Meet the Rabbis Running Anti-Occupation Tours of the West Bank

Published July 16th, 2018 - 09:26 GMT
A T'ruah demonstration in America. Photo from T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
A T'ruah demonstration in America. Photo from T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights

America is Israel’s most significant ally. But the American Jewish community has always had a diverse, and complicated relationship with Israel. Whilst American support for the Israeli right-wing is well known, there are many lesser-known Jewish movements which believe that it is possible to be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. Al Bawaba spoke to Rabbi Salem Pearce, a member of the T’ruah Rabbis organisation. She told us about what it’s like to be an American Jewish religious leader, whose love of Israel is what inspires a campaign in support of Palestinian human rights. 

Eleanor Beevor: Can you tell us what T’ruah is as an organisation?  

Salem Pearce: T’ruah represents a network of about two thousand rabbis and cantors across North America, across all different denominations of Judaism, who are using the power of their religion to take action on human rights issues. The full name of our organisation is T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and we have a broad portfolio of campaigns that we focus on.

Can you tell us about the work Truah has done in Israel, and why you are leading tours of the West Bank?

Our work in Israel grows out of the deep connection and care that the American Jewish community have for Israel. We believe that the best way for Israel to be as strong as it can be, and to live up to the values enshrined at its founding, is to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories. We believe that campaigning for an end to occupation is a way to show how much we care about Israel.

Unfortunately, in the American Jewish community, there is not a lot of knowledge about what goes on in the West Bank. We believe that it’s important to take the opportunity while rabbis and cantors are in Israel to go and see the West Bank so that they develop an understanding of the occupation in person. 

That’s presumably quite a controversial position in Israel. Have you experienced opposition to your work?

Yes. Our main partner on the ground is an organisation called Breaking the Silence, [a group of Israeli military veterans who are campaigning against the occupation]. Under the Netanyahu government, Breaking the Silence has become public enemy number one. However, the criticism of them is unfounded, and we are very proud to partner with Breaking the Silence. 

You’ve described here, and on your website, that your work is motivated by a love for Israel. Yet at the same time you are clearly disturbed by Israel’s human rights record. That must be a difficult relationship to have with a country, but perhaps this kind of critical patriotism can be a productive relationship too? 

I think that’s absolutely true. I think you can make an analogy with how many of us feel about the US right now, it’s very apt. We’re proud to be Americans, but we’re not always proud of America. I think it’s the same with Israel, we are proud of our connection to it, but not always proud of its government.

Have there been any especially impactful moments during your tours of the West Bank? Do you think anyone’s mind has ever been changed by one of these tours?

I think that they have been very impactful, although I think it’s hard to talk about changing minds, because there’s a lot of nuance in how the American Jewish community responds. There’s a lot of complicated feelings and tensions around Israel, and around the human rights of Israelis and Palestinians. But I think one of the most significant experiences comes when we take rabbis and cantors to Hebron.

That, I would say, is the Ground Zero of the occupation, and the most difficult example to see. What we hear coming out of it is that people find it absolutely devastating and heartbreaking. I think that creates an opening, as do all their experiences in the West Bank, for people to question the overarching narrative about the job that the Israeli government is currently doing. It gives them a chance to see how the occupation affects the daily lives of real people on the ground.

Two of Islam and Judaism's holiest sites, Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall, seen through barbed wire. (Shutterstock)

It seems that the American Jewish community is increasingly divided over questions around Israel, and one of the trends that we hear a lot about abroad is that younger American Jews are much more critical of Israel than the previous generation. Is that true in your experience?

I will say yes, I believe so. T’ruah is an organisation of rabbis and cantors, and we are seeing the younger generation of rabbis and cantors graduating from their rabbinical schools. And I would say on the whole that these new graduates to tend to see the dangers of the occupation a lot more clearly. That’s certainly not categorical - there are plenty of older rabbis with much more experience who feel the same. But I would say on the whole that that generational divide is becoming evident. 

You’ve described in the T’ruah biography that all of your activism is very grounded in Jewish theology, and that that theology serves as a basis for all your campaigns. How is it that you explore that theology and find common ground across different denominations? 

I think it’s a more common ideological ground, a common vocabulary, and a common textual tradition of interpreting the Torah as a guide for living life in a certain way that we have in common. 

You’ve managed to unite a number of strands of Judaism on some of these issues. But have you managed to reach across the political aisle as well, in America or in Israel? Is bipartisan campaigning for human rights issues possible in the era of Trump and Netanyahu?


I am rather pessimistic about the opportunities for that. We are a non-profit and non-partisan organisation, and our criticism of the government is based not on what they do but who they are. Increasingly, I think what we’re seeing is issues that are not so much political as moral issues. Not right and left, but right and wrong. We’re seeing an increasing disregard for human rights, and we feel that as rabbis and cantors, we can’t stand idly by. 

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