I’ve always wondered if a day would come when there would be a cause so important that I would be willing to get arrested for standing up for what I believe in. That day came on Friday, July 15, when I was in the West Bank city of Hebron protesting the Israeli occupation, alongside dozens of other North American and European Jews. But it didn’t turn out the way I’d expected.
I was in Hebron with the organization I direct, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, calling for an end to the occupation alongside our Palestinian and Israeli partners, Youth Against Settlements and All That’s Left.
We’d been invited by Jawad Abu Aisha, a Palestinian owner of a shut-down factory, to help transform his property into a community cinema in a city without a single movie theater.
Hebron is the city in the West Bank where the repression of the occupation is most vivid, thanks to the presence of some 800 settlers who have taken up residence—with the blessing and support of the Israeli government—among a Palestinian population of 215,000.
Settlers and soldiers serve as agents of the occupation throughout the West Bank, not just in Hebron, and the occupation reaches into the daily lives of all Palestinians, from arbitrary roadblocks to water-use restrictions and home demolitions. But Palestinians who live in Hebron are subjected to a particularly extreme form of humiliation and discrimination. In Hebron, Palestinians are forced to walk on segregated side streets while settlers saunter down what used to be the Palestinian main street, slinging guns on their hips, throwing trash on the Palestinian market place, and taunting Palestinian children with catcalls and disparaging remarks that compare them to monkeys.
I don’t like going to Hebron. I’ve been going there for ten years, and it’s the only place in the world that makes me feel ashamed to be Jewish, thanks to the horrific behavior of settlers who claim to represent Jewish values. But this summer, I had the opportunity to show that Judaism is not about settlers, soldiers, or occupation.
Not long after our group of volunteers arrived in Hebron, the Israeli army showed up and told us we had to leave. We hadn’t done anything wrong, but we had to leave anyway. Why? The army was suddenly declaring Abu Aisha’s building a “closed military zone.” It didn’t matter that he was the owner of the building and had the deed to his property. It didn’t matter that he had personally invited us to work on his land.
What mattered was that he was Palestinian.
I grew up with stories of Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela, and I know that there comes a time in life when you have to make a choice. When the laws of a nation are themselves unlawful because they discriminate against another people—as do the laws of the occupation. When there is no legal recourse for an entire population to seek justice—as is the case in the occupied Palestinian territories. And when you’ve tried every other avenue available, as I have, from education to advocacy, and change still does not come, it is time to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience, because to act in accordance with unjust laws becomes, in and of itself, a travesty.