Anti-occupation Jews: Time to Do Some Bible Thumping of Your Own

Right-wingers use Jewish sources to legitimize the occupation. The Hayei Sarah Project aims to break this interpretive monopoly. Is it time for the anti-settlement left to take back the Bible?

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A soldier guards a Purim celebration in Hebron.
A soldier guards a Purim celebration in Hebron.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

The post-election fallout — including the hateful harassment and intimidation unleashed since Trump’s victory — threatens to relegate other human rights struggles to the sidelines. This is cold comfort to the Palestinians of Hebron who live under the boot of the occupation and in fear of settler violence and humiliation.

In the lead-up to this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Hayei Sarah, a grassroots initiative is attempting to refocus attention onto the situation in Hebron while “reclaiming” the portion. Partnering with Breaking the Silence and T’ruah, Project Hayei Sarah has been bringing rabbinical students and other Diaspora Jews on tours of Hebron. The initiative seeks to invite “Jewish communities into a conversation about the occupation and violations of human dignity.”

In the Torah portion, Abraham purchases a burial plot for his recently deceased wife, Sarah. A growing number of observant Jews see this annual Shabbat as an opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where, according to tradition, Sarah (along with almost all the other biblical matriarchs and patriarchs) is believed to be buried.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T'ruah, describes the Shabbat of Hayei Sarah as entailing “thousands of Jews descend[ing] on Hebron, while Palestinians “cower in their homes.” The temporary presence of so many Jewish pilgrims means the Israeli army imposes a curfew on all the Palestinian families living in the area of the tomb.

Politics experts know that appealing to the values of the target audience can be an effective tool of persuasion. These may be shared religious values, as in the case of Bono’s citing of Leviticus to encourage U.S. Senator Jesse Helms to agree to debt relief for developing countries as part of the Jubilee 2000 effort; or the kind of universal principle the blood diamond campaign deployed — getting consumers to see a symbol of romance as wrapped up in the gruesome violence of conflict.

When it comes to Jewish values and Israel advocacy, my own research points to something intriguing. Jewish groups who criticize Israeli policy often appeal to Jewish values, while Israel advocates often try to burnish Israel’s image through the language of universal concepts like democracy, science, sovereignty and history, as well as, more recently, attempts to “brand” Israel through universal appeals like “LGBTQ-friendly” or “hi-tech nation.”

Part of the reason for this counter-intuitive dynamic is psychological: those who identify with a group that challenges the accepted reading of a tradition and its values will first look for ways to even out the dissonance, to dissent from within that tradition, rather than leave the group altogether. Israel advocates, on the other hand, seek to appeal to a wide target audience’s core values, deliberately moving away from particularist associations. Often these values are chosen for their depoliticized nature, avoiding potential areas of controversy.

In the eyes of Project Hayei Sarah’s organizers, what are the Jewish values at stake?

Rabbi Jacobs points to two: pikuach nefesh (the preservation of human life as being paramount); and God’s statement, in Leviticus, that ‘Ki Li Ha’aretz,” The land is Mine. Citing contemporary violence as well as the 1929 Hebron massacre of Jews and the 1994 Baruch Goldstein massacre of Palestinians, Jacobs says, “The current government of Israel, as well as those who have chosen to make their lives in settlements, are prioritizing land over human life.” Jacobs continues, “If we don’t act justly in the land, the land is going to throw up its residents, God says.”

Adam Gillman, a student at the Jerusalem-based Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, and a facilitator for Project Hayei Sarah, sees the initiative as reflecting two other Jewish values: “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself” and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world).

Palestinians watch as an Israeli soldier patrols near Hebron.Credit: Reuters

But here’s the rub. While casting resistance to the occupation in the language of Jewish values certainly makes sense strategically, Jewish thought — like the ideas in most religious systems — is contested. And so are the political lessons to be drawn.

Some Jews see pikuach nefesh as pointing to the need for withdrawal from the West Bank; others see holding onto Greater Israel as protecting (Jewish) life against outside threats. Greater-Israel advocates also see Israeli control over Hebron as an extension of the Land-of-Israel settlement imperative sourced from the Bible. Still others see Tikkun Olam as demanding an end to the occupation; while there are those who believe that perfecting God’s world means keeping Hebron in Jewish hands.

So for those who criticize the occupation for undermining Jewish ideals – as when Center for Jewish Nonviolence activist Emily Hilton told me that “the occupation is a moral blight on my Jewish values, and on the Jewish experience,” or when Sarah Stern, after visiting Hebron, writes  that she “felt great guilt in calling myself Jewish in this place,” there are other Jews who write, ‘’Is it really worth risking your life to visit Hebron?’’Yes,’ my courageous side responded. ‘It's our holy Jewish land, even if others want to rob it from us.’” And then there is Maimonides, who said, “A person should always live in Eretz Yisrael, even in a city of gentiles.”

Even Judaism — though it may seem to entail a codified set of teachings — contains many perspectives, leading Aaron Hahn Tapper to name his Judaic studies textbook “Judaisms.”

At the very least, for Jewish human rights activists, this reclamation of Jewish sources points to the need for more Jewish literacy and textual engagement, something which many Jewish leaders — concerned about Jewish continuity — will no doubt welcome. Such a strategy may even save disaffected Jews from radical alienation from tradition altogether.

If our tradition sometimes suggests such contested political imperatives, we must ensure that universal values mediate our values and positions. And despite pro-settlement advocates’ best efforts to frame universal values as fodder for whitewashing the occupation, it’s clear that the international law and ethics that fuel universal values cannot support its continuation.

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter: @sucharov

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