As the sun set on the last day of 2018, a few of us human rights defenders, a few soldiers and a Palestinian shepherd stood in a darkening field. Because we were there in 2018, the shepherds will be there in 2019. It is that simple. This is where human rights begin. Please stand with us, so we can stand in that field.
When I wrote last week that I was probably communicating with you for the last time in 2018, I thought I mean tit. However, I just returned from being detained 5 hours for the crime of accompanying shepherds. As so often happens, the soldiers who had to spend 5 hours with us clearly saw us as provocateurs. In my dvar Torah for last week’s Torah portion, I explained that Pharaoh also accused Moses and Aaron of being provocateurs for giving the Israelites the crazy notion that they had rights.
I think the story explains very well what is special about Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice, and why the lessons I have learned over 23 and a half years make us worthy of the support we need to continue our work in 2019.
Human rights are not won simply by what we do sitting in our offices, as important as that may be. They are not won simply won by going to the court or the Knesset or the press or the international communities, as crucial as those actions are.
Protecting human rights starts on the ground. It is what we do on the ground that empowers us to make systematic change in the corridors of power. What we did today, wasn’t just a bunch of activists mixing it up with soldiers, police and settlers. It is part of our plan to fundamentally change the way Palestinian shepherds are treated. Just as we did leading up to our High Court victory for farmers in 2006, we are documenting the clear patterns of discrimination leaving shepherds with no possibility of sustaining themselves. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has filed freedom of information requests on temporary closure orders based on the information we have provided. We are partnering with Yesh Din to identify and stymie patterns of settler intimidation and aggression towards shepherds….
Advancing human rights for the Bedouin requires human rights defenders willing to get out of their offices, get detained together with shepherds, and putting their bodies on the line. We require $76,000 for Torat Tzedek and Ta’ayush to properly carry outour Jordan Valley project. A generous donor has provided $35,000.
If you believe in our on the ground activism leading to systematic change, please donate now.
Today’s story was about educating the human rights defenders of tomorrow. It is not surprising that interning with Torat Tzedek is so popular with the young Jews learning about the Occupation and other social justice issues through Achvat Amim. Another testimony from a former intern appears below. Being there and engaging soldiers who are detaining us at the bidding of a settlement security officer in an area where the army allowed the shepherds to graze before the settlers showed up provides an education that can’t be captured in a lecture or a film or a book. And, today Becky (not her real name), was simply great. She connected as a peer with the soldiers just a few years younger than her. Your end of the year donation allows us to continue to partner with Achvat Amim, rabbinical schools and others to prepare the next generation of Jewish moral leadership.
Today’s story was also about faith. One of the most hostile soldiers eventually turned to me and asked,”You have been talking with me for two hours. You see that I am not interested. Why don’t you give up?” I gave a very simple answer, “Because I believe in you, and the good that is in your soul.” Between Becky’s peer engagement, my words of Torah, and Ta’ayush activist Guy Hircfeld’s going over basic facts and letting them read letters from military commanders attesting to the fact that the soldiers were defending outposts even Israel considers illegal, the soldiers who were initially refusing to speak with us, were engaging us, listening, and absorbing. A detention is an educational opportunity. Maybe we were all a bit punch drunk after 5 hours, but by the end we were smiling and laughing, and parted while humming together Auld Lang Syne.
It was a new version of the same old story. Maskiot was an army base turned into a Jordan Valley settlement, eventually repopulated by Gush Qatif evacuees. The Bedouin shepherds of Ein Hilweh report that, until recently, they were able to freely graze in the live fire zone that encompasses most of the land in the area (except Maskiot), but which is almost never used for exercises. The Bedouin report — that live and let live approach — has changed dramatically in recent years, and especially in recent days. There is a new outpost on the edge of Maskiot. Frequently the shepherds are arrested or detained in the live fire zone. The settlers send a drone to scare the flocks away. The settlers themselves freely graze their sheep and cattle in the live fire zone.
Everything was fine today until the army and the settler security officer showed up around noon. Although we had seen a settler flock pass not far from us a few minutes earlier, they had eyes only for us.
When the soldiers first showed up, the adult shepherd had gone to find a missing sheep. When I asked the 8-year-old boy with me what he wanted to do, he bravely said, “I am staying here.”
After he returned, soldiers tried to intimidate the shepherd and into leaving. He asked, “Why are we being treated differently than the settlers?” Rather than leave, they sat down to make tea. The settler security officer aggressively tried to block me from filming. When asked what he was doing outside his jurisdiction, he said he was there as a citizen. When asked how, as a citizen, he was in the firing zone, he eventually left. However, when Taayush activist Guy Hirschfeld tried to evacuate our volunteer, he found an army jeep blocking his vehicle from one direction, and the settler security officer from the other. Our ID’s were taken. We then began to wait … and wait … and wait. At least the children were able to take the flock home.
A police officer arrived and demanded that we sign a document stating that we knew we were in a marked live fire zone. There were no signs, and we agreed to sign that the security forces were saying this was a live fire zone. Unable to get us to sign what he wanted, he eventually left in a huff. However, it was after 5 p.m., and getting dark before the local commander gave permission to let us go. We waited for a bit longer, because the army jeep wouldn’t start, but eventually hummed Auld Lang Syne, wished each other a happy secular new year, and went on our way. We took the shepherd home, picked up our other volunteers in nearby Samra, and began to head home ourselves.
We told the soldiers that we will be back tomorrow, and until the shepherds can freely graze in enough lands to support themselves. Luckily, the fact that our intervention in other locations has been successful means that we are free to concentrate on the challenge at hand. In fact, we suggested to the soldiers that they might ask their commander whether, as has now happened in other places, the army might save itself some headaches by ceasing to obey the settler dictates to evict the Bedouin shepherds. Contrary to the disinformation they are sometimes given, we don’t tell the Bedouin what to do. They tell us what they need from us. The fact that the shepherds know that we are standing with them makes it easier for them to stand up for their rights.
Becky will need some time to process what she experienced. However, former intern Sasha Belenkiy writes:
“During the five months I spent in Israel-Palestine interning with Torat Tzedek, I visited the West Bank several times a week. I was welcomed in every place I went with incredible hospitality and formed many friendships. Not every Palestinian village is as welcoming of visitors as the places I went with Arik. The reason the Israeli civil rights community has such close ties with villages like At-Tuwani and Susiya is because of the decades-long fight for peace and justice by people like Arik. I got the opportunity to spend many days working with Palestinians to plant olive trees, graze their flocks, and document the damage caused by violent settlers.
I was trusted to work in solidarity with these communities because of the reputation Arik has built and firmly believe that epicenter of Israeli-Palestinian co-existence and reconciliation is in the work or Torat Tzedek and their partners. While many of generations of Palestinian children only know a Jewish person to be one who carries a gun, I’m grateful to have participated in a grassroots project where Israelis, Diaspora Jews, and Palestinians got to know each other through cooperation. The work I did has been life-changing and I see the events in Israel-Palestine with much more context and clarity now. I’ve returned to the US but hope to continue work on the ground someday. For the time being, I will continue to support Torat Tzedek’s fight for justice; peace is only possible through persistence like theirs.”
As the sun set on the last day of 2018, a few of us human rights defenders, a few soldiers and a Palestinian shepherd stood in a darkening field. Because we were there in 2018, the shepherds will be there in 2019. It is really that simple. This is where human rights begin. Please stand with us, so we can stand in that field.