Behrendt: Avodah takes a “bold step”
Last week, I protested Jewish institutional exclusion of Palestine solidarity activists by joining the Occupy AIPAC protest at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference. But this week, I feel optimistic and proud to be part of a Jewish community that listens to and accepts varying views on Israel.
This week, March 11-19, Pursue (a social justice organization sponsored by Avodah, the Jewish Service Corps and the American Jewish world Service) is sending 15 young Jews to Israel and Palestine. In addition to performing community service within Israel proper, they will witness the illegal occupation of the West Bank and meet human rights activists.
When the trip was originally announced last year, it did not include any stops in the West Bank or acknowledgement of systematic injustice towards the Palestinians. A revised itinerary emerged when Avodah’s leadership listened to the protests from the Avodah community, marking a victory for Jewish Palestine solidarity activists seeking acceptance in mainstream organizations. As an Avodah corps member, I feel welcome and accepted for my own way of being Jewish.
Palestine solidarity led me to a deeper connection with Judaism, and this experience is inseparable from my participation in Jewish life. The summer after Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s invasion of Gaza, I remember standing in the crowded living room of a Palestinian home in the Wadi Yasul neighborhood of East Jerusalem’s Silwan district. This entire neighborhood is zoned for the construction of a park in place of a community that had existed there for generations, with the explicit aim of maintaining a majority Jewish population.
At the time, Wadi Yasul had received between 400 and 500 home demolition orders, and residents were forbidden from accommodating growth with new construction. The family I visited squeezed 40 people into one home.
This situation was no more tragic than others I witnessed in Palestine: segregation, unlawful arrests, violent repression of peaceful protest, blatant racism by civilians and military officials, unprovoked settler violence and a number of devastating home demolitions. But I was struck by the absurdity of such suffering happening in my name, so that I, as a Jew, might someday move to a city with a Jewish majority.
I felt the sharp contrast between the values of respect and justice I had grown up with in Hebrew School and the values of exclusion being enacted in Israel-Palestine, and I felt shame. I felt then that I could no longer speak for justice as anyone but a Jew, and that my Judaism could only be rooted in this very sense of equality for Palestinians.
There is little space for this brand of Jewish identity in the institutions that claim to welcome all young Jews. Supporting BDS (the call to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel) can be grounds for exclusion, even as an expression of Jewish traditions of resistance and as a commitment to Jewish safety. This was made painfully clear when the Brandeis University Hillel barred my chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace from joining, citing our support for the boycott of illegal settlements.
Shortly after graduation, I was thrilled to join Avodah, a service corps and community living program that encourages a critical and productive engagement with Judaism, using Jewish texts as a starting point for combating domestic poverty and constructing our unique religious identities. Avodah gave me confidence that I could be part of a strong Jewish community without needing to support Israeli policies, implicitly or explicitly.
This fall, Avodah shocked me when it announced a service-learning trip to Israel through its alumni program, Pursue. This trip, required by a grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, seemed to include no engagement with the structural roots of Palestinian poverty, namely, a political system of segregation and a military occupation.
The critical perspective that Avodah so adroitly sheds on U.S. poverty was absent here, as was recognition that many Avodah participants oppose the assumed connection between Diaspora Judaism and the Jewish state. I felt invisible, but more importantly, the Palestinian people were rendered invisible. A group of “Avodahniks” drafted a letter opposing the trip, which was signed by almost 100 out of 500 Avodah participants and alumni.
Amazingly, Avodah’s staff listened! Several months after our letter, Avodah Executive Director Marilyn Sneiderman announced a new itinerary for the trip: After a half-week led by the Joint Distribution Committee, originally contracted to conduct the trip, the group will spend time in East Jerusalem and the West Bank learning about the occupation of Palestinians. They will meet with organizations like Ir Amim for a program on inequality between Palestinians and Jews in Jerusalem; B’Tselem for a tour of human rights in Hebron; and Tent of Nations in Nahlin and Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem to learn about Palestinian non-violent resistance. I feel confident that these groups will offer an anti-oppression lens and a rounder, more truthful view of poverty in Israel-Palestine.
For me, this compromise is not perfect. As a supporter of the Palestinian BDS call, I am wary of an initiative focused in Israel proper that does not take an explicit stance against the occupation. Furthermore, the trip is labeled as one to “Israel” (as opposed to Israel and Palestine), making Palestinians less visible in the trip’s publicity.
This is an impressive compromise, nonetheless. The revised trip marks a significant improvement over the original itinerary in acknowledging the occupation of Palestine as a social justice and poverty issue. It is meaningful that Avodah’s leadership listened to our concerns and recognized young Jews’ desire for honest community engagement with issues of Israel, Palestine and the occupation. This was a big, bold step that shows Avodah and other mainstream Jewish organizations can be real places for dialogue.
Together, we can preserve a Jewish community where we count and respect diverse Jewish political identities. These itinerary changes would not have been possible without our collective action. We do have power in our own Jewish community, and we can wield that power to create a more just world.
Liza Behrendt graduated from Brandeis University in 2011. She is a board member of Jewish Voice for Peace, and currently works as a community organizer at Gay Men’s Health Crisis as an Avodah corps member.