Milwaukee activist’s beating on West Bank road sheds light on changing Jewish conversation

Milwaukee resident Ari Bloomekatz. (Photo: Jimmy Rothschild)

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel June 25, 2019

It’s just a few seconds caught on video.

Pulled from multiple videos and posted on Twitter, it includes 33-year-old Milwaukee resident Ari Bloomekatz in the West Bank’s South Hebron Hills. The clip shows Bloomekatz in the thick of an altercation involving about 30 activists and a dozen Israeli security forces, some carrying rifles.

It shows an Israeli soldier delivering a swift punch to Bloomekatz’s face. “For what?” the tweet asks. “Rehabilitating a critical access road for Palestinians.”

Bloomekatz was among a group of 17 activists and journalists arrested last month while repairing a road in Palestinian territory controlled by Israel as part of a program sponsored by the Center for Jewish Nonviolence.

The managing editor of Milwaukee-based magazine “Rethinking Schools,” Bloomekatz is among a growing number of primarily younger American Jews challenging Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory as morally indefensible and an affront to their faith.

“The American Jewish community needs to know that this is happening in our name and, in many ways, with our support,” said Bloomekatz, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and former managing editor of the left-leaning Jewish publication Tikkun.

“I and many other Jews across the country see our community’s support for the occupation killing the Judaism we love.”

The West Bank clip has been shared heavily in Jewish and Palestinian circles. Its virality reflects the concern among some American Jews about Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories and sheds light on a deeply personal and painful conversation within the American Jewish community.

Even if they don’t support some Israeli policies, older Jews have tended to remain publicly silent, seeing criticism as an attempt to de-legitimize the Jewish state.

But a growing number of younger Jews, particularly millennials, have become less connected to the Jewish state, and less reticent about criticizing what they see as its shortcomings.

A study last year sponsored by the American Jewish Committee found that almost one-third of U.S. Jews, when asked to describe Israelis in familial terms, chose “not part of my family.”

Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that Jewish activists have begun to question Birthright Israel, which has provided nearly 700,000 young Jews free trips to Israel to foster a connection to the country. Some Birthright participants have walked off tours to meet with Palestinians and protest what they see as the organization’s failure to expose visitors to West Bank occupation.

The same report cited research by Don Waxman, professor of political science, international affairs and Israel studies at Northeastern University, showing 25% of Jews ages 18 to 29 believe Israel receives too much in the way of U.S. support, compared with just 6% of Jews over 50.

Elana Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, said her parents were born before a Jewish state had been established. Israel’s formation after World War II was “a huge moment as Jews — it was like they could begin to exhale.”

But Khan, who holds dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship, said youths often don’t feel the same way about Israel, and the community has struggled to facilitate conversations about the reasons why.

“They grew up in a world where Israel didn’t just exist, but Israel included the West Bank and became morally more complicated,” she said.

To repair and heal

The Palestinian territories — the West Bank including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip — are lands once ruled by Jordan and Egypt that were captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

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West Bank / Jerusalem

Israeli soldiers kill one Palestinian, injure many in Jerusalem
IMEMC 28 June — Israeli soldiers and the police invaded, on Thursday evening, the al-‘Issawiya town, north of occupied East Jerusalem, killed a young Palestinian man, and injured many other residents, in addition to imposing a strict siege on the town. Media sources said the soldiers invaded Obeid neighborhood in the town, and attacked many Palestinians while inspecting their ID cards, in addition to searching homes and shops. They added that the soldiers fired many live rounds, rubber-coated steel bullets, gas bombs and concussion grenades at Palestinian youngsters protesting the invasion. Local nonviolent activist, Yousef Obeid, said the soldiers killed a former political prisoner, identified as Mohammad Samir Obeid, 21, after shooting him with several bullets, including a live round in the heart. He added that the soldiers also injured four other Palestinians, causing mild-to-moderate wounds. After killing the young man, the soldiers took his body away, and assaulted several Palestinians with clubs and batons. Furthermore, the soldiers imposed a strict siege on the town, and prevented the residents, including ambulances, from entering or leaving it. An eyewitness, who was standing next to the slain Palestinian, said the soldiers shot him with three live rounds from a close range, including the fatal round in the heart, and one that struck him in his leg, and added that the shooting had no cause or justification, especially since it was carried out an hour after the nonviolent protest ended. His statements, alongside other witnesses, contradict allegations by the police that the slain young man “lit firecrackers in the direction of the police,’” allegedly “endangering their lives.” … The killing of the young man also led to protests in the neighborhoods and towns of Wadi al-Jouz, at-Tour, al-‘Issawiya, Shu’fat, Shu’fat refugee camp and Abu Dis.

Israeli forces hit rally against police abuse
JERUSALEM (AP) 28 June — Palestinians claim Israeli forces attacked them after a peaceful rally against police brutality in east Jerusalem. Forty-nine-year-old witness Abed Zamzam says that after prayers on Thursday, Israeli police were patrolling a rally of several hundred Palestinians in the neighborhood of ‘Issawiya. Zamzam says they beat the residents after fatally shooting 20-year-old Mohammed Obeid. A cellphone video shows a policeman kicking a Palestinian already on the ground as an officer was arresting him. The protests continued Friday.

And here is what precipitated the whole business:

‘Army abducts sixteen Palestinians in West Bank’
IMEMC 23 June — The Palestinian Prisoners’ Society (PPS) has reported that Israeli soldiers abducted, overnight until morning hours Sunday, at least sixteen Palestinians, including children, from several parts of the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The PPS said the soldiers stormed and ransacked dozens of homes in the al-‘Issawiya town, in Jerusalem, and abducted Husam ‘Oleyyan, Abdul-Qader Dari, Mohammad Rafat Dari, Akram Mustafa, Majd Bashir Ahmad, Noureddin Mheisin, Ibrahim Abu Sneina, and Ayyoub Abu al-Hummus. It added that the soldiers also invaded and searched homes in the al-Wad Street, in the Old City of Jerusalem, before abducting Abada Najeeb, Mahmoud Najeeb and Ibrahim Abu Sneina. In Hebron, in southern West Bank, the soldiers abducted Firas Fares Moghannam, 40, after searching his home, along with the home of a former political prisoner, identified as Salim Mohammad Moghannam, and Mohammad Khalil Abu Shaker….

US dollars for abuse of children: THIS. MUST. STOP.

In 2018, Americans were horrified to learn that migrant children were being cruelly separated from their families at the U.S. border and imprisoned in intolerable conditions.

Many U.S. lawmakers – on both sides of the aisle – joined the national outcry to say this is an UNACCEPTABLE practice for the United States.

Yet – under Israel’s military occupation that is generously subsidized by Congress with U.S. tax dollars abusing and imprisoning Palestinian children has been ACCEPTABLE and standard practice for many years. These children are subjected to abuse that has never even been considered in the United States.

 It is time for U.S. legislators to oppose the abuse of Palestinian children by the Israeli military.

These kids’ stories of abuse are terrifying and heartbreaking – often taken from their families in the middle of the night, put in choke holds, blindfolded and handcuffed, thrown into jeeps, traumatized and coerced into confessions during interrogations where no parent or advocate is present, strip searched, beaten, and tortured. They are tried in military courts that lack the basic standards for a fair trial and the conviction rate is over 99%.

Roughly 10,000 Palestinian children have suffered such abuse since the year 2000.

EVERY lawmaker should be appalled at this treatment of children by the Israeli military, which the U.S. gives $3.8 billion each year. The U.S. MUST STOP FUNDING these egregious violations of children’s essential human rights.

The historic bill H.R. 2407 seeks to ensure just that. The Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act can put a stop to U.S. tax dollars funding such abuse.

Also called the "McCollum Bill," it was recently brought to Congress by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN). Now H.R. 2407 needs co-sponsors!


Mark Harrison [far left], Director of Peace with Justice at the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), with Rep. Betty McCollum [center front row] and other supporters of H.R. 2407. Both GBCS and UMKR are ENDORSING ORGANIZATIONS of this bill.

We are witnessing a new thing emerging in the United States. A few years ago, no one in Congress would have stood up for Palestinians’ human rights. Last year, the first version of the McCollum Bill had 30 co-sponsors in Congress!

There is a growing conviction among the American public, and even starting in Congress, that U.S. policy on Israel/Palestine can and should hold Israel accountable for human rights violations.

The "Leahy Law" is part of the Foreign Assistance Act; it is supposed to ensure U.S. aid does not go to military units that violate human rights. It has not been applied to Israel. A good way to start is focusing now on the treatment of children.

So this new bill will amend the Leahy Law to prohibit U.S. military aid from funding the military detention or abuse of children in violation of international humanitarian law.

This bill would apply to children globally, wherever U.S. military aid is received; any person of conscience should be able to support it!

 Send your Representative a message: US funding for abuse of Palestinian children must stop.  Click below and you will review the message before sending it:

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Apartheid Arms: Why Israel Sells Military Equipment to Human Rights Violators

According to Amnesty International, over the past 20 years, Israeli military exports went to at least eight countries that have been known for serious violations of human rights,. (Photo: via MEMO)

Mohamed Mohamed, The Palestine Chronicle, May 21, 2019

An in-depth report released in Hebrew by Amnesty International’s Israeli chapter provides a damning picture of Israeli arms exports to countries that violate human rights. This report provides solid evidence that over the past 20 years, Israeli military exports went to at least eight countries that have been known for serious violations of human rights:

  • Azerbaijan – which has persecuted government critics and LGBTQ people – received Israeli battleships, anti-tank missiles, attack drones, military vehicles, and radar systems
  • Cameroon – implicated in kidnappings, torture, and murder – received Israeli military training and armored vehicles
  • Mexico – undergoing a severe human rights crisis and forced disappearances – received Israeli spyware software that targeted journalists, human rights lawyers, and anti-corruption activists
  • Myanmar – which has engaged in ethnic cleansing, genocide, and crimes against humanity – received armored vehicles and naval ammunition
  • Philippines – which carried out mass extrajudicial executions – received Israeli assault rifles, machine guns, and anti-tank guided missiles
  • South Sudan – implicated in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity – received Israeli surveillance technology and assault rifles
  • Sri Lanka – which was engaged in a brutal civil war – received Israeli drones and battleships
  • United Arab Emirates – which has imprisoned government critics and human rights activists – received Israeli spyware software, including the infamous “Pegasus” spyware (just days ago, NSO, the Israeli company behind Pegasus, was linked to a security exploit targeting WhatsApp that allowed Pegasus to be installed)

What is worse is that some of these countries were under international sanctions and weapons sales embargoes, yet Israel continued to sell arms to them.

For example, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on South Sudan due to its acts of ethnic cleansing, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even using mass rape as a method of war. Yet South Sudan still ended up acquiring Israeli-made assault rifles. Part of this is due to the fact that Israeli weapons reach such countries after a chain of transactions, which helps to avoid international monitoring and decrease transparency.

Israeli authorities claim that they “carefully examine the state of human rights in each country before approving export licenses for selling them weapons,” but the fact that Israeli weapons made it to the countries mentioned above proves that this statement is far from the truth.

But this information is neither new nor shocking. As Jonathan Cook wrote in 2013, “despite having a population smaller than New York City, Israel has emerged in the last few years as one of the world’s largest exporters of weapons.”

At the time, analysts placed Israel as the sixth top producer of weapons, ahead of China and Italy. When accounting for covert weapons deals, Israel was even considered to be the fourth top producer, ahead of Britain and Germany.

Of course, much of these military sales were made possible at the expense and lives of Palestinians. A significant reason why Israeli weapons are so marketable is because they are presented as “battle-proven.” In other words, they were tested on Palestinians.

As Miko Peled wrote last year, an Israeli weapons manufacturer marketed its unmanned armored personnel carrier as “combat-proven” at the “Israel Unmanned Systems 2014” conference, since the 2014 war on Gaza was the first time that such a remote-controlled carrier had been successfully deployed.

And as Rania Khalek has mentioned, “Palestine has long served as a laboratory for Israel’s ballooning ‘homeland security’ industry to test and perfect weapons of domination and control, with disenfranchised and stateless Palestinians serving as their lab rats.”

And as Bloomberg noted, the price of stock of Elbit Systems, one of the largest manufacturers of Israeli military technology, surged to its highest level since 2010 during the 2014 war on Gaza. This was surely no coincidence. It is also uncoincidental that the 2010 high peak of Elbit’s stock was not long after the end of the 2009 war on Gaza.

Clearly, waging war on Palestinians is a huge money-maker for the state of Israel, its corporations, and even its citizens (Cook cites data that around 6,800 Israelis are actively engaged in exporting arms, and former defense minister Ehud Barak admitted that 150,000 Israeli households – around 10 percent of the population – depend on the weapons industry).

One can look no further than to the comments of Avner Benzaken, who was head of the “Technology and Logistics Branch” of the Israeli “Defense” Forces:

“If I develop a product and want to test it in the field, I only have to go five or 10 kilometers from my base and I can look and see what is happening with the equipment. I get feedback, so it makes the development process faster and much more efficient. “

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Why We, Palestinians and Israelis, Insist on Mourning Our Dead Together

Alternative Memorial Day, a binational tradition since 2005, is a sign that we are capable of taking down the walls of fear.

Alternative Memorial Day
Mourners and supporters at the Alternative Memorial Day ceremony in Israel on May 7, 2019. (Photo by Tatyana Gitlits)

Avigail Corry and Sulaiman Khatib, May 22, 2019

Mourning is a personal matter. When it comes to mourning victims of war, terror, and state-sponsored suppression, mourning is also a political matter—especially in Israel and Palestine. We, a Palestinian man from the West Bank who served 10 years in an Israeli prison and an Israeli woman who served in the Israeli army, are not supposed to care about each other’s dead. We are taught this constantly. But, out of a commitment that is both concretely political and inherently human, we have decided to reject this logic and fight for a public space in which we can feel pain for the dead on all sides.

This year, as every year for the past 14, the organizations Combatants for Peace (CFP), in which both of us writing this article are active (S.K. as a founder and A.C. as an organizer), and the Parents Circle–Families Forum held an Alternative Memorial Day ceremony on Israeli Memorial Day. Proud to take part in this practice, we stood with over 9,000 people who came to support families in mourning from (Green Line) Israel, the West Bank and—over video conference—from Gaza. Each loss is different. Some mourn IDF soldiers killed in battle; others, Palestinians who died at the hands of Israeli forces. But our message is shared: We refuse to allow our bereavement to be manipulated for nationalistic purposes and we insist that, despite all complications of asymmetry and power gaps, we have a right to recognize one another’s losses.

As someone who grew up in the Israeli school system, I, Avigail, have always experienced our national Memorial Day as the annual pinnacle of militaristic culture, an aggressive indoctrination into the idea that we must live by the sword and maintain control over another people in order to survive. Over the years, more and more Israelis have come to share this alienation that I feel. In 2005 one bereaved father named Boma Inbar, who lost his son Yotam in the first Lebanon War, decided to initiate a ceremony in which bereaved parents from both sides would come together. Everything about typical Israeli memorial ceremonies—the music, the choreography, the speeches—serves to entrench the notion of “divide and conquer” into our very emotional anatomy. It was this practice that Inbar wished to oppose, not merely through verbal criticism, but by replacing it with a new ritual practice that Israelis and Palestinians would build together. The first time it took place, the ceremony was small, almost negligible, attracting only 200 participants, but it has grown every year since.

As a Palestinian, I, Sulaiman, have never had a state-sponsored Memorial Day, since I am not a citizen of any state. I do not reject the mourning practices that we do have within our community—martyrs’ funerals, for example. Still, I seek rituals beyond them, ones that help me connect to a larger human story and that have potential to save lives in the future. Having been attracted to violent resistance as a youth, it was not easy for me to join the Alternative Memorial Day ceremony, which my organization CFP did in 2005. Thus, I can empathize with the objections that other Palestinians voice in response to our binational ceremony. Nonetheless, without erasing the difference between occupier and occupied, this binational ceremony is the place where I feel that I am truly honoring the great number of close friends and family members that I lost to the occupation, and where I see that I am being heard.

David Grossman
Israeli author and bereaved father David Grossman at the Alternative Memorial Day ceremony in 2018. (Photo by Tatyana Gitlits)

Beyond an opportunity for authentic bereavement, we both believe in the political power of this ceremony. There is no greater testament to its potency than the scale of government opposition that it has come to provoke—mostly among Israelis, who sometimes compare the ceremony to mourning Holocaust victims alongside dead Nazi soldiers, but also among Palestinians, who accuse us of normalizing relations with an oppressive government. We know that our choice is difficult for some members of both groups to accept and we recognize that there is risk involved. But, as just about anyone who has been to the ceremony can say, it is a transformative experience, one that changes people’s minds about what is possible in this region. It is a way of seizing the tremendous power of public rituals away from self-serving, manipulative government leaders and putting this power into the hands of everyday people, the victims of conflict.

The group that is most vehemently—obsessively—opposed to our ceremony is the Israeli right wing. A few days before the ceremony this year, as happens every year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to shut down the ceremony completely, using any means at his disposal. He personally demanded that the roughly 180 Palestinians from the West Bank planning to take part in the ceremony, most of them mourning personal losses, be denied entry into Israel. Thankfully, the Supreme Court overturned Netanyahu’s orders and allowed 100 Palestinian participants to join us. Yet our troubles didn’t end there. The Netanyahu populist base went into a frenzy, threatening us on social media. Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, had especially choice words to share: “The bereaved parents who participated in the Alternative Memorial Ceremony are psychologically disturbed.” Sadly, Netanyahu’s incitement succeeded in bringing some to the streets, as it does every year. Several hundred right-wing activists showed up at the ceremony to hurl insults at us, and sometimes even rocks.

Despite all of these efforts at suppression, and crass calls for violence around us, on Tuesday, May 7, the ceremony came together and we witnessed that same source of light that carries us from year to year. That evening, we heard 14-year-old Mohammed Darwish, from the ‘Ayda refugee camp in Bethlehem, remember his close friend Abed Elrahaman Shadi Abdallah, who was killed by a stray bullet during a conflict with Israeli forces in the camp. At the time, Abdallah was only 12 years old. At the ceremony, Darwish recalled the details of finding his young friend lying dead on the ground, covered in blood, and said, “My friend, Abed Elrahaman, I know that you know where I am right now and that I am talking about you, and that I am telling the story of your death to thousands of people who believe in humanity. So, you should know, your death will not be meaningless. My young friend, one bullet ended 12 years of friendship, laughter and play…. I choose to eternalize your memory by working for peace.” At another moment in the ceremony, we heard from Yuval Rachamim, whose father, Avraham, was killed in the war of 1967: “Gradually [at Israeli Memorial Day ceremonies], I came to understand that I am a prop in someone else’s play. The combative, self-victimizing rhetoric reinforces and sanctifies a struggle that will never end. Every year, politicians…turn our searing pain into an election campaign and recruitment session for the next unnecessary war.”

Miriam Toukan
The singer Miriam Toukan at the Alternative Memorial Day ceremony in 2018. (Photo by Tatyana Gitlits)

It is worth asking: Why does the prime minister need to personally intervene with military orders, and his followers with violence, in an attempt to prevent these words from being heard on the same stage? Perhaps Netanyahu feels so threatened by our ceremony because he knows what we know: Binational mourning is a sign that Palestinians and Israelis are capable of taking down the walls of fear that he works so hard to erect and maintain, and that we are able to find our own, independent moral compass, even in dark times. We know that the moral insight born of our ceremony is not enough, on its own, to change reality here; but we also know that no real change can happen without it.

As we look across the seas and watch Muslims and Jews being killed—albeit under very different circumstances—by white-supremacist terror in Christchurch, New Zealand, in Poway, California, and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we invite mourners to join in our practice. It is imperative to remember the dead. It is transformative when we remember them together.

Avigail Corry
Avigail Corry is a BA student in Hebrew language studies at Ben Gurion University in the Negev and, beginning in the fall, will teach at a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic elementary school in Jaffa. She is an activist in Combatants for Peace as well as the movement Standing Together, where she focuses on issues of racial equality within Israel.

Sulaiman Khatib
Sulaiman Khatib was born in Hizma, near Jerusalem, and currently lives in Ramallah. At the age of 14, Khatib was imprisoned for participating in the stabbing of Israeli soldiers. When he emerged from prison at the age of 24, Khatib and his friends, also former prisoners, met with Israeli soldiers who had made a parallel decision to renounce violence. Together, they founded the organization Combatants for Peace in 2006. He is currently writing a book about his experiences and his vision.

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26 Groups Supporting McCollum Legislation for Palestinian Children

Wisconsin Muslim Journal, May 17, 2019

Israel has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world that systematically prosecutes an estimated 500 to 700 children each year in military courts lacking fundamental fair trial rights. Children within the Israeli military system commonly report physical and verbal abuse from the moment of their arrest, and coercion and threats during interrogations.
— No Way To Treat A Child

Congresswoman Betty McCollum (DFL-Minn.) today announced support from national and international religious and human rights organizations in support of H.R. 2407, the Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act, introduced May 1, 2019.

Congresswoman McCollum released the following statement:
“Peace can only be achieved by respecting human rights, especially the rights of children,” Congresswoman McCollum said. “These organizations are committed to human rights and are working to support another generation of Palestinian children facing cruel and dehumanizing detention at the hands of Mr. Netanyahu’s military. This strong show of support is part of a growing consensus that the Palestinian people deserve justice, equality, human rights, and the right to self-determination. It is also a signal that none of the billions of taxpayer dollars in American foreign aid to Israel should be spent on inhumanely locking up Palestinian children in Israeli military detention facilities.”

The following is a list of organizations in support of H.R. 2407:
Adalah Justice Project
American Friends Service Committee
American Muslims for Palestine
Amnesty International USA
Arab American Institute
Center for Constitutional Rights
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Churches for Middle East Peace
Defense for Children International – Palestine
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA)
Indiana Center for Middle East Peace
Institute for Policy Studies, New Internationalism Project
Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)
Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office
Palestine Legal
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Project South
Quaker Palestine Israel Network
The Episcopal Church
Tree of Life Educational Fund
United Church of Christ
United Methodist General Board of Church and Society
United Methodists for Kairos Response (UMKR)
US Campaign for Palestinian Rights

More information on H.R. 2407