One of the first things the Israeli Defense Forces did was steal the generator, throwing the camp into darkness. I couldn’t stop thinking of my dad somewhere in the dark, one of hundreds based in the protest camp. I couldn’t see him on the live stream. I hoped that was a good thing. The IDF came at night, when the media had long left, as well as some of us, myself included, who needed to get back to the hotel to rest. A few of the activists still onsite began Facebook live streams, narrating what was happening, but without the cheerful string lights the generator had powered, it was next to impossible for the outside world to see what was happening to us. I presume the IDF didn’t want witnesses to what they would do next. Our activists on the ground came together. Following the directions of our Palestinian coalition we made “soft blockades” by standing in lines with linked arms and trying to protect the generator and other camp supplies. Soldiers scanned for leaders. They choked, pushed, and punched my friends. The strength of everyone’s arms kept them from being dragged away for worse punishment. Where was my dad?
Less than 48 hours before the IDF attack, my father and I had walked down a dusty road into Sarura—a small Bedouin village in the South Hebron Hills. We were walking with a historic coalition of Palestinian and Israeli groups, and with the Diaspora Jewish group the Center for Jewish Nonviolence. We came to Sarura to accompany a Palestinian family previously evicted from their village who wanted to return to their homes. Three hundred people gathered for this occasion because, for a Palestinian family in the West Bank, moving home is a dangerous task.
The landscape of Sarura kept reminding me of Tucson; the way the hills peel off into the distance as far as you can see; the dusty ground broken up by boulders, thistle, and fragrant wild herbs. The smells of za’atar and sage traveled with the wind. I could see the patterns of clouds moving across the open sky reflected in shadows moving over the hillsides. And disturbingly close by I could see Ma’on (an illegal Israeli settlement) and Havat Ma’on (an illegal outpost). Ma’on was established in the early 1980s, and it’s the primary reason families from Sarura had to leave.
Some Israeli Jews live in illegal settlements in the West Bank because they are economically incentivized to do so, and because the truth of the legal status and political agenda of these gated communities are purposely downplayed. The settlers of Ma’on, however, are ideological settlers. They believe Jews have a religious right to all of the land and they enact this belief by violently harassing the Palestinian families near them. The daily onslaught of this harassment, and the pressure created when the IDF’s declared the area a firing zone for military practice, led to all the residents of Sarura leaving their homes by 1997.
But this year, this 50th anniversary of Occupation, one family decided that they wanted to go back. Our coalition was there to support and protect them, at their request and invitation. So we founded Sumud Freedom Camp in the center of Sarura.
On our first day working at camp we split into teams. One team constructed shade structures including a large tent—big enough for all of us to gather inside—the blue and black canvas propped high with large planks of wood. This was to be the heart of camp. A place where we could rest and where each of the groups in the coalition could teach the others about their unique practices of nonviolent activism. The tent was shaky at first. The fast winds that move over the hills threatened to turn the entire thing into some kind of parasail. But with some advice from experienced Bedouin tent-builders, we were able to bring enough stability to imagine sleeping inside. A second team went to clean one of the homes the family was forced to abandon: a rusty metal door sunk into a cliff wall—like a desert hobbit home. Bedouins in Sarura lived in cave homes dug out of the rock. It’s the perfect way of life in this arid place. Cool in the summer, warm in the winter and all with no carbon footprint. We watched as two members of the family put the key they had been carrying around for twenty years in the lock. It took a few long seconds of jiggling but finally the door opened with what I decided was a triumphant creak. We went inside. For the rest of Friday and much of Saturday groups of Diaspora Jews, Israelis, and Palestinians shared the work of making this cave habitable again. We cleaned out the inside and carried buckets of gravel to settle the dust and prepare the floor to be paved. Looking at the long assembly line from across another hill I could hear the laughter, bits of conversation, and the upbeat debke music pumping out of a truck parked by the gravel pile.
Saturday night after a long day of work at the camp I had said goodbye to my dad and hopped on a minibus with a subset of our activists. There were folks who needed to go back to our Bethlehem hotel to recover, folks feeling sick from a stomach bug passing through, and people tasked with increasing our social media presence by spending time somewhere with consistent electricity and internet. Once on the bus I fell asleep, feeling satisfied with our work and aglow with a sense of safety and pride in our new community. Ten minutes before our bus pulled into the hotel parking lot the people sitting next to me shook me awake. There was an announcement.
When we had left camp everyone was gathered together to eat. The generator had been on, powering some string lights and music while the dinner team barbecued and a group of Palestinians led everyone in a rousing debke dance session around the fire. One of the coalition members, Combatants for Peace, was setting up a screen and projector to show their new documentary “Disturbing the Peace.” Then the IDF rolled into camp in their jeeps.
The soldiers presented no legal reason for the attack. They had no closed military zone order—which would be standard practice for them to present before ordering a peaceful gathering to disperse.
In one of the scariest moments, I watched the live stream as the soldiers began to cut down our large tent while a group of our activists sat inside, chanting and singing in Hebrew and English. Later my dad would tell me he was standing in a separate blockade outside the tent as the soldiers cut the fabric and tore it down around the people inside, punching several through the fabric in the process. That was the hardest part for him. Witnessing this violence. And as horrible as this violence was, the fact that it was limited to punching, pushing, and choking was a result of the privilege we held as international Jews. When Palestinians protest alone, the IDF typically uses tear gas, rubber bullets, mass arrests, and even live fire.
I was so scared watching through the live stream and trying to search out my father’s face. And I was so scared about what might happen to my Palestinian friends there, what could happen if our privilege as Jews didn’t hold a zone of safety. But today, a month later, the Sumud Freedom Camp still stands. The family continues to repair their home in Sarura, supported by Palestinians from other villages and towns and by Israelis and internationals who travel to stay in camp for a few nights at a time. The IDF has returned two more times, destroying supplies and pushing people around. But “sumud” means steadfastness, and the Sumud Camp is living up to it’s name. Several weeks ago 14 olive trees were planted in Sarura. Trees that can outlive us all if only we can protect them from the soldiers and settlers who would uproot them.
In many ways the reason I was present at the Sumud Camp, was because of my father’s influence. For my entire life he has been a quiet, constant activist. He was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He chose a job as a social worker because he cared more about helping people than scaling the socio-economic ladder. Throughout the last 20 years I’ve watched him work steadily on unglamorous causes, including a long battle to get universal healthcare for our home state, Pennsylvania.
Lots of people think the movement against the Occupation in the Diaspora is a new thing–a movement of young people. There’s some truth to that, but it’s not the full truth. The full truth is that the work and movement-building that millennials are doing now is built upon the work of activists of my father’s generation and before. We’ve learned from the struggles for justice that happened before we were born, and from when we were too young to dissect any news that came from sources beyond Sesame Street. Our delegation included people who organized against the Vietnam War and for civil rights in the American South. It included people who were at the riot at Stonewall, and brave Jews who have been advocating an end to the Occupation far before it was a trend. And then there was my dad, a person active in other struggles for social justice but who had been accustomed to a lazy sort of Zionism until I started to come to Shabbat dinners with new critiques and a return to old values. Our delegation included many people like him, social justice warriors who had come to recognize that the same forces of racism and militarism they fought at home were also at work in the Occupation. There were also people who made a bigger about-face—former campus ambassadors for Israel who can still remember every talking point.
Working from a place of privilege in a social justice struggle requires us to welcome in people who previously opposed our work. Including people who may have previously stigmatized or silenced us in communal spaces and parents who may have first thought that our critiques of Israel were a phase. It requires that we believe people are capable of radical change and that we can be capable of forgiveness. I lucked out with my dad. The trust in our relationship meant that even when our opinions differed he listened to my arguments with respect. I want to call on our anti-Occupation movements in America to welcome in older generations; to make space for their experience and wisdom. And I call on the older generations to join us. To accept leadership from younger activists and to give yourself a chance to change or be a beginner in a new way of working or a new community that is forming. I can’t promise that this will be easy. What I can do is offer evidence of how beautiful it can be as we repair the world together.