On a Friday afternoon last November, about 50 Jewish Israelis set up tables covered with white tablecloths, candlesticks, wine, and a Shabbat meal under a canopy of olive trees in the historic West Bank city of Hebron. Some even brought with them sleeping bags and pillows to spend the night under the stars.
While this might sound like a beautiful way to celebrate Shabbat – eating and singing and sleeping outside, surrounded by the warmth of prayer and community – the intention and impact of this encampment was anything but beautiful. The Shabbat encampment took place outside of the Youth Against Settlements (YAS) Center in Hebron. The intent of the encampment was to intimidate and harass the Palestinian organization that uses the tools of media advocacy and nonviolent activism to resist the occupation of their city by Israeli settlers and soldiers. This Shabbat encampment was deliberately set up to obstruct access to the Center, an emblematic example of the restriction of Palestinian movement that is ubiquitous in a city under occupation.
This incident was one of the many egregious attacks on Palestinians that we, two Jewish American women, witnessed while we were spending time in Hebron working with activists at the YAS Center and documenting the daily human rights violations they face.
On this particular day, in addition to their camping supplies and ritual objects, the settlers brought an entourage of heavily armed Israeli soldiers who, upon arrival, arrested Issa Amro, the coordinator of YAS, and Ahmed al Azzeh, the youngest member of the group. Throughout the entire duration of Shabbat, the settlers ate, sang, and rejoiced while encircled by Israeli soldiers and police who enforced their control over the Palestinian space. Alongside Palestinian, international, and Israeli activists, we spent the day bearing witness to the settlers’ Shabbat celebration from behind the gate to the Center, which was being guarded by several soldiers.
The settlers relished in the restrictions placed on us at the Center with smug expressions on their faces. In a distorted observance of the commandment “And thou shall teach [the laws of the Torah] to thy children,” parents cheered as their children threw stones at the Palestinian children to force them off of the soccer field below.
Often referred to as an island in time, Shabbat is an opportunity to disrupt our everyday routines and allow ourselves to rest and focus our energies on creating sanctity for 25 hours every week. The commandment to observe Shabbat appears numerous times in the Torah, including in the 4th commandment, which states, “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. Six days may you work and perform all your labor. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to Adonai your God [...]God rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it.”
The settlers transformed the Shabbat celebration from a day of sanctity, rest, and joy into a day of provocation, harassment, and occupation. In response, we observed our own Shabbat practice, one that reinfused Shabbat with our values of peace, dignity, and justice for all. Looking out onto the settlers from behind the gate of the Center, we sang “Hineh Ma Tov,” “Oseh Shalom,” “Shabbat Shalom,” and “Lo Yisa Goy.” One of the Palestinian activists caught on to the melody and joined us in the singing, as the settler children stared at us with confusion, involuntarily mouthing the words so familiar to them. One of the settlers shouted that we were in violation of Shabbat laws because we were using our cell phones. We were struck by the irony that their warped version of Jewish law outlawed cell phone use on Shabbat but sanctioned throwing rocks at your neighbors.
The settlers’ encampment outside of the YAS Center was one of the many examples of the ugly reality of Israel’s settlement movement, which exploits Jewish identity, ritual, history, and practice in order to take over land and homes from Palestinians. Though the settlers in Hebron are notorious for being the most overtly vicious, violent, armed, and extreme of the settler movement, all Israeli settlements are in clear violation of international law. All Israeli settlements, whether they are a part of Hebron’s inescapably blatant system of violence and apartheid or are appearing on the Airbnb website as cozy cottages in family friendly neighborhoods, contribute to Israel’s displacement of Palestinians from their land, in order to claim it for Jews.
We want no part of Jewish practice, culture, and identity that has been infused with Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism or Zionism. In the tradition of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we choose to “pray with our feet,” as well as with our voices and hearts. Join us in practicing our Jewish values by signing the Stolen Homes and Open Shuhada Street petitions to oppose settlement funding and restriction of movement for Palestinians, and by visiting JVP.org/Hebron for more opportunities to take action. For those of us who believe in the prophetic tradition of Judaism, it is not the act of using a cell phone during Shabbat that is unholy, but the act of standing idly by as Israeli settlers and the State of Israel continue to violate Palestinians’ human rights.
Ariel Gold and Tali Ruskin stayed at the Youth Against Settlements Center during their travels in Palestine/Israel last November. Tali is an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace, and serves on the steering committee of the organization’s Boston chapter. She has spent a great deal of time traveling and living in Israel/Palestine, gaining a deep understanding of the politics, cultures, languages, and peoples. Ariel is a staff member of CODEPINK. She runs CODEPINK’s Remodel RE/MAX campaign, which aims to get RE/MAX to stop selling homes in illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Ariel is also an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace and Congregation Tikkun v’Or in Ithaca, NY.