â€œIf you thought you were going to sleep on the bus, forget about it!â€ The voice of the indefatigable Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), declared over the microphone of our tour bus as we pulled away from the Ramada Renaissance Hotel in Jerusalem. It was 8:30 am on day two of a ten-day Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (RHR-NA) study tour of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and I was still disoriented by jet lag and adjusting to dry air and sharp edged morning light. I had thought about sleeping on the bus; I had even cleverly brought along my eye mask and inflatable neck pillow to encourage maximum relaxation, but to no avail.
“I hope you will leave here more confused than when you came. Everybody comes with preconceptions. For some of you, this trip may be bursting bubbles. Those of us who grew up taught that everything Israel does is right, that the very cornerstone of our identity, what gave meaning to our lives was our connection to Israel are going to see things that are very painful, things that you’d rather not see.”
“As a Jew, as a Rabbi, an Israeli, as a Zionist, there’s no fun in doing what we do here, for me to deal everyday with the deepest darkest corner of Israeli society that I love and I hope everybody here loves as well. What does it mean to love and support Israel especially when you are aware that things are not what we dreamed and hoped it would be?”
“Some of you may have come here believing that everything Israel does is wrong. I hope that you’ll be disabused of that as well. This is a democracy – one of the strongest democracies in the world. There are many places in the world where a trip like this would be illegal or a death sentence and we have to keep that in perspective as well.”
“And so I reflect on what it means to be starting on this trip, dafka, on the day that Yitzak Rabin was assassinated back in 1995, I reflect upon the importance of hearing many voices. Today you’ll be hearing at least three different voices: Palestinians, human rights activists and settlers. The one thing I would add to this trip is average Israelis, which none of us represent. Really listen, really hear all these voices.”
(Unfortunately, we never did get to meet with any settlers and listen to their views and perspectives. The rabbi we were supposed to see, Rabbi Avi Gisser, Head Rabbi of the Ofra Settlement, never answered Rabbi Arik’s phone calls, so all we were able to do at the end of our day was to drive through the settlement.)
“So what are we going to do today? Rabbis for Human Rights stands on three pillars: education about human rights, economic justice for Israelis and human rights for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Our calling card for the last eight years or so is supporting the right of the Palestinians to access their own olive groves. We’re going to harvest olives for about two hours. (Our regular volunteers leave at 6 am and return at 6pm.) Then we’ll spend a few hours touring the northern part of the Occupied Territories, the Nablus region. We’re going to pay a solidarity visit to a Palestinian farmer.”
“This past Friday about 500 dunams of olive groves were burned by settlers, destroying between 1,000 -2,000 trees. For a gold plated matzo ball can anyone tell me what a dunam is?”
(Eldad Brin, our tour educator, supplied the answer: four dunams to an acre.)
“In 2002, the first person invited us to come to their village. This farmer had spent 13 years in our security prisons, but he came out totally committed to non-violence. We began protecting them, becoming Israeli shields for the Palestinians when they were attacked by the settlers. I eventually sat down with the policemen who told me ‘you’re endangering all of us’; I responded by asking them what they thought would happen next if they didn’t allow legal nonviolent action?”
“In 2006 we won a major victory in court. The army must allow Palestinians to get to every olive even inside settlements, and protect them. The army can’t deny them access for their own good. The Army has to protect the trees and it has to bring people to justice. We’ve had no progress at all with the last two rights but the first two are being observed. The army is doing their job; our volunteers aren’t getting their heads cracked open anymore by the settlers.”
“There are 9 million olive trees in West Bank alone. They are the mainstay of most Palestinian families. Especially after the Second Intifada, most Palestinians became unemployed, unable to work in Israel. They returned to their lands. Their olive oil is sold for internal use, to Israelis, to other countries. Their trees are regarded like family members.”
“After 2006, the army created three areas: the Red, the Blue and the Yellow. We have to let the Palestinians in but to protect them, all these areas are closed to Israelis. In the Red areas, Palestinians can’t go in without permits. They have to coordinate with the Israeli authorities in order to tend their trees. In Blue areas, Palestinians are advised to coordinate with the Israeli authorities, but don’t have to. In Yellow areas, Palestinians are allowed in but Israeli human rights activists are forbidden. We are a red flag to the settlers, we upset them. The Israeli authorities can’t write orders distinguishing between left and right wing Israelis. We go along with this as long as the Palestinians are allowed in.”
“I don’t like stereotypes, but if you want to find religious fanatics foaming at the mouth, this is where you will find them. Yitzhar is Ground Zero for violence. Ever since the forced evacuation from Gaza, settlers have created something called Operation Price Tag. Every time the army attempts to take down an illegal outpost, they create such violence, that the government will think twice before they try again. That’s when settlers burn or poison trees, beat Palestinians, attack soldiers. They also do these things – especially the destruction of trees – simply as a tactic to drive the Palestinians off their lands.”
We were approaching the groves where we were to work. The bus stopped to pick up Zacharia Sada, RHR’s Occupied Territories Researcher. There were also two teams of television cameramen, one from Canada and the other from Egypt who were photographing our activities. Our destination was in the Nablus region, near the Palestinian village of Burin, located between the Israeli settlements of Har Brakha and Yitzhar (see map). Before letting us off the bus, Rabbi Arik gave us the ground rules:
“Nobody is ever alone. Everybody, at least two people together; you don’t let other people out of eye contact. We would like a mobile phone in every group; if anything develops, call me on my mobile. I will talk to police or army; back off if this happens. We’re not asking you to act as shields.”
We then crossed over the road and scrambled up a low hill, trying to keep our balance on the loose rock, avoiding the grey dusty thorny shrubs, making our way to the olive trees above us. The trees offered some blessed shade from the glaring light and heat. Two women in heavy shirts and long skirts were balancing on ladders, two young men spread large tarps under the trees. We did as they demonstrated: we stripped the small purple black olives off their branches letting them fall onto the plastic cloths. When enough olives had accumulated, the tarp was lifted up and the olives were poured into burlap bags.
Eleven days after seeing Just Vision‘s latest film Budrus in its official opening in New York City, a film depicting one Palestinian village’s successful nonviolent confrontation with the Israeli army to save their precious olive trees from destruction by the building of the separation barrier, I was sharing in this ancient ritual.
Then Rabbi Arik received a call on his cell that a farmer was being chased off his land by the army. Rabbi Arik, Zacharia, RHR-NA staff member Emma Missouri, Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg and Rabbi Debora Gordon jumped in the car along with him. Rabbi Deb, a goat farmer in Troy, NY, told me what happened next:
“We met a so called flying checkpoint, that is, a checkpoint arbitrarily set up on the road. It had nothing to do with our mission. The soldiers began hassling Zacharia. ‘I come from Jit ‘you don’t like that?’ Rabbi Arik shushed him. ‘Let me handle this.’”
The soldiers wanted him to get out of the car. Rabbi Arik advised him not to. Everyone had to show their passports. Probably three American passports saved him or certainly encouraged the soldiers to finish their check and release us. There was a Palestinian on the other side of the road who wouldn’t drive on until he was satisfied that it had been resolved. Zachariah wouldnâ€™t leave until the two camera crews, Canadian and Egyptian were checked as well. Very good behavior all around in terms of taking care of each other.”
“So we continued on to the village of Kfar Qaddum and we met Mr. Kadumi…”
To read what happened next, check out Rabbi Deb’s blog post, “Rabbis in the Olive Groves.”