Abigail Leibowitz – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Thu, 19 May 2022 02:40:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.7.6 Israel-Palestine: Supreme Injustice and Counting the Omer https://www.juancole.com/2022/05/palestine-injustice-counting.html Thu, 19 May 2022 04:08:42 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=204710 ( Traveling Twins ) – As we celebrate the annual Lag BaOmer pilgrimage to Mount Meron in Israel this week– the 33rd day of the Omer– it begs the question: why are we counting the Omer for 49 days in the first place? As we are in the midst of counting the Omer, it is an opportunity to think about the significance of this ritual. The counting of the Omer is inherently linked to the Jewish calendar. [During this time, religious Jews count the fifty days from the holy day of Passover, which honors the exodus from Egypt, to that of Shavuot, in memory of the revelation by God of the Torah, the Hebrew Pentateuch.]

This reminds us that the very first mitzvah [precept] given to the Jews when liberated as a nation from slavery was the Hebrew calendar, in the form of sanctifying the beginning of each Hebrew month based on the lunar cycle. According to the late Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik, it was the first mitzvah because through it they could express their newly-acquired freedom. Slaves do not have control over their time but are vulnerable to outside forces. They have a schedule imposed on them. Upon emerging from slavery, the Jewish people were now endowed with the ability to control their own existence, and most dramatically, time was now their own. Thus, as free people, the Israelites were commanded to make their own calendar.

Today the Jews are free – whether in their homeland Israel or as citizens enjoying unprecedented, full equality in the overwhelming majority of countries. The countdown (or rather count up) from Passover to Shavuot is a reminder that we must strive to make the world a place where all people are free and able to control their own time.

Witnessing first hand the political reality of Israel as a state occupying and controlling the lives of millions of Palestinians, I see exactly the opposite of the freedom we commemorate with counting the Omer. I grew up learning and believing that Judaism emphasizes justice, but with the oppression perpetrated and maintained by the State of Israel, it’s hard to reconcile the Judaism that I believe in with these actions.

Friends and I Outside the Supreme Court

On April 7, I attended a Supreme Court hearing- also called Bagatz, an abbreviation meaning the High Court of Justice (HCJ)– and encountered behavior I had never foreseen at a formal institution. I attended a hearing challenging the procedure of allocating land in the West Bank to Jewish settlements behind closed doors. In Israel, all public lands must have public bids, yet not in the West Bank. The World Zionist Organization was given extensive power over land in the West Bank in the 80’s, against international law as this privatizes land allocation.

This hearing didn’t necessarily challenge the actual allocation of the land, rather simply the transparency of this allocation. During the hearing a man and teenage boy from an organization called “Im Tirtzu”, a far right settler organization, sat next to my friend Benji and started sending Benji all kinds of articles and links against Peace Now (the organization that filed the petition).

The drama got intense after the hearing, when the “Im Tirtzu” people followed us and they did not stop verbally attacking Michael Sfard (the lawyer) and Hagit Ofran (head of Peace Now settlement watch), calling them self-hating Jews. When they realized Michael and Hagit were explaining the case to us, they proclaimed to them “you are brainwashing these Conservative Jews from Nativ” and live-streamed the whole thing on Facebook.

After my own experience at the Supreme Court and witnessing just how little power and support peace makers receive in court and among the public, it didn’t surprise me that on May 4, the Supreme Court of Israel rejected the legal petitions of the South Hebron Hills [Misafer Yatta] residents.

I’ve written about these villages twice – here and here, having visited the area, talked to residents, heard both sides, and learned in depth about their situation. Whatever hope I had that the justices of the Supreme Court will intervene and allow these poor shepherds and farmers to continue living in their homes – has been crushed. Bagatz did the opposite, giving the green light to the State of Israel to demolish all their houses, expel them, and ruin their livelihoods.

The State argued they need this land for military training, calling it “Firing Zone 918” and the Supreme Court ruled this week that the State can now forcibly remove over 1,000 Palestinians from this area.

To add insult to injury, the justices imposed on these impoverished Palestinians – shepherds, farmers, day laborers – court costs totaling 40,000 NIS ($11,888)! (See paragraph 47 of Justice David Mintz’s decision). Really? Not only will their homes be demolished and lives totally upended, but they have to pay the state 40,000 Shekels just for filing this petition! How cruel and stone-hearted can you get?

I looked up this justice David Mintz – and no wonder, he’s a religious settler, learned his “Torah” at Yeshivat Gush Etzion, and now feels so superior to Palestinians that he needs to show them who’s boss. It’s sad that when he studied Torah at Gush Etzion, they did not teach him that the most frequently-cited mitzvah in the Torah is “do not mistreat the stranger in your land.” In fact, one of the 36 times this mitzvah is mentioned in the Torah happened last week in Parashat Kedoshim: “And when a stranger resides in your land, you are not to maltreat him” (Vayikra 19:33). When justices in the Supreme Court have such a twisted and perverted understanding of Judaism it is so disappointing and demoralizing.

I can only agree with B’Tselem organization which responded to the High Court of Justice decision by saying that it–

“Proves once again that the occupied cannot expect justice from the occupier’s court. The decision, weaving baseless legal interpretation with decontextualized facts, makes it clear that there is no crime which the HCJ justices won’t find a way to legitimize.”

Reprinted with the author’s permission from the Traveling Twins ) blog.

Breaking the Silence: Oppression of Palestinians reminds American Student in the West Bank of Black Lives Matter https://www.juancole.com/2022/01/breaking-oppression-palestinians.html Sat, 15 Jan 2022 05:06:49 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=202416 ( Traveling Twins ) – On Friday, December 24, I joined a Breaking the Silence tour of the South Hebron Hills- an area in the southern West Bank designated as Area C – meaning under full Israeli control and supervision. We visited sites surrounding Yatta, a central Palestinian city, including the Lucifer Farm, and the Palestinian Susiya.

The Lucifer Farm is an unauthorized outpost built by Yaakov Talia, a South African who converted to Judaism and immigrated to Israel when apartheid ended. But his “aliyah” is marred by what he brought with him: An apartheid ideology that he implements toward Palestinians. One cannot escape the intense irony: While apartheid ended in South Africa, he made sure to keep it alive and became a vocal supporter of ethnic segregation (as he stated in an interview on Israeli TV). The outpost has expanded over the years, mainly by using violence and intimidation tactics against Palestinian cave dwellers in the area, driving them away and taking over their pasturelands.

Farmland in South Hebron Hills

Lucifer Farm is just one example of what many Palestinian villages in Area C have to endure. Settler violence prevents Palestinian access to land and water cisterns which are the area residents’ main livelihoods and clean water sources. If you’re wondering why Palestinians have to collect water from cisterns, it is because Israel’s Civil Administration has never hooked up any Palestinian villages in the area to the water pipelines, while it has connected all the Jewish settlements.

Settler violence continues unabated, and from what we saw and heard – the authorities turn a blind eye toward this systemic violence. There is also a major difference in how violence is treated depending on the perpetrator: Israeli citizens who commit a violent act are (rarely) prosecuted under civil law whereas Palestinians who commit a violent act are prosecuted under military law. So if an Israeli settler were to throw a rock, for instance, they would theoretically be prosecuted under civil law but in reality – nothing would happen to them. However, a Palestinian throwing a rock would be seen as an act of terrorism and they would be severly punished. Knowing this, the settlers have an incentive to act violently, assured that their actions have no real consequences.

Next we visited the Palestinian Susiya. After being destroyed in 1985, this village was rebuilt near the Susiya archeological site, where the original Palestinian community of Susiya had been located in the late 1800’s. The residents were expelled, ostensibly, because construction is prohibited on archeological sites. Yet, today two settler families live on that exact site.

Palestinian Susya Today

The new community of Susiya, built on agricultural land that belongs to the village’s Palestinian residents, has also been destroyed several times, and in recent years, the Civil Administration has issued demolition orders for the vast majority of the Palestinian homes in the area. Many of the demolition orders in these areas are issued based on historical land law systems from the Ottoman period which are completely irrational to use today. But it’s really a pretext, since the Civil Administration refuses to issue any zoning plan for the thousands of Palestinians who live in this area. It is truly disheartening to see this cruelty: You–some 30 Palestinian villages–are violating zoning laws so it’s “legal” for us to demolish you. But we will make sure to keep you as violators since we’re never going to issue a Master Plan for this area.

At each stop on the tour, repeated themes and patterns came up; settler violence as a systemic issue, eviction and demolition orders based on such pretexts, de-facto annexation of West Bank land by Israel, enforcement of policies with the sole purpose of dispossessing Palestinians and using their land for the benefit of Jews.

At the end of the tour, we talked to a Palestinian activist from Al-Tawanni whose home is threatened by a standing demolition order. She said the main thing we can do is spread the message to our communities at home, which is what I’m doing with this post.

Chants from the protest

Hearing about all the immoral tactics the Israeli government utilizes to push Jewish settlers into the West Bank at the expense of current Palestinian residents, I felt compelled to stand in solidarity with those who are facing this fate. So after the tour, we attended a protest in Sheik Jarrah in East Jerusalem–just a few kilometers from where I have been living for the past 4 months–against the eviction of an innocent family from their home.

At the protest, I couldn’t help but see parallels to the Black Lives Matter rallies that took over the US in June 2020. About ten minutes in, it started getting violent and Israeli-Jewish allies began pushing the police. On the one hand, I understood that rioting is the language of the oppressed. But it wasn’t the Palestinians egging on the police, rather, it was the Israelis. On second thought, this makes sense because were the Palestinians to push the police, they would be arrested on the spot. So too in the Black Lives Matter rallies in June- those fighting for their own liberation are those who get the fiercest backlash, making the role of allies crucial.

Participating in the tour and the protest, I gained perspective on the reality on the ground for Palestinians. I also saw the parallels in the fight for justice across continents, while still recognizing the drastic difference in the movements: In the US, many police reform bills were introduced and passed following the BLM protests, while Palestinians will continue to face harassment and dispossession as long as occupation lasts.

Via the Traveling Twins Blog.

Finding What is in Common: The “Hamsa Aleichem” dialogue group for Israeli and Palestinian students https://www.juancole.com/2021/12/aleichem-dialogue-palestinian.html Mon, 27 Dec 2021 05:04:23 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=202030 ( Traveling Twins) – At Hebrew University, I am participating in a “Hamsa Aleichem” dialogue group for Israeli and Palestinian students. Organized by the campus Hillel and Sadarah/Kidma program (a head-start program designed for East Jerusalem high school graduates seeking higher education), this dialogue initiative has already given me some new insights.

The Palestianin students, who were much closer to me in age than the Israeli ones as they are not drafted to the army at age 18, explained that they don’t learn English in schools. Neither do they learn Hebrew. So they are essentially attending university and getting a degree in a foreign language – Hebrew!

Pursuing a degree in my native tongue is hard enough, so doing it in a foreign language commands much respect. Kudos to them for their persistence and determination.

I am now learning Arabic. So, we are both taking strides to meet the “other” by learning each other’s language. Overcoming the language barrier is one small step toward peaceful relations.

One of the Palestinian students, Abdullah, mentioned in one of our conversations that he has no passport because East Jerusalem and West Bank residents can only get Jordanian passports but his dad is from Gaza. This precludes him getting a Jordanian passport. Because he is not a citizen of Israel, there is no way for him to circumvent this catch-22, and so he has never left the country. What would you feel if you could never, ever leave the place where you were born? I bet you’d feel you’re in an open-air prison! Compared to Abdullah, I am privileged to be able to travel out of the US, and come back whenever I want.

Another girl I talked to, Diala, mentioned that we are more alike than we think, because as a Jew I am a minority in the US, and she, as a Palestinian, is a minority in Israel. We have shared experiences of trying to hold on to an identity in a culture that encourages assimilation. She is trying to maintain her Palestianin identity while needing to assimilate into Israeli culture, and I am cherishing my Jewish identity while living in an increasingly secularized society.

Yossi Klein Halevi with Nativers.

On December 14 I had the privilege of meeting–a real meeting, not on Zoom– author Yossi Klein Halevi. He mentioned religion being the most common denominator between the two societies. Halevi believes that the strongest common ground will actually be found among the most religious groups on both sides, but paradoxically, these are the groups with the narrowest minds and most opposed to discourse.

Religious Jew and Security at Temple Mount.

I visited the Temple Mount on the 10th of Tevet and saw the deep and devout longing felt by the religious Zionists there. I also saw Muslims deep in prayer, with an aura of spiritual elevation reflected by their motions. I now can’t help but see Yossi Klein Halevi’s point- these groups share the same values, God being the center of their lives.

However, as a participant in the dialogue group, I disagree with Yossi Klein Halevi that the religious connections can be the most impactful. Speaking with Abdullah, I found that we ultimately have similar goals in life- we want to receive a stellar education and we both dream of becoming successful lawyers. Speaking with another student, Loord, we discovered a mutual love of art (although I focus on performance art and she on visual arts) and a shared appreciation of working with kids. She is a counselor for Arab students learning Hebrew and at home, I tutored kids in Hebrew and assisted kids in dance classes.

I cherish the opportunity to simultaneously embrace my Israeli identity and learn about the Palestinian identities, and hope for mutual growth and understanding among the participants.

Reprinted with the author’s permission from Traveling Twins Blog.

Passover, COVID-19, and the Plight of Refugees https://www.juancole.com/2020/04/passover-plight-refugees.html Sat, 18 Apr 2020 04:01:29 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=190365 (Special to Informed Comment) – Yesterday was the last day of a peculiar Passover, celebrated under the Coronavirus pandemic. It reminded me of a famous story. Two British salesmen went down to Africa in the 1900’s to find if there was any opportunity for selling shoes. They wrote telegrams back to Manchester. One of them wrote, “Situation hopeless. They don’t wear shoes.” And the other one wrote, “Glorious opportunity. They don’t have any shoes yet.”

At first glance, the Passover story seems like the first salesman’s “hopeless situation”- where God had to inflict plagues on the Egyptians in order to free the Israelite slaves from their oppression, and civil discourse failed. However, Passover lends a glorious opportunity for a different approach- that of social justice and human rights. On the first two nights, Jews worldwide sat at their Seder tables, pointed to the matza, and chanted from the Haggadah, the text recited at the Seder, “this is the bread of poverty and persecution . . . whoever is hungry, come and eat, whoever is needy, come and join us.” We invite the poor and needy — regardless of their religion or ethnicity — into our homes to engage and celebrate with us.

Of course, this year was very different. We could not physically invite anyone into our homes because of COVID-19. Thus, I was compelled to find additional meaning to the Passover rituals.

Unable to invite the elderly or lonely neighbor to our table as we usually do, I challenged myself to think of all those separated from their families with no family feast or a place to call home. I saw in my mind the displaced of the world – the 70 million refugees surviving in tents and camps in desolate places under harsh conditions.

I considered the hundreds of separated children and families in ICE custody. They fled violence and brutality, only to be put in conditions that make them even more vulnerable to the global pandemic threatening us all.

Inspired by the concept of civil discourse, and moved by brave Holocaust survivors I have met such as Isaac Gendelman, Martin Finkelstein, and Nessie Godin, I founded F.A.I.R– Fans of Asylum and Immigration Reform, a student advocacy group. This student-led group is dedicated to seeking justice and aid for refugees and asylum seekers in the United States and at our borders.

F.A.I.R volunteers contributed to the Walk with Waymakers campaign which raised $8,000 for the Young Center for Immigrant Rights. Among other actions, they assign child advocates to unaccompanied children at the US border. Additionally, we promoted the ACLU petition to stop the spread of COVID-19 by releasing vulnerable communities from immigrant detention, jails, and prisons. The crowded and unsanitary conditions in the detention centers pose a severe humanitarian threat, increasing the likelihood of getting infected. Lastly, I and other F.A.I.R volunteers started Skyping with refugee children to help them practice English and cope with the current situation in which schools and libraries are closed. Reading stories to children, playing virtual Simon Says, and presenting Show and Tell highlighted that even small gestures make a big difference.

One might think that policy changes can be achieved mainly through words and political speeches. But in my opinion, actions speak louder than words. This idea is brought to life in the Haggadah when we recite, “In every generation, one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.” The Jewish medieval scholar and philosopher Maimonides interpreted this saying as “one is obligated to SHOW oneself…” with actions, not only words. This was my vision when founding F.A.I.R.

The challenge of solving the refugee and border crisis is daunting, and it won’t happen with the flick of a switch. I realize there is strong opposition to fair-minded, liberal immigration policies. Yet, the struggle for human rights requires dedication and an understanding that it is a gradual process which can succeed with small incremental steps. As Dr Martin Luther King said, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

Learning from immigrants and refugees- from their stories and cultures- and taking action on their behalf- signing petitions, writing letters, donating resources, and volunteering- is at the heart of our Jewish and American traditions. The hardships we felt during this year’s Passover, an ounce compared to those felt by refugees and asylum seekers worldwide, can become a “glorious opportunity” to pledge solidarity and engage in action for those who really need our help.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CBS News: “”We are trapped”: Immigrant women speak out from detention amid pandemic”

Violence against Jews a sign of increasing hate in the U.S. https://www.juancole.com/2020/01/violence-against-increasing.html Tue, 07 Jan 2020 05:01:17 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=188387 (The Baltimore Sun) – What could cause such hate in a person that would drive them to kill and injure innocent members of a minority group?

I was troubled by this distressing question once again, when on December 28, during the last candle lighting of Hanukkah, an intruder with a large knife burst into the home of a Hasidic rabbi in a New York suburb, stabbing and wounding five Jews who had come to celebrate Hanukkah.

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In the face of this horrific violence, both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities responded with resilience and unity, which is ultimately what the story of Hanukkah represents.

This eight-day holiday celebrates the Maccabees’ victory over the Helenists during the time of the Second Temple. The Helenists joined forces with the Syrian-Greeks in suppressing Judaism, advocating a total assimilation into Syrian-Greek culture. The Maccabees, however, rejected their efforts and fought back, leading to a Jewish victory.

Resilience runs in the blood of the Jewish people — from the earliest persecution by Pharaoh in Egypt, through the persecution by the Romans during the time of the Second Temple, through the Crusades by the Catholic Church beginning in the 11th century, through the Spanish inquisition in the 1400’s, through persecution by Czarist Russia in the 19th century, and finally the mass genocide in the Holocaust by Nazis and their collaborators. Jews were always targeted yet consistently showed resilience and determination.

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In contrast, during many of these dark periods, the Jews in the United States enjoyed freedom and acceptance, and were able to integrate almost fully into the economic and cultural life in America. The United States served as a place of refuge, where Jews were granted civil rights and everyone could practice their religion freely.

However, the attack on the last night of Hanukkah, coming on the heels of other terrorist acts against Jews, Hispanics and other minorities, fills us with shock and disbelief. How is it possible that in a country that has been a beacon of equality and religious freedom, people are still being targeted because of their religion or ethnicity?

Another very recent example: on December 24, an Iowa woman intentionally ran over a 14- year-old girl and attempted to kill her because she “was a Mexican.” Three people were killed in what police have said was a targeted shooting at kosher grocery store in Jersey City, New Jersey last month.

Indeed, under the Trump Administration, we have seen a drastic rise of hate crimes: The FBI reported 7,175 incidents of hate crimes in 2017 — a 17% increase from 2016, and an uptick for three consecutive years from 5,479 incidents in 2014, according to a Politifact article.

This step backwards goes beyond persecution of Jews; rather, it depicts the very scary direction this country has taken under President Donald Trump. These incidents and statistics clearly indicate that the Trump Administration has fostered an era in America where xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism are welcomed and normalized.

Now, more than ever, it is pivotal to fight for the restoration of tolerance, equality and acceptance in this country. All fair-minded citizens should stand up and fight back by showing resilience. To counter Mr. Trump’s rhetoric of hatred and bigotry — we must demonstrate love and compassion.

But we must go beyond resilience — we all need to get politically engaged in the approaching elections, including the primaries, in order to change the dark and insidious narrative that the Trump Administration has adapted.

In contrast to the racist and hate-filled tweets that Mr. Trump regularly sends out to millions of his followers, the Democratic candidates should send out equally-forceful, but totally-opposite tweets.

When presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders traveled to Des Moines to celebrate the final candle lighting, he posted on Instagram that he is delighted “to once again reaffirm our belief in an America where justice, freedom and religious freedom apply to all people — and to stand united to wipe out all forms of racism, discrimination, and bigotry.”

It is with this sentiment and determination to act that all of us must must approach the upcoming elections and the new decade.

Reprinted from The Baltimore Sun with the author’s permission.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Associated Press: “Thousands rally against anti-Semitism in New York”