August 25, 2008

Beth Meets Righteous Rabbis

[FotM's friend Beth has returned from from Palestine and Israel, where she had not been since the 1967 War. This post continues her account of conditions there, following earlier reports here, here, here and here.]

Before I left New York, I made plans to see two feminist and left activists, friends of friends: one an Israeli Palestinian woman in Nazareth, the other an Israeli Jew in Haifa. Unfortunately, only the woman in Haifa was available when I could make it, so I took the bus from Jerusalem to Haifa, with a young soldier as my seatmate. Perhaps I should have tried, but this was the only time I could not bring myself to start talking with the person I was with for two hours.

I talked with Dahlia, along with her partner Chana, extensively over a wonderful meal in an Arab restaurant in an upscale area of Haifa that featured a dozen similar places to eat. They are active in the Coalition of Women for Peace and they participate in the Women in Black vigil in Haifa. Two of the long-term projects of the Coalition are:

Re-framing Security: In Israel, the concept of "security" is a powerful one. It is used to justify all military activity and the occupation of Palestinian territories. "National Security" is a phrase invoked not just to increase military budgets, but also to silence criticism and prevent transparency. The "Re-framing Security" Project explores this term from the broadest feminist-civil perspective, thus challenging the narrow militaristic understanding of security. Security in its civil forms includes aspects such as economic security (having a job, a roof over one's head, access to health care), security in the family and the community (safety from gender-related violence, protection from crime, having one's children safe in schools), environmental security (clean tap water, clean air), etc. The project generates critical discourse through lecture series, workshops and tours for groups of formal and informal educators, young leaders, social activists and other agents for change.

The occupation industry research project: “Who profits from the occupation?” In addition to various political, religious and national interests, the occupation is also fueled by corporate interests. Civilian companies and transnational corporations are increasingly involved in real estate deals, the development of settlements, the construction of fences and walls on Palestinian land, the paving of a separate road system for settlers, and the sale of equipment used for human rights violations and the repression of the civilian population. This project began in 2006 and involves systematic research about Israeli and international companies which directly profit from investments in the occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights. After rigorous research, the results are posted on the website, which provides the public in Israel and internationally with accurate information about business interests invested in maintaining the occupation.
Our discussion ranged over many topics, from Barack Obama to the one-state vs. two-state solution to feminism within the left. Following is an excerpt of our discussion. Despite, or perhaps due to, the tone that comes across, they remain and will continue to be committed activists.

Beth: Haifa is a city with many Palestinians in its population. At the same time, in the Jerusalem municipality, there appear to be serious attempts to reduce the number and percentage of Palestinians. What is your take on these plans?
Dahlia and Chana: In 1948, they did it and that’s it. It was a period where the world didn’t react. Like Benny Morris (Righteous Victims, 1999 and The Birth of the Palestinian, 2004) said, they missed the opportunity and didn’t do ethnic cleansing altogether in ’48. But what do they say? Do it now. Let’s do whatever we can.

But they cannot do it.

(Then ensued disagreement over what the Western powers would ultimately allow)

C: Why? Europe supports Israel. United States supports Israel.

D: They cannot do it because the US is supporting Israel, because Europe is supporting Israel.

C: Everything that has been done since ’48, who supported these things? Germany, Europe, the United States. Without the support of those countries, Israel could not have become a state in ’48.

D: But not now. Not any more. This is also why she cannot wipe out all the Palestinians that are here.

C: Okay. But she can oppress them, change the landscape, erase every memory of what happened here. And look at what happened in the last forty years. With the support of the US and Europe and Germany.

D: In Jaffa, there is a museum. Jaffa is a Palestinian city. So they have a city museum there and in the museum they have the story of all the history of Jaffa, the Ottoman, the Crusades, the Romans, everybody, so on – no Palestinians, no Palestinians whatsoever are mentioned in the history of Jaffa. Jaffa was an Arab city. I saw this book about the history of Jaffa, From A Major City to a Poverty-Stricken Neighborhood, this is the name of the book about the history of Jaffa. Whole neighborhoods were wiped out. The whole piece of land between Tel Aviv and Jaffa is now hotels and so on. There were hundreds and hundreds of houses. Jaffa itself, all the old city of Jaffa, there are no Palestinians, only Jews.

C and D: There are 5 million Jews in Israel. There are 5 million Palestinians in greater Palestine. They will not get rid of these 5 million people. Their intention is one big Israel. They will kill many, as many as they can. They will break their spirit. Anyone who can go will leave. The poorest will stay, those with no power of resistance, no ability to fight, depressed.

B: And if you ask them, if I could sit down with a bunch of the religious, what would come out of their mouths about the Palestinians?

C and D: You don’t have to be religious to be racist. The whole public. You can sit with a group of left-wing people, labor, Meretz and it’s amazing the racism you will hear and you think okay, if a racist is a racist, then okay, but if a leftwing person is a racist, then where is hope? If you have a place based on support of one people, from one ethnic group, one religion, it has to be racist. In 2000, at the university, it was the first time we heard people say aloud racist things against Arabs. And now it’s PC to be racist.

Back in Jerusalem, my friend R got a text message from Rabbis for Human Rights asking for help the next day to paint the home of a Palestinian family that had been firebombed two weeks previously by settlers. She was busy at the office but I decided to go, meeting up with Rabbi G at 7 the next morning.

The house was on the outskirts of the village of Burin, just south of the checkpoint into Nablus. Two weeks previously, the family had been away for a few nights. Settlers from one of the two nearby settlements, either Yitzhar or Bracha, smashed the bedroom window, lit an oil soaked rag and threw it into the room. The baby’s crib was incinerated. Smoke filled the house, and once the fire was put out by people from the village, soot covered the walls.

This was not the first problem with these settlers. Two months ago, they set fire to the olive trees along an entire hillside, damaging years of growth. The hill was in flames. Another human rights group, B’tselem, has been giving cameras to Palestinian villagers. If photos document abuses like burning a hillside of olive trees, there is a chance that perpetrators could be prosecuted. The following is from the B’Tselem website:
In January 2007, B'Tselem launched "Shooting Back," a video advocacy project focusing on the Occupied Territories. We provide Palestinians living in high-conflict areas with video cameras, with the goal of bringing the reality of their lives under occupation to the attention of the Israeli and international public, exposing and seeking redress for violations of human rights. "Shooting Back" works with families who live in close proximity to settlements, to military bases, or at the sites of frequent army incursions. Settlers daily harassing a family in Hebron or attacking farmers in the South Hebron Hills, soldiers invading Qalqilya, …these are just some examples of the material filmed by over 100 cameras that we have distributed to families throughout the Occupied Territories. B'Tselem has succeeded in airing this material on major Israeli and international news networks, exposing global audiences to the previously unseen.
There were more of us than were necessary to do the painting but that gave us time to interact and take stock of the situation. The family and the young men from the village who helped out and the young boys who hung around expressed their thanks with gestures and a few words of English and a few of Hebrew. They fed us figs and grapes fresh from the trees.

Rabbis for Human Rights formed in 1988 to be the rabbinic voice of conscience in Israel with the purpose of giving voice to the Jewish religious tradition of human rights. Current membership is about 100 – 12 orthodox, the rest a mix of Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal. At first, they involved themselves in interfaith work relating to the Muslim community, including condolence visits to families of Palestinians killed by the army. They had no money in the beginning. Now, with contributions from individuals and congregations around the world, they have eight employees. Their education department is the largest part of the budget. It provides for seminars on human rights for Israelis, a hotline number for soldiers who are facing dilemmas regarding what they are being told to do at the checkpoints and in the defense of settlers, and literature given out at employment agencies to let immigrant workers, as well as Israelis, know their rights.

In recent years, RHR has become a more activist organization, doing a great deal of work against abuses of human rights in the territories. They get involved with Bedouin rights, women’s rights, building permits, home demolitions, and access to agricultural land, harvesting crops for Palestinians where they are cut off by the wall/fence from their land.

As an American Jew, raised in the religious traditions, I was encouraged by my talk with Rabbi G, originally from Melbourne, and Rabbi A, a woman from Philadelphia, both of whom decided to make Israel their home in the mid-70’s. The RHR website clarifies their overview:
Alongside efforts to prevent human rights abuses, Rabbis for Human Rights endeavors to introduce an authentic and humanistic understanding of Jewish tradition and sources into Israel’s public discourse. While the increasingly dominant nationalistic and particularistic understanding of Judaism echoes loudly, Rabbis for Human Rights gives voice to the tradition’s concern for the stranger and others vulnerable within society.
They have not abandoned the principles that drew them to become rabbis. I grew up learning, in addition to all the rules of behavior, that I was to look out for those less fortunate, that giving charity was a crucial part of life and that what I did not want my neighbors to do to me, I should not do to them. These rabbis look at the scriptures from that perspective.

Would that such a perspective could take hold throughout the Jewish community, especially in its two major centers, Israel and the United States. Insh'Allah.

No comments: