Shifting Sands: Jewish Women Confront the Israeli Occupation

14 women find their voice in this collection of essays.
Shifting Sands cover

Shifting Sands: Jewish Women Confront the Israeli Occupation

Edited by Osie Gabriel Adelfang
Whole World Press, 2010, 157 pages, $16

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News reports about Israel and the Palestinians are often full of political doublespeak and misinformation. This makes it difficult for people of conscience to work for a just Middle East peace. How can we help if we don’t know what’s really going on? A new book goes to the heart of the issues, with true stories that stress human rights over political expedience.

Shifting Sands: Jewish Women Confront the Israeli Occupation is a collection of personal essays by 14 women activists who found it impossible to remain passive when confronted with the human cost of Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians from their homeland.

Many of the essays in Shifting Sands describe how an individual comes to question, and then challenge, the “official version” of conflict and history.

In “Do Not Stand Idly By,” Hedy Epstein describes how her trauma as a German-Jewish teenager bereaved by the Holocaust was tempered by humanistic values, and how her career of social service and activism on behalf of Jews eventually led her, in her 80s, to volunteer with the Gaza freedom flotilla. Linda Dittmar, in “Lights Vanish From Lifta,” describes the adult realization that the quaint villages in Israel where she played as a child were in fact the ruined homes of forcibly evacuated Palestinians.

Former Israeli Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg has said that too many in Israel fail to question the actions of their government. Defenders of Israel “right or wrong,” both within its borders and in the United States, insist criticism of Israel is unfair, claiming that other nations also violate human rights and flout international law, but are subjected to less rigorous scrutiny.

“Those who love and care for Israel,” writes contributor Starhawk, “need to stand with her true interests now, by demanding an end to the occupation, an end to the siege of Gaza, the dismantling of the settlements, restitution, and real justice. These are the preconditions that will lead to true security and peace.”

Some of the contributors to Shifting Sands address this mindset in essays that are part travelogue, part political witness. In “Only 30 Miles But A World Away,” Tomi Laine Clarke describes how the journey from the living room of her welcoming in-laws in Tel Aviv to a refugee camp in the West Bank traverses a barrier of experience and perception even greater than the obstacles presented by walls and checkpoints.

Transcending this status quo in the context of the U.S.-led “global war on terror,” and $3 billion a year in U.S. military aid to Israel, is an enormous task for citizen activists. Shifting Sands includes an appendix that is something of a toolkit for taking action. It offers maps, statistics, and quotes (most of the latter from the now-declassified version of the history of the founding of Israel).  There’s also a chronology that distills a lot of history into just a few pages—terrific to share with those who regard the situation as too complicated to understand or as the continuation of a centuries-old conflict.

“Those who love and care for Israel,” writes contributor Starhawk, “need to stand with her true interests now, by demanding an end to the occupation, an end to the siege of Gaza, the dismantling of the settlements, restitution, and real justice. These are the preconditions that will lead to true security and peace.”



Human complexity is often reduced to a rhetoric of black and white polarities. The women in Shifting Sands don’t change sides. They retain Jewish identities while dissenting against Israeli government policy, and disprove the myth that people who speak against Israeli policies are betraying Israel, Jewish people, or Jewish values.

“It is a circuitous journey that leads many of us toward a new awareness that reconciliation and peace must stand on a bedrock of truth,” writes Linda Dittmar. The contributions of the 14 women who poignantly share their journeys in Shifting Sands are an important step in that direction.

Linda Frank wrote this review for What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Linda is a founding member of Women in Black Tacoma, and traveled with the CodePink Women for Peace delegation into Gaza for International Women’s Day 2009, just two months after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead.



Women in Black protesters photo courtesy of Indybay

My Feet Were Praying

All my life, I created stories to help me make sense of the world. I created the stories, then I believed in them. Inevitably, as life intervened, the stories dissolved, leaving me with more complex and often painful realities. My central story about Israel was based on the belief that there were parallel narratives, an equivalently urgent Israeli and Palestinian history, that there were real dangers Israel had to protect against. I was carefully taught that the state of Israel was a refuge for persecuted and tormented remnants of a vibrant and rich world of European Jews after World War Two. I saw that singular truth, and no other. …

Now, as I listen and struggle to remember my dedication to the oneness of all things, I push against criticism, shame, as well as the sense of moral disappointment and personal outrage at the draconian oppression Israelis are carrying out against Palestinian people. How do I keep from arming myself with anger and judgment, separating myself from the Israeli government’s actions and all its supporters? How do I ask my broken heart to stay open? How do I express my oppositional trust with fierce love? Like my grandfather taught me, no matter who or what! Challenged by members of his conservative congregation about why he chose to march with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel responded, “My feet were praying.”

For me, standing in the street with Women in Black is my public expression of the Amidah, our daily prayer. —Sandra Butler

Hedy Epstein

Hedy Epstein

Do Not Stand Idly By 

When Dianne and I were leaving to come home from that first trip, I was stopped by Israeli security at the airport. I was 79 at the time. I do not know if they knew I was a survivor (although my passport states that I was born in Germany) but they knew where I had been and what I had been doing. After being frisked, I was asked to get undressed. I asked the 20-something woman why and told her I wanted an attorney. These were her words: “Because you are a terrorist, because you are a security risk. Yes, you can have an attorney, but until you get one, you will be detained at the airport detention center.” ­  ­—Hedy Epstein



  • A growing grassroots movement is using the techniques of the anti-apartheid movement to challenge U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. 

  • How can we step into the experience of the other and learn that true dialogue is possible only when blame is shared.
  • More book reviews from the Winter 2011 issue: :
    A year undercover in the jobs most Americans won't do.

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