Atonement and Activism – A Report from the Global Sukkot Against Demolitions

On the morning of October 16, 2016, the first day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, dozens of protesters gathered outside the Jerusalem headquarters of the Jewish National Fund (JNF, also known by its Hebrew name Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, KKL). Activists of Jewish anti-occupation groups such as All That’s Left and the Center for Jewish Nonviolence built a Sukkah, a makeshift hut traditionally set up on this holiday, to protest the demolition of the Palestinian villages of Umm Al-Khiran and Al-Araqib, located in the Negev and of Susiya and Umm Al-Kheir in the Occupied West Bank by the JNF. Residents of Al Araqib, a Bedouin village recently demolished for the 104th time, had travelled to Jerusalem to share the story of their struggle first-hand and to join the protest.

photo credit: Flash90

Protesters outside the KKL-JNF (Photo by Daniel Roth)

The protest under the banner “Global Sukkot Against Demolitions” marked the end of a month-long series of eventsin Israel, the US, the UK and Australia, during which activists employed traditional Jewish symbols to draw attention to the plight of these four Palestinian villages facing demolition. In the case of Al Araqib, despite the existence of purchase documents dating back to 1906, the JNF has claimed that the land belongs to the state and has developed plans for large-scale forestation in the area. Under the auspices of the Four Villages Campaign, activists have thus urged the public to send letters to the JNF, objecting to forestation on the rubble of Al Araqib and the subsequent permanent displacement of its residents. In 2011 a similar campaign resulted in an agreement with the board of the JNF, according to which no demolition order would be carried out until the dispute over land ownership was resolved in court. The demolition on October 6, 2016 nullified this agreement. It also once more exposed the vulnerability of the Palestinian community to policy changes within the JNF, an exceptionally powerful non-governmental organization which has been criticised both for its lack of transparencyand its complicity in the expulsion and dispossession of the Bedouin community in particular.

According to a statement on the JNF websiteaddressing the dispute over Al Araqib, the organization has merely been implementing plans for forestation in the Negev as developed by the Israel Land Authority (ILA). This account, however, fails to mention that the JNF controls 46% of the votes in the Israel Land Council, the body determining ILA policies, and thus bears direct responsibility for the demolition of Al Araqib and other Palestinian villages. Similarly, the latest demolition of Al Araqib by JNF bulldozers has exposed the hypocrisy behind assertions according to which the “KKL-JNF has never evacuated families or planted a single tree in areas that are being addressed in courts of law.”

photo credit: Flash90

Protesters underneath the Sukkah outside the JNF. (Photo by Maja Sojref)

“Every time you demolish Palestinian houses, you demolish a part of yourselves.”

According to Jewish tradition, the significance of Sukkot is both agricultural and historical. Sukkot not only celebrates the end of the harvest season but equally commemorates a period after the exodus from Egypt when the Jewish people are believed to have dwelled in temporary shelters in the desert for forty years. This Sukkot, Jewish anti-occupation activists thus deliberately chose the symbol of the Sukkah to appeal to the Jewish public in support of the Palestinians´ right to live in dignity, without fear and with adequate access to resources and infrastructure. What is more, the Jewish High Holidays, which start with the Jewish New Year and carry through to Sukkot and Simchat Torah, are considered a time of reflection and atonement. In the words of Rabbi Arik Aschermann, director of Haqel and one of the organizers of the Four Villages Campaign, the holidays thus represent “an opportunity to begin the year the way we aspire to act throughout the year. It is this opportunity to be changed by changing the reality around us, that makes the marking of the New Year a time of joy and celebration, as well as a time of awe and trembling.”

photo credit: Flash90

Art installation at the Global Sukkot protest featuring pomegranates and grenades. (Photo by Maja Sojref)

The peaceful and creative protest outside the JNF inspired by these resolutions was interrupted several times by cursing or shouting. Drivers and passers-by condemned the protesters as advocates of terrorism without showing interest in the issue of house demolitions or engaging with the specific demands. Activists from New York reported similar disruptions which prevented them from holding the protest altogether. In Jerusalem one pedestrian even threw a bag of trash at youth from Al Araqib, who were holding up banners against the forestation on their lands.

A message from representatives of Susiya addressed precisely the climate of suspicion and the lack of empathy residents and activists encountered in the streets of Jerusalem and New York. They reminded the audience that a Sukkah resembles the interim homes residents of the village are currently forced to live in. On this day of commemoration of the hardship of the Jewish Exodus, the message thus called on the Jewish public to extend the same empathy to the residents of Susiya and of the other villages facing demolition and expulsion. “The Sukkah represents a symbol of the journey of the Jewish people,” the message from Susiya concluded. “Every time you demolish Palestinian houses, you demolish this symbol of the Jewish Exodus and thus a part of yourselves.”