Through a photo documentation project in the complex area of the South Hebron Hills in Area C of the West Bank, two Harvard Divinity School fellows uncovered layered Jewish identities of activists in solidarity with Palestinians, including within themselves.
“I did not initially intend for this project to have a first-person narrative come into it, but it did,” said Mati Milstein, a seasoned photojournalist. “There are a lot of similarities and parallels with the communities that I’ve documented over the past few years. I grew up in an American-Jewish community with certain preconceptions and socialization regarding Israel/Palestine. It led me to a place where the work I did on this project was less and less journalism and more about solutions.”
Milstein and Oriel Eisner met through the Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative (RCPI) fellowship. RCPI, an initiative of the Religion and Public Life program at HDS, brings the full resources of Harvard to empower scholars, students, the general public, and professionals in a wide variety of fields to address the most complex conflicts facing the world today, with a current regional focus on Israel/Palestine.
Over the last two years, Milstein has led a project capturing “contemporary Jewish activism in solidarity with Palestinians against the Israeli military occupation.” His project documented Eisner’s ongoing work with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence (CJNV), an organization that “strengthens and uplifts a robust and connected movement of Palestinians, Israelis, and diaspora Jews committed to active shared-resistance.” One core strategy of CJNV is to invite Jewish activists on 10-day long delegations to the region where they participate in creative nonviolence, civil disobedience, community co-resistance projects, and critical education.
Last year, CJNV piloted an expanded new effort, Hineinu: A Sustained Solidarity Project, in which 6-8 Jewish activists were invited to remain in the South Hebron Hills and Massafer Yatta area for three months. Eisner believes the timing of Milstein’s documentation captured a unique moment in the history of the collaboration between CJNV and Palestinian partners on the ground.
“It wasn’t guaranteed that we were going to be able stay down there, for Jewish and Israeli activists to be invited and that it would work,” Eisner explained. “It was very much new territory.”
Our edited conversation with them is below.
RPL: Tell us about your story and how it led to the fellowship with Religion, Conflict and Peace at HDS.
Eisner: I was born in Israel but grew up in Colorado and traveled to Israel for at least a month every year. My sense of the world is of that split-geography, of both places with strong connections to both sets of my grandparents’ homes outside Denver and Tel Aviv. There isn’t a large Jewish community in Denver, but I was raised in a typical American Jewish environment, going to day school, a conservative synagogue, youth group, and summer camp. In this environment I received a run-of-the-mill Israeli education which, for most Jews, is that Israel does no wrong and it’s something to be unwaveringly proud of, committed to, and supportive of.
I think those things fused together to create a strong sense of connection and support of Israel–the personal, familial connection with Israel and the political Zionist relationship to Israel weaving in and out of each other. In the mid to late 2000s with the wars in Gaza, I began to see cracks, not so much a dramatic split, but that something here isn't quite working. Slowly, my political consciousness that was developing and my sense of self and place were more and more at odds with each other. It eventually reached a point where I felt like I needed to spend a chunk of time in Israel/Palestine to make sense of these questions: what do I think about what’s happening there and how do I relate to what’s happening? I got on a plane a week after finishing graduate school in Colorado and spent a year in Jerusalem that was meant to be a gap year. That was seven years ago, and I've been working for the Center for Jewish Nonviolence since.
Milstein: I grew up in a Jewish context in the United States and felt very much like an outsider vis-a-vis the white, Christian majority culture. It was Zionism and a connection to Israel that gave me a sense of place and belonging. I moved there to work at a photo agency and ended up staying and serving in the military. It was at that point for me, during my service, that questions that had never occurred to me before started to develop.
Eisner: One thing that’s been great about the Fellowship is that it’s given me space and forum to explore questions that I haven’t been able to otherwise, because I’ve been so in it in a busy day-to-day kind of way. The space to think with a different sort-of vantage point has been really meaningful, and I think enriched the experience of my more immersive solidarity life and activism in the last year and half.
RPL: How has your time in the RCPI fellowship shaped your own religious and cultural identities?
Milstein: There’s a great variety of diaspora Jewish activism, but I connected with a community that made sense logistically and logically. What I heard from almost everyone I worked with in the course of this project—an issue also for myself—is that we’re trying to figure out how to separate being Jewish, and Judaism, from Zionism and nationalism. I’ve come to understand, more and more, that this intertangling hasn’t always been like this and it doesn’t have to be like this. But it’s not an easy process, we all have a past we have to deal with and come to terms with, and we all have to figure out how to integrate that into our present.
Eisner: One of the shifts is finding a way to unbury or not bury Jewishness. Jewishness shouldn't be at the center, but I also don't think it should be hidden. For a lot of Jews, the experience is one of burying—from guilt, doubt, shame, uncertainty of how to make sense of Jewish identity and a solidarity identity. I think for those who join, delegations provide an experiential moment of, “Oh this is what it can feel like, this is what it can be like” to wear a shirt that says, “I am Jewish and Occupation is not our Judaism.” That said, it’s also in a context that’s complex and fraught. Jewish symbols and practices do not mean the same thing as they do in the different places activists come from in the U.S.
First and foremost, our responsibility and accountability is to our Palestinian partners and communities that we’re visiting. On delegations, we have a conversation about how we’re not going to be wearing Jewish symbols in the South Hebron Hills and then, during the action, we might wear a shirt that says: “We’re Jews against the occupation.”
Making sense of that fraught and complex positionality is part of the experience. The delegation explores how identity can be remade, finding the synchronization between Jewish identity and political commitments to anti-oppression politics, to solidarity, to anti-colonialism.
Milstein: There are people who have been wrenched from their communities because the process of their development didn’t happen in a way that was intentional or gradual. I think of a lot of finding this new or evolving sense of Jewish identity is figuring out how to find a balance and to help people evolve without that trauma. For a very long time, I buried my past in order to fit in and assimilate with new understandings and perspectives. This rift is something that is very painful for a lot of people in the American Jewish community.
RPL: How does the presence of a photographer impact your work on the ground with the Center for Jewish Non-Violence?
Eisner: Documentation is a major part of what we do. So having you around, [Mati], who had already spent time in the South Hebron Hills, felt natural, like you were already part of it. One thing it allowed for, coincidentally with Covid, was that you stepped into a significant shift for what solidarity looks like in the South Hebron Hills. It’s an area that since the late 90s has had Jewish solidarity and non-Jewish international presence. In the last year and half, what shifted was that Jewish activists and Israeli-Jewish activists were staying there for longer periods of time. The experience of going to the region for a day is really different than being there for a week, which was dramatically different from staying for a month, let alone staying for the past four months.
Because of Covid, the only international groups that were let in were people with Israeli citizenship. So there was a confluence of factors: Delegations weren’t possible, and our partners demanded a different kind of presence than what we had in the past. Now, because of this confluence, there is an influx of a new generation of Israeli activists who are really connected to the area in a significant way.
My experience in the Fellowship allowed me to be reminded and step back and see that what’s happening is quite different and significant. And you coming in created an opportunity to document and record that. It’s remarkable that there’s documentation of these first few months of being there. It’s a snapshot of a moment, of how in the last year and half things have really changed. On the ground, in terms of what happens and where it goes is still figuring itself out, but you were there to capture it.
Milstein: It hadn’t occurred to me that there was a unique confluence of events and period of time that I was able to capture. It’s encouraging to hear that. The Fellowship very much accelerated the process of my thinking. Ten years ago, I was taking pictures at a place in the West Bank where I had formed connections with the local Palestinians who lived there and were attending weekly protests. There was a very particular dynamic between the soldiers and the activists then, and I identified with both narratives, both stories. I’ve moved on from that, but it’s been a long process. These past two years have allowed me to speed it up —everything is much closer and intense.
Editor’s note: This excerpt from Milstein’s artist statement summarizes the collaboration with Eisner and CJNV delegation participants to document their work and shifting perspectives:
“This project may, perhaps, be best described as a study in post-Zionism. The past two years of documentation allowed me the opportunity to shine light on an ever-evolving Jewish communal identity that continues to shake off Zionist domination with each further step it takes through the twilight. Yet while decolonizing Judaism via a separation from Zionism, much of their activism is nevertheless, and perhaps very understandably, a direct result of the Zionist project and its residual impact. The project’s images, at least to some extent, were likewise influenced by historic Zionist propaganda imagery that subconsciously left me with a distinct perspective as I walked the land with these activists and documented their work. I’d like to think, however, that these Zionist images and the fragments of their influence have been repurposed as alternate means in the struggle to a very different end.”
View Mati Milstein’s project, Walking Through the Twilight, in the digital gallery available online
Watch Milstein’s RCPI Fellow presentation: Walking Through the Twilight: A Visual Exploration of Contemporary Jewish Anti-Occupation Activism
Watch Eisner’s RCPI Fellow presentation: Shared Resistance and Solidarity: A (Re)Newed Paradigm
Learn more about the Center for Jewish Non-Violence