The sun was big and bright, setting quickly over the South Hebron Hills. A group of international Jews getting ready for Shabbat in the Palestinian village of Susiya. Lighting candles, singing songs and sitting around talking about Abraham with one of our Palestinian hosts. It sounds like an odd scenario but it was a beautiful experience that I was lucky enough to be a part of. This was one of many incredible experiences we embarked upon during our 10-day convergence with the Center for Jewish Non-Violence (CJNV).
The CJNV is a group striving for the full equality and shared humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians. They engage in non-violent activism in the occupied territories and Israel, with the aim of bringing an end to the occupation.
On the 10th of July 2016, Holy Land Trust hosted 40 diaspora Jews from North America, Europe and one eager Australian came together in Bethlehem in order to stand up and say that “Occupation is Not Our Judaism”.
There were many anxieties from family members of participants, particularly concerned for our safety as Jews. My journey in particular was in spite of this very concern. I decided that as a Jew and a Zionist I needed to meet and speak with the actual people – the men, women and children – who are too often grouped as “the Palestinians”. And I can say with no exaggeration that my heart and mind were opened as I heard their stories, worked side by side in the summer heat and witnessed injustice unfold before me. Everywhere we went, I was welcomed with warm greetings and open arms. People were honest, genuine and above all else, inspiring despite their challenging reality.
I met Awdah, a Palestinian Bedouin man from the village of Umm Al-Khair (located in Area C of the West Bank). The homes of the village and the community center we ate lunch in, all have demolition orders from the Israeli Civil Administration. Despite residents owning deeds and documentation for the land, they are not allowed to build anything more than 30cm off the ground. They can apply for building permits but 99% of the time they are rejected. The main source of income for the village comes from agricultural work. However, when the village does not receive adequate water or electricity from the Israeli Civil Administration, this makes it near impossible to work the land, not to mention, live. Our mission there was simple, to clear as much of the land from weeds and rocks, and then plant Za’atar cash crops. This is what the community wanted, explaining to me that selling the Za’atar would produce significant income for the community and allow them to help youths finishing school, attend university in Hebron. When I asked Awdah what it meant for us to be there, he said he was so happy and thanked me so much.
I met Ahmad, a 7-year-old Palestinian boy from Susiya. Full of energy, smiles and high-fives. For him, our Judaism was intriguing, as he joined us for the candle lighting and the Shabbat service. He doesn’t know what we are saying but claps along enthusiastically. When we leave Susiya the next day he makes sure to go around and hug each and every one of us.
I met Fatima, a Palestinian woman with years of wisdom. She was expelled from her home some 30 years ago and now returns for the first time with her family and community. The multi-generational group of Susiya residents, from the elders of the village to the newborn babies, walked together with members of CJNV, some 200 meters down the road from where they live now. We entered what is now an archaeological site for an ancient synagogue. But to these people it is where they were born and grew up. They tell their stories to the kids and grandkids that are full of joy and excitement. For many of the adults it was an extremely emotional experience to come back. I imagined my grandparents showing me around where they used to live in Hungary before the Holocaust and I took pride in being able to accompany these families to this special place that they are normally forbidden to enter.
I met Issa, an intelligent, rational, warm and humorous Palestinian resident of Hebron. He is the founder of the organization Youth Against Settlements (YAS). He has dedicated his life to learning strategies of non-violence and through YAS, teaching young people the importance of non-violent resistance. He shared his experiences of being arrested multiple times by the IDF, being harassed by settlers and being stripped of the most basic human rights. I sat and listened intently, trying to soak up every word. I found myself wishing that everyone I knew could be sitting there and meeting Issa because despite the brutal reality of Hebron and the occupation, I’d never before met someone like Issa, someone so inspirational and hopeful in his pursuit for freedom and justice.
There were so many more as well, but I don’t want you to read about them from me. I want you to meet them for yourselves. I want you to see and experience the occupation for yourselves and then decide where you stand. For the sake of my Jewish liberation, I need to see the liberation of the Palestinian people as well. Jews need to unite together against injustice, especially when it is happening in our name. To recognize your own weaknesses is one of the most difficult struggles but it is not anti-Semitic and it is not anti-Israel to say that these people deserve to live full and equal lives. And for this to happen we must end the occupation.