Ilana Sumka - Jewish Center for Nonviolence

Interview: Elisheva Goldberg of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence

The situation is deteriorating in Israel-Palestine. Violence is escalating. Hopes are declining. Talk of a third intifada is growing as eight Israelis were killed in a spate of stabbings and as 29 Palestinians were killed during public protests. Instability is apparent. What can and should American Jews be doing to support Israelis and Palestinians who want out of the cyclical violence?
Months ago, a new project called Center for Jewish Nonviolence called for American Jews to spend the week of Oct 18-23 building relationships with everyday Palestinians in the West Bank and raising awareness within their home Jewish communities. This builds upon their previous action in March 2015 replanting olive trees uprooted by settlers. The timing is either perfect or unfortunate.
So I asked Elisheva Golberg, my colleague and fellow Seattlite, about the project, their vision, and why you should join them.

Elisheva Goldberg
Elisheva Goldberg
Ben: What is the Center for Jewish Nonviolence? Who started it and why?
Elisheva: The Center for Jewish Nonviolence is both an organization and a movement. It is an organization that mobilizes Jews from all over the world to do what so many have long thirsted for: on-the-ground activism in partnership with Palestinian and Israeli activists as part of the global movement to end the occupation.
The Center was founded by Ilana Sumka, the Jerusalem Director of Encounter from 2006 to 2011. She was quickly joined by a number of seasoned activists who shared the vision of mobilizing Jews from around the world to engage in nonviolent activism to work for lasting peace and a just future for Israelis and Palestinians. The Center was soon granted fiscal sponsorship by Tru’ah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and they have been one of the partners since the beginning. The Center’s team is growing, with a new team of Jerusalem coordinators, a college leadership team and an upcoming webinar series on Jewish Nonviolence taught by leading rabbis and activists.
[icon-box icon=location size=16] Related posts: Truah to JNF: Reveal your settlement funding[/icon-box] Those with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence are willing to pray with their feet, by going to the West Bank and East Jerusalem to stand in solidarity with Palestinians who are fighting against discrimination and the Israeli policies that treat them as separate and unequal.
Is your advocacy aimed at the Israeli government or American Jewry back home?
First, we’re not in the business of advocacy — we’re in the business of action and solidarity. We take as one of our mottos a phrase I first heard on the way to Susiya: Existence is resistance. We are aware of our privileged position as American Jews: we are granted free access to both Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories; we are granted the right of return; we have access to free Birthright trips; and we have the right to all the protections of the United States and other Diaspora countries. We are using that privilege to say to our own communities, Jewish communities around the world and in Israel, to our communities that claim our allegiances, family, and hopes, that we will not stand idly by.
But to answer your question, early on in the project Ilana said something that I really like. She said that ‘the legacy of civil rights activism is one I inherited, and it’s one I intend to use.’ I think that a lot of American Jewish folks feel that way. In other words, our shared movement – our community – stems from North America because that’s where we, ourselves are rooted. We are also joining with a number of Israeli organizations and individuals working towards the same goal – an end to the occupation.
We find a terrific organizing base among American Jews who live in Israel — here I speak specifically of the anti-occupation collective All That’s Left — who have been a tremendous source of inspiration and manpower. Much of our Jerusalem coordinators team, for example, began as activists in All That’s Left, myself included.
[icon-box icon=location size=16] Related articles about All That’s Left.
[/icon-box] I’ll also say one more thing. Peter Beinart once said that when “America’s rabbis have to face the parents whose children are being tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets in the West Bank [and] once the American Jewish local newspapers have to write about it because it’s the kids from their day schools who are at those protests, then the American Jewish community will not be able to ignore it anymore.” We agree. Beinart presents another reason for us to focus our attention towards and with American Jews who want to engage in solidarity work.
Center for Jewish Nonviolence - tree planting 2015
Center for Jewish Nonviolence’s tree planting action in March 2015
Who are your Palestinian partners?
The Center has Palestinian partners in many places. We work closely with Bethlehem’s Holy Land Trust and Sami Awad, Daoud Nasser of the Tent of Nations, Hamed Qawasameh of Hebron International Resource Network (HIRN), Nasser Nawaja from the Palestinian village of Susiya and many others.
We are allies who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people, and we are also stakeholders who are personally invested, as Jews, in the future of the region.
What do you mean by nonviolence resistance?
Nonviolent resistance is an umbrella definition for anything that resists the occupation — in other words, that opposes the status quo of inequality in the West Bank — and does not use physical violence. Perhaps the categories of nonviolent resistance can be divided into two central categories: Protest Action and Solidarity Action.
We focus our energy on actions that are useful and meaningful to the Palestinian communities that we partner with, whatever they may be — whether it’s planting trees in the aftermath of the Israeli army uprooting an orchard, or helping to build a school in a Palestinian village that is under Israeli demolition orders. We don’t plant trees or paint schools because we are expert farmers or builders. We plant and build because we believe the Palestinian people have a right to live in their homes and to educate their children in dignity. Again, existence is resistance. As Jews, we feel a responsibility to speak against what the Israeli government is doing and claiming our name.
Was there a moment when you realized that Jews needed to participate in nonviolent resistance?
Sumka tells a story about visiting the village of Al Walaja, on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Between 2007 and 2010, she witnessed the neighboring settlement of Har Gilo expand while the village lost its remaining farm land. The starkness of this injustice is just one example of the discriminatory way the Israeli government maintains its rule in the West Bank. The villagers of Al Walaja were determined to rely on nonviolence and nonviolence alone to try to preserve their village. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of the village, the Israeli government confiscated dozens of acres of their farm land. The approach of nonviolence was spot on but there were insufficient activists involved for it to be successful. Ever since, Sumka has been determined to add feet on the ground to support Palestinians working to protect their land and their homes.
[icon-box icon=location size=16] Watch: Al Walaja – The story of a shrinking Palestinian village
[/icon-box] What can you expect people to witness when they participate in the October action?
We’ll spend half the week in Susiya, a Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills that has been threatened – again – with demolition orders. While the neighboring Jewish Israeli settlement of the same name thrives with sturdy homes, tiled roofs and paved roads, the Palestinian people of Susiya live a precarious existence in modest tented homes with limited access to running water and electricity. We’ll be working improve the infrastructure of a school and to paint the playground for the kids in partnership with the people who live there.
We’ll also spend a day in East Jerusalem, learning about the on-going efforts by the Israeli government to evict Palestinians from their homes and to replace them with Jewish settlers.
Center for Jewish Nonviolence tree planting certificate
Center for Jewish Nonviolence’s tree planting certificate
The action is scheduled at the same time as the World Zionist Congress — is that deliberate and why?
It is deliberate. Hundreds of Jews from around the world will be convening in Jerusalem in a governing body which will make decisions with real impact on everyone living under Israeli control: Israeli citizens and Palestinians living under occupation alike.
Some four million Palestinians live within territory whose borders are controlled almost exclusively by Israel, but they do not have a say in Israel’s policies and needless to say they won’t be at the World Zionist Congress, a body that distributes millions of dollars of funding in a secretive, antiquated process that only serves to entrench the inequalities of the region rather than ameliorate them.
We want the folks at the World Zionist Congress to understand that we, their constituency, find it problematic that the WZC is gathering to discuss the future of a region in which millions of Palestinians reside, yet have no representation. We are going to ask them one simple but important question: What are you doing to end the occupation?
We find the words of Martin Buber sadly prescient, considering that he spoke them nearly 100 years ago at the Twelfth Zionist Congress in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia in 1921:
World Zionist Congress logo
“As we enter the sphere of world history once more, and become once more the standard bearers of our own fate, the Jewish people… reject with abhorrence the methods of nationalistic domination, under which they themselves have so long suffered. We do not aspire to return to the land of Israel with which we have inseparable historical and spiritual ties in order to suppress another people or to dominate them.”
Finally, we are extending an invitation to all the delegates of the WZC to come with us. Come to the West Bank and support the people of Susiya, who are trying to live in dignity while facing yet another demolition order. Come to East Jerusalem to stand with Palestinians who are being evicted from their homes to make space for Israeli settlers.
We take seriously the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that “in a free society, few are guilty but all are responsible.” Our responsibility is clear and the time to act is now.
Many thanks to Elisheva Goldberg for this interview. Learn more about the Center for Jewish Nonviolence’s week of action on Oct 18-23 and support their Indiegogo campaign here.

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