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Reflections on The Holy Land

"After all, if the suffering of the Holocaust justifies Israel as a nation-state for the survivors, it also mandates the refusal to cause others to suffer. The danger of Israel causing others to suffer is the danger of losing a mandate for Israel itself. For how to justify the empowerment of a people because of their suffering if in that empowerment another people is denigrated and displaced?" -Marc H. Ellis

Growing up, I celebrated Israel. Every year I would march with the rest of my synagogue at the Israeli independence day parade in Philadelphia, singing Debbie Friedman songs, and eating falafel. I think the first falafel I ever ate was at an Israeli independence day celebration. Israel, I was told, was my homeland. If anything were to ever happen, another Holocaust, another Inquisition, or even if I were just having a bad day, I could move to Israel and be home. Israel was an incredible place that God had given us, the Chosen people, thousands of years ago that we recently reclaimed. Today, I should be proud to call myself Jewish and love the land that welcomes me.

As I got a little older, I began to get confused. I knew things were not right in Israel. Something was going on there that didn't match up with the wonderful stories of the Promised land, of doves and olives branches and the rainbow that followed the flood. There were other people in Israel who weren't Jewish? Some of them were mad at the Jews? It didn't make sense to me. I knew that Jews had been hated in the past, but it always seemed to be the irrational kind of hate, Hitler-hate. This was different.

People were mad, saying that Jews took their land. But I thought Israel was Jewish land? It didn't make sense to me that other people could be making such a claim and could be so upset about it. Hadn't God granted us this space so that we could be safe and free? I shut my eyes and plugged my ears. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict was too much for me. It had been going on for years, but I don't think I'd even heard of a Palestinian until high school. Suddenly, there was something called an intifada and people were talking. People looked to me for my opinion. What did I think of the Oslo Accords? How about that trip to Camp David? It was too much for me. I couldn't keep track of it all. I felt like I had fallen behind in an ever-evolving information race that I hadn't even seen the start of and there was no chance of ever catching up. Sooner or later, it would resolve itself and I wouldn't have to worry.

At one point, my parents went to Israel to see some of our family there. When they came back, they gave both my older brother and me green sweaters with a little tag for the Israeli army on it. My older brother refused to wear it. He didn't explain why and I got a quick hand-me-down. One day, I was wearing the sweater my freshman year of college. I ran into a friend, Nikoo, an Iranian transplant to Tennessee with an accent and eccentricity that made me smile. She asked me what my sweater said, and I casually told her it was the Israeli army. Her eyes got big and she quickly turned around to check out the Kit-Kats behind her. Not totally sure why, I put the sweater away and never wore it again. Middle Eastern politics were too complex for me.

I became involved in politics in other ways. I Marched for Women's Lives in D.C. I rallied for a living wage for the janitors at college. I worked the polls for a progressive, gay state representative. I organized and participated in interracial discussions on campus. I planned a summit on dating violence for high school students. I spoke to over 1,000 people about my experiences as a queer person. Politics became my life. But still I stayed clear of "the conflict." Suddenly, I found myself a month away from my Birthright trip. I jokingly told everyone that I was going on a "10 day zionist propaganda whirlwind tour of Israel." To prepare myself for the trip, I bought a couple books and did a little research online. By now, most of my politics had already been fairly cemented, although my Palestinian/Israeli conflicts were more like cookie dough, only not as sweet. I was a radical leftist, through and through. I wanted to smash capitalism. Dismantle patriarchy. Uproot racism. Explode queerphobia. Undo colonialism...

I realized that I was not a zionist. While I had had a hunch for a long time about my politics regarding Israel, it wasn't until recently that I really began to understand my own feelings on the issues. As I talked to people about their opinions, I found myself further and further to the left. I was surprised at how some of my friends were spouting off right-wing ideology that could have come from Bush or Rumsfield, yet they were talking about Israel. I didn't understand. I thought these Jewish friends of mine were liberals. Why was I standing all alone?

Without too much more time to research, I was soon in JFK airport with 39 other Jews, aged 22-26, ready to explore Israel. Social anxiety aside, I was nervous. Would there be a space for Jewish dissent? Would this group be interested in dialogue? Did they know that "Torah is a conversation?" While I'm proud to say that a good number of people in the group were interested in discussion, I'm sad to say that most, including the leaders, were not. Over the course of the trip, racist propaganda was continually the focus of our education. From the erasure of any sort of Arab narrative, to the most simple of racist statements, Birthright did nothing but cohere my anti-zionist politics. Questions were not allowed. Dialogue was shut down. I was nervous to show my books to most people, afraid they would be burned.

For some reason, I feel as if I should feel more conflicted about the whole thing. It's like there's a part of me that thinks I should feel bad for my politics, like I've disappointed someone, possibly myself. But I'm not conflicted. I haven't disappointed myself. I'm proud of myself. I'm proud of my dissent. I realize that I'm just beginning to get a taste for what's to come as I continue down the path of education. I can't say that the opinions I have now will always be the exact same opinions I'll have in twenty years, or even next week. If I don't change my mind, it means I've stopped thinking. But I know that I'll take the Jewish values of b'tzelem elohim and v'ahavta l'reacha kamocah with me. I know that we are all made in the image of God and that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. I look forward to the day when I can again celebrate the holy land.


Adam said...

Thank you so much for this post. As a Jew who is critical of, and saddended by, Israel and its nationalist policies, I often feel very alone. I am proud of my heritage and I believe Judaism teaches so many wonderful (and progressive!) things, but it is a shame that for the most part, crticizing Israel in any form is now equated with anti-Semitism. This effectively squahes any meaningful discussion of Israeli policies within the Jewish community, and certainly dampens the scope of political discourse in general. We must be able to separate the politics from the religion and the culture, and we have to stand up for peace and justice in the Middle East. I think that's a very Jewish thing to do.

alex said...

Thanks, Adam. I couldn't agree with you more. There is a deep connection between Judaism and social justice, and while most Jews continue to live within the space of that connection, many forget about it comes to Israel/Palestine. The trauma of the Holocaust is deep and serious, and it has unfortunately left many Jews today in a confused space. Our mission should be to acknowledge that trauma as a community, and not forget about it, but not continue to live directly in the moment of the camps either.

For a fabulous book, you should check out Wrestling with Zion. It's a collections of progressive Jewish-American writing on the subject and it's edited by Alisa Solomon and Tony Kushner (two awesome queer Jews).

Gerry Scoppettuolo said...

Adam - Your points are well taken..although raised catholic, I have Jewish relatives and, of course, friends. To support your view, please note that the progressive Jewish magazing, TIKKUN, took out a full page ad in the NYT monday demanding an immediate cease fire.