a group of people walk down a street of stone buildigns with metal awnings
The Center for Jewish Nonviolence group that Laura Saunders went to the West Bank with walking down Shuhada Street in Hebron (Courtesy/Laura Saunders)

No time for vacation when you’re working to end Israeli occupation

Why I do I keep spending my precious vacation days not really on vacation?

My Jewish upbringing instilled in me values of justice, tikkun olam (repairing the world) and loving your neighbor as yourself. Israel was portrayed as a haven for Jews fleeing the Holocaust and religious persecution, filled with pioneers making the desert bloom, living on socialistic kibbutzim.

It wasn’t until I spent a college semester abroad in Jerusalem that I started to see that Israeli democracy included the oppression of non-Jews and the displacement of Palestinians.

It is unjust that I, as an American Jew, am welcome to immigrate to Israel while my Palestinian friend, born in East Jerusalem, had his Jerusalem ID taken away for spending too many years getting his education in the United States. That is why I’ve started to spend my vacation days helping to end 50 years of occupation — by using my privilege as an American Jew to create a more democratic Israel.

Last month I joined my second delegation with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, working in solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank to fully demonstrate that occupation is not my Judaism.

The injustices of the occupation are most striking in Hebron, one of the largest Palestinian cities with 150,000 residents. After the 1967 war, settlers moved into Hebron and today the heart of the old city is surrounded by checkpoints, as more than 500 ideological Jewish settlers — protected by at least that many Israeli soldiers — live amongst 35,000 Palestinians.

Following the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians by Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein, an official separation of Palestinians and settlers was instituted by the Israeli government to prevent revenge attacks. This collective punishment continues today, and “sterilization” forbids Palestinians from driving on some roads and from walking on others. Since 2001, the Israeli military locked every shop on Shuhada Street, and Palestinians who live above these closed shops must exit their homes in creative ways to avoid stepping onto sterilized streets.

Israeli civil law applies to Jewish settlers in Hebron, while Palestinians are subjected to military law. I witnessed two settlers attack an Israeli photojournalist, running up and kicking the video camera resting on his shoulder up into his face. The Israeli soldiers standing 20 feet away had no authority to detain the settlers. By the time the police arrived, the settlers had fled the scene.

It wasn’t until I spent a college semester abroad in Jerusalem that I started to see that Israeli democracy included the oppression of non-Jews and the displacement of Palestinians.

Despite 40 American and European Jews having witnessed the attack, and our video documentation of it, the police refused to take our statements, claiming they couldn’t be sure what had happened. On a tour with Breaking the Silence, we learned how the Israeli military makes its presence known by randomly invading Palestinian homes in the middle of the night to ensure Palestinians know they have no freedom.

It wasn’t until I spent a college semester abroad in Jerusalem that I started to see that Israeli democracy included the oppression of non-Jews and the displacement of Palestinians.

Last July, Jawad Abu Aisha invited us to help turn his shuttered factory on Shuhada Street into a cinema. A coalition of Palestinians (from Youth Against Settlements), Israelis (from All That’s Left), and American and European Jews (from the Center for Jewish Nonviolence) managed to work several hours before the army issued a closed military zone order.

At that point, we sat down, linked arms and alternately sang civil rights-era protest songs and Hebrew songs while the police removed us. Six Israeli citizens were detained, but the police were not yet ready to arrest 40 American Jews. This showed us how we could use our American Jewish privilege to help Palestinian nonviolent activists.

Youth Against Settlements, boldly led by Issa Amro, focuses on nonviolent resistance, promoting justice and human rights. The group opened a kindergarten so kids wouldn’t have to pass through checkpoints to get to school. They help Palestinians resist eviction and run an annual campaign to re-open Shuhada Street. Issa teaches nonviolent resistance and encourages Palestinian youth to not give up hope. He fearlessly intervenes at checkpoints when soldiers are harassing Palestinians, and inserts himself between violent settlers and Palestinians.

In retaliation for his nonviolent resistance efforts, Issa faces 18 criminal charges ranging from insulting a soldier to entering a closed military zone. With a military court conviction rate of more than 99 percent, international governments will need to intervene on Issa’s behalf. Urge your member of Congress to sign the Congressional letter of support for Issa, a true partner for peace.

As I was entering Israel for this trip, I was detained at Ben Gurion Airport for three hours and questioned about traveling to the West Bank and other Middle Eastern countries, and Arab-sounding names in my phone. I was falsely accused of participating in a demonstration in a town I never visited and threatened to be put back on an airplane. Eventually I was not deemed a security threat and got my entry visa.

On my way home, again my passport was taken for 45 minutes, and other Center for Jewish Nonviolence participants were questioned and strip-searched.

The real threat to Israel’s security is the continued occupation. Almost 10 million U.S. dollars each day enable the occupation and illegal settlement expansion. I will continue to put my Jewish values into action to end the occupation and bring about equality and justice for Palestinians and Israelis.

Laura Saunders
Laura Saunders

Laura Saunders of San Francisco develops cancer therapies at a biotech company. She’s a member of The Kitchen and is active with the New Israel Fund and the Center for Jewish Nonviolence.