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Why I spent Yom Kippur protecting Palestinian villagers from settler violence

(JTA) — When I was 18 years old, like many American Jews, I spent a gap year in Israel. At a right-wing army-prep program called Mechinat Yeud, located in the illegal settlement of Efrat, I learned Torah, went on hikes and practiced krav maga. I fondly look back at this year as a positive experience and a time when I matured as a young adult.

I also saw the daily mechanisms of the occupation, though I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate this.

Over that year, I saw Palestinians whose cars bore different license plates than those driven by Jews. I saw a checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank that was a formality to Jews like my friends and me but very real to the Palestinians living right next to us. Though I finished my year in Yeud with a strong desire to live in Israel, I also knew that I couldn’t be complicit in Palestinian oppression. 

I eventually moved to Israel and threw myself into anti-occupation activism, spending weeks and months at a time in Palestinian communities in the West Bank. In addition to the bureaucratic oppression that Palestinians face on a daily basis, I saw — and sometimes was a victim of — the settler violence that plagues the West Bank.

During the American civil rights movement, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously referred to his protesting as “praying with his feet.” This past Yom Kippur, when the rabbis of the Talmud tell us to fully prostrate ourselves during prayer, I asked for forgiveness with my whole body by spending the Day of Atonement in Ein Rashash, a Palestinian Bedouin shepherding community located 22 miles northeast of Ramallah. Its residents had requested a 24/7 presence from solidarity activists due to threats from the nearby Israeli outpost of Malachi Hashalom.

According to a United Nations report released on Sept. 21, 1,105 Palestinians fled their homes and villages in 2022 and 2023. The report stated that settler violence is at a record high since the U.N. began documenting the trend in 2006. 

This report includes the villages of Ein-Samia, Al-Qabun, al-Baqa and Ras al-Tin. All of these villages were located near Ein Rashash, and like Ein Rashash, the communities all relied on shepherding for their livelihood. Settler attacks in the Palestinian towns of Huwara and Turmus Aya, frequently described as pogroms, have received attention within Israel and internationally.

Ein Rashash has faced similar settler violence and harassment. Shortly upon entering the village, one can see where settlers shattered the windows of homes and destroyed an outhouse in an attack in June. The community is considering leaving their land just like the community of Ein-Samia and many others have done

In response to this violence, a group of activists, most notably Rabbi Arik Ascherman, is spending long periods of time in Ein Rashash — located north of the ruins of Ein-Samia — to use our privilege as a de-escalating presence. When non-Palestinian activists are around, settler violence is less likely. Ein Rashash and the nearby villages are all located in Area C, the portion of the West Bank under full Israeli control as per the Oslo Accords. The Palestinian residents do not have Israeli citizenship, and they are subject to military law as opposed to the civil courts through which Israeli settlers are tried. “Protective Presence” activism is utilized in other communities in Area C that face regular threats of settler violence and home evictions, such as Masafer Yatta. I have done several shifts already, and I volunteered for the Yom Kippur shift.

I was accompanied by five other activists. The first thing we did was assign roles in case settlers came. Who would call the police or other activists? Who would film? Who would stand in front of a settler’s car if he tried to enter the village or drive through a flock of sheep? These are normal conversations in this line of work. 

A window that residents of Ein Rashash say was shattered by Jewish settlers in an attack in June 2023. (Sam Stein)

There is no break during Protective Presence activism. Either there’s an immediate incident, or you’re waiting for the next one. Every unfamiliar car or person in the distance can be a settler coming to attack or harass or bringing soldiers to force Palestinians off their land. A drone from the nearby outpost hovered overhead for around 30 seconds, and I was on edge for the next hour. You sleep with one eye open. Jewish holidays often bring with them right-wing violence in Israel and the West Bank. Hate crimes were carried out in Bat Yam this year and last year, and in 2021 there was a settler pogrom in the Palestinian village of Mufagara.

This is exhausting and emotionally draining. Unlike many other Protective Presence shifts I have participated in, Yom Kippur ended without incident. 

After 25 hours, I had the privilege of going home to Jerusalem. Palestinians do not have this option. This is their life. 

According to Torah, on Yom Kippur the Israelites are told to “afflict themselves.” The rabbis concluded that self-affliction must refer to fasting, reasoning that “affliction” refers to something that, when taken to a certain extent, can lead to death. 

Life under occupation can, and does, lead to death. One look at the statistics makes that all too clear. Since 2000, 10,667 Palestinians in the occupied territories have been killed by Israeli soldiers or civilians.

Protective Presence is my self-affliction. And yet, in homage to Yom Kippur’s imagery of being sealed in the Book of Life, life goes on. Activists laughed with and got to know each other and our Palestinian hosts. We read and we ate delicious homemade food. We didn’t embrace misery as a form of repentance. We embraced the full spectrum of life. 

I believe fasting is mentally, physically and spiritually unhealthy. The only self-affliction I find meaningful is in sharing the pain — and the joy — of my fellow human beings, particularly in a way that lightens their pain and suffering. The people of Ein Rashash have told us that our presence is making their lives easier and helping them stay on their land. The children are laughing and playing in a way that they were not when we first started these shifts. This has been the most meaningful Yom Kippur I’ve ever had.

In Mishnah Yoma 8:9, we learn that repentance on Yom Kippur only allows us to atone for the sins between ourselves and God. For a sin against another person, one must “satisfy their fellow.” We don’t need to ask God for forgiveness. We must stand with the Palestinians suffering under Israeli rule, until they’re satisfied. 

I know that it’s not a matter of if the settlers will be back, but when. For as long as that’s the case, I will continue to pray with my body and sometimes “self-afflict” in the name of justice and equality. The Talmud states self-affliction does not absolve one from their sins towards other people, only those towards God. And yet, our sins towards other people are the ones for which we direly need to repent.

The post Why I spent Yom Kippur protecting Palestinian villagers from settler violence appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Top official says White House antisemitism strategy is ‘under pressure’ due to Israel-Hamas war

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Biden administration’s plan to combat antisemitism is “under a lot of pressure” because of the sharp rise in antisemitic incidents since the launch of the war between Israel and Hamas, a top White House official said.

Neera Tanden, President Joe Biden’s top domestic policy adviser, held an online briefing with national Jewish communal leaders on Wednesday, about one month after Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion of Israel. She said the landmark strategy Biden launched in May to combat antisemitism created what she called a cross-department “architecture” to track and respond to reported incidents of antisemitism, especially on college campuses, but that that system is now being strained, she said.

“Unfortunately, that architecture is under a lot of pressure now with the rise of events” since Oct. 7, Tanden said. “The last several weeks we have seen, on campus and off, a real rise of targeting of Jewish people and antisemitic slurs, actions, threats of violence.”

Jewish watchdogs have recorded a spike of antisemitic incidents worldwide and in the United States since Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists invaded from the Gaza Strip, killing 1,400, wounding thousands, taking more than 200 captive and sparking an Israeli counterattack in Gaza. The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza says more than 10,000 have been killed in the fighting.

This week, a Jewish man died after being wounded in an altercation with pro-Palestinian demonstrators this week near Los Angeles. Jews have also been assaulted and faced death threats on college campuses.

“We continue to see an alarming trend of antisemitic threats and attacks targeting Jewish communities across the country,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters just before Tanden’s briefing. “Disturbing acts like ripping down posters of Jewish hostages held by Hamas, vandalizing Jewish institutions, threatening to commit acts of violence against Jewish students, Jewish faith leaders and Jewish communities inflame tensions, stoke fear and are completely completely unacceptable.”

In the webinar, Tanden said the White House was aware of how deep fears are running among American Jews. “We understand that people are scared in this moment, people are scared who have gone their whole loves without being scared,” she said.

Just before the briefing, Jewish organizational leaders met with the top two U.S. law enforcement officials,  Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Chris Wray, to ask for greater protections against antisemitic harassment since the launch of the war, especially on campuses.

“We are comforted by the very active focus of the Department of Justice and the FBI in investigating and prosecuting the tsunami of increased cases since October 7 of hateful crimes against members of the Jewish community,” said William Daroff, the CEO of the the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in a text immediately after the meeting ended at noon.

The meetings are among a flurry of efforts by American Jewish organizations to back Israel, fight antisemitism and advocate for the hostages. Jewish organizations are planning a mass rally next week in Washington to galvanize support for those goals.

Tanden said she and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona had met with Jewish students on campuses recently. “We spent a significant time hearing from kids, honestly, who are being threatened for who they are, for being Jewish,” she said.

On Oct. 30, Jewish leaders had a meeting with Cardona, days before he warned federally funded colleges that they could lose funding if they failed to address harassment of religious and other minorities. Shelley Greenspan, the White House Jewish outreach director who was on the webinar, said the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights complaint form now had “antisemitism” designated as an area of harassment.

“There is an actual dropdown, so if you feel like you are being targeted at a university, you can actually click it’s because of antisemitism,” she said. “The department will then investigate.”

Other organizations represented at the Justice Department meeting included the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee and Hillel International. Julie Fishman Rayman, the AJC’s managing director, said in an email that Wray also addressed FBI involvement in efforts to release the more than 200 hostages held by Hamas.

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director of public policy, said Jewish officials who spoke to the Justice Department officials stressed the threat to Jewish students on campus.

“We asked them to surge more resources into law enforcement agencies to protect our communities,” he said in an email. “And we asked for a zero-tolerance policy — especially toward campus incidents. Federal authorities properly charged the student who made death threats at Cornell with a federal crime; that needs to be done across the board with others who act against Jewish students.”

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With the Jerusalem Biennale canceled due to war, participating artists mount 3 exhibits in New York

(New York Jewish Week) – Every two years, hundreds of artists from all over the world flock to Israel for the Jerusalem Biennale, an art festival that celebrates contemporary Jewish and Israeli artists from all over the world. 

Due to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, however, the 2023 festival, which was originally supposed to open Thursday, has been tentatively postponed until next spring.

Many of the artists are mounting their shows in their home cities instead. At least five of the Biennale’s exhibits are scheduled to open this week in three continents — North America, South America and Europe — as a satellite version of the festival. 

On Thursday, three of the exhibits — “Activate,” “The Seventeen” and “Hallelujah” — will open in New York City, where more than a dozen artists who are featured in the Biennale call home. 

The Heller Museum at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in partnership with the Jewish Arts Salon and the American Sephardi Federation, will host two of the Biennale exhibitions, “Activate” and “The Seventeen.” They will be on view for free at the museum’s East Village location for the next week. 

The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side will host a third exhibit, “Hallelujah,” in partnership with the Biennale. The Upper West Side building’s Laurie M. Tisch gallery will show the work beginning Thursday through Dec. 17.

Founded in 2013, the Biennale takes place across the city of Jerusalem and centers contemporary artists whose work references Jewish and Israeli experiences. This year, the Biennale was prepared to bring more than 200 artists to Jerusalem to host 35 exhibitions across the city under the theme of “Iron Flock,” which aims to “identify, through the eyes of curators and artists from all over the world, the movements, ideas, people, and moments that have become our unsaleable cultural assets,” as the Jerusalem Biennale’s website describes it. 

“The Jerusalem Biennale became like a pulse, beating steadily every two years. Since 2013, without exception and despite the many challenges, the Jerusalem Biennale has created a platform for contemporary art at the very center of the Jewish world. Until now. It’s as if the heart skips a beat,” Rami Ozeri, the festival’s founder and creator director, said in a press release. 

“But even now, after the unspeakable pain of October 7, we have witnessed a huge outpouring of solidarity from around the world,” he added. “Within weeks, our friends and partners have succeeded in mounting in their own cities the exhibitions created for the Jerusalem Biennale. We will continue to nurture the ties of art and culture between Jerusalem and the world today more than ever.”

At the Heller Museum, “Activate: A New York Women’s Perspective,” curated by Israeli artist Hadas Glazer, showcases the work of six New York artists — Siona Benjamin, Goldie Gross, Ronit Levin Delgado, Joan Roth, Chelsea Steinberg Gay and Yona Verwer — who explore “the complexities of life as a woman today,” according to a press release.  

Also at the museum, “The Seventeen” spans the 40-year career of Brooklyn-born artist Archie Rand. Curated by Samantha Baskind, the exhibition continues the artist’s explorations of “the Bible and Jewish texts in serialized paintings conceptually informed by twentieth-century culture,” according to the Jewish Art Salon website. 

Meanwhile, at the JCC, “Hallelujah” will showcase Israeli artists currently living in New York who have created art about their experiences as immigrants to the United States. On view will be works by Noa Charuvi, Hirut Yosef , Yehudit Feinstein, Yuli Aloni Primor, Gal Cohen, Ken Goshen, Gabriela Vainsencher and Maya Baran. 

Other exhibitions that were intended for the Biennale will be mounted at the AMIA Art Space in Buenos Aires and the Jewish Museum of Casale Monferrato in Italy. 

Ozeri said in a press release that more of the exhibits will open around the world in the coming months as a plan is made for the Biennale to take place in Jerusalem next year. “This heart will always keep beating,” he said. 

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Brazil police arrest 2 men allegedly plotting terror attacks targeting Jews

(JTA) — Brazilian police have arrested two men and are looking for 11 others reportedly involved in a terror cell plotting attacks aimed at Brazilian Jews.

The group is suspected to have ties to Hezbollah, the terrorist group based in Lebanon that is currently trading fire with Israel at Israel’s northern border. Details on the alleged plot were scarce, but the O Globo newspaper reported that synagogues were among the group’s targets.

One suspect was arrested on Wednesday after flying in from Lebanon to Brazil’s biggest airport, in Guarulhos, near São Paulo. Police are searching São Paulo, the Minas Gerais state and the federal district around the country’s capital Brasília for others.

Police said the charges of “creating or belonging to a terrorist organization and carrying out preparations for acts of terrorism” carry sentences of 15 and a half years in prison.

Over 100,000 Jews live in Brazil, mostly in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The Confederação Israelita do Brasil, or CONIB, an umbrella group for Brazilian Jewish federations, congratulated police for breaking up the terror cell and expressed “enormous concern” about the situation.

Jewish communities around the world are on high alert in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks and Israel’s subsequent war in Gaza, and police in several European countries say they have interrupted or tracked plots against Jewish targets over the last month. But even before October, a report published in April found that antisemitism in Brazilian schools had spiked over the past three years. Police are also cracking down on local neo-Nazi groups that have grown in size and influence in recent years.

Hezbollah has been known to have a large presence in Latin America for decades and has been tied to multiple terror attacks in the region, including the bombings of Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 in 1992 and the attack on that city’s AMIA Jewish center that killed 85 in 1994.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Brazilian police worked “in collaboration with Mossad and its partners within the Israeli security community, as well as other international security and law enforcement agencies” in making Wednesday’s arrests.

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