November 21, 2018

Sumud Freedom Camp: A vision of peace in the Hebron Hills?

There is something new under the unforgiving South Hebron sun.

A disparate group of Palestinians, Israelis and Diaspora Jews came together this spring to create Sumud (Steadfastness) Freedom Camp, an effort to show that a seemingly intractable conflict might yet be resolved through a grass-roots movement of people who refuse to be enemies.

Sumud campers from the Palestinian and Jewish worlds are making different political choices from many of their own community leaders. Sumud’s founding organizations include the Center for Jewish Nonviolence (CJNV), the Holy Land Trust (HLT), Youth Against Settlements (YAG), All That’s Left, Combatants for Peace, and the Popular Resistance Committee of the South Hebron Hills.

At the outset, two projects drive the mission: First, to exist as a “safe, nonviolent, unarmed space where all those who believe in a future founded on justice, freedom, and equality can come together to build a foundation that will sustain a just peace.” Second, to renovate housing at the site of Sarura, a village displaced by an Israeli military zone, hoping to return families to their homes.

The HLT, organized by Sami Awad in 1998, chooses to work with Israeli and Jewish activists in the context of extreme care taken by  Palestinian leaders to build any collaborations such that they do not normalize Israeli domination. While not a religious organization, HLT takes inspiration from the teachings of Jesus Christ as well as Mahatma Ghandi, embracing nonviolence as a guiding principle.

Awad calls Israel/Palestine a place of “many narratives.” Sumud includes people who regard 1948 as a miracle and others who see it as a naqba, a catastrophe. Rather than waiting for some magic day when everyone’s story collapses into a master narrative, Sumud campers are trying something new: creating a space where people can be together in their differences, joy, pride and pain to build relationships based on mutual respect.

Youth Against Settlements is a direct-action group committed to nonviolent civil disobedience, the right of each of its members to their own religious beliefs and women’s equality. A founder and leader of YAG, Issa Amro, who has led actions such as the creation of Cinema Hebron, a closed factory revitalized as a movie theater (which was shuttered by the Israeli military), faces prosecution in Israel for “assaulting a soldier” during a demonstration in which Amro was injured. He is accused of pushing and calling a soldier “stupid,” as though tactlessness could really be a crime in Israel.

Israeli authorities have ordered an August trial for Amro, who has been successful at turning young Palestinians away from violence and fundamentalism.

For its part, the Diaspora Jewish delegation, organized by CJNV, has gathered members of politically disparate organizations who do not always speak civilly, let alone work together at home, such as J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now.

The only agreements CJNV delegates had to commit to were the organization’s three guiding principles: opposition to the occupation, an unshakeable commitment to nonviolence and “belief in the shared humanity and full equality of Palestinians and Israelis alike.” This includes people who favor a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine, others who favor two states and people who don’t really believe there should be state power anywhere on earth.

The oldest Jewish camper, a man in his 80s, worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee fighting for African-American equality in the U.S. South. The youngest camper was 18. There were Jews of many colors, economic backgrounds and varieties of Judaism, from very observant to proudly atheist. Palestinian participants ranged from old to young, urban to rural, academic to working class, Muslim, Christian and none of the above.

Sumud Freedom Camp was created on the site of Sarura, a village located in Area C, the part of the occupied West Bank that is entirely under Israeli military control. Sarura and most Palestinian villages in Area C have been declared military zones, which means that whole communities live under constant threat of summary demolition. They are not allowed to file Master Plans with the Israeli authorities, but any construction made without a Master Plan is illegal. Hence, any improvement to a building, paved road, mosque, school, water tower or solar power plant can be, and often is, torn down — but not until its builders labor to its completion and are forced to watch the destruction.

The South Hebron Hills are a particularly challenging place to live when one is denied access to electrical power, filtered water and a sewage system — all of which are available to the Israeli settlements, including Sumud’s neighbor, Ma’on Settlement, which, in its founding, was illegal even under Israeli law.

Despite its beginnings, Ma’on enjoys water, power and green space sufficient to render it indistinguishable from a remote Southern California desert suburb. Its residents also, with impunity, engage in harassment of Sarura and other nearby villages. Even on Shabbat, settlers rode three-wheelers through the village close to the Sumud camp, scaring animals and taunting people.

Adjacent to prosperous (and younger) settlements, Har Hebron villages struggle to wrest a living based on herding and agriculture from the stingy, dusty soil. The residents live sustainably, micro-irrigating crops and allowing animals to roam free, which often results in confiscation by settler youth that goes uncompensated and unpunished.

Everything in the South Hebron Hills fights back: soil limned with sharp rocks and heavy stones, the scouring wind, the blazing heat of day, the frigid cold of night, even barbed and sticky weeds that compete with fragile crops for precious water. It is from this soil that the nonviolent youth movement, dedicated fiercely to education and self-improvement, is emerging.

Local Palestinians from neighboring villages such as Umm al-Khair and al-Tiwani have been supportive of Sumud, sheltering travelers on their way to the camp and spending the night themselves. Young men from the neighboring villages help renovate caves that have housed Palestinians for generations. The caves, naturally insulated from the heat and cold, are made livable by caulking the places where snakes and scorpions might hide, plastering the ground and installing doors and screens to make rooms.

Despite concerns that it might prove “triggering” for Palestinians to hear Jews praying in Hebrew, several Palestinians joined Shabbat celebrations, among them representatives from Roots/Shoreshim, a group founded by a self-defined “settler rabbi” and a Palestinian activist who had spent time in Israeli prison. Actual neighbors, they acknowledged that they had never spent time face-to-face with each other. They began to build friendships simply by introducing their children to one another and sharing personal histories.

During Kabbalat Shabbat, Shoreshim representatives shared their group’s vision of “a social and political reality that is founded on dignity, trust, and a mutual recognition and respect for both peoples’ historic belonging to the entire Land.”

The Israeli army continues to harass the Sumud camp, shoving people around and taking away tents, a generator, even a car. Most of the international campers have left, but the camp is being maintained by local Palestinian activists, Israeli Jews, and some Diaspora Jews who stayed.

Sumud Freedom Camp does not represent a retreat from politics. Rather, it is an experiment in building a political program from the grass roots up, based on real relationships and investments in one another’s well-being that cross national and religious divides.

Peace activists are often asked, “So where are all the nonviolent Palestinian activists?” Actually, they aren’t hard to find. A better question is, “Why isn’t the Israeli government acknowledging and trying to partner with such people instead of repressing them?”

Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches Jewish Thought at Cal State Long Beach and serves as affiliated clergy at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock.