Ilana Sumka


In Rabbi Sid’s four propositions, I recognized many key elements of my own personal Jewish identity: a Dorot fellowship in Jerusalem & studies at Pardes (1/Chochmah), my work with American Jewish World Service (2/Tzedek), the Hadar minyan (3/Kehilah), a summer internship at Elat Chayyim (4/Kedusha) are just a few examples.   I name these to ground my experiences and background in the heart of this work before I step off the ledge, because the topic I’m going to address is controversial: Israel-Palestine.

Jewish activists who speak out regularly on the injustices of Israel’s discriminatory practices and nearly 50-year occupation are often brushed aside by the mainstream Jewish community. Whether or not these anti-occupation Jewish activists went to Pardes or attended Kehilat Hadar, they have an important voice and a legitimate place in Klal Yisrael.   As someone who has strong ties both to the American Jewish mainstream community that Rabbi Sid lays out, and to the Jewish anti-occupation and Palestine solidarity activism community, I feel a responsibility to play a bridging role.

I’d like to suggest that Israel-Palestine, with all its thorns and thistles and also its joys and moments of profound partnership across an otherwise huge divide, could be more directly and actively incorporated into a global analysis of Jewish Megatrends. I frame my comments through the lens of my specific work directing the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, but I think this analysis can be applied to other Jewish anti-occupation activist organizations that are often cut off from the Jewish institutional world.

Many elements of the work I do already overlap with points Rabbi Sid makes in this analysis. We focus our work on tzedek, and we incorporate elements of the other three arenas: together we study Jewish Nonviolence; we are in community together – both virtual community and in-person community; and we seek to embrace the holiness in our work in our relationships.

Perhaps surprisingly, we also have something in common when it comes to a shared critique of Birthright. Rabbi Sid asks, “might the largesse of the Jewish community in making the programs free come back to haunt us? … The next generation of Jews is learning by experience that someone else will pay them to ‘do Jewish.’ ”

As someone who works in the field of getting folks over to Israel – and to the Occupied Palestinian Territories – the “free trip to Israel” phenomenon that stems from the Birthright generation has turned into a plague. One of the first questions I receive from prospective participants on my program is: will my plane ticket be paid for? Regardless of our political positions, I doubt any of us who run Jewish nonprofits love spending our time raising money for plane tickets.

Rabbi Sid’s related point, that American Jews will pay for programming that they find meaningful, is also essential. To provide free plane tickets to Israel – and free programming and free Shabbat dinners – even to those who come from well-off backgrounds, only serves to entrench a system of entitlement rather than cultivate a sense of shared responsibility.

But this is another place where I find alignment in the analysis, though in a different way. Despite an entrenched culture of entitlement when it comes to Israel tickets, I am also finding that Jews from all different backgrounds are willing to come up with the money for a ticket to Israel to do something they deeply believe in: to join in the Israeli and Palestinian nonviolent movement to end the occupation.

Through online crowdfunding and hosting grassroots house parties, activists with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence are soliciting their friends and families to raise money for their own plane tickets to Israel, through $18 gifts at a time.

Rabbi Sid does acknowledge the role of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and subsequent human rights violations, which is an important step. However, I see missing an acknowledgement of the historic and contemporary role that the State of Israel played and continues to play in the dispossession of Palestinians from their land, both inside Israel and in the occupied territories, and the subsequent response by thousands of Jewish activists to these injustices that are done in our name. Thousands of Jews – younger and older generations alike – are deeply concerned about the discriminatory practices and oppressive policies by the Israeli government against Palestinians.

As Rabbi Sid wrote, young Jews want to learn with and from people of other faiths: “They explore those faiths not because they want to convert, but because they refuse to live and learn in an intellectual and cultural ghetto.”

This desire to be exposed to others of different backgrounds is just as true and applicable for Jews who want to learn from, work alongside and stand in solidarity with Palestinians.   For many of us, it is precisely because we know that our collective people’s history – one that was life-saving for European Jews on many layers – was simultaneously devastating and utter catastrophe for another people. We’re not just working alongside Senegalese farmers for global economic justice or supporting Burmese refugees to advance rights of self-determination. We’re acknowledging the role and responsibility that our actions, as a Jewish people in the name of Israel, have had and continue to have on Palestinians.

We have an understanding of the inextricable interconnectedness between the Jewish people’s well-being and the Palestinian people’s well-being. We have a vision for the future based on values of tzedek and chochmah. We shine a light on the incongruence between American Jewish support for equality and democracy on one hand while also supporting Israel’s discriminatory practices on the other. And we shine this light for the sake of a just and peaceful future for all the inhabitants between the River and the Sea. For many of us, advancing justice and peace in Israel-Palestine is an essential component of our Jewish identity.


Ilana Sumka is the founder and director of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, cultivating a practice of creative Jewish Nonviolence in support of Palestinian and Israeli nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation. She previously served as Encounter’s Jerusalem director and has worked with American Jewish World Service, NY’s Working Families Party and SEIU 32BJ. She also teaches Jewish conversion classes in Brussels, Belgium.