By Rena Oppenheimer
An anguished cry from a woman wearing a bright turquoise hijab: “Settlers!” she screamed. “They’re coming to cut down our olive trees!” This was a first-hand introduction to the day-to-day lives of Palestinians who live in the South Hebron Hills.
A couple of weeks ago, after months of planning with an activist collective called All That’s Left, I joined a group of nearly one hundred (mostly) Diaspora Jews who spent two days in the South Hebron Hills. We were hosted by the people of Susiya, one of eight unrecognized Palestinian villages in Area C of the West Bank, whose 350 residents are at risk of dispossession because of a demolition order received in May 2015. Our group of visitors participated in a variety of work and solidarity activities—from planting zaatar to evening a stretch of road. We learned through workshops and conversations, ate home-grown food, spoke Arabic, Hebrew and English, drank hot tea around a fire, and planned ways to keep the momentum going and put pressure on the Israeli government so that Susiya will not go through another round of destruction.
But it was the moment when that woman cried out in fear that was left echoing in my head — fear of violence from the neighboring Jewish settlers, who build and destroy in the name of the cultural and religious worldview I, too, was raised to value. Within seconds of her scream, Nasser Nawaj’ah, the owner of the trees and our main contact for the weekend, was running, camera in hand, to the olive grove. All of Susiya’s children followed him, as did much of our group. When he arrived, the branches of three olive trees were already kissing the ground. The settlers threw rocks at him, which he caught on film and submitted to the human rights organization B’tselem. As the settlers retreated toward their homes, we waited for the army and police to arrive.
This is not an unusual occurrence for Susiya. Conflicts of this nature are usually resolved by either arresting or otherwise removing the Palestinian residents of this contentious area, which received its first demolition order in 1986. On this particular day, with all of our Jewish bodies perched on an overlooking hill, eyes watching and camera lenses pointed, the authorities were willing to trust Nasser’s account and—they said—arrest the attackers.
I was born wealthy, Western, and white. I feel that it is my responsibility to use my privilege in order to work toward evening out imbalances and inequalities, and I feel this accountability acutely as a Jew in Israel. When Nasser said goodbye to our group, he asked us to use our position as free people to draw attention to what goes on in this tiny corner of the world, on these flat rocks and dry, sprawling hills.
I am a free person. Free to move wherever and whenever I want, to own things and know they’re truly mine, to feed myself when I’m hungry and quench my thirst, to dream about the future I want and to build it for myself. Free to do millions of things. Free to say no. Free to trust that I am and will be protected. I am also free to oppose the occupation, to right wrongs that have been committed by people who claim to represent me, and to do all of this proudly as a Jew. What would happen if there were more of us who used our freedom to help keep others safe? What if more Jews recognized that our needs and dreams can never truly be fulfilled as long as they are seen as incompatible with the basic human rights of others?
While life in Susiya is vastly unlike anything I have experienced in almost every way, the only thing that makes me different from the people there is the body I was born into. We all crave connection and belonging and touch and sweet things, we all want to feel safe and respected and happy. Nobody chooses their ethnicity or nationality, and in our world these identifiers are so often used to stratify people—to dictate who is deserving of protection and fulfillment and whose lives matter more or less than others.
In Susiya, I embraced the legacy and tradition of activist Jews around the world and throughout history. In the spirit of tikkun olam (repairing the world), Jews have been involved in movements to right wrongs—done to us as well as others—and to amplify the voices of those who aren’t heard. I felt the presence of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched side by side with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 Selma. I thought about South African activists Joe Slovo and Ruth First, who fought against Apartheid. Abbie Hoffman, Gloria Steinem, Martin Buber, Harvey Milk, Eve Ensler, and so many others—they are my rabbis, and their texts are my truth. When I sat and sang in our Kabbalat Shabbat circle in Susiya, swathed in a dusty kuffiyeh after a long day of work on a rocky road, I felt more connected to my Judaism than I ever have before.
My Jewish identity is, of course, more than just anti-occupation activism. I am inextricably connected to the ancient and modern songs and texts and narratives, to finding meaning in rest and reflection on Shabbat, to feelings of belonging among those with common roots, traditions, and moral codes. Judaism is so many things. It is an ethnicity, a religion, a culture, an evolving, living experience—and, to some, a justification for xenophobia and abusive policies toward a perceived enemy. To me, it is also a worldview, a collective responsibility, a call to band together and demand a more equitable, peaceful world in which every human being is valued and respected.
That Saturday was just one day in the lives of Susiya’s residents, one day when they had the protection of observers who matter and deserve more in the eyes of the Israeli government and military. There is a growing movement of Jewish activists, united by our commitment to social justice and our desire to reclaim our shared heritage and identity. We will continue to bear witness and work to end cycles of disempowerment, fear, and abuse—including those perpetuated in our name by the Israeli occupation.