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Lifestory: Avi Dabush survived 7th October; so did his commitment to peace

MICHELE CHABIN, of Religion News Service, reports that the longtime peace activist has ramped up his activism since the terror attack that threatened his family and killed five in his village…

Jerusalem
RNS

Avi Dabush, a longtime Israeli peace activist, was in his house on Kibbutz Nirim near the Gaza border on 7th October when Hamas began to fire hundreds of rockets into Israel. As air raid sirens wailed, Dabush, his wife and stepchildren rushed into their home’s reinforced safe room.  

“After 23 years of Hamas rockets, we knew what to do,” Dabush, 48, said. “Within minutes we heard gun shots and terrorists, Hamas soldiers, speaking Arabic outside our window. We shut all the lights and stayed absolutely quiet.”


Avi Dabush at the site of the Nova music festival in Re’im, southern Israel, ahead of a march to Jerusalem calling for the release of hostages, on 28th February, 2024. PICTURE: Courtesy Avi Dabush.

Although the heavily armed men attempted to enter the house, they aborted the effort and attacked nearby homes instead. Since safe room doors do not have locks – first responders must be able to enter quickly – Dabush held the shelter’s door shut for eight hours until the Israeli army arrived. The family spent a total of 12 hours in that room and many more in the kibbutz’s communal shelter. By the end of the ordeal, Hamas had killed five members of Kibbutz Nirim and kidnapped five more. Dozens of homes were damaged or destroyed.

Many of Israel’s most prominent peace activists resided along the Gaza border and were victims of the 7th October Hamas rampage. Now, six months later, as the ensuing war between Israel and Hamas rages on, those activists-turned-victims have had to reckon with what, to many, feels like the end of the road to peace.

“I understand fully what happened on 7th October was pure evil, but the way to address that cannot be just with the army and power. Most of our actions and solutions should be peaceful.”

– Avi Dabush, the CEO of Rabbis for Human Rights

“Her heart would have been broken” Yonatan Zeigen, the son of prominent peace activist Vivian Silver, who was murdered on 7th October, told Israel Radio after his mother’s charred remains had been identified. “She worked all her life to steer us off this course. And in the end, it blew up in her face.”

Some of the activists who survived the massacre have become disillusioned.

Adele Raemer, whose family barely survived the attack on Nirim, said her dreams for both Israelis and Palestinians have been shattered. Raemer was in frequent contact with Palestinians in Gaza prior to 7th October.

“I used to end every talk I gave about living life on the Gaza border by saying, ‘I’m sure the vast majority of people on the other side of the border want the same thing I do.’ But if opinion polls are correct, Hamas has educated an entire generation to hate us. I still believe in a two-state solution, but creating a Palestinian state right now would be rewarding terrorism,” Raemer said.

For Dabush, a rabbinical student and head of a human rights organisation, the work must continue.

“I understand fully what happened on 7th October was pure evil, but the way to address that cannot be just with the army and power. Most of our actions and solutions should be peaceful,” insisted Dabush, the CEO of Rabbis for Human Rights, an NGO dedicated to social and economic justice within Israel and the promotion of human rights, especially for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.



Still displaced, Dabush has ramped up his activism since the terror attack. Rabbis for Human Rights has invested more in interfaith dialogue and prayers in the hopes of finding common ground between Jews, Muslims and other minorities in Israel. It has helped raise nearly half a million shekels to feed needy Palestinian families in the West Bank and increased its presence there.

At the same time, Dabush and fellow rabbinical students at the Hartman Institute, where he has continued to study since the attack, have been providing spiritual support to the families of Israeli hostages in captivity in Gaza.

Studying to be a humanistic non-denominational rabbi, he looks to Judaism for inspiration, especially at difficult times like these.

“I find very deep values of human rights within Judaism, which guide me today”. The Biblical Abraham “debated with God to prevent collective punishment. The Talmud asks us to feed non-Jews. The prophets spoke of justice and peace. This isn’t just philosophy. It is a call to action.” 

Jewish Scriptures come naturally to him. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish home in Ashkelon, 13 miles from Gaza, he attended religious schools that emphasised Jews’ Biblical ties to Judea and Samaria – today’s West Bank. Between high school and army service, he studied at a far-right yeshiva that was opposed to the Oslo Peace Accords, which promised a Palestinian state in return for peace with Israel.

“I started to feel unconnected to the anti-Oslo campaign. That was the beginning of my shift both ideologically and religiously,” he said.


Avi Dabush speaks to media during a Rabbis For Human Rights demonstration in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem. PICTURE: Courtesy Rabbis For Human Rights.

Although Dabush now practices a much more liberal form of Judaism, he continues to respect the Judaism he was raised on.

“I felt and still feel I grew up on values of justice and equality and social justice and human rights. To have respect for all people, both Jews and Arabs.”

Jewish principles continue to shape his life and work.

“For me it’s all connected. When I’m working with Palestinians in the West Bank or am calling for a cease-fire or working with people who live in poverty in Israel, it’s all from my Jewish values.”

Dabush’s job requires him to be in nearly daily contact with Palestinians, especially in the West Bank. The organisation’s volunteers travel to Palestinian villages to prevent small bands of violent settlers from harming crops, farmers and shepherds.

“When Rabbi Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Alabama, was asked whether he prayed on the march, he said ‘my feet were praying.’

“I am praying with my feet,” Dabush said.

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