The Palestinian Olive Harvest and Israeli Jewish Identity
There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.
The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the Prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.
—Abraham Joshua Heschel
“The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement” (1972)
later included in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (1996)
The prophet knew that religion could distort what the Lord demanded of man, that priests themselves had committed perjury by bearing false witness, condoning violence, tolerating hatred, calling for ceremonies instead of bursting forth with wrath and indignation at cruelty, deceit, idolatry, and violence.
To the people, religion was Temple, priesthood, incense: “This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord” (Jer. 7:4). Such piety Jeremiah brands as fraud and illusion. “Behold you trust in deceptive words to no avail,” he calls (Jer. 7: 8). Worship preceded or followed by evil acts becomes an absurdity. The holy place is doomed when people indulge in unholy deeds.
―Abraham Joshua Heschel
These words, the teaching of the famous Jewish philosopher and rabbi quoted above, have inspired rabbis like me to get involved in work for justice and peace, and to confront injustice in the real world in which we live. Some of the founders of our small community of activist rabbis studied with Heschel and knew him personally in their common activism against racist injustice in the USA and in their opposition to the terrible Vietnam war. I believe all of us, including those too young to have met him, were inspired by his example and by his moral religious teaching.
His comment about the experience in Selma Alabama, on returning from a dramatic and dangerous march with his friend and fellow clergyman, the pastor Dr. Martin Luther King, protesting the institutionalized racism there, is well known. “I felt my legs were praying,” he said. Many of us feel the same about our involvement in the Palestinian olive harvest under Israeli occupation each year—we feel our presence is more than an attempt to help physically, to intervene for justice, that it is an act of faith, a religious statement.
I have retired in recent years, though I am still a member of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) and I sit on its Board of Directors; in other words, I remain involved. My involvement over the years in the activity in the Palestinian Occupied territories both as a volunteer, then as a field worker and coordinator of volunteers for RHR, and now again as a volunteer, has impacted on how I see the Palestinian-Israeli conflict here and the role of religions in that conflict. In this short essay I will try to explain what it has meant for me as a committed observant Jew and as a rabbi.
In order to go out into the territories controlled by the Israeli army, where there is a great deal of tension and real danger from extremists on both sides of the conflict, and an ongoing repression of the civilian population there, I had to overcome preconceived ideas about Palestinians, break through suspicion and fear on my part and theirs, and work against an ongoing injustice of my own people against the indigenous population. This required courage both in facing dangers from Palestinian terrorists, confronting the hatred of some my own people and of some of the Arab population, and taking an unpopular, controversial position supporting their rights within the conflict situation here. It also led me into contact with people from other religious traditions, sometimes challenging my own faith.
The first time I went out into Palestinian occupied areas with Rabbis Arik Aschermann and Jeremy Milgrom, I was shocked by the reality I met there. I will always remember the bitter tears of a Palestinian farmer we accompanied to his olive trees that had been cut down, the site of Bethlehem alleyways in which buildings had been severely damaged by Israeli tanks in the first Intifada, and many times witnessing, unable to do much to stop it, the brutality of home demolitions by the Israeli army. It challenged my Zionist education and narrative. Although I was aware of “the refugee problem” and was a supporter of the two-state solution at the time, I was not aware of the degree of displacement, destruction and constant repressive surveillance of the Palestinian population it entailed. The abrogation of basic human rights of that population is daily and continuous. It is not just a matter of local abuse but fundamental to the reality of military occupation and the ongoing siege of Gaza. Of course, the right to life is the most fundamental of human rights and a justification for Israeli action to protect its population from the very real threat of terrorism. Palestinians have the same right.
Like many Israelis and despite army service and living in Jerusalem where Palestinians are about 40% of the population, I had never really come into close contact with Palestinians, seeing them, though praying for peace, as the threatening “other” not as real human beings with whom we share this tiny country. Through Rabbis for Human Rights, which I joined close to the time of it’s formation in 1989, and, in particular because of my participation in the Palestinian olive harvest in area C every autumn for two decades, 12 years of them as coordinator of volunteers, that attitude changed. I emerged from my protective bubble, both ideological and physical, to meet the other people in their fields and in their homes.
What would happen in the olive groves annually was what we called “the dialogue of the olive harvest.” It was there that Israeli and foreign volunteers, both Jewish and Christian (for instance the Eappi groups), and sometimes also Muslim, and even Buddhist, volunteers met Palestinian farmers and their families, harvested with them, listened to them and reflected together on the reality in which they lived under Israeli military occupation. We took coffee and ate together as well in the breaks, and the dialogue continued under the olive trees. For those of us leading these groups and coordinating them this was not a one-time event but a continuous interaction, week after week, year after year.
There is a Talmudic teaching that describes a famous rabbi called Akiva, before he became a Torah scholar but was still a simple shepherd, who had fallen in love with a woman called Rachel from an educated and wealthy family. Rachel told Akiva that she would marry him if he learned Torah, but he could not read. Sitting by a stream, frustrated at his inability to learn, he spotted water penetrating a rock as it flowed by. He told himself, just as the water which is soft can penetrate and overcome that hard rock, so I too can overcome this hard obstacle. He did so and became a famous scholar and leader of his people. I told this parable to many participants in the olive harvest over the years who expressed frustration and pessimism at the possibility of change, that the Israeli army and the intransigent settlers seemed so powerful.
One of the most humanizing and inspiring experiences I had during the years I worked on the ground for RHR was my involvement in the building of a school in a Bedouin community called Khan Al Akhmar in the Judean desert. The project was initiated by the local Bedouin themselves after a couple of kids were killed on the roads in car accidents trying to reach the school in Jericho. They contacted a Catholic group—the Comboni Sisters—who had been providing humanitarian aid to Bedouin in the area, and who in turn engaged an Italian NGO (Vento de Terra) to help design a school. RHR got involved in providing volunteers for help with the physical project and subsequently we funded and helped with protective summer camps together with the nuns to prevent demolition and continue the children’s activities into the summer. We also took groups of children to the sea for the first time in their lives.
My contact with the Jahalin Bedouin tribe started much earlier than this, as I had accompanied Jeremy and Arik in protesting the expulsion of members of the tribe from the area of the urban settlement Maalei Adumim when that settlement was expanded. At that protest we prayed together, Jews and Muslims, which made the news and was unique. However, the involvement in Khan Al Akhmar was even more unique and inspiring as it involved working together with Christians and Muslims to help one of the most neglected and poverty-stricken communities in the West Bank. It soon became a political “hot potato” as the settlers demanded the destruction of the eco-friendly tire school which had been built without permission (which was anyway impossible to get in area C) from the army. The army was reluctant to carry out the demolition order because of international protest, and the elementary school still stands today. There, hundreds of Bedouin children who were not previously given real access to education—particularly the girls—have now completed their primary education and have learned to read and write. Some have continued to high school and one of the local women is herself now a teacher in the school.
Regarding my thoughts about the future and what I have learned from all of this: to quote Professor David Shulman, interviewed when he was honoured with the Israel Prize for his research into Indian cultures, and who is also an activist in the South Hebron hills for the Taayush (a group working for justice in Jewish-Arab cooperation)—“it is hard to be optimistic about the situation, but one must always have hope.”
My religious faith gives me that, as I referred to in the Talmudic story above about Rabbi Akiva. My experiences deepened that faith and strengthened my Jewish identity while challenging my Zionist worldview. I remain a loyal Israeli who loves his country and continues to believe in the importance of a homeland for the Jewish people, but my views have changed:
I now understand that the conflict is not only about land—it is religious, but religion is also a possible antidote to the poison of extremist religious positions in which nationalism and racism play a big role. Rabbis for Human Rights has a unique contribution to make to this in their role of presenting a humanist alternative to religious-nationalist triumphalism and self-righteousness. Differences of religion and alternative narratives are to be respected and honoured in order to make coexistence here possible…
Perhaps there is no “solution” in the immediate future, but the situation must be “humanized” for us to conceive of any solution at all. Outside aid and support can also contribute to that.
We are all human, all created in God’s image, as it says in the Book of Genesis.
©2022 Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann
All rights reserved
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann…
…is a member of the Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) Board of Directors. He was the Director of Activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories for RHR between 2006 and 2015. Prior to joining the staff he had been an executive board member and served on a volunteer basis as Treasurer (2003-6) and Chairperson (2000-3). From June 2015 until March 2018 he was director of Organizational Development for RHR, continuing to work on the Jahalin Bedouin project, and focused on educational activities for the rabbinic membership, staff and volunteers. He is also active in the executive committee of the “Tag Meir Forum,” a coalition combating hate crimes and racism in Israeli society.