Last week, on October 25th, I found myself under arrest in the city of Hebron.
Later the same night, as my eyes wandered over the boxy orange payphone that, from my handful of anthropological case-studies, seems to be a ubiquitous feature of Israeli penitentiary facilities: I realized that that the last time I heard those words, “You’re under arrest,” was exactly a year and a day before, on October 24th, 2012, when I was first sent to Military Prison for refusing to serve in the army.
But unlike last time I heard the sentence “You’re under arrest” (אתה עצור), the Hebrew iteration of “You” was in Second Person Plural: Atem atzurim (אתם עצורים). You all. I was taken in together with six others, friends and partners (my life partner and our political partners), and we were accompanied physically by two other members (and spiritually/digitally by many more members) of the newly formed and severely rad All That’s Left Collective (same folks who brought you: this “Impolite” Interruption of Israel’s Articulate and Fascistic Politician, Naftali Bennett, at a “Non-Political” MASA Gathering, and this Public Service Paint Job (the City of Jerusalem seems to have accidentally erased the Green Line, so we thought we’d help they out by beginning to repaint it), and this international parlor day against the Occupation).
We had come to the city of Hebron, where violence is a given, where discrimination and segregation are the norm, where the occupation is at its clearest and most unabashed. We had come at the same time as thousands -perhaps even tens of thousands- of other Jews from around Israel and the Diaspora. It was the weekend of Parshat “Hayei Sarah,” the weekend in which observant Jews read Torah portion in which Abraham is recording purchasing part of the city of Hebron from the Hittites to bury his wife, Sarah. Instead of reading this text as a complicated and intricate series of metaphors and teachings, rife with spiritual resonances and moral reverberations, the settler movement has constructed a reading that is a simplified, bizarre and extraordinarily politically convenient: Over the past few decades, this text has been twisted and defiled and warped to be read as nothing more than a literal deed of ownership over the city of Hebron for the Jewish people. And so this year, as the years before, the weekend of Parshat Hayei Sarah was to be an opportunity for nationalistic gloating, aggressive religious festivities, and, like all Jewish celebration days in the city of Hebron, an increase of draconian restrictions upon and casual terrorizing of the Palestinians residents of the city.
A few years ago, a group of Diaspora Jewish rabbinical students, community organizers and activists decided that it was time to religiously protest exclusive Jewish ownership of the city of Hebron, and to reclaim our sacred texts from the exclusive ownership of those Jews who see all Palestinians as less holy, less Godly, less human. They formed an initiative called Project Hayei Sarah, which, ”In light of our awareness of violations of human dignity in Hebron, many in the name of Judaism, Project Hayei Sarah seeks to educate Jewish communities about the history, complexity and current reality of our relationship to the holy city of Hebron…” (Full and proud disclosure: I have been involved with Project Hayei Sarah for three years now, and helped launch the YouTube Divrei Torah in 2011 (I wasn’t able to much in 2012 from a jail cell in Military Jail #6, but this year…)).
In solidarity with this initiative, and in solidarity with the Palestinians living in Hebron, and the inspiring organizers from the activist group Youth Against Settlements, members of All That’s Left decided to go to Hebron on the weekend of Parshat Hayei Sarah to declare the following:
In addition to our simple declaration, we decided to set up a tent, a symbolic recognition that Abraham’s tent was said to be open to all people, and that when Abraham came to Hebron, he came as a neighbor and as a self-declared stranger, not as a lord or a master or an exclusive owner. In and around this tent, we planned to sit and learn the Torah portion together. We arrived in Hebron, virtually unnoticed. In fact, the tent helped us blend in:
More than that: we were accompanied by hundreds -if not thousands- of other Diaspora/ English-speaking Jews. A soldier we walked passed asked us in English where we were from.
“I’m from New York,” a member of our group told him.
“No way, man!” the soldier replied, “I’m from Jersey.”
We walked up to the Youth Against Settlements center, painted our banners and discussed where to pitch the tent. The logistics were complicated: We wanted to pitch our tent on Shuhada street, but the Palestinians photographers and activists who wanted to accompany us are not allowed on Shuhada street: The main street in the H2 section of Hebron is forbidden for Palestinians to walk on. There are many words to use for such a situation, but I tend to defer to the locals’ interpretation:
We decided on a part of Shuhada street which ran perpendicular to a street on which Palestinians can walk, near the Avraham Avinu settlement. While we were talking, a group of young settlers came by the front of the house and stood, their arms linked over each other, smiling and yell-singing: “The Nation of Israel Lives.” The subtext in Hebron is clear. We had a cup of coffee. And then we began to walk.
Upon arrival in the decided spot, we began to unfold our tent and our banners, cameras clicking:
Within a number of seconds, a host of police officers and soldiers had surrounded us, ripped the banners from our hands and confiscated the tents and told us to leave immediately. We sat down and began to study the texts we had brought.
For the next half hour or so, there ensued a sort of bizarre standoff: the police walked a few meters the other direction, and began radioing for orders from their higher ups. They closed off the road, and (thank God) did not allow the curious settlers passing by to get near our group. (Palestinians standing nearby joked to us in Arabic: “They need orders to figure out what to do with you. With us: its hello, hello, bim, bom, arrested”). We sat and began studying, alternately speaking about what we should do.
We decided quickly that we would continue to study, and that we would face whatever came next together. Daniel Roth, a member of All That’s Left who was there as well, wrote a beautiful piece on the Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog based on his reflections on the event, called “Arrested for Learning Torah in Hebron.”
After a while, our group decided to stand up and walk towards Shuhada street. We scribbled makeshift signs, stood up, and within thirty seconds:
The story was picked up by a number of news outlets, including the Jerusalem Post, and was written up beautifully by Mike Omer-Man on +972 Magazine. All of this we found out later; in the meantime, our group was reunited in a small holding room in the Hebron police station. Also in the room were (1) five or six police officers (two of whom were Arabs or Druze) and (2) an Israeli cooking show on high volume on the TV and (3) a Palestinian man shackled on his hands and feet. Our cellphones were taken, but we were not handcuffed. The Palestinian man turned to me and asked, in choppy Hebrew, why were were here. I answered him in Arabic, “we were protesting against the occupation.” He smiled, and replied in Arabic: “That’s great! Welcome. The occupation is everywhere.” One of the guards then yelled at us to stop speaking. We never found out what he was in for.
After the policemen had finished processed the seven of us, we were taken together to an outdoor cage of sorts. The guard (one of the Arab/Druze policemen) who came with us initially locked us in. Then he looked at us, looked down at the lock, unlocked it, gave the lock to his colleague and sat down in a chair in front of our cage. I think he was probably vindicated in his analysis of us as “unlikely to try to forcibly run away” when we began singing a round about a wise owl, playing improv games (“I know this guy and his name is Mason/He was arrested for protesting the Occu…”)
There were some fun moments here and there last time I was in jail, but it was radically different to be there with six others. More than that, soon after we were sent to the cage, we were allowed to see Emily, lawyer and All That’s Leftist extraordinaire who had been accompanying us the whole time. She told us that things were going to be fine, that we would probably be released within hours– and that Zehava Gal-On (Meretz MK) had been making some calls to ensure that things go well. More than that, Emily told us that activists from Jerusalem were aware of the case, and willing to come pick us up- and that they had called Palestinian friends who lived near the police station and were waiting outside to bring us jackets gathered from their family members.
Later, in a letter to Gal-On and Tamar Zandberg, another Meretz MK who also began making calls on our behalf later in the night, we wrote:
“Some of us are Meretz voters, and others are not. Some of us self-define as Zionists, others do not. But for all of us, it was a meaningful moment, to hear that we are being supported and bolstered by one of the leaders of the political Left in Israel (and then it became two of the leaders when we heard that Tamar was making calls for us as well, later in the night!). The knowledge of your support helped us feel that we are not alone: not alone in our action, not alone in our opposition to the segregation in Hebron or the daily oppression of the occupation, not alone in our community of Leftists and activists and Jews who want to see a more equal and just future for Palestinians and Jews alike. And it is this feeling, the feeling of community and togetherness, that will enable us to move forward and to continue to act nonviolently and boldly and committedly to challenge the occupation, racism and violence from our perspective as Jews living in Israel and committed to the diaspora. So, thank you.”
As the night in the jail went on, we were interrogated one by one (and one by one retained the right the remain silence (“You all are very frustrating!” The interrogator declare to more than one of us, “And not exactly the usual suspects…” What? You mean you don’t arrest Anglo-Jews in Hebron on the regular?)). As often happens in these scenarios, the interactions with the police officers became friendlier and less formal. I ended up chatting with one of the Ethiopian officers about marathon running, and another quipped to us all that he’d “rather fight crime in Netanya… From my perspective, let’s get out of the territories tomorrow.”
As if to highlight what was off about this dynamic, one burly, yelly bald officer, declared, “Well, after all, we’re all Jewish, right?!”
“Well, that’s sort of the problem, you see…” replied a member of our group, “Not everyone in Hebron is, um, Jewish…”
The police officer went silent.
Towards the end of the night, the police brought in new detainees– young Palestinian boys, maybe 12 or 13, in blindfolded and handcuffed.
The police officer was right that we are all Jews according to the State of Israel, and the Rabbinate, but the values that guide our group’s Judaism felt radically different than the Judaism of those who were celebrating Jewish ownership over Hebron, or those who had plastered the area with “Kahana Tzadak” (“Kahana was right:” Meir Kahana, a [Diaspora-born] Israeli Rabbi whose anti-Arab policy’s and incitement led his party to be banned from the Knesset) posters. So, as a small “Tikkun” (repairment):
We were eventually released around midnight. We returned the jackets to the incredibly kind family who lent them to us, and were picked up by other members of All That’s Left and kind, dedicated activists from other circles, and went home into the sunset. Sunrise. Sunwhatever.
These are my thoughts, these were my days, more to come, God willing, but for now, the best thing would be a rest. Pun deeply intended.