130 Diaspora Jews stand between the Israeli army and a Palestinian cave village

The Palestinian village of Sarura was destroyed in 1997 and its residents have not returned for fear of settler violence. Dozens of Jewish volunteers from the U.S., Canada and Australia have joined Palestinian activists in renovating it

Without his knowledge, author A.B.Yehoshua played an important role in a joint activity of civil disobedience by Palestinians and Jews, which is now taking place in the South Hebron Hills. Something he said in 2004 to young Jewish Americans who received a Dorot Foundation fellowship to spend a year in Israel caused an explosion in the heart and thoughts of one of them, a woman named Ilana Sumka, a native of Maryland who was 28 years old at the time.

Thirteen years later, Sumka is wholly immersed in the project of renovating the Palestinian cave village of Sarura, which the Israel Defense Forces destroyed in 1997. Sumka was involved in the preparation and recruitment of 130 Jewish volunteers from the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe, in the restoration itself, and now in spreading the sociopolitical messages of the initiative. Her path and that of the other volunteers sheds light on the changes in Jewish communities in the Diaspora.

Sumka is very ambitious. Her model is white Americans from the northern United States who traveled to the South to join the black-led campaigns against discrimination and segregation. It was their “wake-up call” to others,” she said. “This is meant to be a wake-up call to the global Jewish community to [pay attention to] what is happening in the occupied Palestinian territory, by joining Palestinian civil campaigns.”

First stage completed

This week in Sarura the activists concluded the first stage of their plans: the renovation of two caves and the bumpy path leading to the village, from the narrow access road leading to the illegal outpost of Avigayil. Sarura was among the dozen or so Palestinian villages that the IDF destroyed in 1997, claiming it was a firing zone. But all the villages grew organically in the region even before Israel occupied the West Bank. The High Court of Justice ordered that the residents of the villages be allowed to return to their homes, but didn’t rule that they be allowed to renovate their demolished buildings or their water cisterns. Since then the Civil Administration has defined every structure they built as “illegal,” and demolished it.

The residents of Sarura didn’t return to their caves. The blocking of the short access road, the harassment and violence by settlers and construction of nearby Maon Farm outpost deterred them. Over the years they succeeded only in cultivating their lands, thanks to regular escorts by activists in the International Solidarity Movement’s “Operation Dove” campaign. But activists in Palestinian organizations who favor nonviolent civil disobedience (such as the Holy Land Trust Popular Resistance Committees of the South Hebron Hills) heard that the family of Fadel Amar, 55, is interested in returning to Sarura. They proposed to Jewish activists, including Sumka, to fulfill the dream together.

In recent weeks IDF soldiers raided the village and the work camp four times, confiscating a generator and tents while beating up the activists. The danger of soldiers coming and confiscating their property hovers over them always, but Amar, who was born in one of the renovated caves and whose father was born in another one, insists on remaining. Until now the presence of foreigners, and especially Jews from the Diaspora, has provided relative protection for him and his family, he said in fluent Hebrew. Amar does renovations in Israel without work permits, “but there’s no choice, because I have to earn a living.” Four months ago he was arrested and sentenced to two months in prison.

Last Monday the worries were sidelined: Palestinian and Jewish activists celebrated the finish of the first stage with speeches in the plaza next to the first cave to be renovated, and with a joint supper, dancing and singing. Aside from the caves that are ready to be lived in, there’s an additional bonus: the friendships that were formed among the activists – Palestinians, Jews, Israelis.

Back in Brussels

Sumka was not among the celebrants. She has returned to Belgium, where she has lived with her family in recent years, teaching Judaism. Speaking from Brussels two weeks ago she told Haaretz how in 2004 she was amazed to hear A.B. Yehoshua reproaching the American Dorot fellowship recipients, including her, and asking: “Where has the American Jewish left been all these years?”

He was referring to the silence of the liberal Jewish community on the subject of the occupation. What does that mean, Sumka asked herself. “And I thought: Who, me? I have been putting my quarter in the JNF [Jewish National Fund] box” every week, for as long as she can remember. With her Jewish conscience, and her “very Eastern European Jewish appearance,” as she says, she was active in New York fighting for a fair wage for every worker, and joined the American Jewish World Service, an aid and human rights organization.

“I didn’t know that as a Jewish leftie I was needed in Israel,” she says. In 2004 she visited Israel for the first time, to disprove something that an American Jewish friend said to her: that in this country she would discover that she couldn’t reconcile her Jewish identity and her liberal values. Sumka got angry, said that this was impossible, and joined Dorot.

And then she visited the Old City of Hebron, and to this day she gets goose bumps when she remembers “that ghost town. The most frightening place I’ve ever seen.” Afterwards she continued to the South Hebron Hills and began to understand that Hebron, which is emptied of Palestinians next to the Jewish settlement, is a microcosm of what Israel is doing on the West Bank.

Yehoshua’s words led her to think about her responsibility for what is going on in Israel. In 2006 she returned to Israel and joined the administration of Encounter, the Jewish organization that arranges meetings of Jewish Americans with flesh-and-blood Palestinians, up close, in their homes, in their cities. In five years they have hosted and instructed 2,000 Jews. Sumka traveled every day between the West Bank and Israel, or between West and East Jerusalem, and says she was amazed at Israelis’ ability to be ignorant of what’s happening a short stroll from their homes.

“We have to work against the occupation just because Israel and its leaders posit themselves as representatives of the entire Jewish people,” she says repeatedly, adding, “The occupation is not about Jewish values, it is hilul hashem [a desecration of God’s name].” She says “hilul hashem” in Hebrew. Since the early 1990s she has become more religious, and strictly observes commandments. Why? “I felt a kind of emptiness. Neshama, [soul] that seeks light and spirituality and community. I wanted something more than New York City political this and theater this,” she recalled.

From her home in Belgium she was involved in the establishment of two organizations: A Different Jewish Voice, composed of Jews in Belgium who oppose the occupation, and The Center for Jewish Nonviolence, which participates in the activity in Surara. She says, “the only way to say that the occupation taking place in the name of Judaism isn’t Judaism, is for Jews to oppose it collectively.”

Turning point came at the beginning

She theorized that the first seed of her doubt about Israel was planted already in 1997. Her progressive synagogue hosted a “young and handsome Israeli” who refused to serve in the territories. “If someone else had told me that there was something wrong with the behavior of the Israeli army, I wouldn’t have believed it. I believed him because he was a soldier and handsome.”

The seed that was planted sprouted in 2004. She understood the dissonances that her friend had talked about. “My grandparents left Russia, Belarus, Poland, the Ukraine, in the 1910s and 1920s because of discrimination and to make a better life. Not because of the Holocaust. I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, in a very safe comfortable suburb, there’s a big Jewish community there, outside Washington, D.C., and still thought the Nazis would come back. We were always told that it could happen again. So I was sure that my mother was hoarding cans of food so that we’d have food when we hid from the Nazis, when they came back,” she said.

“My image of the Israeli army was that they would protect me. If you ask me how they would protect me in Silver Spring, I don’t know. I was 12. But I thought I would always go to Israel, be safe there, that the Israeli army would save us, in America. That’s what we were taught. I didn’t make it up.”

Now she says of herself and her friends: “That’s what we are trying to shine the light on, with our own presence and our own identity. We are standing up to the violence of Israeli soldiers. We are putting our bodies between the Palestinians and Israeli soldiers and settlers.”