Reflections on three days in the West Bank — Day One

Rabbi Andrea London
on March 29, 2016

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Earlier this month, following the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ annual convention in Israel, J Street Rabbinic Cabinet member Rabbi Andrea London helped lead several colleagues on a three-day trip in the West Bank, with the hope of listening, and learning, and gaining a stronger sense of what is taking place in the lives of Israelis and Palestinians on the ground. Over the first three days of this week, we will share with you Rabbi London’s account of what she saw and learned over the course of each day of her important trip

As I was recruiting my rabbinic colleagues for a three-day post CCAR trip to the West Bank, a colleague asked me what the political leaning of the tour would be. “None and all,” I responded. The aim is not to indoctrinate, but to listen, see and investigate first-hand what’s happening on the ground; to experience for ourselves instead of relying on others’ accounts. A goal such as this is, on the one hand, an impossibility: it is inevitable that we bring our biases to such a venture and that an itinerary cannot avoid emphasizing some sites, some experiences, some voices, over others. On the other hand, the purpose of the trip was to expand on the experience of the CCAR conference by devoting additional time to a topic and a region that was just one piece of that conference.

To accomplish this goal, I organized the tour with Sam Sussman of Extend Tours. The story behind Extend Tours is that, as a Swarthmore College undergrad, Sam took a Birthright trip to Israel and then decided to stick around to tour the West Bank on his own. After he graduated, Sam wanted to offer that experience to his peers, so he and a friend launched Extend. To date, they have brought 100 college students to the West Bank. I met Sam a few years ago and was impressed with by knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and by the relationships he has developed with people and organizations that work in and write about the West Bank. I wanted both to support Sam’s work and to create an opportunity for rabbis to interact with young people who are educating themselves about the conflict and working towards a resolution.

As expected, the reality we experienced on the trip was complicated. We began our three days together talking with Hebrew University professor Bernard Avishai, and journalist Amira Hass. These were dark conversations with two figures renowned for their condemnations and their stark warnings regarding Israel’s occupation and its treatment of Palestinians. Avishai criticized Netanyahu for his manipulative use of the Jewish persecution narrative and for insisting that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He argued that it’s enough for Abbas to recognize the state of Israel as Arafat did when the Oslo Accords were signed. Abbas, he explained, is not prepared to recognize a state where Jews have privileges over others. Amira Hass had scathing words for both Israelis and the Palestinian leadership. She claimed that the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority has never been lower and that the Palestinians see no hope on the horizon. They don’t condemn the stabbing attacks perpetrated by Palestinians against Israelis because they understand the despair of Palestinian youth and they see the attacks as a way to break out of the false normalcy of the occupation. Palestinians living under military rule are oppressed, but Israelis turn a blind eye to the occupation and ignore what’s happening on the other side of the Green Line.

Later in the day we toured Hebron with Nadav Bigelman of Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israelis who talk about their military service in the West Bank. Nadav served in Hebron and spoke about mock arrests, random house searches and other techniques he and his unit used to subdue the Palestinian population by making the power of the Israeli military a constantly felt presence. We walked along Hebron’s boarded-up Shuhada Street, which used to be bustling with Palestinian businesses but has been closed since 1994 to protect the movement of settlers who live in the center of this predominantly Palestinian city. As we walked, we were taunted by settlers. The angry shouts from the settlers were not surprising, but it was nonetheless disturbing to be on the receiving end of their vitriol for several hours. The trip to Hebron also included a stop in Kiryat Arba on the outskirts of Hebron and a visit to the grave of Baruch Goldstein. On Purim in 1994, the American-born doctor was beaten to death after he entered the Cave of Machpelah armed and wearing an army uniform and opened fire, killing 29 Muslim worshipers and wounding 125. The news of the massacre is indelibly etched in my memory, and I was sickened when I read the inscription on Goldstein’s gravestone, which reads: “He gave his life for the sake of the people of Israel, its Torah and its land.”

It is beyond my comprehension how the residents of Kiryat Arba memorialize and valorize a man responsible for such savagery. Not all settlers are as extreme in their attitudes and their worldview as those we encountered in Hebron, and not all settlements are situated in the center of Palestinian cities, but the fact that Israeli soldiers in Hebron restrict the freedom of movement of 200,000 Palestinians to protect 500 Jews is illogical and immoral.

As the first day ended, we drove toward the village of Jifna, passing Pisgat Ze’ev, a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem that has burgeoned into a community of more than 50,000. One of the rabbis on our trip commented that he had protested the building of Pisgat Ze’ev in 1983 when he was a first-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem. That evening, the co-leader of our trip commented that, when she heard she was going to lead a trip for rabbis, she assumed we knew little about the occupation. She found it both sobering and humbling to discover that some of her traveling companions had considerable experience with the conflict and had been working to end it for more years than she could remember.

You can read Day Two’s blog here.

Rabbi Andrea London is the Senior Rabbi at Beth Emet in Evanston, Illinois. She’s on Twitter at @RabbiLondon