Opinion

It's Offensive to Say We American Jews Are "Parachuting In" to Anti-occupation Protests

Yes, we international Jews do make the headlines but it's so Palestinian voices, at last, will get heard

Sumud: Camp Freedom coalition member organizations
Gili Getz

A coalition of Palestinians, Israelis and international Jewish activists recently supported members of a Palestinian family return to their legal homes in the displaced village of Sarura in the South Hebron Hills by establishing Sumud: Freedom Camp. In an opinion piece in Haaretz (“Why American Jewish Activists Must Help, Not Headline Anti-Occupation Efforts”) Mikhael Manekin, a long-time activist and organizer, took issue with the Diaspora Jews who made media headlines, claiming that these activists were "parachuting in", and declaring that they "demonstrated...clear disinterest with local Israeli and Palestinian politics."

In the context of Sumud: Freedom Camp, this claim is profoundly unwarranted and misses three critical points.

First, we, local and international Jewish activists, stand in solidarity when and where local Palestinian activists ask that we do. Our activism is, and has always, directly hinged on groundwork laid by Palestinian popular committees and non-violent movements, like Youth Against Settlements, and joint Israeli-Palestinian groups like Ta’ayush.

Sumud: Camp Freedom. 20 May 2017
Gili Getz

Sumud: Freedom Camp was coordinated over the course of a year by a broad, unprecedented coalition of Palestinian, Israeli and International actors - from Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees of South Hebron Hills and the Holy Land Trust, to the joint Israeli-Palestinian group Combatants for Peace. Far from "parachuting in", we take part in local coalitions and partnerships. And we build long-term relationships which become the cornerstones for our activism. The same is true for the recent Jerusalem Day action, where a Palestinian-led coalition, including local Israeli and American-Jewish organizations, disrupted the infamous right-wing march through Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter.

Manekin wants us as "external actors" to "focus on promoting and growing the local political forces who will ultimately change the political climate in Israel"  - and that is what we did. And we did it in the Occupied Palestinian Territory of the West Bank, not in Israel. Where Palestinians, not Israeli progressives, are changing the political climate. The claim that the Diaspora Jewish partners in this project, All That’s Left: Anti Occupation Collective and the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, were somehow tone-deaf to local concerns is offensive not only to us, but to our Palestinian and Israeli partners.

Second, our identities are complex. Manekin sets out a litmus test for identity, arguing if a Jew does not live in Israel, his or her role must be limited; living in Israel as a citizen is how one obtains deep knowledge of local politics and thus a seat at the table. But many in our movement are Israeli, or American-Israeli, live or have lived in Israel for decades or more; many of us have close relationships with local activists and have spent years learning and engaging with Israel/Palestine.

Sumud Camp participants visiting Bethlehem 21 May 2017
Gili Getz

Moreover, for those of us United States-raised, when AIPAC asks us to "defend Israel", when Hillel’s guidelines restrict criticism of the Jewish state, and Birthright bus after Birthright bus demands we fall in love with Israel but never talks about occupation, we know that we are already involved. When the Israeli government demands the fealty of Diaspora Jews, speaks in our name, and takes money from our governments and our American Jewish institutions, we do have a place.

We first responded to this reality by building our movements. We continue to respond by building methods and discourse founded in co-resistance and solidarity primarily with those most affected by occupation, Palestinians, as well as with Israeli concerns and sensitivities. We feel bound and obligated to actively take a stand and organize against the oppression we are being asked to support.

Lastly, we do not write the headlines, but we do know how they are written: When Palestinians engage in nonviolence, and get detained or beaten, there is, unfortunately, no story. When the same happens to international Jews - we make headlines. While Manekin’s critique correctly identifies this deeply problematic bias inherent in media coverage of issues here, he fails to realize that many Palestinian - and Israeli - activists have long since identified the same problem and have thus sought out Diaspora Jews and American-Israelis to join their protests and campaigns. Our privilege is such that when we are present, Palestinian voices, which should be at the center, can be amplified in new ways.

Sumud Camp participants visiting Bethlehem 21 May 2017
Gili Getz

These headlines are not made, as Manekin crudely implies, in order to pat ourselves on the back and go home happy, never to consider the next day, never to know what becomes of those who we worked with. Quite the opposite. Sarura still stands. Every day since the Sumud: Freedom Camp’s establishment, international Jews - and some Israelis, too - have been on site, working, cleaning, cooking Iftar feasts, and sleeping alongside local Palestinians and Israelis so the families of Sarura can continue to sustain themselves on their lands.  

Manekin closes his article by writing, "progressives will get more things done by learning from each other rather than talking past each other". We agree. That’s what we’re doing. He, and all Israeli progressives, Palestinian activists, and international Jews who want to see the occupation end and engage in joint, nonviolent, direct action, are welcome to join us in Sarura.

As Fadel Aamer, the owner of Sarura’s central cave, said to us when we arrived: "Everyone is invited - if we are together, no one will move us from this place."

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Natasha Westheimer is an Australian-American researcher, organizer, and filmmaker in the Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian water management sectors. She is a Tel Aviv-based member of the All That's Left: Anti Occupation.

Oriel Eisner is an Israeli-American living in the U.S. and working as a U.S.-based organizer with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence.