At one point along the barrier’s route, Montell points out an Arab market that has been cut in two by the concrete wall. On the Israeli side, a once-flourishing market has atrophied completely. On the other side, buildings nearest the wall are vacant. Nearby, a private security guard keeps watch over an area where military construction crews are erecting concrete walls—literally between houses. Montell approaches the guard with a question in Hebrew. When she realizes he’s an Arab, she switches seamlessly to Arabic. Her facility in Arabic, gained primarily on the job (she studied a bit of classical Arabic in New York during graduate school), comes in handy a bit later when our driver, a B’Tselem videographer, gets lost on the tangled West Bank roads.

As intriguing as it may sound to tour a war zone in an armored vehicle, most of Montell’s work takes place in an unglamorous office in the industrial Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot. With 32 staff members, B’Tselem’s human rights work has two major components: research, conducted by Israeli fieldworkers in Israel and by Palestinian fieldworkers in the West Bank and Gaza, and public education, which Montell says is aimed at helping to “create a human rights culture in Israel.”

It is the public education side that takes the lion’s share of Montell’s time, and her simply appointed office is a hub of electronic communication. The day before my arrival, an attorney in the Tel Aviv District Attorney’s office submitted a document in court suggesting that organizations like B’Tselem are unpatriotic and “besmirch” the name of the state of Israel in the name of a so-called human rights agenda. Also that day, the Israeli army carried out a targeted killing of two suspected terrorists in Gaza that led to the deaths of three children. Montell has to respond publicly to both. She bounces back and forth between phone calls and e-mail, consulting with colleagues and tweaking a press release. When her cell phone rings it is her husband, calling to negotiate who will leave work first to collect their three children from school.

Construction of the separation barrier through the town of Abu Dis, adjacent to Jerusalem.

“Palestinian human rights is the challenge to Israel as a democratic, moral state,” says Montell, who became an Israeli citizen in 1995. “It’s challenging, frustrating, and draining, but I couldn’t live in Israel and not be doing what I’m doing.”

Jessica Montell was born and raised in a Reform Jewish household in Berkeley, California. Although her left-leaning parents were not especially religious, she, through friends, became involved in a youth group that put much emphasis on Israel, and she traveled there for the first time during high school. “The goal of that program was for me to fall in love with Israel and to want to spend the rest of my life here,” she says. It worked. Montell was smitten with the land and its people. She loved the language and the immigrant family of Kurdish Jews who hosted her. And while able to see right through the patriotic propaganda campaign served to her and the other American students, she was still taken with the young Air Force pilots who addressed her group.

Returning to Israel for a semester during her sophomore year at Oberlin, Montell was struck by the pleasure of living on a Jewish calendar and “going through an entire Christmas season without feeling like an outsider.” Having majored in women’s studies and Judaic/Near Eastern studies at Oberlin, she credits her college years with honing her critical consciousness and “feminist, anti-racist, social justice” sensibilities. A year after graduating she returned once more to Israel, this time for a year. Eager to do something in social justice, she found work as a volunteer with the human rights organization Hamoked. Executive Director Dalia Kerstein recalls that, even as a volunteer, Montell’s work ethic set her apart from the crowd. “Jessie has a very professional attitude toward work,” says Kerstein, who has come to count Montell as a respected colleague and personal friend. “Very curious. Very knowledgeable.”

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