"Fifteen years ago," Saeed told me, "this month–the month of the olive harvest — was the most fun time of the year." The whole extended family would come out to the fields, they would bring elaborate meals, it used to be a big party. Now — because of the security situation — it’s not so much fun.
Nowadays — because of settlers who harass, threaten, and in some cases harm Palestinian farmers tending their fields — there is a need for Jewish volunteers to protect Palestinians from Jewish settlers. Click here to read a story about the situation from NPR.
Yesterday I was one of those volunteers. I was part of a group organized by Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) that made a trip to the heart of the West Bank, to Shomron (Samaria) to participate in the olive harvest.
The situation today is better than it used to be. Thanks in part to law suits brought by RHR, the police and the army are regularly deploying to ‘hot spots’ to protect the farmers. But there are still problems. That’s where the volunteers come in.
A group of about ten of us left Jerusalem at 6am. A few people from Tel Aviv joined us enroute. The volunteers were a very interesting and eclectic group. About half were native Israelis, the rest mostly "internationals," visitors from overseas. I was the only recent immigrant. One volunteer was a Dutch woman who is working on a PhD in anthropology and living in Ramallah, researching non-violent resistance in Israel and Palestine. The middle and high schools are currently on strike, so we had a school teacher and a few high school kids.
An Israeli engineer from Tel Aviv, Yaakov, and I were assigned Avrah, a Palestinian village near Itamar, a settlement of religious Jews in the hills above Nablus known for being radical. Itamar has been the target of numerous terrorist attacks, and settlers from Itamar have committed terrorist acts against Palestinians. It’s not hard to find extremists on either side in this part of the world. But our experience also showed it’s not hard to find nice people on either side.
In places that are particularly sensitive, like Itamar, the military often makes the olive groves closest to the settlement a "closed military area," meaning no Israelis are allowed to enter — only Palestinian farmers. Yakov and I were sent there anyway, because on occasion the police presence leaves for one reason or another and problems can occur, or sometimes there are problems with the police. We were there armed only with our cell phones and phone list of people to call in the event of problems. The regional authorities respond to Israelis calling to complain more than they respond to Palestinians.
Since we couldn’t go into the closed military zone, we were to station ourselves just outside.
Rather than sit around all day doing nothing, Yakov suggested we volunteer to help some Palestinian farmers who were outside the closed zone, but within site of the checkpoint. We just walked up to a family and asked, in Hebrew, "can we help?" They said "sure!" One of them, Saeed, worked in Israel for 20 years and had decent Hebrew, so we were able to communicate with him, and he translated the Hebrew into Arabic for his three brothers and a few female family members who were there.
Saeed and his family were very interesting to talk to, and they were incredibly gracious hosts. They served us tea or soft drinks every hour or so, they put out a nice spread for lunch. When it was pointed out that as an observant Jew, I wouldn’t eat meat and milk together, they put the yogurt aside, and didn’t even it themselves out of respect for my customs. I didn’t eat the meat out of kashrut issues, but ate the "vegetarian" options. They kept saying, "if we knew you were coming, we would have prepared a more elaborate meal." We kept protesting what they served was quite adequate, which it was.
We talked about religion and politics. They were very gently in their complaints, probably gentler than I would have been. They said, obviously, they didn’t like the police presence "in our home." They didn’t like the problems they have in tending to their fields. But they also took a live and let live approach. Fine put up border, let everyone get on with their life. We talked about our mutual heritage, all descended from Abraham/Ibrahim. They invited us to go to their homes. It was a pleasant visit, only slightly marred by the nearby presence of police, needed to protect them from the settlers.
Besides talking and drinking tea, we did harvest some olives. Let me tell you, I will never again complain about the price of olive oil! It’s a lot work. First your spread tarps around the base of the tree, then you whack on the branches with a stick, which causes most of the olives to drop. You then pluck the rest of the olives off the tree by hand, and when the tree is pretty much picked clean, you move on to the next tree. It takes several trees to fill one large canvas bag of olives; one large bag will make 10-18 liters of olive oil. Not a lot for all the time and effort it takes to harvest the olives.
At the end of the day, Yakov and I were walking back to our bus, when the soldiers came back, and started grilling us, accusing us of having been on the wrong side of the closed zone. We were in an area that we thought they said was OK. At one point I thought they were going to arrest us. They started asking us what we were doing there, and when we explained, one of the soldiers got a little angry with us, "why would you want to do that? All they do is attack us and injure us, and you’re out there helping them?" When I pointed out the people we were with were very nice, the 19-year-old soldier said, "it’s all just a show, Arafat could be pleasant (nechmad) too." He continued complaining in the vein, "here I am defending the nation, and this is what you guys do." At that point, Yakov couldn’t take anymore and he let the soldier have it: "you’re NOT defending the nation, and you’re not defending me!" Pointing up the hill at the settlement of Itamar, Yakov said "your defending the settlers! Not that the nation!" The political debate over, they let us go on our way.
Sadly, the only other ugly thing I saw during the day also had a Jewish source. We stopped at a spring, and someone had built a ramshackle mikvah supplied with the spring water. A mikvah is supposed to be a source of purity, a place of spiritual renewal. The purity of the mikvah was seriously marred by the Hebrew graffiti which reads "death to Arabs!" I couldn’t help but think about the expression from the Talmud, "to immerse in a mikveh while holding a sheretz (an insect that renders you impure) in your hand." Sort of defeats the purpose.
As we were driving back, we asked ourselves whether what we did really made a difference. I believe it all helps. Even though Saeed had a lot of contact with Israelis before, some of his family members had not. The three or four people we talked to now h
ave a more "human" face of Jews — we’re not all crazy settlers living on hilltops claiming we own everything. They will tell their friends, "you won’t believe, we met some Jews — a rabbi even — who came out to protect us and helped us harvest our olives!"
Maybe if the settlers tried coming down the hill during harvest season with a pitcher of lemonade, instead of a handful of stones to throw, then perhaps the farmers would be a little more forceful in standing up to and stopping the Palestinians who would be terrorists.
When I got up at 5:30 and was driving to meet the mini-bus, I admit I paused to ask myself what I was doing. I wondered whether if I was going to do volunteer work, shouldn’t I do something that would help fellow Jews — something like helping out in a soup kitchen, or going to spend money in Sderot. But by the end of the day, I was convinced that by being out there showing a few Palestinians a more civil side to Israeli society, I was making a great contribution to helping my fellow Jews. I believe peace will be built one brick, one person, at a time. Anything we do to foster better relations between Israelis and Palestinians on personal level, is planting the seeds of peace.
And there is nothing more important than nurturing those seeds of peace.