Opinion |

Punched, Dismantled, Unbowed: How Diaspora Jews Are Unsettling the Occupation

In our West Bank protest camp, being a Jewish nonviolence activist is no immunity against manhandling by the Israeli soldiers I grew up in America believing were our superheroes who'd protect me from harm

Ilana Sumka
Ilana Sumka
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Sumud: Freedom Camp in the West Bank, 19 May 2017
'US Jews can’t, won't, stay out of Israel’s affairs': Sumud: Freedom Camp set up by Diaspora Jews in the West BankCredit: Gili Getz
Ilana Sumka
Ilana Sumka

I grew up as a young Jewish girl in 1970s America, certain that the Israeli army was nothing less than a band of superheroes who would protect me from any harm that might come my way. Last week, the Israeli army was the harm that came my way.

While the rest of the world was preparing for the new American president’s first visit to Israel, in a small village called Sarura deep in the West Bank, 130 American, Canadian, European and Australian Jews were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Palestinians, taking blows from Israeli soldiers.

If you’ve never heard of Sarura, it's probably because the Israeli government has been trying for decades to wipe it off the map. In the 1970s, the Israeli government declared 30,000 dunams of the South Hebron Hills region of the West Bank, including Sarura, a military firing zone. By 1999 they had evicted some 700 Palestinian villagers living in the area, sealing their water cisterns shut and barring them from their caves.

Setting up tents at Sumud: Freedom Camp, 19 May 2017Credit: Gili Getz

In 2001 a handful of extremist settlers moved to a hilltop across from the spot Sarura used to stand and established an illegal outpost they named Havat Ma’on. The Israeli authorities responded to this unauthorized construction by connecting the settlers to water and electrical infrastructure.

Last week, a coalition of Palestinians, Israelis and Diaspora Jews came together to reclaim Sarura. We called the project "Sumud: Freedom Camp".

Like many Jews around the world, it took time for me to realize I couldn’t reconcile this reality of Israel's occupation with the Israel I thought I knew. For me, it took living in Israel for seven years, studying and eventually traveling in the West Bank every day to witness first-hand the rise of settlements and the on-going displacement of Palestinians to reach a conclusion that terrified me, and that I had not been able previously to accept.

Israeli policy in the West Bank is based on racial and ethnic discrimination in which Jewish rights and Jewish access to land are privileged over and at the expense of Palestinian rights and Palestinian access to land. There is no moral case to be made that justifies the separate legal systems, the unequal access to basic resources, the impunity that settlers enjoy or the constant harassment, violence, and displacement that Palestinians face. There is certainly no Jewish case to be made for this.

Two years ago I founded the Center for Jewish Nonviolence to bring Jews from around the world to join the Palestinian grassroots nonviolent movement on the ground, alongside our Israeli counterparts. This year marked our fourth delegation, and our numbers have grown exponentially. We are part of a sea-change in the global Jewish community that says unequivocally: occupation is not our Judaism.

One of the tents built by anti-occupation activists on the site of a former Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills, May 24, 2017.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

Last week we rolled up our sleeves and got to work in tiny Sarura, erecting tents, rebuilding roads and refurbishing cave homes. We were praying with our feet.

Two days later, at midnight, the Israeli military came to destroy Sumud: Freedom Camp. In the dark, the soldiers pushed, punched, and manhandled our activists - Jewish and Palestinian alike. We looked across the hill at the lights of Ma'on, as soldiers confiscated our tiny generator, together with our tents and mattresses.

We expected as much. But we also knew that our presence would change the standard operating procedure for Israeli security forces in the West Bank. The Israeli military normally wastes no time arresting nonviolent activists, as was the case in a similarly peaceful encampment of Bab Al Shams in 2013 when some 100 activists were arrested. This time, not a single one of us was arrested.

The presence of hundreds of Jewish Americans, Europeans and Australians changed the equation. We linked arms, stood shoulder to shoulder - Palestinians, Israelis and Diaspora Jews - and took out our cameras. Rabbis, Jewish academics, Jewish day school graduates, Jewish summer camp counselors were all there, filming and livestreaming to our friends, family and communities back home, and the Israeli army knew it. When these confrontations happen to Palestinians alone, the Israeli army can count on no one watching. We were there to make sure the world was watching.

Activists reerecting a tent at the Sumud Freedom Camp in the West Bank, May 25, 2017.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

I have long suspected that significant numbers of Jews joining the Palestinian grassroots nonviolent movement could be a game-changer in ways similar to Mississippi’s 1964 Freedom Summer. We came to lend our bodies and our privilege to a movement led by Palestinians, just as American whites joined the Black-led civil rights movement.

We thought we would see a pyrrhic victory: The army would dismantle the camp and arrest us, and we would shine a light on the Palestinian nonviolent movement and the injustices of occupation. Instead, we are now witnessing a different win: the victory of a small community that has been able to return to its homes, to bake bread in its stone ovens for the first time in twenty years, and to hopefully raise their children in peace.

It has been over one week, and the Israeli army has come once more to destroy our tents, but Sumud: Freedom Camp is still standing.

It will take more than busloads of American Jews standing in solidarity in the West Bank to end the occupation. But tonight, my Palestinian, Israeli and Jewish American friends are sitting around a campfire drinking hot tea, showing the world an alternative to the status quo. When we turn our privilege into power for our oppressed sisters and brothers, and when we value justice and shared humanity over displacement and discrimination, we win.

Ilana Sumka is the director of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence.

The Coordinator of Government Activities for the Territories (COGAT) responded by "stressing that the outpost was set up in a fire zone, to which access to it is forbidden. Over the past week illegal structures were seized near Havat Maon, which were set up without the required permits."

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