What I Saw Last Friday in Hebron

Palestinians asked American Jews to join them in a 'Freedom Summer.' The result was extraordinary.

Peace activists clean around Palestinian houses as Israeli army soldiers stand guard in Tal Rumaida, Hebron, West Bank, July 15, 2016.
Mussa Qawasma, Reuters

Jawad Abu Aisha owns a cluttered yard in H2, the sector of Hebron that falls under direct Israeli control. He’d like to turn it into a cinema. Many local Palestinians — lacking recreational opportunities — would like to help him. But Abu Aisha says that Jewish settlers, and the Israeli military, prevent him from developing the space. In a democracy, if your neighbors impede construction on your property, you can appeal to local authorities. But for Palestinians in Hebron, Israel is not a democracy. They can’t vote for its government. They live under military law. So when settlers disrupt Palestinian construction on privately owned Palestinian land — as part of their effort to make Palestinian life in H2 so unbearable that Palestinians leave — the army and police do their bidding. The army and police, after all, are accountable to Israeli citizens. And in Hebron, as throughout the West Bank, Jewish settlers are citizens. Palestinians are subjects.

I saw this firsthand last Friday when I left a family vacation in Israel to join 52 Jewish activists, mostly from the Diaspora, on a trip to Hebron organized by the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and the anti-occupation collective, All That’s Left. We came at the request of a group called Youth Against Settlements. It’s burly, charismatic leader, a student of Gandhi and Martin Luther King named Issa Amro, asked Diaspora Jews to come and help clear Abu Aisha’s yard. He didn’t need American Jewish muscle. He needed American Jewish privilege, the privilege that gives American Jews protection from the Israeli state. Issa hoped that privilege would buy his group a few hours of uninterrupted yard work. He also hoped it would bring them publicity. 

Think of Issa as a Palestinian Robert Moses. By 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had been working for years to register African Americans in Mississippi to vote. But local whites brutalized them, often aided by the police. So Moses recruited northern white kids to come south for “Freedom Summer.” He hoped the media would follow, and that once white Americans saw segregation’s true face, they’d push their politicians to support civil rights. Among the more than 1,000 activists who heeded Moses’ call were Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, college students from New York whose murder, alongside African American James Chaney, has become American Jewish legend.

I’ll never know what it felt like to be in Mississippi in 1964. But last Friday, watching dozens of twenty-something American Jewish kids (and a few older activists) haul junk in Abu Aisha’s yard in Hebron, I felt an unusual sensation: hope. 

I felt hope because American Jewish Millennials are different. My generation, which came of age in the 1990s, didn’t build a single organization that challenged the American Jewish establishment on Israel. That’s partly because, during the Oslo era, we thought American, Israeli and Palestinian leaders would create a two-state solution on their own. But it’s also because the 1990s were a lost decade for the American activist left, an “ice age,” in Cornel West’s words. 

That ice age is now clearly over. From Occupy to Black Lives Matter to the immigrant “dreamers” whose protests forced U.S. President Barack Obama to change his policies on deportation, Millennials have brought street activism back to life. What happened last Friday in Hebron is part of that. Over the last few years, young American Jews have created three new organizations: Open Hillel, which challenges Hillel’s limitations on who can speak about Israel in Jewish spaces on campus, If Not Now, which protests American Jewish complicity with the occupation, and the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, which organizes peaceful resistance to it. Many of the young activists I met in Hebron were products of these groups and talking to them, I realized how formidable a challenge they’re likely to pose to the American Jewish establishment in the years to come.

They’re formidable because these kids don’t come from the margins of the American Jewish community. They come from its bosom. In Hebron, I met the son of a cantor, an alumna of the Orthodox youth movement Bnei Akiva, an Orthodox young woman who studied in a yeshiva not far where we were protesting, a Jewish day school graduate whose mother was connected to the yeshiva with Baruch Goldstein, a former activist in the century-old Zionist youth group Young Judaea, several former members of the socialist Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair, a young woman who grew up in Chabad, a young woman who taught Hebrew school at Chabad, a young woman whose right-wing Moroccan-Israeli parents immigrated to California, and a young man who until a few months ago worked at a prominent establishment American Jewish organization, until he couldn’t live with himself anymore.

The young people I met are also formidable because they’re learning things that American Jewish leaders don’t know. The dirty little secret of the American Jewish establishment is that its officials know little about Palestinian life under Israeli control. That’s by design. Mainstream American Jewish officials talk incessantly about Palestinians, but they rarely talk to them, in large measure because Hillel-style guidelines inhibit their interaction with people who cross their ideological red lines. Most American Jewish leaders have never met nonviolent Palestinian activists like Issa Amro. Nor have they personally experienced life under Israeli military law. The Jewish kids in Hebron have. On Friday, they got a tiny taste when the Israeli army declared Abu Aisha’s backyard a closed military zone, and then, after some activists retreated to Amro’s house, the army declared that a closed military zone too. 

Finally, the young activists I met are formidable because they’re brave. Several said they hadn’t told their parents what they were doing because they’d be disowned. The officials who populate establishment American Jewish organizations are, in large measure, careerists. I’ve lost count of the number of staffers at mainstream Jewish groups who have told me they privately disagree with their organization’s stance on Israel. There are true believers on the American Jewish right, especially from the Orthodox world. But, today, the American Jewish establishment is composed of many people who know in their gut that they’re defending the indefensible. In a confrontation between them and the young activists I met on Friday, I’d bet on the latter.

To be clear, I don’t think protests like last Friday’s will have a direct impact on Israelis. The protests are too American. It’s hard to imagine Israelis interspersing religious songs like “Kol ha'olam kulo, gesher tzar me'od” (“All the world is a very narrow bridge,” from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav) with civil rights anthems like “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” But the protests aren’t meant to change Israeli opinion. They’re meant to change American Jewish opinion, which could in turn change American government policy. And curiously, it was the very Americanism of the protest that made it so Jewish. 

Standing in Abu Aisha’s yard, the American-Israeli activist Moriel Rothman-Zecher explained it this way. The Israeli left, he argued, contains many people alienated by Judaism. They’re alienated because they identify Judaism with Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which controls subjects like marriage, burial and divorce, and with right-wing hyper-nationalists like Naftali Bennett. By contrast, American Jews, who live in a country where Judaism is not intertwined with the state, lack that hostility. As a result, they are more likely to see their activism as an outgrowth of their Jewish identity rather than as an attempt to overcome it. 

That was certainly the case last Friday. The activists I met weren’t speaking, and singing, about Judaism because they thought it was savvy public relations. They were doing so because Judaism is the language of their lives. At one point during the day, I heard several heatedly discussing whether the Talmud has anything meaningful to say about how to administer a Jewish state. At another, an activist told me about his experience studying Chayei Sarah, the Torah portion that describes Abraham’s burial of Sarah in Hebron.

Over the course of my life, I can remember several moments when contemporary events made me experience Jewish texts or tunes in a new way. I’ll never forget sitting in shul on the Shabbat after 9/11 and hearing the shaliach tzibbur sing Adon Olam to the tune of America the Beautiful. After last year’s terrorist attacks in Paris, I heard it sung to the tune of La Marseillaise. And I’ll never forget last Friday afternoon, when we stood outside the settlement that housed the prison where Rothman-Zecher and five other activists had been detained, and welcomed Shabbat by singing Shalom Aleichem and Lecha Dodi. The soldiers and settlers standing in front of us looked at us like we were mad. The Palestinians standing behind us looked confused too, but a Palestinian boy, smiling broadly, nonetheless ran over to us with cups of water.    

Why were we performing Kabbalat Shabbat? I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, it was partly to remind myself of who I am. I had spent the day working alongside Palestinians and being protected by them. I had spent the day fearing Jewish soldiers and police. It was a jarring experience. The normal order of things, as I had learned them since childhood, had been turned upside down. Welcoming Shabbat was a way of centering myself. It was a reminder that no matter how many people tell me I hate Judaism, the Jewish people and the Jewish state — no matter how many people tell me I hate myself — I know who I am. I know when I’m living in truth. And nothing feels more Jewish than that.

I’m not an activist by nature. I couldn’t organize a protest to save my life. But leaving Hebron last Friday, I vowed to come back next year, for the fiftieth anniversary of Israel’s takeover of the West Bank. Instead of 50 Jews, I hope we bring 500. I hope you’re one of them.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that when he marched for civil rights in Selma, Alabama, he was “praying with his feet.” I now know what he meant. And I know that, to be the Jew I want to be, I must pray that way again.