By Moriah Ella Mason
Editor’s Note: The author has recently returned from spending ten days in the Palestinian West Bank with other activists from the Center for Jewish Nonviolence. The group engaged in learning and co-resistance work with Palestinian communities in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Israel, including planting and tending olive groves, rebuilding demolished livestock pens, renovating community gathering places, and repairing dirt roads.
On Friday May 3rd, I experienced my first sound grenade. A loud bang, a flash of light, and then a moment of disorientation in which linear time was suspended. Sound grenades, or flash bangs, are a crowd dispersal technique. They are designed to activate the fight or flight reflex; to make you panic and run away. One of the less-lethal strategies of crowd dispersal, they can still cause serious burns and puncture wounds if they explode too close.
Why the flash bangs? Why the fear and panic? I had gathered that day with 125 diaspora Jews, Israelis, and Palestinians to participate in a joint work project: smoothing out a rocky dirt road that leads to five Palestinian villages in the South Hebron Hills. For these villages this road is the key to everything. It’s how water, electricity, and food are brought to homes. It’s how people access education and healthcare. It’s how families visit relatives in other villages. But the road is full of potholes and large boulders. Water has to be brought in by tractor, which means families pay 10 times the cost of water in Jerusalem.
Because it passes near an illegal Israeli settlement, Palestinians cannot work on it without risking violent harassment. So a broad coalition of Palestinian organizations throughout the region came together and invited the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and the Israel-based All That’s Left: an Anti- Occupation Collective to spend the day breaking apart boulders and filling in holes with loose pebbles and sand. With such a large group of Israelis and internationals, we knew settlers were unlikely to interfere.
The military, however, was another matter. Throughout the first hour, jeeps of IDF soldiers and border police gathered at the road. Thirty minutes later, a soldier with a bullhorn walked down the road, declaring without explanation that the area was a “closed military zone”and that we had to leave. A few Israelis with us spoke to the soldiers, hoping to negotiate a compromise, while the rest of us continued working. Refusing to talk, the soldiers began making violent arrests – pushing people to the ground, dragging them over rocks, punching and choking, throwing sound grenades. I saw a soldier choking one of my Palestinian friends—his knee digging into his neck. I saw another soldier punch an American Jew in the head. Three days later he continued to struggle with post-concussion symptoms.
Within minutes that felt like hours, 17 people had been arrested, including two journalists with press credentials hanging around their necks. The soldiers then threw a barrage of sound grenades closer and closer to the feet of the remaining people at the work site, forcing us to back up and run away.
It was the most violent intervention by police or soldiers I’ve ever witnessed, and though I was luckily uninjured I spent the rest of the day struggling with a reawakening of my PTSD symptoms. Sitting in a patch of sunlight, trying to slow my breathing, I couldn’t stop thinking of the last time I felt so unsafe, the last time I felt so triggered – the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh.
I grew up in a small town near Pittsburgh and live close to Tree of Life. Like the rest of my community I was deeply shaken by the shooting and struggled with grief, panic, and deep sadness afterwards. But I was also unsurprised. I was the only Jewish child in my small town school and I experienced pervasive anti-Semitism, from ignorant comments to death threats. My Jewish community held one bright spot of hope amidst the bullying: Israel. Israel was a safe place to be a Jew.
In the communities I grew up in the strategies for Jewish safety were limited to two options: assimilation to whiteness or unquestioning support of Israel. The Tree of Life shooting and the rising tide of anti-Semitism across the U.S. demonstrates that clinging to whiteness is an illusory form of safety. To truly assimilate to whiteness and its ideals requires the erasure of Jews of color and the erection of artificial barriers between white Jews and other marginalized groups within the U.S.
Over the past six months of healing I have been bolstered by beautiful acts of solidarity among communities targeted by white supremacy. The Muslim community raised $200,000 for the victims of the Tree of Life shooting. Immigrant justice and Black Lives Matter activists turned out for our protests of Trump’s post-shooting visit. This past Purim, the Pittsburgh IfNotNow chapter canceled our spiel and fundraiser so we could spend the night marching in protest when the cop who shot Antwon Rose Jr. (an unarmed black teenager) was declared not guilty.
Today I am wrestling with the reality that Israel is only safe for Jews who support the Occupation, or at least agree to remain silent and complicit with the status quo. The soldiers who arrested my friends did not hesitate to use pain points, flash bangs, and physical violence on other Jews and Israelis who were nonviolently working to improve a road that serves as a lifeline for Palestinians in the region. For the Israeli military, Jewish safety is contingent on your politics.
Additionally it serves the Israeli state’s interest when Jews in the diaspora feel afraid. I see this in rhetoric that paints every Palestinian as a terrorist. I see it in the intentional triggering of Holocaust trauma to justify repressive policies. I see it in the racism leveraged against Mizrahi Jews and the pressure to distance themselves from non- Jewish Arabs.
It’s chilling to realize that the level of violence that we experienced that day was certainly softened by the presence of Israelis, diaspora Jews, and journalists. The soldiers were even rougher with our Palestinian friends and I feel afraid of the kind of repression they face when we cannot be there to stand beside them.
Despite this, when my breathing deepens, my heartbeat slows, and I am surrounded by my friends from all communities that oppose occupation and white supremacy, I am filled with joy and courage. I know we are creating the world we want to live in, a world that does not require Jews to be afraid or Palestinians to be broken. Both pathways held out as the key to Jewish safety – whiteness and Israel – are illusory. I know that real safety comes from solidarity, relationship, and co-resistance to the forces that keep us divided.
Moriah Ella Mason is an active member of the Pittsburgh hive of IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace-Pittsburgh, Ella is a dancer, an interdisciplinary artist and massage therapist.