the three sit on the ground
(From left) Fadl Amaar, Rabbi Leah Jordan and Rabbi David J. Cooper during Shabbat morning services at the Negev village of Sarura in 2017. (Photo/Gili Getz)

Why I helped build a ‘freedom camp’ in the West Bank

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The first time I was in Israel, I was 16. It was 50 years ago and I was on a teen tour a few weeks after the Six-Day War. During that summer of 1967, I was encouraged in my belief that the territories seized during the war were likely to be returned within a limited amount of time. Visit Bethlehem; visit Jericho before it’s too late. This seized land would be a bargaining chip for peace and I was elated by the prospect.

But within a few months, I learned that Israel had annexed not only areas within Jerusalem’s existing borders, but also land beyond those borders. And within a year I learned Israeli civilians were moving into the occupied area beyond Jerusalem and building settlements. My puzzlement eventually turned into dismay. I could not understand how any of this could benefit the peace of Israel, and I felt that it could become an injustice to the Arabs of the territories. But my concern for the plight of those under occupation was first ignited in Israel the day we visited the Western Wall.

I recall that on the tourist bus to Jerusalem I was singing “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” and “Sharm El Sheikh,” songs I learned in Hashomer Hatzair (the Zionist Socialist youth movement associated with the Mapam kibbutz movement). I was excited about seeing Jerusalem and especially the Wall — and I knew what I would be seeing. The photos and paintings of the Wall hung on all the synagogues I attended. Those pictures from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s showed Jews davening against the Wall, which ran along a small street facing a line of residences. I was ready to walk into that picture. But when we arrived, it looked completely different.

The Wall now faced an open square. I asked the tour guide if the Jordanians had torn down the houses in the intervening years. “No, we just did it now.” I asked what seemed obvious to my teenage consciousness: “But what about the people who lived there?” With an incredulous and disdainful expression he replied, “What does that matter?” In the years since, I have learned that 135 families were given a few minutes notice one night in June to clear out. They refused, some only evacuating as the bulldozers began the demolition. The first house went down before people had left and an older woman, Hajjah Rasmia Tabaki, died in the ruins of the house. Well, it did matter to me, and it still does.

Although I have been to Israel many times since, I decided to go back this year in commemoration of that first visit and to mark the anniversary of an occupation that was supposed to be temporary and which I now feel compelled to oppose. I have just returned from the trip.

I spent a week and half within the boundaries of pre-1967 Israel, visiting friends and scouting out places to lead a synagogue tour, and then a week and a half in the West Bank with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, crossing over through the gate near the wall that sits astride the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. I wanted to become more intimately connected to the experience of the Palestinians on the West Bank, especially those committed to nonviolent resistance to the occupation.

I was with a group that spent a few days with the residents of a Bedouin village, Umm al-Khair, that has been located on its spot in the southern Hebron hills for over 70 years. A demolition order hangs over the future of the village like a Damocles sword, but the villagers persist refusing to move nevertheless. An Israeli settlement, Carmel, sits right next to them with access to the electric and water grids denied to the Bedouins. Attempts at building more permanent housing at Umm al-Khair have been met with demolition by the Israeli authorities. I came to know several of the villagers and I got to discuss nonviolence theory with one of its leaders.

On Friday morning, May 19, the CJNV transported the 130 diaspora Jews in our group to Sarura, not far from Umm al-Khair. Sarura was a small village with a handful of families where residences were built into caves in the hills. It was involuntarily evacuated in 1997 or ’98 when Israel set up a military firing zone in this occupied area. Despite the authorities’ claim of protecting the villagers from artillery fire, several Israeli settlements sit close by, including Maon and its outpost, a short stroll away. The border of the firing area suspiciously carves Sarura into the zone while conveniently leaving Maon outside.

At Sarura, we joined with four other groups dedicated to nonviolent resistance: the Israeli group All That’s Left, the Palestinian organizations Youth Against Settlements and Holy Land Trust, and the joint Israeli-Palestinian group Combatants for Peace, founded by fighters from both sides of the conflict who have forsworn violence.

The idea was to reopen and make one of the cave residences habitable within a few days to allow at least one family to resume their lives and open a way for the revival of Sarura. They wanted this despite the likelihood that the Israeli authorities would try to expel them again and demolish the work of rehabilitation.

So why do the families do it? The idea is to not give up, to remain persistent in their vision to resume their regular lives and never to regard the occupation as permanent. This persistence is called sumud in Arabic. Maybe Sarura will be resurrected, maybe not, but peaceful resistance will persist.

A demolition order hangs over the future of the village like a Damocles sword, but the villagers persist refusing to move nevertheless.

Within a few short hours, we built what we called the Sumud Freedom Camp and began the work of rehabilitation. I joined bucket brigade lines to pull rocks out of the caves in preparation for pouring new cement floors. After a day of work in the sun, we assembled at the village well for a Kabbalat Shabbat service, which I facilitated. As our Palestinian hosts looked on, we sang “Lecha Dodi” to greet the Sabbath bride, looking over the rolling hills as the sun, low in the sky, bathed us in a golden light.

A day later, after Havdalah on Saturday night, Israeli soldiers arrived and tore down our tents, pulled out our power generator, shoved people around a bit and retreated without arrests. The presence of rabbis, Jewish professors and Jewish-communal service workers probably had some effect on how we were handled with kid gloves. The camp re-formed in the morning and continued its mission. As of this writing, the army has similarly invaded two more times, but the camp persists, as does its work.

My thoughts drift back to the Shabbat morning services at Sumud Freedom Camp. Without a Torah scroll present, we were getting ready to study from the parashah of the day, BeHar. To our surprise, we were joined by Fadl Amaar, the Sarura activist whose home we were rehabilitating. He asked in fluent Hebrew what we were studying. It was Chapter 25 of Leviticus, the section concerning the yovel, the jubilee. He sat down to join us as we read verse by verse in Hebrew and in English. Fadl participated in our running commentary, sometimes taking over the discussion. Something in the verses that treated all the inhabitants of the land equally aroused him to say that ultimately there was no difference whether we were Jew or Arab, Israeli or Palestinian; what mattered was whether we acted with integrity.

When we reached Leviticus 25:10, the Torah told me why I had to be back in Israel/Palestine a half-century after my first visit. “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and declare liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee to you. And you will return each person to their possession, and every one to their family.” Insha’Allah, Let it be so.

Rabbi David J. Cooper will report on his trip with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 10 at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont.

Rabbi David Cooper
Rabbi David J. Cooper

Rabbi David J. Cooper is emeritus rabbi at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, which has an ally relationship with the Palestinian village of Umm al-Khair. He has been to Israel and the territories many times from 1967 to the present.