Face to Face: Jewish Reparations for Palestinians, a tool for spiritual activists

by Lauren Zinn

South Hebron Hills, West Bank. Jewish settlement houses in the background.

If you are a Jewish baby boomer, we probably have a lot in common: fond memories of family seders, Shabbat dinners, Jewish summer camps, trips to Israel, life on a kibbutz, or studying at Hebrew University. Some of us may have dated an Israeli (not the same one), considered making aliyah, taught Hebrew School, or celebrated an adult bat mitzvah. We may also share not-so-fond memories: feeling shunned by our community for having divorced parents or a gay sibling or for marrying out of our tribe. Yet, we’re still here. We stayed members of our community even though, at times, we may have felt like outcasts. Why?

Perhaps we remain because, as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once said, the Jewish people are, above all else, a family. Whether the members of our family are in Israel or the Diaspora, dead or alive, we care.

At the March 2022 program, “The Future of Ann Arbor’s Jewish Community,” hosted by Rabbi Whinston, Clare Kinberg, and Rachel Levy, I realized that many of us, at one time or another, have felt left out or rejected by our bigger Jewish family. Whether it was because we were divorced, “still” single, intermarried, female, gay, trans, nonbinary, disabled, a convert, Mizrahi, Ladino, BIPOC, multi-faith, too old, too young, too rich, too poor, we wanted to feel validated by our tribe. It was clear that, when our Ann Arbor Jewish family marginalizes or shuns members of our community, it hurts us all. So, it’s imperative we pay attention when members of our tribe feel unheard.

Decades ago, a particular form of shunning became apparent to me. In the early 2000s, I hosted a group of Jewish women at my house to hear Israeli Army Captain Rachel Persico (z”l) speak about injustices by Israelis towards Palestinians. She had firsthand experience having married a Palestinian. Rachel and Anton left Israel after constant discrimination. A non-Jewish social worker in the group at my house explained how abuse works with domestic violence and that the same pattern can repeat nationally. But because in Rachel’s story Jews were the perpetrators, the Jewish women who attended the presentation at my house pushed back, leaving me and Rachel, who were concerned about Palestinian welfare and Israeli discrimination against Palestinians, pushed to the margins, feeling pushed out of the family altogether.

I think I also speak for others when I say I have felt silenced for decades by members of our community for questioning Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and for educating others about it. I could list many examples, but instead I want to lift up those Jews who experience the agony of our divided tribal soul brought on by the contradiction between the Torah’s teachings and Israelis’ actions in the name of Judaism. Borrowing from Rabbi Burt Jacobson, an apt name for those of us who recognize our role in harming and our responsibility in helping Palestinians is “Spiritual Activist.”

Rabbi Burt, who started Kehilla Community Synagogue in 1984 in Oakland, California, explains spiritual activism through the Ba’al Shem Tov (1698–1760), the Jewish mystic, healer, and founder of Hasidic Judaism. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught:

[T]he real significance of the biblical teaching, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” hinges on the true meaning of the Hebrew word, “k’mo’khah.” Usually k’mo’khah has been translated “as yourself,” but the Ba’al Shem renders it “exactly like yourself.” In other words, even though we have distinct bodies, minds, and personalities, all human beings share a single spiritual essence. This obligates us to care for one another in a proactive way because we are all one.

We need spiritual activism to complement political activism. Both are necessary. For me, spiritual activism means being sensitive to the suffering of the persecuted and the persecutors. Spiritual activists recognize the dignity in each human being, and every human’s rights for feeling a sense of belonging and home. Spiritual activists aim to end all forms of violence and begin ways of healing so that all may experience the dignity of being human that we all deserve.

Reparations is a tool in the spiritual activist’s toolbox.

In 2021, as part of his spiritual activism, Rabbi Burt laid the groundwork with his congregation to start “Face to Face: Jewish-Palestinians Reparations Alliance,” aka F2F. He wrote, “Being a Spiritual Activist is a way for American Jews to ally with and support Palestinians in a face-to-face interpersonal way.”

The face-to-face approach reminded me of my experience with a Palestinian in Jerusalem in 1980. Each time I went to the Hebrew University gym, the same locker room attendant greeted me. Ibrahim was quiet, curious, and kind. We got to know each other during towel exchanges. When I mentioned I was looking for an onyx chess set for my father, he offered to take me to the Arab Market to find one. My Israeli Sephardic Jewish roommate strongly warned me not to go. “You cannot trust Arabs [Palestinians],” she said. But I trusted Ibrahim. Our journey into the crowded shuk was one of my most memorable experiences. His family’s hospitality stood out. I often wish we’d kept in touch. Perhaps I felt guilty that his relatives did not enjoy the same rights in Israel as mine. So, in 2023, when I learned I could join a Jewish reparations group that met regularly with Palestinians in the West Bank to offer allyship, the tug on my heart was a resounding yes.

Rabbi Burt describes Jewish Reparations allyship as follows: 

  • taking on the struggle of Palestinians and Israeli activists as our own
  • standing up for the Palestinians, even when we feel scared
  • using the benefits of our privilege as American Jews to aid Palestinians
  • acknowledging that while we, too, feel pain, the conversation is not about us; nonetheless, our work on behalf of the Palestinians can be healing for us as well
  • being guided by the Palestinian villagers who will be engaged on the ground in the actual work of implementing the alliance, and by our Jewish activist partners in Israel

Face to Face members meet regularly via Zoom with a Palestinian contact in the Hebron Hills of the West Bank. His name is Awdah. He is a Bedouin schoolteacher, age 27, and a father of two. A few months ago, he told us a hopeful story. His village is only two meters from the closest settlement, separated by a wire fence. On the settlers’ side, there is green grass, water, pools, electricity, schools, and freedom to move from settlement to settlement. On the villagers’ side, there is no running water, no electricity, no green grass, no pools, no freedom of movement. The IDF (Israel’s army) demolishes villagers’ cars and homes regularly. Yet, the Palestinians remain steadfast in their desire and commitment to stay on their land. This is called Sumud.

Awdah told us that one day, a group of young boys (around age 13) stood by the fence watching some Palestinian youths play soccer. Awdah asked the settler boys if they wanted to play. They said yes. Awdah told his community, “We will not play Israelis against Palestinians and we will not keep score. We will mix up the teams and play for fun.” But first, they had to figure out a way to get the Jewish boys inside the village. They dug a hole under the fence so the Jewish boys could pass through. Then, they played soccer, and it gave everyone hope. But, the boys’ parents found out and forbade them to come near the fence again.

When I asked my adult daughter what this story brought to mind, the first thing she said was, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Me too, I replied. 

Last week, I attended a celebration for a bride and groom of Mexican and Palestinian descent, respectively. At the feast, my husband and I were randomly joined by people we had never met: Palestinian Americans/Canadians who emigrated 50 years ago, and a couple from northern Michigan (not Jewish), one of whom had been to the Hebron Hills in 2012 to document an event supporting fair-trade olive farming communities in the Palestinian West Bank.

Just because we do not live in Israel-Palestine does not mean we get to ignore it. I was relieved that I could tell those at our table about my personal involvement with Jewish Reparations for Palestinians in the West Bank. But, I wished I’d had the support of my Ann Arbor Jewish family behind me.  

Another reason for our Ann Arbor Jewish family to listen and respond to the spiritual activists among us is the following awareness noted by Rabbi Burt:

 “… As American Jews, we recognize that our tax dollars are going to support a right-wing Israeli government that is severely oppressing the Palestinians. And Israel’s irresponsible actions have increased the level of antisemitism in the U.S. and around the world, which will inevitably affect our lives in this country.”

In addition to Israeli settlers and soldiers, we in Ann Arbor are culpable. Every Yom Kippur, we declare that we, as a community, share in the guilt of inequities and that we, as a community, must make amends. Even if we spiritual activists can’t change the system today, we’re trying. That’s why I joined Face to Face.

In our latest contact with Awdah, he said things are getting worse. “Soldiers support settlers. Settlers use attack dogs on our Palestinian women and children, point guns at us, prevent us from tending our crops or grazing our sheep. We villagers cannot afford feed so we must now sell our livestock.” The hope from before had vanished.

The next day, Awdah emailed a photo of an order from the IDF that came that morning — a document in Hebrew and Arabic that said 10 homes in his village would be destroyed within two weeks. Awdah then learned that one of the homes to be demolished was his. It would not be the first time. And so, if Awdah requests donations for the villagers’ legal fees to stop home demolitions in a court system intentionally designed against them, is it worth it?

Over the years, I’m glad to say our Jewish family has come a long way. We’ve listened better to those who differ from the norm and do more to make them feel they belong. Today, we have rabbis who are women, gay, intermarried, BIPOC, and trans. After meeting with a social worker outside of her Orthodox community, the first trans rabbi, Abby Stein, said, “… It was the first time I ever spoke to a professional where I felt listened to, as opposed to feeling like a problem that needed solving.” We show the marginalized they’re heard when, together, we innovate with our traditions, changing them, so that everyone feels included and respected.

So now, we need to ask, are we ready to include those of us who have been concerned about Palestinian lives for decades? Are we ready to change how we “do Jewish” to reflect the Ba’al Shem Tov’s teaching?

May our local Jewish family open its ears and hearts to spiritual activists among us and ask: How can we help? How can we heal? How soon can we start? Let it be now.

To learn more about Face To Face, please visit https://kehillasynagogue.org/face-to-face/

If you would like to read my other blogs on Israel-Palestine, visit https://www.zinnhouse.com/

Lauren Zinn founded Jewbilation: Jewish Roots with Interfaith Wings and ran its educational program for 20 years. She led interspiritual and intercultural programs for international students at UM, and designed Faces of Faith, a community wide program hosted annually by our local Interfaith Roundtable.

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