As around 30 mostly American and Israeli-American Jews brought in the Shabbat with Hebrew prayers, a strong wind carried the muezzin’s evening call for prayer from the nearby Palestinian city of Yatta, interweaving the Jewish and Islamic melodies.
This group of Jewish activists was spending Shabbat evening in the Palestinian village of Sussiya as part of a “global Shabbat against demolitions,” which gathered around 300 Jews from some five countries to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian villages of Sussiya, Umm el-Kheir, al-Araqib and Umm el-Hiran. These villages are illegal under Israeli law as they were built without permits, and Sussiya is slated for demolition by the government.
Over the weekend, activists from Israel, the UK and the US hosted Shabbat dinners in more than 10 cities and five countries, including: New York, London, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Belgium, and Australia; and protested in front of the Israeli Embassy in London and consulate in New York.
The global protest is coordinated by All That’s Left, an anti-occupation collective of Diaspora Jews in partnership with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
The ground zero for this movement of mostly young Jews standing with Palestinians is in Sussiya – the heart of the conflict over housing demolition. Here overlooking the South Hebron Hills, young Jews have assembled with Palestinian residents and activists to oppose Israeli policies head-on.
“We are speaking for a growing portion of the Jewish community that realizes the situation is unsustainable and we need to work with Palestinians to build a common future,” stated Erez Bleicher, an organizer with All That’s Left.
With a population of only 400, the Palestinian village of Sussiya has garnered international attention as it faces a demolition order from the government. A dialogue was established last year between Sussiya residents and the Civil Administration for the West Bank to see whether the two parties could come to an agreement.
The negotiations, however, were halted as Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman considers the government’s stance on Sussiya. The High Court of Justice has ordered Liberman to submit his position on the demolition of Sussiya by August 15.
But other organizations like Regavim, an NGO aligned with the settler movement, holds the position that the land was used only for grazing sheep, and shepherds in Yatta would occasionally sleep there.
A few weeks ago, Regavim’s international director, Josh Hasten, commented on the situation. “The Palestinians have no legal or historical claim to this land. They have been squatting illegally in the area for the past 15+ years,” he said. “We call upon the Supreme Court to enforce its decision against illegal construction carried out in deliberate violation of explicit court orders.”
For these Jewish activists, many of them coming from a background of involvement in Jewish summer camps and with Jewish institutions, the mainstream Jewish community has turned a blind eye toward some Israeli policies which they consider unjust. Thus, they are seeking to harness their interpretations of Jewish ethics and morality toward solidarity with Palestinian issues.
Sussiya is located right next to a Jewish settlement of the same name, situated in the West Bank’s South Hebron Hills.
“I know that tonight in the [Jewish] settlement of Sussiya, they are singing the same prayers as we are, but they have a different interpretation,” said Frima Bubis, a participant on the trip whose friend attended high school in the settlement.
“I know that the heart that mourns for Gush Katif is the same heart that can mourn Palestinian suffering,” she said.
Bubis served in the IDF in the Civil Administration of Nablus, and was raised in a Conservative family with a strong connection to her Jewish identity.
While her current activism has given her a “different relationship with Israel,” it has nevertheless strengthened her connection with Israel and her Jewish identity. “I think that having to constantly insist on our connection to Israel and our legitimacy as Jews has actually strengthened my connection,” she said. Bubis also works for the controversial group, Breaking the Silence.
According to a statement by All That’s Left, the purpose of the Shabbat protests is to “say emphatically that forced displacements, dislocation, and demolition do not represent our values... As members of a people who have experienced expulsion, persecution, and dispossession, we stand with all Palestinian communities facing eviction.”
In Sussiya the residents clearly appreciate the presence and impact of the Jewish activists.
Nassar Nawaja, a resident and field researcher for B’Tselem was happy that Jewish activists were supporting the village in its dispute with the Israeli government. “It is extremely important that Jewish people tell our message to the world,” he stated.
Fatimah Nawaja, the head of the South Hebron Hills Rural Women’s Association, which is based in Sussiya, told The Jerusalem Post that the presence of Jewish activists “feels very special.” She thanked the activists for their visit and said “it is good for Jews to stand behind us in nonviolence.”
The Shabbat against demolitions campaign comes as Israel is facing increasing pushback from the United States and some American-Jewish organizations protesting a possible Israeli demolition of Sussiya.
A diplomatic source told the Post’s Tovah Lazaroff last week that demolishing the village would be “crossing a redline.”
A letter from the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs to Ambassador Ron Dermer urges Israel to preserve the village, while a recent J Street petition asking US Secretary of State John Kerry to “stop the demolition of Sussiya” has received thousands of signatures, according to J Street.
“We urge you to share with [Liberman] our strong support for a solution to this impasse that recognizes the interests of Sussiya residents and does not lead to the community’s destruction,” the Union for Reform Judaism letter read.
While the small village has gained a lot of international attention, the activists hope that their distinctly Jewish voices will help the Palestinian village in its dialogue with the government to resolve the dispute.
“I think it will contribute to a larger effort pressuring the US and governments in Europe and Australia to pressure Israel to not to go forward with these demolitions,” said Bleicher. “This global Shabbat against demolition is one representation of a Jewish mass movement that is emerging.”
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