As the sun set over the Judean hills, Israeli and international Jewish activists broke out in song for the evening prayer.
Swaying back-and-forth, they chanted Lecha Dodi, the Kabbalist hymn ushering in the Sabbath queen. Clad in long skirts and white shirts, they could have been praying in a religious settlement.
Rather, the nearly 50 Jewish activists broke bread and celebrated the Sabbath in Sussiya, an unrecognized and illegally built Palestinian village. Hailing from the Center for Jewish Non-Violence – a left-wing group that shrouds its support for Palestinian activism in a distinctly Jewish garb – the center hosted its second annual Shabbat in the village.
For much of Saturday, the Jewish activists strolled about Sussiya. Some kept the Sabbath and prayed indoors while others rolled cigarettes and unfolded the weekend Hebrew newspapers.
Rabbi Brant Rosen, who once led a 500-family-strong synagogue before resigning publicly over an Israeli political dispute, was visibly moved by the rare opportunity to conduct a Jewish service from a Palestinian village.
“Our hosts have heard some of these melodies in a very different context,” Rosen said, specifying that Sussiya – which faces an IDF demolition order for August 1 – “has experienced Judaism at its worst.”
Wearing a kippa and sitting amid a Palestinian-tended olive grove, Rosen acknowledged the irony of praying as Jews among Palestinians at the heart of the conflict.
“It’s powerful and redemptive to say these prayers in the heart of territory occupied in our name and say: ‘No, that’s not the Judaism we stand for,’” Rosen added.
The visit did not go unnoticed by a few Israeli settlers who raised alarms at the prospect of leftist activists spending Shabbat in Sussiya.
“If they [Jews] want to spend Shabbat with the Arabs, that’s their choice,” said Asaf Fassi, a spokesman with the South Hebron Hills Regional Council who mentioned the security situation and recent killings of Jewish settlers before adding, “They’ll need good luck.”
Israeli and international Jews visit the embattled village all the time, said Ahmed Nawaja, the grandfatherly patriarch of Palestinian Sussiya. His son, Nasser Nawaja, works for the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem and often invites colleagues home.
“Our problem is not with Judaism, but with the occupation,” Nasser said, referencing the Sabbath trip. It was the first time Nasser heard a Jewish prayer service as he and his children watched the Friday candle lighting from afar.
Despite the warm welcome, some activists did acknowledge safety concerns from friends and family over traversing Palestinian areas.
“My mom was throwing up from anxiety,” said Sho Igawa-Atias, recounting his Israeli mother’s fear for her son traveling throughout the Palestinian territories as she and his aunt recounted different episodes of violence and near misses.
Igawa-Atias waved away her security concerns in attending Shabbat, saying Israel’s military rule over the West Bank compelled him to act.
“I would love to see my Israeli family here, that it’s possible and natural to celebrate Shabbat in Palestine.”
Another activist said that this was her first time in the West Bank and she found humor in the unlikely Sabbath setting.
“For the Palestinians, it may be as if the settlers are doing the exact same prayer service, right across the fence,” grinned Ilana Saltz, adding that Sabbath observance used to be a big part of her life until politics conflicted.
And for Isaac Kates-Rose, who organized the trip, Sabbath in Sussiya allowed him to synthesize his leftist activism with his Jewish identity.
“I feel Jewish here because I’m standing in solidarity with people facing oppression.”