Angry Jews on the Freedom Bus

“We have to change the way we talk about and relate to the State of Israel. And we have to do it now.”

So declared one of the almost dozen Jewish participants in the most recent Freedom Bus ride through Palestine.

Performing in the Jordan Valley community of Al Hadidiya, actors from the Freedom Bus troupe dramatize real-life stories about how Israel’s water policies are affecting individual Palestinians. Credit: Ben Rivers

I recently traveled the length and breadth of the West Bank on the annual Freedom Bus trip sponsored by the Jenin Freedom Theatre, a cultural center and theater based in the Jenin refugee camp. Despite having spent more than two decades living in, working on, and writing about Palestine/Israel, I was struck by the intensity of traveling through frontline communities in the unending struggle over land in the West Bank. Reading a Haaretz headline declaring that “Israel authorizes record amount of West Bank land for settlement construction” is one thing; experiencing the realities of constant settlement expansion from the perspective of the residents whose lives are most directly and deleteriously impacted by it, is quite another.

Israeli policies in the West Bank range from broad-brush prohibitions on Palestinians building schools, accessing agricultural land, and hooking up to electricity and water systems, to the demolition of homes and the imposition of rules limiting Palestinian wells to one-tenth the depth of settlers’ wells, to forcing children to walk to school through settlement-controlled territory where they face attacks and preventing the sick from accessing medical care. On the Freedom Bus, passengers who may only have read about these realities are forced to confront them face-to-face.

Art at the Edge

If the Freedom Bus served only to highlight the brutality of the Occupation, it would be hard to remain aboard for more than a few days. What makes the time on the bus as inspiring as it is enraging is the centrality of art to the tours and the communal resistance and solidarity it aims to strengthen. As Freedom Bus cofounder Ben Rivers explained during a Playback Theatre workshop he directed, “The inclusion of theater, music, and song connects us to the creative forces that sustain a people and their struggles.”
More than merely placing the issue of Palestine “within its context as a human tragedy,” as novelist Elias Khoury put it, regular visits to Palestine by activists foster long-term relationships, a shared commitment to popular struggle, and the possibility to educate a wide swath of the community. This goes for Palestinians, who “need to know what’s happening in other parts of Palestine,” as well as for Israeli and international activists.

The many unique stories shared through various forms of theater and other artistic productions during the ride offer powerful counternarratives to the minutiae of the Occupation. And the inclusion of increasing numbers of Israeli and international activists is laying the groundwork for the kinds of broader identities that will be at the core of any post-Oslo solution to the conflict. If the cultural creation-as-resistance experienced on the Freedom Bus encourages a mental jail break from the multiple layers of the Occupation for Palestinians, it can have an equally profound impact on the Jewish participants on the bus.

Jewish Participation in the Solidarity Movement

The internal debate within the American Jewish community about the Occupation is becoming increasingly heated. As Al Jazeera senior political commentator Marwan Bishara points out, American Jews rank as both the biggest opponents and the biggest supporters of Palestinian rights in the United States.

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