It is a sunny Friday morning and I am visiting Al-Tuwani, a small Palestinian village in the West Bank. Around us some children are playing, others are moving sheep and goats to graze, and women are hanging laundry to dry. If you knew nothing about the conflict occurring here you would describe this breathtaking hilltop as idyllic.
But, it is not. We walk to the village’s olive fields, recently vandalized by Jewish residents of a nearby Israeli settlement. On the side of some large rocks, I spot bright-red graffiti that spells out, in Hebrew, Chag Ha’Ilanot, or “The festival of trees.” Chag Ha’Ilanot is another name for the festival of Tu BiShvat, the day on the Jewish calendar in which we honor our connection to trees and their produce. The fact that to other members of my Jewish family, this inscription could celebrate the uprooting of trees, horrifies me.
I have been living and studying in Israel this past year as part of my rabbinical school training through Hebrew College, and I have spent countless hours in the study hall poring over ancient Jewish wisdom and exploring the rich and diverse Jewish tradition. I know the power of words. Both the force they have to bring communities together for common good, and their power, when used maliciously, to hurt and destroy.
I have also been learning outside the study hall, in visits all over Israel and in the occupied West Bank with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights’ Israel Fellowship. This fellowship focuses on civil and human rights within Israel and the occupied territories, and this visit to Al-Tuwani is just one of numerous encounters with a diversity of Israelis and Palestinians.
The villagers of Al-Tuwani tell us they were devastated when they learned of the vandalism to their trees. One of the community elders explains to us that olive trees are a major source of livelihood for the village and their damage puts a number of families at financial risk. Secondly, he explains, “An olive tree, in our tradition, is a symbol of rootedness, of belonging. When these trees are uprooted we know that we are being told we have no place here.”
Settler violence against Palestinians and their property is unfortunately not uncommon. And it is increasing dramatically. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, ideologically motivated crimes committed by Israeli settlers grew by 50 percent in 2018. Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization, reports that only 8% of the cases reported ever result in an indictment, and most cases simply go unreported because local police stations are located exclusively in Jewish neighborhoods, making them difficult for Palestinians to access.
These statistics are staggering, and they illustrate the unsustainable nature of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, for both its Jewish and Palestinian residents. The Israeli occupation, as it operates today, means that Palestinians are unprotected and left exposed to further violence in their communities. Under these conditions, no one, no Jew or Palestinian, is truly able to live in peace.
When I reflect on the vandalism I saw, my heart breaks, because I have loved Israel since my first visit in high school, when I learned about Israel’s ancient history and saw religion alive in a new way. I remember sitting outside at a kibbutz one night, looking at the stars, and thinking about the miracle that my people have this state. When I started learning more about the complexity of Israel, I began to question this commitment to Zionism. If Zionism looked out for Jewish people only, I was not sure that I could be a part of it. I love this place, but, I also I know that an Israel that does not see the humanity of all of its residents will simply not be able to stand. Before applying to rabbinical school, I knew that in some way I wanted to devote myself to fighting for justice in the world.
After this year, I see even more clearly that my responsibility to Israel’s wholeness will involve standing with and loving our Jewish state, while not being afraid to speak out against injustice against Israelis or Palestinians. Calling out injustice should not be seen as an abandonment of Zionism, but rather the fostering of a deeper commitment. I know that a Jewish state is a state that provides security to all, that takes seriously the Jewish proposition that all people (yes, even Palestinians) are created in the image of God.
I am returning to the United States soon, but my experiences with T’ruah, my chance to speak honestly with Israelis and Palestinians, has reinvigorated my belief that peace is possible. I know now that the work of peace building happens not only at the negotiating table, but also in the olive grove. JN
Tyler Dratch is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., and 2018-‘19 T’ruah Israel Fellow. He was recently featured in a widely syndicated Associated Press article about T’ruah’s Year-in-Israel program.