The Young Jewish Americans Coming to Israel to Fight the Occupation

Some 130 overseas Jews are part of an initiative to restore Palestinian families to their West Bank village. 'We’re here until the end' says one activist

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A youth flying the Palestinian flag at the Sumud Freedom Camp in the West Bank, May 25, 2017.
A youth flying the Palestinian flag at the Sumud Freedom Camp in the West Bank, May 25, 2017.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

SUMUD FREEDOM CAMP, West Bank – Fadel Amer is preparing dinner in his cave for an unusual mix of guests: Young Jewish social activists from North America, leaders of the Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement and a former Israeli combat soldier.

It will be a rather simple meal of stewed tomatoes, fava beans, hummus and pita bread. But Amer feels it is the least he can do to thank those who have devoted their time and sacrificed their comfort to join in his struggle.

Amer was born in this very cave in the village of Sarura 55 years ago. It’s all that remains of the village today. About 20 years ago, frightened by settler violence and an Israeli military crackdown, all of the residents of this tiny hamlet in the South Hebron Hills gathered their belongings and moved away.

Sarura is one of a dozen villages near the Palestinian town of Yatta whose residents, many of them cave dwellers, were – and in some cases, still are – threatened with evacuation and dispossession.

Now, with the help of a newly formed coalition of Jewish and Palestinian anti-occupation groups, they are looking to return.

Last week, a group of some 300 Palestinians, Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews joined forces with the original Sarura families to build the Sumud Freedom Camp (“sumud” is Arabic for “perseverance”) on the grounds of the former village. Their mission is to make Sarura habitable once again so that all the former residents can return.

Two Jewish anti-occupation groups are participating in the initiative – the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and All That’s Left – alongside two Palestinian organizations that promote nonviolent resistance – Youth Against Settlements and Holy Land Trust – plus Combatants for Peace, a group of Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.

About 130 political and social activists from Jewish communities abroad – mainly the United States – are participating in the initiative, which is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation.

A father of 10 who wears a black-and-white keffiyeh around his head, Amer has become the activists’ test case. He is the first resident of Sarura to return to his previous abode. Over the past few days, with the help of activists camped outside, the cave where he was born and grew up is once again a livable space. Several of his cousins and nephews plan to follow his lead and move back over the next few weeks, he says.

“I was born here and I will die here,” he declares.

The air is quite chilly by evening and the camp residents have put on sweaters and are lighting bonfires. The fires also provide light, since there is no electricity here.

Last Friday, the day they arrived, four tents were set up: two for storing supplies; one for sleeping; and another to serve as a lookout post should unwelcome visitors try to cause trouble. The Sumud camp is located just a few hundred meters from Havat Ma’on, an illegal settler outpost with a history of hostility toward the local Palestinian population.

Last Sunday, after two quiet days with no disturbances, Israeli army troops stormed the site, tearing down three of the four tents and confiscating the generator activists had brought with them. One of the tents was reerected, but on Thursday morning Israeli troops returned and tore it down again. The Sumud camp residents were told their encampment was illegal, but were not served with any written orders from the army.

During Thursday morning’s confrontation, Isaac Kates Rose, a Canadian-Jewish activist, was detained for two hours after he tried to block the soldiers. Sumud residents reported that he was released after they complied with an army demand that they tear down their lookout tent.

This latest setback has not affected their resolve to stay put until all the former residents are back in their original homes.

“We’re here until the end,” says Ashley Bohrer, a campaign organizer for the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, who is among the small group of hard-core activists who have spent every night at the camp since it was erected.

‘Not our Judaism’

It is a bumpy and rather hazardous ride up to the campsite, located about a kilometer up the road from the village of Atwani and best navigated with a jeep. The evening before the army paid its second visit to Sumud, about a dozen activists were chilling in the big tent erected just outside Amer’s cave, a Palestinian flag attached to a pole right in the center. They huddled in clusters on mattresses spread on the ground. Some drank sage tea in plastic cups to keep themselves warm, others passed around a hookah, while the fortunate few with some battery life in their cellphones made contact with the outside world.

Squeals of delight erupted when the overhead bulbs suddenly lit up. “Hey, everybody,” a young activist called out in English. “We can recharge our phones! The electricity is back.” A quick inquiry revealed that Amer had used his connections to tap into the generator of a nearby Palestinian village and that electricity would be available for the next three hours.

Bohrer, 28, wears a purple T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Occupation is Not Our Judaism.” Her path to becoming a Jewish star of the Palestinian solidarity movement was not immediately obvious. She grew up in Los Angeles in a family that belonged to Chabad (the Orthodox outreach movement).

After she began studying Arabic in George Washington University, she says she “began to see with new eyes the horrors and brutality of the occupation.” Her initial response to this awakening was to deny her Jewish identity. It was only during the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, when she encountered like-minded members of her faith for the first time, that she understood being Jewish didn’t contradict opposing the occupation. “It was an earth-shattering moment for me,” she says.

Bohrer, who teaches philosophy at Hamilton College in New York, was involved in a similar collaboration last year between Palestinians and anti-occupation Jewish activists, mostly from the Diaspora, to build a new cinema in Hebron. A year earlier, she participated in another joint initiative to replant Palestinian-owned olive trees uprooted by settlers.

A founder of All That’s Left, Kates Rose moved to Jerusalem four years ago after graduating from the University of Toronto, in order to be closer to the eye of the storm. Today, he serves as local organizer for the Center for Jewish Nonviolence.

The roots of his social activism, he says, were planted in his Toronto home. “You could say it started with a magnet my mother kept on the kitchen fridge,” he says. “The magnet said, ‘Be Kind – No Exceptions.’”

Antwan Saca, director of programs at the Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust – a Palestinian organization dedicated to nonviolent resistance – is in charge of social media here. He live streams all the encounters and confrontations with the Israeli army through his Facebook page. More than 15,000 viewers followed the clashes on Thursday morning through his feed.

Saca doesn’t find it strange that Jews have joined forces with him to oppose the Israeli army. “When the Jews marched with Martin Luther King Jr. to advance civil rights in the United States, that was a role model for us,” he says.

Elie Avidor is a relative latecomer to the world of political activism. The 66-year-old fire safety consultant, who joined Combatants for Peace about a year ago, has spent the past two nights in the camp, hanging out with people who, on average, are less than half his age. Avidor, who fought in the Golan Heights during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, spent 20 years in the United States and Canada before moving back to Tel Aviv a decade ago.

“What turned me into an activist was attending my first joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day service last year,” he says. “You can’t go to something like that and be unmoved. So after that experience I asked myself, ‘What can I do to help create change?’” When asked how active he is in his organization, Avidor responds with a grin, “My wife would say way too active.”

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