Director of ALLMEP member Extend Programs, Sam Sussman, reflects on recent violence in Israel-Palestine
“I arrived in Israel-Palestine only two weeks ago, but measured by the escalating violent events since, it feels more like months.
On October 8, a 22-year-old Palestinian gunman killed an 18-year-old Israeli soldier at a checkpoint outside the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem. Israel responded by sealing off the refugee camp, preventing anyone from entering or leaving, even for urgent medical care. Shuafat is home to roughly 130,000 Palestinians, most of whom work and study outside the camp. Within days, there were shortages of food and medicine. Children were not allowed to leave the camp to attend school. Residents protested this collective punishment with a general strike. When demonstrators gathered near the camp’s entrance, Israeli forces responded by firing shock grenades and sponge-tipped rounds. Palestinian protests quickly spread to other neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, including Isawiyah, Silwan, A-Tur, Ras al-Amud, Jabel Mukaber, Sur Baher and Beit Hanina.
At the height of the tension, Israeli far-right extremist Itamar Ben Gvir, a Member of Knesset who only recently removed a photograph of mass murderer Baruch Goldstein from his office, made a provocative visit to the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Walking the streets with a heavily armed security detail, Ben Gvir brandished a pistol and shouted at Palestinian residents, ‘If you throw stones, I’ll mow you down. We’re the landlords here, remember that, I am your landlord!’ Ben Gvir is expected to win as many as thirteen seats in the upcoming elections, making him the third-most powerful politician in Israel.
As I took all this in from the Palestinian hotel in which I was staying, not far from where Ben Gvir drew his gun, I received a call from Samer, Extend’s long-time driver. He was calling to tell me it wasn’t safe to drive to Ramallah the following day, where I planned to meet a number of friends and partners. It was the first time in the decade we’ve worked together that Samer told me not to travel somewhere for safety reasons. I argued, resisted, pleaded––then deferred to his judgment.
Meanwhile, settlers aligned with Ben Gvir carried out dozens of attacks against Palestinians across East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In Huwarra, settlers attacked Palestinian houses and pelted rocks at Palestinian cars, as IDF soldiers stood by. In Sheik Jarrah, eight masked men armed with sticks attacked a Palestinian resident, sending him to the hospital with serious head injuries. In Qasra, settlers burnt three Palestinian poultry farms, killing 30,000 birds. Even Jews were not exempt from this violent rampage. In West Jerusalem, a 47-year old Jewish Israeli cab driver named Michal told me that, after discovering that she supports the centrist Yesh Atid party, her Haredi neighbors repeatedly slashed her tires and stamped the Israeli flag onto her car windows. The next day, in Tel Aviv’s Dizengof Square, a Meretz activist told me he couldn’t imagine living in Ben Gvir’s Israel and is looking at moving to New Zealand. ‘Why should I send my children to Hebron to defend the settlers?’ he asked, as people sipped cappuccinos and drank beer in the square. ‘My children should have a greater purpose to their lives.’
One of the few bright spots of my time in Israel-Palestine came when I met the 30 American Jewish rabbinical and yeshiva students who chose to spend two days with Extend in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. On our first morning together, when each person explained why they had joined the Extend program, I was moved by the moral clarity that led these emerging American Jewish leaders to our program. ‘I’m here because it’s too easy to ignore the occupation if you live in West Jerusalem,’ one said. ‘How can I become a rabbi, a moral leader, if I ignore occupation and injustice in the city I’m living in?’ Another added, ‘I’m here because I don’t have the right to despair. It’s my obligation as someone who wants to be a Jewish leader to face injustice directly, to understand what military occupation means for Palestinians, and to advocate against that injustice.’
Five years ago these quotes might have only come from dissident activists, but today these are the voices of rabbinical and yeshiva students from mainstream institutions: Pardes, the Conservative Yeshiva, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew College, and the Dorot Fellowship. Over the next two days, this group learned about legal discrimination against Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the Israeli military court’s treatment of Palestinian children, and ongoing home demolitions and settler violence in the South Hebron Hills. In group reflections, the collective focus was on how to use these experiences to shift opinion in the American Jewish community.
At a time of violence and despair, these emerging American Jewish leaders brought moral clarity to their time in Israel-Palestine. They joined Extend because, unlike so many leaders in the American Jewish community, their values compel them to speak for Palestinian human rights. I couldn’t be prouder of these future leaders of our community.
As I leave Israel-Palestine, I am certain of one thing: as we witness a dramatic rise of right-wing extremism in Israel, we must decide as Americans ––and American Jews–– where we stand. With Israel’s military occupation turning more repressive, the far-right gaining more electoral strength than ever before, and settler violence rising, Extend will continue to elevate the voices of Israelis and Palestinians devoting their lives to the struggle for human rights and mutual freedom. We will continue to educate and organize a generation of emerging American Jewish leaders who feel the moral urgency of ending the occupation and creating a future of shared freedom for both Israelis and Palestinians. Please join us in this work by making a donation of any amount today.
Director, Extend Programs”
For more information on Extend Programs, please visit https://www.extendprograms.org/