Inspired by a vision Rabbi Burt Jacobson shared in a Yom Kippur workshop last year, members of Kehilla have formed a committee to support and create allyship with a community in the West Bank territory of Palestine.
The group, called Face-to-Face: a Jewish-Palestinian Reparations Alliance, met on Zoom for the first time in October 2021 and has been gathering virtually once or twice a month ever since. After doing some research on the area, the group reached out to Umm al-Khair, a village in the South Hebron Hills that Rabbi Emeritus David Cooper had visited while doing activist work with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence. (You can read Rabbi David’s account of this work in a 2017 essay he published in the J., the Jewish News of Northern California.)
Phil Weintraub, a longtime member of Kehilla’s Middle East Peace Committee who is also involved with the synagogue’s Chavurah for a Free Palestine, is one of the founding members of the group.
“It is critical that Jews build direct relationships with our Palestinian brothers and sisters suffering oppression from Israeli forces,” he said. “We do that by providing concrete support manifesting our solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation.”
Members of Face-to-Face have met with two community leaders from the Palestinian village on Zoom. They provided poignant accounts of what day-to-day life is like in their rural village in the occupied West Bank. The community is subjected to frequent raids, home demolitions and attacks from nearby settlers and police.
Like other Palestinian communities in the region, the village lacks basic necessities such as electricity, water, education and health facilities. Residents are prevented from building permanent homes, so they live in makeshift tin shacks and tents. From time to time, convoys of bulldozers, jeeps and police vehicles descend on the village to destroy these humble homes.
In the 1980s, the Israeli government began to build the settlement of Carmel just a few feet from the village. While the Palestinian families have little access to water, the Carmel settlement is a green oasis with playgrounds, parks and a chicken farm. The Palestinian villagers report they are frequently attacked by the settlers, who are protected by Israeli occupying forces.
In January, during a raid on the village, an Israeli police tow truck ran over Haj Suleiman al-Hathaleen, a respected elder of the community, as he tried to peacefully stop them. According to a report in +972 Magazine by his nephew, Awdah Hathaleen, Haj Suleiman was a lifelong activist and a pillar of the small community. After running him down and dragging his body for several feet, the tow truck and police drove off, leaving his bleeding body in the road. With no ambulance service, family members managed to transport him to a hospital in a private car, but he died several days later from his wounds. Nearly 15,000 people gathered for his funeral on Jan. 17.
Rabbi Burt said he has been distraught for decades about the Israeli treatment of Palestinians and that the pandemic spurred him to think more deeply than ever before about the Israel occupation of Palestine and how Kehilla could have an impact.
“I wondered why the Zionists and later, the Israelis carried so much animosity toward the Palestinians,” he wrote in a paper outlining his thoughts that he shared on Yom Kippur. “How could a people who were themselves hounded by antisemitism for two millennia, a people who lost 6 million of its members during the Holocaust, oppress another people in this way?”
Rabbi Burt said he was inspired, in part, by Friends of Wadi Foquin, a community development project in the Palestinian village of Wadi Foquin that was initiated by Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda in 2009 and continues to this day. The group has worked to provide financial assistance for projects supporting the economic survival of the village and has made annual visits to Wadi Foquin. As the village has come under increasing threat from settlement expansion, the church has “advocated for its survival on Capitol Hill,” according to the group’s website.
Members of Face-to-Face hope to support Umm al-Khair in similar ways.
Using funds from an anonymous donation, Face-to-Face sent food packages to each of the 35 families living in the village for Eid al Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. The packages, assembled and distributed by Hebron International Resource Network (HIRN), a relief organization comprised of local Palestinians and international allies, included a plate of Eid sweets, a bottle of juice, meat, rice, sugar, tea, Bedouin coffee, lentils and the grain freekeh.
Face-to-Face will hold a workshop during this year’s Yom Kippur service to share its mission with the Kehilla community.