Sylvie Leber’s speech at the anti-Netanyahu protest in Melbourne, 19/2/17

i Feb 28th 2017

Sylvie Leber, having just returned from a study tour of the Middle East, spoke at the protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Australia this month. Here is the full transcript, republished with her permission:

The reason I’m here speaking to you today is to let you know that as an Australian Jew, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, does not speak for me or in any way represent me. There are many Jews in Melbourne and elsewhere around the world who feel the same way.

I am an Ashkenazi Jew, born in France of French parents and East European grandparents, three of whom were murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

I’ve never felt or believed that as a Jew I should feel connected to Israel or need to visit it, live there or donate money to it. For me Judaism is not a nationality: it’s my ethnicity and culture. From what I’ve seen and learnt in life, nationalism has been a precursor to war and conflict. A favourite slogan of mine is:
“Nationalism teaches you to take pride in shit you haven’t done and hate people you you’ve never met” (excuse the language).

But recently I decided I must finally see for myself what is happening in a part of the world that has had one of the longest standing conflicts, and so this year I went on a study tour of Israel/Palestine, organised by the Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network (APAN).

We visited a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, then travelled to East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nazareth, Nablus and Jordan Valley. We couldn’t get permits to visit Gaza (surprise, surprise).

It was an interesting, powerful and at times a quite disturbing experience. We met many Palestinians. They were refugees, activists, business people, community workers, lawyers, teachers and of course tourism and hospitality workers. If I spent any length of time in conversation with a Palestinian I was eventually open about being Jewish. I was blown away that NOT ONCE did I ever feel a hint of hatred or racism towards myself or other Jews.

Other people we met included Australian consular staff, a young former Israeli army conscript turned anti-demolition activist, Bedouin activists and an acclaimed local British journalist.

We met a Christian Arabic family: they were shopkeepers that had previously run a guest house next door. They told of how they were frequently raided in the early hours of the morning during the time the Wall was being built just across the street from their home. The Wall immediately separated members of this family from each other. Common stories we heard were about army raids while people slept, and families and spouses separated by the Wall.

I saw countless destroyed Palestinian villages with piles of rubble left behind. It is said if you see cactus growing where there is nothing, it was probably the former location of Palestinian villages. We saw lots of tough cacti growing amid the rubble. Bulletholes were to be seen often. I saw empty tear gas canisters and other used weaponry near the Wall. I often felt I was in a war zone and finally understood why all my friends and family said “stay safe” before I left Australia.

Palestinian villages were distinguished from Jewish settlements by the black water tanks on the roof of their houses as there was constant uncertainty of water being cut off. Jewish settlements were well serviced and often had ‘Jewish people only’ roads leading to them not only for ‘security’ reasons but so that they could escape the traffic jams.

We were regularly stopped by soldiers and police while driving to different locations and then there were the checkpoints everywhere. Traffic was regularly held up. One day there were dozens of military buses and police vans with sirens and flashing lights which I later found out were heading towards a Palestinian village which was being demolished illegally by the authorities and where the residents were protesting and resisting.

Perhaps the most shocking thing I saw was in the most peaceful of places, Old Jerusalem, where a young Jewish couple (he was wearing a skull-cap or yarmulke) were wheeling their baby in a pram. The man, a civilian, was wearing a machine gun over his shoulder. I later found out Jewish settlers were easily able to get permits to carry weapons.

The very complicated political history and current administrative regime, walls and borders (with the A, B and C sections), demolitions programs, illegal settlements and permit systems of the region is complex, weird to the point of resembling futuristic science fiction beyond my grasp. I won’t attempt to analyse or comment on it except to say that it seems to be intentionally humiliating, oppressive and racist against Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and Bedouins, and is spiralling out of control. This intensification and escalation is being orchestrated by Netanyahu’s regime.

On a positive note, I was struck by the beauty and richness of the Palestinian culture, their dance, music, art and crafts, poetry and the strong focus on education. This was particularly highlighted in the refugee camps where people lived in the toughest of circumstances, severe overcrowding, electricity regularly cut off, no jobs and the lack of enough medical and education services which we take for granted here.
I was struck by how resilient most Palestinians were under the circumstances. The major problem for Palestinians though, from what I saw and heard, is that their political organisations are dis-organised and not united.

One Palestinian activist when asked if she held out any hope for a peaceful solution said that her hope was there, but that it was frozen for now.

My frozen hope melted a little this week when for the first time for the Australian Jewish community, the official body, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) criticised Netanyahu for the illegal demolitions and destruction of Palestinian-owned homes and agricultural land and the building of 4000 new settler homes. Saying it was ‘troubling’ and ‘counterproductive’ and hopefully that the legislation will be overturned in Israel’s supreme court to show that it’s democracy is still alive. This was reported in the Australian Jewish News, a pro-Zionist newspaper that rarely approves of any criticism of the Israeli government.

I think the only thing that will work eventually is a Binational Democracy where Israel is no longer a Jewish state but a multi-cultural one and which must include the displaced Palestinian refugees right of return to their former homes. You may say I’m idealistic but I think it’s the only way Justice and Peace will prevail.


Letter to Dani

i Nov 12th 2012

by George Stein
I visited a family friend while in Palestine on my current visit. She is part of a group called ‘ayalim,’ which aims to encourage students studying in Ben Gurion University in the Negev to consider permanent settlement in the area, to increase the population of Jews in the desert.

Ayalim considers itself ‘a new kind of pioneer. A new brand of activism. A new model for Israel.’ It believes that “bringing students to settle in the Negev and the Galilee is a national undertaking of supreme importance.” In order to provide incentives for this, the association grants “scholarships and subsidized housing to encourage students to settle in such areas.” However, this is not a new kind of pioneer, a new brand of activism or a new model for Israel. It claims that ‘today, we are closer than ever to Ben Gurion’s vision.” On the 5th of October 1937, in a letter to his son, Ben Gurion wrote that the “Negev land is reserved for Jewish citizens, whenever and wherever they want….We must expel Arabs and take their places…and if we have to use force, then we have force at our disposal”. Dr Awad Abu Freh, from the Bedouin village Al-Araqib told me that in 1948/1949 Jewish militia groups came into his village and killed twenty-one people, trying to scare them into leaving their land.
I stayed in one of the student villages in which Dani worked for two nights. I noticed that it is under rapid construction, with new buildings springing up everywhere, including a new Jewish National Fund (JNF) community centre. I also noticed a few nice parks, where sprinklers sprayed water onto green grass, pulsating to a silent beat. The next day, I visited Dr Awad Abu Freh, from the Bedouin village al-Araqib, where he told me about Israeli policies of discrimination towards his community, restrictions of water and a plan to displace these people from their homes. I wrote Dani a letter, not knowing how else to express my thoughts.

Letter to Dani:
Dear Dani,
Thanks again for having me in your home; it was so lovely to see you. I just wanted to email you about a few things we started to discuss. I would really love to get your feedback on some things. I came to Tel Aviv last year, wanting to travel in Israel without going on a program with a rigid structure and rules (like March of the Living and Academy), but also because I had started to learn about the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict and wanted to see what it was like for myself. My perspective was: the situation is really complicated and there is violence on both sides, but peace requires both sides to agree on coming together; for both Palestinians and Israelis to work together to stop the violence.
A friend of mine told me she had been to the Jordan Valley, which is in the West Bank and technically occupied territory, according to international law. But it is in Area C, which means that it is under full Israeli control. Going to the Jordan Valley changed everything for me. I stayed for about a month, visited many Palestinian villages and spoke to local families. The policies of the Israeli government in this area shocked me. These villages have been here for generations, well before the establishment of the state of Israel. Palestinians have farmed their land, picking dates and grapes and vegetables and would sell them at the market. There is plenty of water in this area and springs in many Palestinian villages, but this water is restricted to Palestinians. Wells are enclosed in barbed wire fences and are only available to Jewish settlements, like Tomer, Ro’I and Maskiyot. Israel has drilled deep wells which service Israeli settlements only. Because Israel forbids Palestinians to drill to a certain depth, they dry out the wells. Less than 10,000 settlers in the Jordan Valley use “one-quarter the total amount of water consumed by the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank, some 2.5 million people.” Palestinian farmers have to travel huge distances to buy water from Jewish settlements or from the Israeli water company Mekorot. Settlers are given unlimited water and 75% discount on electricity, while many Palestinians have no electricity in these areas.

In addition to this, most Palestinian villages are under demolition order and are considered illegal by Israel, even though these communities have been here for generations. Most housing for these communities consists of metal poles with an aluminum or canvas sheet serving as the roof. In the harsh climate of the Jordan Valley, these structures offer no protection from the heat or cold (at night in winter). If these communities try to build more suitable homes (or schools or health centres), they will be demolished. Routinely, the army comes (usually in the morning) and demolishes homes and animal pens. Local Palestinians do not want to leave their land, and have nowhere to go, so sometimes these poor families will rebuild their homes over and over again, and live in constant fear of them being demolished (there is more information at this is the group I am with).


The reason I bring this up, is because similar things are happening in the Negev with the Bedouin communities. This is under the rationale of ‘making the dessert bloom.’ After I saw you, I went to visit the Bedouin village of Al Araqib. I thought I’d share with you some information that I learnt from speaking with villagers from there, as well as Israeli volunteers who have been working with this community for years. Al Araqib is located just off route 40 along the highway from Beersheva. According to Israel authorities, the village is unrecognized and illegal, as it was declared state property in 1954. Before the establishment of the state of Israel, there were about 65,000 to 90,000 Bedouin living in the Negev. Ninety percent of them were expelled from their homes. Ben Gurion claimed the Negev was empty, and suitable for immediate Jewish settlement. The next demolition was in 2010, by the Israel Land Authority to prepare the land for a JNF forest. Since 2010, the village has been demolished forty two times. In September 2011, the government released the Prawer report, which proposed the transfer of 70,000 Bedouin from unrecognised villages into seven recognised villages in the area, without any consultation with the communities involved.
I wrote something about my visit with a man I made contact with, Dr Awad Abu Freih and thought I’d send some to you:


I met with Dr Awad Abu Freih from Al-Araqib, a chemistry professor. He told me that there are big projects to develop the Negev. “For us,” he says “development of the Negev means destroying our homes. There’s the JNF and they fight us and are against us like we are enemies. They want to push us into cities, but we want to stay in our villages.” He tells me that life in the villages is very hard. Farmers must buy water from a nearby Jewish village and must pay two shekel for one cubic meter of water. Then, they must pay a lot of money to transport the water back to their villages. In the past, Bedouin people have been restricted to water access from some villages, but this was met with fierce resistance, with villagers threatening to break the water pipes if they were not given access to the water. So the only reason they have access to water is due to placing huge amounts of pressure on the government. “All the time they give water to the kibbutz and moshav but not the Bedouin who lives near them.”
Now, Dr Awad is in the process of bringing his claim of ownership over the land, to court. He has spent 100,000 dollars on legal fees alone. JNF is supposed to cease its activities until a decision by the court is made, but they have persisted in making the land into a forest. “The judge says if you win, we will give you the land like it was before. But How? They are liars. No one can make the land like before.”


Aziz is the leader of the committee of Al-Araqib. We sit and drink coffee in a tent-like structure in Al-Araqib and he tells me his story. He was born in 1974 in Al-Araqib and has continued his life here. He has six children. His story is briefly interrupted early on, by someone telling us that a nearby village is being demolished. I ask if they will come here. “We cannot know when they will destroy. All of our houses are unrecognised by the law. They can come anytime and destroy.”
Aziz tells me the first demolition was in 1948. His grandfather and father were amongst those who rebuilt the village, and now today he is doing the same. The villagers made everything green. They made oil from olive trees, produced wheat from the land and used sheep for cheese. “Before the second demolition [in 2010] we had 4,500 olive trees.  We had 65 new houses, modern houses, fig trees, grape trees, orange trees in every garden. It was nice looking green and we eat this fruit. There were 573 people man woman children living here, but I am so sorry to say it our government decided to kill our life. They did not kill us but they kill our life.” From 2010 until now, Israeli Forces alongside the JNF have destroyed the village 42 times. This equates to 2 times a month. After demolishing the village, the government fines the people two million shekels to pay for the costs of demolition. So after forty-two demolitions, the people are expected to pay huge amounts of money. Paying for the bulldozers and soldiers who displace people of their homes.
At the same time as destroying these homes, the government is allowing new settlements to be built in the area. The JNF plants forests become state land and then these forests are cut down to make room for Jewish settlements.
Message from Al-Araqib to the world from the Sheihk of the village:
“I ask you and your groups to tell people what’s happening in the Negev.” People think that the JNF is making the Negev green, but they are destroying the Negev. Every Jewish person has the option of continuing life where they want. But Arabs are forced to live in villages. “We ask people to open their eyes.”
Before I go, Aziz tells me: Samud in Arabic means ‘stay on your land.’ We want everyone to know the word ‘samud,’ to stay on your land against the government, against the JNF.
Dani, this is relevant to you because the government is coordinating this displacement of Bedouins from the Negev at the same time as it is subsidizing and funding students to go to places like the one in which you work, in order to decrease the Bedouin presence while simultaneously increasing the Jewish presence in this area. If you get a chance, you should visit Al-Araqib. There are so many groups working there, like Negev Committee for Coexistence, Rabbis for Human Rights, etc. Even if you don’t believe what I am writing, I invite you: come to the Jordan Valley, come see this village. The world is becoming more aware of what is going on in Israel- government policies which use Judaism to enforce policies which cause all those who are not Jewish to suffer. For me, Judaism is too important to allow this to happen. The Palestinians do not see Jews as the enemy. They see those who deprive them of water, of work, of freedom of movement, of schools as the enemy. People are living under an unequal, military occupation which is causing them to suffer hugely. I only realised this when I saw it with my own eyes.
Love, George Rabbis for Human Rights