In Joshua’s Shoes: Then The Army Stopped Us

Courtesy of Sarah Fishman


This time of year is the harvest season for many different crops. One of the larger, more profitable crops in Israel is olives. Harvesting olives takes a lot of time and quite a few hands. The organization Rabbis for Human Rights works in Israel for the basic human rights of everyone. In this instance they find volunteers who are willing to go help Palestinian olive farmers work their land because they only have limited amounts of time that they are guaranteed protection and the ability to harvest their crops. I joined them a two weeks ago to help the farmers harvest their crops.

Since it is a busy part of the year and the organizers did not have many student volunteers, we were spared the requirement of being at the bus pickup at 6:25 in the morning and instead left at 8:15 to drive to the site where we would be working.

On the drive out I noticed a stark contrast between the land on the east side of the border crossing. There was much less greenery and as we passed houses and communities, they were in rough shape. Especially when you compare them to the pleasant looking pre-fabricated houses of the settlements.

We arrived to the farm we would be harvesting and were given explicit instructions;

1) Do not be by yourself, a group of three is best if we’re not with the entire group.

2) Have a phone with you at all times.

3) If someone approaches you, disengage and call one of the two people in charge.

Courtesy of Sarah Fishman

Harvested Olives

After the briefing we walked to a part of the field. This was when I learned how to harvest olives. It’s actually a pretty easy to get each individual olive off the tree since they fall with little pressure. To gather the olives, we were told to just drop them on the ground, onto these blankets that they would sort later. We ended up with piles of leaves, twigs and olives at our feet.

My classmate Sarah and I talked to some of the other students and rabbis that came on this trip. One of the farmers had a radio on in the background and it was cool to listen to the Arabic radio station while we were harvesting. The group of 10-12 of us got through a few trees in the first twenty minutes that we were harvesting.

But then the army stopped us.

Before I go on, I want to relate the explanation that we received from Rabbi Arik Ascherman.

Courtesy of Sarah Fishman

Explaining about the land

There are three zones that have different restrictions for what the farmers need to do to be able to access land they have the legal right to work (I don’t recall the color labels Rabbi Ascherman used, so I will refer to them as 1, 2 and 3). Zone-1 is closest to the settlement and has many more restrictions. The farmers need to coordinate with the army if they are going to be allowed in these areas. Zone-2 is the “in between” area. Coordination is highly recommended to be in these places and sometimes this area is closed to the farmers. Zone-3 is the furthest away and is supposed to be open without coordination. The army can use its discretion to close this area if it is necessary.

We were working in a Zone-3 area. All of a sudden we were told to stop. This was because Rabbi Ascherman was talking to the 3-man patrol that had demanded that everyone that was working needed to leave immediately. After ten minutes of arguing and phone calls to lawyers and commanders, Rabbi Ascherman told us that we needed to leave the area to wait for our bus and the Palestinian farmers could continue to work their land.

Our bus had left because the driver needed to go to a Mosque to pray, we sat down in the shade a few minutes from the road to wait. As Rabbi Ascherman was telling us what happened, he received a call from the farmers because the patrol was now forcing them to leave as well. This was within ten-minutes of us being out of eyesight. We continued to wait for our driver and he went back to discuss the issue.

Unfortunately the story ends with a District Commanding Officer deciding that the farmers needed to leave.

Although they were working on their property, they were directed to leave their land for no reason that could be explained other than that they needed to be gone for the time being.

You might be asking, “Why is this a problem?” or “Why should the farmers be allowed to work there?”

As it stands the farmers have the legal right to the land they currently have. The issue is that settlements, many of which were started illegally and many of them were eventually granted legal permission to exist, are attempting to claim more land. In the pre-State period land for kibbutzim was purchased or acquired legally. Eventually the borders for Israel were established to include the kibbutzim. For this reason there are some very violent settlements in the Occupied Territories (West Bank) that are laying claim to land that was a part of historical Israel.

Burned out trees

The hardest part was seeing the damage that some of the more violent settlers cause to some of the land. We stopped to see a section of the over 1500 olive trees that were burned on October 15th. The only reason we could decide is that the land “should belong” to Israelis and not Palestinians. Therefore the trees needed to be destroyed.

Regardless of what my position on a Two-State solution or a One-State solution, the fact of the matter is that these Palestinians have the legal right to work their own land. I’m glad I had the chance to help, even if it was for only twenty-minutes before we were forced to leave. This was an interesting experience, seeing how larger political decisions and attitudes manifest on the other side of the border.


About Brian Nelson

Brian Nelson has spent the last 25 years living in or near Minneapolis. After completing a B.A. in History at the University of Minnesota, he worked for Temple Israel, Mount Zion and Bet Shalom in a variety of capacities. While working in the Reform Movement, Brian developed a passion for Reform Judaism and is currently studying at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in the Rabbinical School.

Comments. Add Yours!


  1. I have some real problems with such a one-sided pov. At the same time, Arabs were caught setting fire to olive trees of Jewish farmers, even setting fire to their own trees to blame the Jews. Caught on video.
    I also take issue with the statement about “very violent settlements”… Jews do not burst into Arab homes to murder the occupants as Arabs have done to Jews. Jews do not shoot at, throw rocks & other missiles at Arab civilians and lay in ambush of Arabs traveling on the roads, as Arabs have done and are doing now. There is the occasional exception, but Jewish civilian violence against Arabs is not the status quo… the opposite is more accurate. Jews may resist the Israeli defense forces that come to evict them from what they believe to be their land… but they’re not out there attacking others.
    Furthermore,these Palestinian sympathizers have no idea what else may have been going on in the area at the time… they are not privy to military intelligence… under cover of the olive harvest, Palestinian militants are quite active… recent arrests have been made of Hamas militants in the area. Sadly, this writer automatically assumes the Israel Defense soldiers were there for no other reason than to harrass the Palestinian farmers.
    Btw, Jewish farmers could also use help harvesting…

  2. Cheryl,
    First, I would like to thank you for sharing your opinion. I would like to clarify a few thing;

    Yes this is a one-sided description of a situation I experienced. Since I am not a member of the Israeli Defense Forces or a settler, I do not have their experiences, thus my blog tells the story of what I experienced and learned that day and what I learned in a lecture delivered by a settler the next week.

    My decision to work with Rabbis for Human Rights was so I could have an experience from the other side, since in the past I have typically defended Israel’s actions in her own defense. I also decided to work with this organization because the Palestinian Farmers face added time constraints because they live in a location where a settlement was created later.

    Finally, I did not characterize all of the settlements and settlers as violent. Some of them are incredibly violent others are not. This is the same as classifying all arabs as terrorists when there is also a smaller violent wing. It is unfair to group all members of either group together.

  3. I hope the farmers were at least allowed to take the harvested olives with them when they had to leave. I also hope they were able to come back and to continue harvesting within a reasonably short period of time.

  4. Brian…
    The main problem with your piece is the lack of context.

    You may not have military knowledge nor be a Jew living in the West Bank, but this piece is naively prejudiced. Your first-hand account includes hearsay (which is NOT first-hand) of Jewish violence and ONLY of alleged violence ONLY by Jews… making no mention whatsoever, not even in hearsay, of the existence of Palestinian violence …which is why IDF patrols the area in the first place.

    The only actual perceived injustice you experienced first-hand was being told by Israeli security to vacate the area… temporarily… which you then use to launch into the Arab rhetoric… accusing Jews of being violent (“very violent”)and of illegal land grabbing. Btw…Several Palestinian terrorist attacks were recently averted in the West Bank, probably while you were there… maybe those Israeli security forces were protecting you and your group of olive pickers as well?

    No one community is all or none… true. But I do tire of Palestinian sympathizers tryng to portray some moral equivalency between Arabs and Jews in this long and tragic conflict… between the side that “loves death more than life” and the side who says that peace will come when the they learn to love their children more than they hate us?

    It is good to help one’s neighbor.
    But wrong to bare false witness.

  5. p.s.”Beware of the half truth. You may have gotten hold of the wrong half.” ~Author Unknown

  6. Like Cheryl, I have to agree I see a lot of half truths in this piece.

  7. As a friend and former co-worker of Brian’s, I am completely certain that his intention was not to falsely accuse anyone of violence or draw moral equivalence between acts of terrorism and self-defense. I know that Brian loves Israel, and is proud of the IDF’s efforts to protect Israeli civilians. I believe that Brian undertook this experience as a way to broaden his perspective on the whole conflict, not just to establish pretext for spouting rhetoric.

    It must be noted that from the Palestinian farmers’ (and Brian’s) point-of-view in this incident, the army’s actions DO appear unjust. They were causing no harm to anyone, but were abruptly directed to leave without any explanation. It is entirely possible that there was terrorist activity in the area that needed to be dealt with. We cannot know one way or the other. But what Brian is trying to relate is that on this day, under these circumstances, he empathized with those non-violent Palestinians who simply wish to harvest their olives.

    Far from being full of only “half-truths,” Brian’s last three paragraphs are a meditation on the senselessness of the violence being done to the land by both sides. It seems to me that he is withholding his judgment on who is the guilty party, and instead is using his time in Israel to experience the conflict for himself and better inform his own opinions.



  8. I can see that nothing I can say will sway any of your thoughts and I appreciate the side of the story you are representing. However, after only hearing that side of the story while living in the US, I decided it was important to share my experience on the other side of the debate.

    The situation is incredibly complicated and I think this illustrates that point. Especially in light of the same tactics you accuse my piece of using, you also employ to make your points.

    I am presenting one side of the situation and not representing both sides in this blog. You also have done the same in your comments on this piece.

    At this point, I respectfully disagree with your perception of this issue as the only correct way to explain it and would hope to receive the same treatment. I am glad that there are passionate people on both sides of this issue and hope this could increase discussion as well as demonstrate an alternate view.

  9. I had not seen Phil’s comment until after I had posted my response. Israel is an important place to me and I am very excited to be spending 11 months living here. Echoing his thoughts, I am only trying to retell what I experienced and learned with Rabbis For Human Rights.

    There have been multiple times that I have argued on Israel’s behalf when it comes to self-defense. Concerning the recent issue of the Gaza blockade and the action in Gaza earlier this year, I unwaveringly backed the IDF. I’m only attempting to understand the entirety of the situation and share my experiences as they occurred.

  10. I think what happened in the comments here can provide an important lesson.

    Brian wrote a story based on what he observed.

    Two commenters felt the need to try to tell the “other side” and to accuse Brian of telling half-truths. I think this happened because stories like this about Israel can be quite emotionally charged, and, it seems, everything about Israel is complicated.

    I am glad to see, however, how Brian and his friend Phil responded. While this comments thread could have resulted in insults and name-calling, it did not.

    It is good to see a rational discussion ensue on a touchy subject without either side – which are both on the side of Israel, by the way – abandon civil discourse.

    And I hope this experience will not deter Brian from posting further insightful observations without excessive self-censorship.

  11. I agree Susan, it is an emotionally charged subject.

    Brian, I appreciate the civility of discourse,
    but I think there is faulty logic in presuming you already know “the story” I represent. Perhaps you do? But I doubt it. And I’d be curious how you came by that narrative?
    And what caused your recent transformation from being an “unwavering” supporter of Israel to now being, well, not exactly a friend. While your subsequent comments try to clarify,’s not exactly what I’d call Love, Phil.

    and no Phil… Brian’s last 3 paragraphs are not “a meditation on the senselessness of the violence being done to the land by both sides”… just by one side.

    The reason I present “the other side” Brian, is because you failed to incorporate that into your story. Had you fairly represented Israel, it would have been a compelling story & we wouldn’t be having this chat now.

    And Phil, Brian weren’t simply out there with a bunch of non-violent farmers in lalaland just pickin’ olives… they were in the middle of a friggin’ combat zone!?!!
    sorry about that – but omitting the vital context in which Brian reports on a particular day in his life, is unfairly misleading, especially to those newer to the issue. As I recall, October 15 was at the end of the building freeze and there was a lot of violent Palestinian activity…. going on all around them… Palestinians violently attacking Israeli civilians… the half truth that isn’t mentioned… I s’pose becaus it didn’t go well with the violent Israeli narrative that was being played out here.

    Showing some understanding for both sides might have elicited empathy rather than adverse reactions such as mine.
    And if you who was an “unwavering” supporter of IDF was swayable… why am I not swayable? Is that your intent? To sway? or to gain greater understanding of the issues?

  12. Cheryl –

    Brian isn’t a news reporter trying to get all angles of a story. He didn’t claim to be writing a comprehensive story about the “olive wars” in Israel. He’s a rabbinic student writing about a specific experience he had.

    I think it’s useful to see what a story looks like from the perspective of a person trying to help an “average Joe” farmer who’s out there just trying to harvest his trees. All that farmer is trying to do is make a living.

    Brian didn’t say anything against the IDF. He didn’t call them thugs or bullies. He just said they made his group leave, which is no a half-truth, it’s the full truth.

    We can make up stories about why the IDF may have had to make Brian’s group leave, but that is all they would be: made-up stories. We will never know the specific reasons why Brian’s group had to leave. And that fact is instructive in understanding the frustration the farmers must feel.

    That doesn’t mean the IDF was wrong in any way. And it doesn’t mean Brian doesn’t support Israel and the IDF.

  13. Brian isn’t a “news reporter”, he’s an “advocacy journalist”… a finesse around fairness.

    Yep, we can make up stories about why the IDF had to make Brian’s group leave (or actually check the news!)just like Brian made up stories about why the farmers aren’t allowed to work there, sic, “violent settlers”…

    I wish Brian good luck in his studies & hope in his 11 months as a rabbinic student in Israel he learns to ask more questions — rather than so quickly accept the stories of his new found friends.

  14. After some Google research, I agree that reports of settlers burning olive trees appear to, at best, be hearsay. I just can’t find a source that I trust which presents evidence of such acts. There is, on the other hand, very damning evidence that Palestinians and foreign anarchists have tried to lay claim to land by burning and replanting trees. (See this report at YNet News:,7340,L-3981116,00.html

    As such, Brian’s characterization of some settlers as “violent” may be inaccurate. It is up to Brian to provide supporting evidence if he wishes to make such claims.

    I have no problem with disputing the facts, if you feel that Brian has not presented them accurately. I DO have a problem with attacks on his character. Brian may be wrong this time, I can’t settle that one way or another, but he is not a liar.

    Brian went out to help those farmers because he wanted to do right by them. He isn’t a propagandist for the Palestinians, and he hasn’t stopped supporting peace and security for Israel.

  15. Brian writes in one of his comments that the situation in Israel is very complex.
    i saw a video the other day describing the conflict extremely accurately, and very simply.
    The Jews in Israel wish to exist.
    The Arabs in and around Israel don’t want them or their country to exist.
    End of explanation.

    Check out:

  16. Brian…
    I have taken the time to read your previous blogs and understand better now where you are coming from … ahhhh, the importance of context.

    I hadn’t connected your name with previous blogs. I take no issue with anything else you’ve reported and rather enjoy experiencing Israel through the eyes of a 20-something who I can see now is of good intent. My daughter, same age as you, returned from Israel the same date you arrived there… so I enjoyed seeing Israel through her eyes this past year as well.

    She agrees, and so do I, that helping Palestinian farmers is a mitzvah and a good way to better understand and build bridges between our communities whose nations have been warring. As someone who has taught on the Psychology of War, I applaud such cooperative efforts.

    My daughter trekked across Israel, camping out much of the time. While on kibbutz in Tiberias, she says the safety instructions you were given were pretty much the same as the ones they receive before going out to work the fields. Israelis too abide by the buddy system and same security precautions. But obviously the fear factor is different.
    Israelis joyfully greet IDF security when they encounter them on the road… To the Palestinian obviously they’re perceived as the reason they can’t freely work their lands.
    If one reads only your most recent blog, which presents Israel as the villain in why poor Jose can’t get his goods to market & which makes some very broadsweeping unsubstantiated allegations about Israeli violence, when there is ample actual evidence to support the exact opposite of what you are claiming to be true…. parroting the Arab narrative… it’s easy to presume you are an activist gone to “Palestine” under the aegis of some benevolently named human rights ngo to validate, via advocacy journalism, the evilness of Israel. This is what Israel’s enemies do. All I ask is that you present a more balanced view… and substantiate the claims you are making… otherwise you are just repeating hearsay, possibly lies, which in the repeating become the “truth”… I read it or heard it somewhere = fact???

    Perhaps in your adventures there you shall spend some time with Israeli farmers as well, or help with other community service projects, e.g. building bomb shelters in Israeli cities being bombed? One of the projects my daughter’s group was involved in was refurbishing bomb shelters in Taefat, converting them to usable space, e.g. a children’s library, or recreational space… as families may have to spend hours, sometimes days in these shelters. I’ll be interested in following how you refine your views over the course of this year as you see and experience more. Best of luck in your studies.

  17. P.S. Just received this — Dr. Mitchell Bard’s take on settlements and international law

    Dr. Bard is a leading historian on the middle east and editor of the Jewish Virtual Library. Coincidently we’re both alumni of UC, Santa Barbara… UC by the sea… I survived the 60’s there… so I was wondering, in reference to a comment someone made above… just why you think I’m one of “those” who cannot be “swayed”… I think you too may misperceive who “those” folks are? Mitchell’s done his homework. And I have paid my dues… anyhow… jus’ askin’…