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'I'm part of a dying breed that believes in two states'

The election of Donald Trump has emboldened fears that the two-state solution will officially be tossed into the dustbin of history. But J Street President Jeremy Ben Ami is undeterred, steadfast in his belief that two states is the only solution.+972 Magazine speaks to him at the annual J Street conference about the rise of Steve Bannon, the possibility of a regional plan for peace, and why he thinks Palestinian citizens of Israel do not form a ‘natural alliance’ with his organization’s constituency.

Under the dark cloud of Israeli and American leaders who appear united in their disinterest in a two-state solution, and the growing refrain in policy circles that the “window” is gone, J Street, the organization whose signature policy goal is a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — might have found itself foundering. What new ideas can be found when all avenues to the goal have been exhausted? What role does it have left to play in such a bleak context?

The annual J Street Conference that ended Monday in Washington DC raised all these questions — minus the despair. Organizers said that over 3,500 people had turned out, panel rooms were packed to standing-only. The abundant cheering and whooping sometimes felt spontaneous and emotional, at others seemed tinged with effort to be enthusiastic.

One person whose enthusiasm seems effortless is Jeremy Ben Ami, the founder and president of the liberal Zionist organization. Despite all signs pointing to perdition, Ben Ami is indomitable, ticking off a long list of vital roles J Street has to play in the changed landscape of both America and Israel, and insisting on the singular viability of two-state solution. I spoke to Ben Ami as the conference neared its end on the role J Street must play in influencing U.S. government policy, among other things.

With the election of Donald Trump, Israel and America are now both being run by people who are not sympathetic to J Street’s agenda. What is J Street’s role in that kind of environment?

We need to be able to work in both opposition and support mode. I often use an American football metaphor to say that that we were the ‘blocking back’ under Obama, that we were going for the same end zone and trying to clear the way. Now we are on defense and trying to prevent bad things from happening.

Like what?

For instance, we’re trying...

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LISTEN: Trump may end up redefining Jewish American identity

By Dahlia Scheindlin and Gilad Halpern

Northeastern Professor Dov Waxman’s book, Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel (2016) was published before envisioning Donald Trump sitting in the Oval Office. Gilad Halpern and I hosted him on our podcast, the Tel Aviv Review, a couple of days after Trump’s inauguration, to try and understand whether — and how — a divisive and irascible commander-in-chief, and his unorthodox views on Israel, would affect the debate that his book unpacks.

Trump, Waxman told us, will likely exacerbate the already raging conflict on the very essence of the Jewish-American identity. And in it, Israel is simply part of the furniture.

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The Left should stop bickering and support Obama's abstention

Everyone knew that abstention from the Security Council’s anti-settlement resolution was one of the more realistic options on a very limited menu. So why is the Left now up in arms?

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power barely got the word “abstain” out of her mouth before the liberal left ripped into the decision with a thousand knives. Wait, what? The U.S. abstention allowed the Security Council to pass Resolution 2334 by 14-0. The statement calls on Israel to halt to settlement activity, viewed as a mortal threat to the two-state solution, the signature policy of the left in this conflict (and the center too). Both the United Nations Security Council and the U.S. swore their undying loyalty to ending the conflict through two states; anyone who supports this was supposed to celebrate.

But the more cynical than thou left had to find counterpoint criticism, well, just because. In response, I will summon the apt Hebrew phrase: Hevre, ma kara? You get what you want but it’s still not good enough?

For months, every specialized left-wing policy circuit has been rife with speculation — even obsession — with hope that Obama would do at least something on this issue on his way out. Everyone knew that abstention from an anti-settlement resolution was one of the more realistic options on a very limited menu. I never heard a single liberal left-winger argue against it.

Then overnight, with cyber-columns to fill, complaints sprung to life in the form of a few essentially flimsy arguments.

One is that for eight years, Obama was unable to prevent the expanding, multi-headed hydra of occupation or preserve the vanishing two-state solution. The abstention allowing the UNSC to pass a single resolution against settlements is too little too late — a mocking reminder that the outgoing president’s talk was bigger than his walk. This is the gist of Aluf Benn’s column in Haaretz. Apparently some critics would prefer that Obama to slink out of the room in shame rather than drive home a lasting statement. I can already recite the “biting” critique of these same people upbraiding Obama in an alternate universe for failing to take one final stance.

Another acrobatic analysis holds that the abstention will further embolden the right-wing argument, in which the whole world is against Israel. That’s a ringing endorsement of never doing anything. If a $38 billion...

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On the struggles and duties of the Israeli Left: A response to 'Palestine Today'

Despite clear room for improvement, the Israeli Left still offers valuable examples of progressive activism.

By Dahlia Scheindlin and Matt Duss

Palestine Today, a California-based blog, has written a sincere response to our article drawing on lessons and parallels between Israel and the U.S. for dejected progressives.

We appreciate the thoughtful critique regarding what is clearly a shared goal of advancing progressive values and ending occupation. Some of the points reflect very real ambiguities in the situation, and we welcome the opportunity to engage in an important conversation.

An early and recurring argument in Palestine Today’s critique is that we did not place more emphasis on the Palestinian BDS movement. We described examples in a general sense but didn’t go into details; therefore it isn’t especially conspicuous that we didn’t emphasize the Palestinian BDS call — we didn’t mention any one effort by name, including those we are directly involved in.

Next, we have made it fairly clear that the two areas being explored are Israel and the U.S. Notwithstanding what we surely all agree is a vigorous attempt by Israel’s government to obliterate the Green Line, there is still a distinction between Israeli and Palestinian society. And in Israeli society, the Palestinian BDS call is far from the “single most popular idea,” as Palestine Today claims, in any form or forum at all. Until about 2014, the vast majority of Israelis hadn’t heard of it.

Since then, BDS has become mainly the target of Israeli rage, but it is not currently an example of Israeli activism, which is what the article is about (alongside U.S. activism). It should be abundantly clear from both of our work that, while each of us may have certain disagreements with the BDS movement or its activists, we strongly believe that support for Palestinian rights, both within the Green Line and beyond, is an important part of the broader progressive agenda.

Scheindlin stands by her critique of Israel’s 2011 social protests, but it is legitimate (and important) to look at such a significant event with five years’ hindsight and consider lasting impact that couldn’t have been assessed in real time. In that light, perhaps the most powerful aspect to note is just the large-scale participation itself, which at the very least demonstrated civic power. Arguably that power was...

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Lessons from Israel on how to build resistance in the U.S.

American liberals in despair over the presidential election would do well to look at Israel, where setbacks at the ballot box brought left-wingers together and drove them to think bigger.

By Matt Duss and Dahlia Scheindlin

As the initial shock of the presidential election fades, American progressives are left struggling with disturbing implications beyond the mere fact of being on the losing side. We ponder the apparent declaration that America rejects its religious and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ community, the immigrants who have made this country great, its independent women, and even its equality-supporting men. What looked like a historic march toward greater equality and inclusiveness seems to have ground to an angry halt. Our thinking, activism, and writing apparently reached only “ourselves,” insufficiently at that, and failed to win over enough of “them.” Despair is a looming option.

Sadly for the world, but luckily for us, this isn’t our first time around. The two of us are both deeply involved in Israel, professionally and personally. For Israeli progressives, Netanyahu’s fourth re-election in March 2015 also felt like a local version of a grand-scale collapse. Just over a year later, with the Brexit vote, a slim majority of British voters said to hell with that massive structure symbolizing the values of the interconnected world we desire.

So why are we lucky to have lived this bitter reality before? Because we have one distinct advantage in facing America’s new reality: experience. We’ve had time to absorb the blow and think about what to do next. And these experiences can only lead in one direction: More commitment to the values of openness, more progressive engagement, more assertive leveraging of the tools necessary for those of us who have been kicked out of the ring and into the back rows of opposition.

This brings us back to 2009 in Israel, long before Benjamin Netanyahu’s infamous 2015 statement about Israel’s Arabs “voting in droves.” In 2009, Netanyahu made his great “comeback,” returning to the political scene and becoming prime minister a decade after he was first routed by voters with no small amount of disgust in 1999. Netanyahu’s return was seen by many as a deathblow to the progressive, outward- and forward-looking vision of peace and equality already eroded by the violence of the aughts. Many were left shattered — and scared.

But, then, a strange thing happened. The election, along with the Gaza...

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LISTEN: Lessons for Israel-Palestine from a divided Cyprus

Is conflict management sustainable? A closer look at a similar conflict should serve as a stark reminder for all Israelis who care about peace.

Living the Israeli-Palestinian conflict day in, day out, one often feels suffocated by a thicket of obstacles to peace. Wherever one looks for solutions, the doors seem to slam shut. It is easy to conclude that no conflict has ever been so stubbornly intractable, and that no one faces so many layers of complexity. What I’ve noticed from years of international work and close observation of other protracted conflicts is that the people in those other places feel just the same.

This year, I began a project at a think tank called Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies to try and learn more systematically from other conflicts with comparable problems. No two situations are exactly alike, but I firmly believed from my experiences that much can be gained from such comparisons by way of lessons, new thinking, and also warnings. In a recent paper, I focus on our close neighbors, Cyprus, to see what Israelis and Palestinians can learn. Divided since 1974, the leaders of the Turkish Cypriot north and the Greek Cypriot south (Republic of Cyprus) are currently negotiating towards a peace and reunification deal.

Whether they will succeed cannot be known. Still, a close analysis leads me to conclude that conflict management is a poor option — something that Israelis and Palestinians should take to heart. In this interview with Gilad Halpern of TLV1 radio, I discuss the comparison of conflicts generally, and Cyprus in particular, hoping to shed new light on old problems.

Read more:
How thousands of Palestinian and Israeli women are waging peace
The two-state solution is dead. Let’s move on
It’s 2016 — let’s say goodbye to Zionism once and for all

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UNESCO's mistake on Jerusalem

The resolution was yet another shallow attack on identity elements, the same type I reject every time Israel does it to Palestinians. It was also a setback to the kind of UN action that could actually move the bar in a region that desperately needs it.

UNESCO has made a startlingly bad move in voting to affirm “Item 25,” a hodgepodge of condemnations and calls for Israel to stop policies that harm religious or cultural sites in Jerusalem, Hebron and Gaza. On Jerusalem, the text conspicuously referred to the holiest site by its Muslim name only: Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif, pointedly neglecting – denying, many feel – the Jewish history of the site Jews call the Temple Mount. The declaration specifically noted the importance of the Old City to the three monotheistic faiths, a contrast which actually highlighted the excision of any Jewish connection to the actual holy site itself.

UNESCO can claim an ignoble feat of making me agree with Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, and maybe for the first time in living memory, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. Both thrashed UNESCO for taking a blunt hatchet to ancient and modern sensibilities of the Jewish people.

Why did I take it so personally? I am not religious. But I hold degrees in both comparative religion and ethnonationalist conflict; I am also a practitioner working to untangle them. So I can say for certain: one doesn’t need any of those credentials, only common sense, to know that human beings hold their religious beliefs and ancient national mythology extremely dear. Many will kill and die for these things.

Israel and every other human society should evolve beyond physical violence for the sake of holy sites. But to deny spiritual connections is deeply disrespectful to those who simply feel connected to our history and tradition. I fasted on Yom  Kippur, as one of my few outward expressions of tradition. A day later, UNESCO trampled on my heritage – rather the opposite of its mandate.

There is a more sinister historic and political implication to such language. The resolution dances close to the narrative that Jews have no connection to this land, but arbitrarily chose to settle here and colonize the rightful, exclusive, owners. It is a theme that is both incorrect and dangerous.

Beyond the bigger themes, this move was also a surefire way to empty the resolution of...

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Why Israel's Arab statesman boycotted Peres' funeral

By refusing to attend the funeral, leader of the Joint List Odeh was protesting the myth of Shimon Peres, who enjoyed the global brand of peacemaker after Oslo, but walked away when things didn’t exactly work out.

The death of a towering statesman is an occasion for an outpouring of oratory about his or her meaning in the country’s life. Rivers of memory and interpretation flow and converge to form that leader’s mythical legacy in the story of the nation.

Shimon Peres was an elder statesman who evolved late in life, with no small difficulty, into a figure of national consensus. Though the obits sweeping the country contain some critical recollections, there is no controversy over what he is supposed to mean now: Peres, the man of peace, dialogue, optimism.

So when head of the Joint List Ayman Odeh demonstratively stayed away from Peres’ funeral, he kicked through the dams and upset the whole narrative flow.

Why did Odeh do it? Since becoming leader of the unified Arab party prior to the 2015 elections, he has gained a following among progressives in Israel and abroad, inspired by his humanist, universalist values. He has linked the struggle of Arabs in Israel to the struggles of Jewish minorities, such as Ethiopians, against discrimination by the Israeli establishment. He touts solidarity and shared civic identity. For these, he earned a place on Foreign Policy’s list of 100 top global thinkers in December 2015.

But he is walking a fine tripwire. If he digs into the partnership theme, he risks being seen as a sellout who trots after Israeli Jewish power-brokers with hand outstretched. Israel will always marginalize Palestinian citizens, some say, and so this lovey-dovey Odeh talk is just humiliating. If he reverts to national identity questions, narratives of Palestinian history — and most toxic of all, the occupation — the right brands him an extremist anti-Israel Arab upstart as surely as the sun shines. It is easy to imagine Odeh calculating an alternating routine of bold coexistence messages and Palestinian national rhetoric, to please all.

Except that he is so darned earnest.

When Odeh speaks, he looks his interviewer in the eye. He is calm but not arrogant, projecting conviction and focus. Even when he speaks forcefully, as he did at points in a mostly hostile panel interrogation on Israeli Channel 2 Friday evening after the funeral, he seems driven by a technical need for volume rather than by...

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Netanyahu is right: Settlements aren't the biggest obstacle to peace

The prime minister published a video accusing the Palestinians — and the world — of ethnic cleansing for opposing Israeli settlements. Not so fast.

Almost as if for sport, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu released an English video on Friday. It is just two minutes long but packed with chatter-rich material: the Palestinians are guilty of ethnic cleansing. The world is complicit. Nobody stands up for the Jewish victims of this crime except for Netanyahu. Therefore, settlements are no obstacle to peace.

These are grave charges. Why describe Netanyahu’s video as a game? It’s not his smirking self-righteousness. Rather, the clip is the latest in a growing list of “oh no he didn’t!” statements, spit out with Trump-like regularity (though Bibi has nothing on Trump’s pace). The trajectory is now familiar: Netanyahu says something offensive, incendiary, or almost entirely inaccurate. Headlines and commentary rage (mea culpa), while right-wing Israeli audiences laud his sass. He kicks down emerging political threats by proving his singular role in promoting “our” side on the global stage. Only Netanyahu speaks Israeli, and in such beautiful English!

It is a double karate-chop. Netanyahu cleans up on the right, but he also paralyzes the left. The idea that settlements are sandbox-dotted Disneylands of peace and that Palestinians are committing ethnic cleansing while choking under violent martial law for two and a half generations is crazy-making. One has to choose between arguing the truth or losing one’s mind for stating what is “in front of your nose” again and again.

I couldn’t manage it, so I’m fortunate that Jeremy Ben-Ami and Matt Duss doggedly remind readers of the policy facts – again. And again.

Netanyahu also managed to pack nails in for the far-left. The charge that Palestinian longing for a state equals ethnic cleansing while the Jewish Israeli government demolishes Palestinian homes, stifles livelihood, tears families apart, backs theft of private land, and makes all travel a nightmare unless it’s to leave for good – is a trap. It is an obscene invitation for the more outraged among us to give Israel’s behavior a name, so that the right can crow about left-wing extremism. I won’t play, but I will give readers credit for being able to know that Israel makes regular Palestinian people miserable every day, whatever anyone calls it.

That’s three points to his one-man Bibi team for galvanizing the right, flummoxing...

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Everything we don't know about the World Vision in Gaza story

How the Israeli media reports a story spoon fed to it by the security services. And are government officials and the courts capable of acting any differently?

The story of a Gaza man indicted for diverting millions to Hamas from a major international charity for terror activities is roiling headlines in Israel. The incident is important both for how it is being portrayed, and used, and what it says about the actual situation.

Mohammad el-Halabi worked for World Vision, an evangelical Christian charity that collects funds from the U.S., UK, and Australia among other countries for humanitarian projects in dozens of the world’s most troubled places, including the Palestinian territories. Much of its activity focuses on relief for children.

The Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, says that in addition to working for World Vision, Halabi was simultaneously working for Hamas and systematically siphoning off up to 60 percent of all funds for humanitarian projects to support its terror activities. Israeli authorities publicized his arrest on Thursday, 50 days after he was apprehended, following his interrogation and alleged confession, which led to the charges.

It is nigh impossible for even seasoned journalists to report on the story independently. The Guardian’s correspondent Peter Beaumont explained why on his Facebook page when posting his story:

Therefore even my first thoughts here should be read with the advisory that there’s much we just don’t know. But that doesn’t seem to bother the Israeli media and authorities; they have embraced the story with gusto and barely controlled vindication.

Channel 2 covered the event on Thursday without bothering to include even a journalism 101 response of anyone involved. If they had asked World Vision, they would have found, as The Guardian did, that the head of the group in Australia expressed shock, cited scrupulous forensic auditing processes, and the both the Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and Germany suspended their aid to World Vision in Gaza pending further developments.

Coincidentally, a recent story indicates that World Vision does not always portray its programs meticulously to donors, but these combined responses don’t support “the whole world is complicit” approach Israel promotes.

Not all media approached the story this way. Interestingly, Walla! News ran a piece about Hamas denying that Halabi was even a member of the organization, and about World Vision’s denial. But overall the Israeli media projected facts and a conviction, rather than allegations...

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Black Lives Matter should change 'genocide' language — proudly

The movement can set a precedent by displaying commitment to self-criticism, accuracy, and partnership — values sorely needed in America right now.

The policy platform released by the Movement for Black Lives represents an exciting milestone for a grassroots social movement. But like all first drafts, it gets some things wrong. If the movement is committed to the long haul, it will accept criticism from supportive observers as part of the process, and create a better, more inclusive product in the future.

The MBL movement swept aside fears of clicktivism and slacktivism, in its remarkable evolution from the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag to a swirling conversation of ideas and voices, culminating in real-world action. This looks like human empowerment in the making.

The platform reflects intense organization, investment and commitment of many authors. Its publication itself says, we are not just about tearing down, but re-building. We believe in an America that is capable of changing and serving all of its people fairly, and here are the alternatives we offer. That shows great optimism and faith in the country.

The content of the document itself is uneven, which from my experience with such ambitious group efforts, is only natural.

The detailed analyses are not systematically sourced. One example of information I tried to verify – median wealth held by black and white households – was completely credible, but the document would be stronger if the sources were transparent.

The wide array of proposals, precedents and painstaking lists of background sources are a fascinating mega-supermarket of ideas. Like any good market, some products look more or less appealing, or feasible. The proposals for law enforcement and incarceration reforms, a Constitutional guarantee to free education and racial aspects of environmental policy, contain some hugely important ideas. On the other hand, the Universal Basic Income – a guaranteed income not conditioned on work for all American adults with a supplemental sum for black people as reparations – strikes me as a bad and unfeasible idea that would undermine the basic human and economic principles. But I admit this is the first time I’ve thought about it.

The section on investment and divestment is similarly complicated. It shows a valuable change of thinking about foreign policy. But it contains at least one major flaw, on the Israel-Palestine problem, that is making waves.

The authors link U.S. foreign policy with its consequences on domestic priorities...

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What Israel can learn from wave of global terror

What’s happening in the world is far from the antiquated ‘the world vs the Jews’ paradigm. ‘Us’ and ‘them’ doesn’t work anymore. We – Jews, Christians, Muslims and every other grouping of peaceful persons – need new categories to understand the violence.

Beheadings in the desert, terror in major cities of the East and the West, racial and police shootings, mass shootings, an ax rampage in Germany and perhaps one thing – only – is clear: no part of the world is safe.

The New York Times wrote that Israelis can teach France a few things about getting used to terror. But it’s Israel and the Jews who must now confront a radical new truth: The unique existential threat against Jews in the past is gone. Crazies hate us, but they hate everybody else too. In the past the world betrayed Jews; in the present, governments and cultural norms support them. It is dishonoring the dead of Orlando, Istanbul, Nice and Baghdad to claim that Jews are more targeted than anyone else right now.

Ironically, Israeli leaders regularly help Jews realize this. Prime Minister Netanyahu loves to conflate ISIS with Palestinian terror, to justify why Israel must occupy Palestinians in perpetuity. But ISIS aims at everyone. If we’re all in the same crosshairs, Jewish persecution does not make us chosen.

This will be a terrible blow for some people. Many Israelis and Jews are steeped in the notion that violence against them is unique. It’s understandable given our past but it does no favors to our understanding of the present. I have heard Jews refer to the Hyper-Cacher anti-Jewish attack in Paris as if there was no massacre of French journalists two days before. Israelis count every body lost to the conflict, but far more Palestinians are killed daily and in each new war. Jewish self-perception is clouding Jewish vision.

What’s happening in the world at present is far from both the parochial old “Islam against the Jews” and “the world against the Jews.” The empty fallacy of Islam against the West can be laid to rest as well. Terror in the name of “Islam” kills far more co-religionists than non-Muslim Westerners: most terror attacks take place in Muslim and Arab countries, and the victims of ISIS-related violence in Iraq alone and the Muslim victims of al-Qaeda before that dwarf those groups’ attacks on Westerners. And as Amira...

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Jewish, Palestinian activists try to build a cinema in Hebron

As soldiers and settlers look on, dozens of foreign Jews join Palestinians in the segregated city of Hebron try ‘to make the unbearable a little more bearable.’ Police detain six Israelis among the group, prevent others from even joining.

The streets in the Israel-controlled section of Hebron were sunny and silent at 9 a.m. on Friday. The Palestinian shops on the main streets were all shut, as most of them have been for over 20 years. Jews were home preparing for Shabbat.

On a sloping street rising through the Tel Rumeida neighborhood where, in April, a Palestinian stabber was wounded, then executed, there is a small commotion. A scattered group of Israeli soldiers, blue-uniformed police, and a few local Israeli settlers are hovering around a battered fence, peering inside as if looking into a cage at a zoo.

Inside there is a group of a few dozen diaspora Jews, many of them American, and a few Israelis. They are singing songs and their shirts say, “Occupation is not our Judaism!” In between protest songs from the 1960s civil rights struggles in the U.S., they chant: “Diaspora Jew say: ‘dai l’kibush!’” [end the occupation], and in accented Hebrew, a chant that translates as: “You have no shame! There’s nothing holy about an occupied city!” Occasionally they sing traditional Jewish melodies, such as the anti-war “lo yisah goy el goy herev” and “hineh ma tov u’ma naim.”

But their main activity is cleaning. The fenced-in plot of land where they are working contains a few dilapidated structures, filled mostly with trash – twisted metal objects, rocks, rusted barrels and ancient piles of natural detritus. With their bright blue shirts and long yellow rakes, the activists project cheer as they rake, shovel, and pass heavy debris along a line of activists.

The group, called “Center for Jewish Non-Violence,” (CJNV) was invited by Youth Against Settlements, a Hebron-based Palestinian organization to help establish a movie theater in Palestinian Hebron, because the city doesn’t have one. “We want to make the unbearable a little more bearable,” said one of the Jewish participants, who asked not to be named due to professional sensitivities. “We will work until we can’t work anymore.” Their intention, she says, is to work until the day is done, or until they are stopped.

The CJNV group has been in the Palestinian territories for a week of activities, helped planned with another activist group, All That’s...

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