Future Rabbis Plant Trees with Palestinians

27 February, 2019

Some young American rabbinical students have added a new activity to the year of study in Israel.

In the past, students would visit holy sites, learn Hebrew and read religious books. But these students are also reaching out to Palestinians.

Tyler Dratch is a 26-year-old rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston. He spoke to The Associated Press as he was planting olive trees with about 24 other students in the Palestinian village of At-Tuwani in the southern West Bank. The only Jews that Palestinians there usually see are Israeli soldiers or nationalist settlers.

"Before coming here and doing this, I couldn't speak intelligently about Israel," Dratch said. "We're saying that we can take the same religion settlers use to commit violence, in order to commit justice, to make peace."

Dratch did not want to be mistaken for a settler. He covered his Jewish skullcap with another hat. He followed the group to see messages that villagers say settlers left last month: "Death to Arabs" and "Revenge" painted in Hebrew on rocks and several uprooted olive trees.

In this Friday, Jan. 25, 2019 photo, American rabbinical students take a group photo, with the village of Attuwani in the background, during a day planting olive trees, near Hebron in the West Bank. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
In this Friday, Jan. 25, 2019 photo, American rabbinical students take a group photo, with the village of Attuwani in the background, during a day planting olive trees, near Hebron in the West Bank. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

This year's study program also includes a visit to the West Bank city of Hebron, where there is a lot of anti-Israeli anger. The students will also visit an Israeli military court that tries Palestinians and a meeting with an activist from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which is under an Israeli blockade.

The program is run by T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, an organization of rabbis based in the U.S.

Most of T'ruah's membership, and all students in the program, are connected to the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jewish movements. These represent the more liberal side of Judaism that makes up the majority of American Jews.

In Israel, these movements are mostly ignored. Israeli rabbis of the Orthodox group control religious life in the country.

The T'ruah program is in its seventh year. It adds to the students' usual studies of Hebrew, religion and Jewish Israeli society. Though the program is not required, T'ruah says about 70 percent of the visiting American rabbinical students from the liberal branches of Judaism take part.

The year-long program looks at Israel's occupation of the West Bank and reported human rights abuses inside Israel.

T'ruah says its visits to the West Bank are not just single acts of community service. Students are expected to share their experiences within the Jewish community when they return home.

Rabbi Ian Chesir-Teran is T'ruah's rabbinic educator in Israel. He says the program is designed is to push the students, in his words, "so they invite their future rabbinates to work toward ending the occupation."

On this day, the students were going to the Palestinian villages of At-Tuwani and Ar-Rakkes in Area C, which in under total Israeli control.

Palestinian villagers guided the group to their olive trees. The trees are an ancient Palestinian symbol and a more recent victim in the struggle for land with Israeli settlers.

Israeli security officials reported a sharp rise last year in settler violence against Palestinians.

Yishai Fleisher is a spokesman for the settlers. He blamed attacks on the anger of each side in the West Bank.

As Israeli soldiers watched from a hill, Palestinians and Jews planted olive trees in holes left by settlers who had destroyed old trees.

Tyler Dratch said he grew up in Pennsylvania during the years of the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s. "My religious education was fear of Palestinians," he said.

But in college, Dratch's ideas about Israel changed.

Dratch says he still supports Israel, but is against its policies in the West Bank. "I realized I could be Zionist without turning my back on my neighbor, on Palestinians," he said.

With hundreds of young American rabbis sharing such ideas, some in Israel are worried.

Yossi Klein Halevi is with the Shalom Hartman Institute, a research center in Jerusalem. He said he worries that intense desire for social justice may lead to extreme politics among future American Jewish leaders.

Israel is to hold elections in April. Public opinion studies suggest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his religious, nationalist allies will win the voting.

Studies in the U.S. show younger American Jews are more peaceful toward Palestinians and supportive of religious pluralism.

Two weeks after visiting At-Tuwani, the group learned that 25 of the 50 trees they had planted had been removed. Settlers are suspected. They plan to replant --- again.

I'm Dorothy Gundy. And I'm Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted the AP report for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

rabbinical – adj. relating to the writings and teaching of rabbis, Jewish holy men

revenge – n. the act of doing something to hurt someone because that person did something that hurt you

prosecute – v. to hold a trial against a person who is accused of a crime to see if that person is guilty

allege – v. to accuse without proof

covet – v. to desire

pluralism – n. a situation in which people of different social classes, religions, races, etc., are together in a society but continue to have their different traditions and interests