twani – the largest village in the South Hebron Hills. There is much to say about this remarkable place, which is the center of the Palestinian nonviolent movement in the region and also the home to a notable archaeological site. I’ll write more about Al-Twani in a future post.
For more on the struggles of Umm al-Kheir, I highly recommend this 2011 article from Ha’aretz. For now, it’s off to bed after a long full day.