2023 Featured Activists: ADENA BEN-REUVEN

(Part One)

Meet Adena Ben-Reuven, Co-Director and Co-Founder of Haqel – In Defense of Human Rights

Tell us about your personal background: where were you born and what was your life like growing up?

I was born into a Jewish, politically liberal family in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1965, 17 years after the advent of apartheid. I attended Yeshiva College, a private Jewish day school whose focus was balancing excellence in core subjects with Jewish studies, with a strong emphasis on Israel.  

My life in South Africa was privileged. My father was dentist and my mother a professor of comparative religion. My grandparents, all of Lithuanian descent, were successful business people. We lived in an expansive house with a swimming pool and large garden. We had two live-in domestic servants and a gardener. We did not have to do any house work, cooking or cleaning. We were served tea at 11:00 am and 4:00 pm. 

I was a ballet dancer for 19 years and was involved in extra curricula speech and drama activities from an early age. I am one of three siblings. My family travelled Europe extensively during our summer vacations.

What was your “ahah” moment that made you want to get involved in civil society and human rights work? 

I have had many “ahah” moments and still do. However, the one that made the biggest impact on me was a visit to the township of Alexandra as a six-year-old child. I accompanied my mother who had taken one of our domestic servants to the township for medical treatment.

I had never seen people living in abject poverty before. The sand roads were muddy after a summer downpour, the homes were shacks cobbled together with cardboard boxes and corrugated iron sheets. I could not believe what I was seeing and felt enormous guilt for the luxurious life I led. I began to understand that black South Africans lived very differently from the world I knew. This was apartheid (“living separately”). I remember thinking how unjust this was, and how much suffering people were enduring.

It was at that very young age that my activism started. I no longer wanted my bed made by my servants and I did not want to be served tea. I cried when people made racist jokes. Later on during my university years, I turned my passion for justice into humanitarian work assisting homeless families in squatter camps in Soweto and participating in international youth interfaith projects assisting poor communities in Lisbon and San Francisco.

Tell us about your professional background. What led you to found Haqel? What do you find most meaningful about the work you do?

I graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand with a B.A. in social geography and social anthropology. I went on to do an honors degree in social geography focusing on the draconian laws enacted to prevent Jewish immigration to South Africa just prior to WWII. I also attained a diploma in Industrial Relations Management from the Wits Business school and attained a Licentiate in speech and drama from the Trinity College of London.

Before moving to Israel, I worked as a trade union representative in South Africa’s wealthy banking sector. I represented black workers working in menial jobs and worked to improve job conditions, focusing on challenging disciplinary action stemming from systemic racism.

In 1994, I moved to Israel. In 2000, I began working at Rabbis for Human Rights. There were many “ahah” moments as I began to be exposed to the harsh realities of the occupation. After 17 years as the Administrator and subsequently Development Director at RHR, I left to jointly establish Haqel together with my co-director Adv. Dr. Quamar Mishirqi-Assad and Rabbi Arik Ascherman.

Haqel’s work has a real life-changing impact on landowners and communities in the occupied Palestinian territories by ensuring access to land and promoting sustainability and sumud (“steadfastness”) in the face of dire hardship.

One of the most meaningful aspects of my work is the close connection with our project beneficiaries, most particularly women. The process of producing our women’s testimonies booklet in 2022 was truly inspiring. Haqel interviewed 8 women living in Area C of the West Bank and published their personal stories. The booklet focused on the specific challenges faced by women living under occupation and highlighted their unrelenting efforts to provide for and support their families and communities. Witnessing the incredible power and fortitude of women was so moving. As they shared their stories, these women became agents of change. Change and empowerment become possible when we see ourselves in others and others in ourselves, and when we begin to understand the power of a single voice.

 Photo by Gil Shalem.

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