the violence of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, young Jews angered by the overwhelmingly hawkish response of American Jewish institutions came together under the banner of IfNotNow to demonstrate their resistance through the beauty of Jewish ritual. Moved to act by moral anguish and inspired by Hillel’s three questions, they organized Mourner’s Kaddish actions in nearly a dozen cities across the country and lamented the loss of both Israeli and Palestinian life. They had three demands: Stop the War on Gaza, End the Occupation, and Freedom and Dignity for All. The demand for American Jewish institutions to end their support for the occupation has only grown more urgent and clear since that summer. While the out-of-touch establishment claims to speak for our community, we know that American Jewry is eager for change. We are building a vibrant and inclusive movement within the American Jewish community, across generations and organizational affiliations. This movement is open to any who seek to shift the American Jewish public away from the status quo that upholds the occupation. Our logo, inspired by the burning bush, symbolizes our generation’s call to leadership in the Jewish community. Just as Moses was commanded to return to Egypt and fight for the liberation of his people, we too feel called to take responsibility for the future of our community. We know the liberation of our Jewish community is bound up in the liberation of all people, particularly those in Israel and Palestine. The bush burns bright but is not consumed – the fire is not a mechanism of destruction, but rather a force of inspiration and transformation. We will be the generation that ends our community’s support for the occupation. Will you join us? For more information, please visit www.ifnotnowmovement.org, or find us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: @ifnotnoworg.
Table of Contents Editors’ Note
What Are We? A Meditation on Hillel’s Second Question Benjamin Steinhardt Case
Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Israel Will Heinrich
Escaping a Narrow Place Claire Berman
I Got Lost in the Old City Once Lee Frankel-Goldwater
#TashlichInterrupted Action at the Jewish Federation of North America Headquarters, September 29th, 2014 Andrew Gordon-Kirsch
When I Say “We” Arielle Angel
WhatsApp, West Bank Ilana Masad
Flirting with Men and Racism in Israel Jonathan Paul Katz
My Great-Grandfather’s Grave: Russian-Speaking Jews and the Israeli Occupation Oksana Mironova
How the IDF Failed to Indoctrinate Me Colin Meinrath
A Child’s Nation, A Nation’s Child Liat Mayer
how many jews/ are destroyed in this country each year? Ben Nadler
2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian
Territories. As we take stock of the coming milestone, we see that the Jewish community faces a myriad of threats. Anti-Semitism remains a constant, and by no means insignificant, concern. But many of us believe our most pressing threat is that of being locked into the role of occupier and oppressor. IfNotNow is a movement of young American Jews, individuals with different experiences, different traumas, different identities, different understandings of religion and politics. Accordingly, each author in this collection speaks only for themself. And yet, we are united by our commitment to ending Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Together we tackle Hillel the Elder’s three questions: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when? Though we found many echoes and resonances within these twelve pieces, one of the most common was the presence of fear — the simultaneous fear of what harm might come to us, and fear of what we might become. The fear of what we stand to lose if we are not connected to the Jewish community, and the fear of what uncritical identification with the Jewish community might cost us morally. It is no surprise, then, that many of the enclosed narratives reach, implicitly and explicitly, for new Jewish communities, ones which reject fear as a guiding principle, bending instead towards empathy, integrity, justice, and love. Since this project was first conceived, the political climate in the United States has changed, giving us more to fear—both as Jews and as Americans—and more for us to lose if we give in to these fears. In this new moment, silence and inaction are no longer options. The communities we are building now, in our political movements, in new Jewish worship spaces, in the pages of this zine and others like it, are our resistance.
- Arielle Angel and Ben Nadler, Editors
What Are We? A Meditation on Hillel’s Second Question Benjamin Steinhardt Case
During a seder in my childhood, I remember my grandfather quipping that every Jewish
family had to put up with at least one banker and at least one communist. While that might not be literally true, he was observing something peculiar about Jews – we tend to occupy political extremes on the left and the right, and those extremes often coexist in the same family. (When I was a teenager, my grandfather gave me $20 on the condition that I didn’t give it to the Communist Party, to give an idea on which he preferred). Jews have been visible in the most conservative positions and the most left-wing positions. As a group we are overrepresented in finance and in social justice organizations, can be the most devout adherents to religious law and the most fervent secularists. This dynamic plays out around Israel as well, with the occupation of Palestine increasingly polarizing Jewish communities and families. On college campuses, pro-Israel clubs like Students Supporting Israel are still filled with Jewish students, while Students for Justice in Palestine chapters are often full of Jews as well, both sides staking a claim to Jewishness. What’s more, as my grandfather pointed out, these extremes exist within our communities and within our families. Multiple articles advise Jews on engaging political opponents at the seder table. What’s going on here? Religiously, culturally, and historically, a main theme in the Jewish tradition is the struggle for liberation from oppression. Since the Shoah that event has become the centerpiece of this narrative, but it fits well—almost uncomfortably well—into a tradition that has focused on threat of annihilation at the hands of oppressive forces. The Exodus in particular holds enormous weight in our traditions. It may not be a coincidence that the anecdote above revolves around a Pesach seder; the celebration of our liberation from bondage. One of our most important holidays is literally about escaping slavery. Whether it was Pharaoh, Haman, or Hitler, the story is essentially the same: the Jews are
alien outsiders in a society that is not our home. Powerful leaders fear our growing numbers and influence, and they resort to drastic steps to save the purity of their society. We have sought deliverance from these oppressions and in most of our stories, achieved it through our strength and the salvation of outside forces. I remember growing up in Hebrew school; we sang songs and we learned about halakha and we studied the Torah (mainly for our bar/bat mitzvot), but the Shoah always loomed in the background. More than being taught Holocaust history we were bombarded with Holocaust imagery. Vintage film clips, documentaries, movie reenactments, museums, written stories, photographs; we imbibed an incomprehensibly horrible historical moment through every medium available, and it was connected to our traditions and our lives in every way possible. Growing up Jewish, the Holocaust was unavoidable. So going back to my grandfather’s comment, how could this phenomenon of Jews occupying political extremes on opposite sides possibly apply to social oppression? How could this unified exposure to stories of our persecution not lead to a unified opposition to oppression everywhere, including Palestine? What I came to realize was not everyone sees these stories in the same way. When a child’s mind encounters the Holocaust, there are two primary ways they can interpret it. One is to say: “Oh my G-d, look at the awful things people have done to other people!” The other is to say: “Oh my G-d, look at the awful things people have done to the Jews!” From our history, the first child learns about the horrors of racism writ large; the second learns about the horrors of anti-Semitism only. One reaction often leads a person to the left; the other leads a person to the right. The central question is: Can you universalize the particular history you are being taught, or not? Can you see the categories of oppressor and oppressed as systemic categories with dynamics that can be enacted by different individuals and groups, or do you see the Jews as fixed in the oppressed position? Do you learn that we, as Jews, are historical agents or historical victims? Do we learn from the Pesach seder that slavery is horrific and people have a right to resist and a mandate to win? Or do we learn that slavery was horrible for the Jews, and thank G-d for drowning the Egyptians so we could be free? Is it a universal tale that we feel especially close to because it is about us, or is it a tale about us, for us? The implications for how we show up in the world are enormous. As the story goes, the State of Israel—the Zionist project to create a homeland for the Jews in which we could build our society and defend our people—represented deliverance from anti-Semitic violence and from the world that spawned it. Though its existential foundations are dubious, in some ways Israel has achieved its stated goals. The country’s institutions and norms are informed by Jewish traditions and for generations it has offered citizenship to young Jews everywhere. But are we free? Is this state the liberation our ancestors dreamt of? Is the price necessary? What role do we play in this story? Are we capable of seeing the other side of Israel—the occupation—as violent, racist, and unjust, or are we only capable of seeing ourselves as victims of oppression and never as perpetrators? The question is one of core values. Are our values as Jews in the 21st century universal or particular? This issue is apparently important enough and old enough that Rabbi Hillel felt the need to address it in Ancient Babylon with his famous set of questions, the implied answers pointing to a synthesis of the two sides. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?—I must fight for my own liberation because if I do not, I cannot count on others to do it for me. If I am only for myself, what am I?—this question is left open because the answer is so recognizable and so repulsive. And if not now, when? – imparting a sense of urgency to the struggle. We have for too long only seen one of the first two questions. We must fight for ourselves, we must fight for others, and we must do it now, all as part of the same Jewish identity. If this generation of 3 Jews allows the occupation to survive, what are we?
Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Israel Will Heinrich I
offered to write this essay as a joke—the kind of mordant, allusive joke intended to share some unspeakable feeling without needing to spell it out. I said, I’ll write about why I don’t want to talk about Israel! But I found, once I’d said it, that I really did feel obliged to say something, that I did crave the relief of articulating the unspeakable feeling instead of merely alluding to it, so I repeated my offer in earnest. Of course I still hoped to get through it painlessly. I thought that if I described myself as a secular, assimilated, believing-but-not-observant, very leftwing New York Jew, and said that I’m suspicious of nationalism in general and ethnic nationalism in particular, that might be enough. I could even take the occasion to say that whatever moral and philosophical achievements we have made as a people in the last 2000 years have been heavily indebted to the destruction of the temple and our subsequent diaspora. Without anywhere to sacrifice animals, we had to develop the idea of a verbal liturgy; without a real homeland, we had to pioneer the notion of a spiritual homeland organized around beliefs and practices; and without an army of our own, we could never, or at least never in good conscience, tell anyone else to “go back to Russia,”“go back to Africa,” or go back to anywhere else.
But my hypothetical objections to Zionism as an idea, in the year 2016, more than a hundred years after the Congress that rejected the Uganda offer and nearly 70 years since the founding of the State of Israel, don’t express anything so much as a desire to have things both ways. The country exists, but I want to acknowledge my own ethnic connection to it only when I can do so in a way that happens to be consonant with my other values. Eventually, after postponing this essay for several weeks, I had to admit to myself that the reason I don’t want to talk about Israel is simply cowardice. There are too many vicious antiSemites seeded through the legitimate opposition to Israel’s illegal actions and policies visa-vis the Palestinians, and the prospect of distinguishing between varieties of rage—the prospect of separating out the rage that I agree with from the rage that includes me as part of its object—just seems too difficult. Of course I feel guilty for not speaking up against crimes committed more or less in my name, but that guilt only melts into the aforementioned cowardice to form an even more powerful disincentive. Even saying that much, though, is still too easy. The thing is that for all that it’s been more than a hundred years since my ancestors fled Russia and settled in New York, in the course of my life I’ve only really felt like an American twice. I felt like an American, even proud to be an American, for ten or fifteen minutes in 2008, when we elected our first black president. And I felt like an American for more than an hour in the summer of 2012, when my wife and I, as
part of a cross-country road trip, drove through Yellowstone National Park while listening to Biggie Smalls. Most of the time, certainly, I’m comfortable enough. Whatever I may feel in my heart, I’m still a white man in what is still a white-supremacist society. But I have to confess that what I’m afraid of, if I speak up, is not so much receiving or experiencing the veins of hatred threaded through all the righteous opposition to the occupation and to Israel’s terrifying drift toward fascism. What I’m afraid of is having to point out those veins to a well-meaning gentile friend; or of pointing them out and not being believed; or of pointing them out but then having to explain why they bother me; or of being told that by pointing them out, I’m making myself part of the problem—and being reminded by any of those eventualities that I don’t belong here after all. While I was thinking through all of this, I remembered something that happened when I was in grade school in downtown Manhattan. This would have been in the late ’80s, about 45 years after the Nuremberg trials and eight decades or more since my ancestors came to this country. There was a girl in my class whom my friends and I teased mercilessly. We were just awful to her. And one day, during a game, a rubber ball bounced off her head in a way I thought was funny and I couldn’t stop laughing. Need I mention that none of the other boys who teased her were Jewish, and neither was she? Anyway, I couldn’t stop laughing, and she got so upset that she asked me, right in front of our teacher, “Where are you going to hide when the Nazis come back?” And when I think about that, I know exactly why I don’t want to talk about the situation in Israel. I’m not afraid of hearing an erstwhile political ally say something that offends me. I’m not afraid of addressing the lingering psychological or geopolitical effects of the Shoah. I’m not afraid of sorting through my own complicated allegiances, or of inhabiting, for the length of a conversation, what seem to me like more primitive, extreme versions of my own fear and anger. I’m simply afraid to stand next to any gentile in opposition to “my people,” even when “my people” are behaving like criminals and murderers, or even to speak up with other Jews where they might hear me, because I’m still afraid the conversation will end with all of us getting killed.
Escaping a Narrow Place Claire Berman
I was six years old when I first realized that being Jewish meant feeling different. I lived in
South St. Louis in a very Catholic neighborhood, and I played softball at the nearest, most convenient place to our house: St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. Our coach huddled us up at our first game, and when I started shouting, “GOOOOO TEAM,” everyone else lowered their eyes and started murmuring, “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” How had they all known to say those exact same words at the exact same time? I was so embarrassed that I didn’t know the words that I tried to mouth along, like, I got this. I am super, totally aware of this prayer’s existence. I quickly memorized the entire Lord’s prayer. To this day, I can recite it by heart. My upbringing was very secular, but it did include some Jewish ritual, and as I grew older, I started to feel more pride in being Jewish. Every Hannukah, we lit the menorah and recited prayers, and my father led seders at Passover. My Catholic-raised mother poured her love into dozens of loaves of challah, matzah ball soup, beautiful seder plates, and noodle kugel. My dad talked about celebrating these holidays as a child with his family in Brooklyn, where both sets of his grandparents had arrived to escape religious persecution in Russia sometime around 1900. When my grandparents would come visit us, I felt imbued with their New York Jewishness. I could almost feel it wash over me like water. I remember feeling Jewish simply by being my dad’s daughter, and their granddaughter. I felt Jewish because I came from Jews. However, I felt alienated in Jewish spaces, even more than when I attended Catholic mass with my best friend. Perhaps it was precisely because in Jewish spaces I thought I would belong. At age 25, I ended up on a fairly religious Birthright trip. I can’t remember ever in my life feeling less Jewish and more like an outsider than I did during those 10 days. Our chaperones were an Orthodox rabbi and his wife from New York City. When she learned that I came from a mixed-religion family and that we also celebrated Christmas, she looked at me in disbelief and said, “…and they let you come on a Birthright trip?” And then she looked out the window until I turned away. I learned that unless I held what I perceived as the “secret keys” to unlocking the “real” Judaism, that I didn’t belong and certainly didn’t deserve the title of “Jewish.” My trip also happened to leave one day after the Gaza War began, on December 28th, 2008. During the trip, I had no access to any news except what our young tour guides told us. Even with my relatively low awareness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the time, I was dismayed at how heavily their pro-Israel version of the news (and in many ways, the trip itself ) seemed to rely on dehumanizing Palestinians. I felt heartbroken at what was happening in the name of an identity I had felt so proud of. I left my Birthright trip wanting to get as far away from Judaism as possible, though I couldn’t tell if I was walking away, or if I had been kicked out. I spent the next seven years disconnected from Judaism. My parents had given me a beautiful little menorah when I moved away from St. Louis, and while it was always displayed in a special place in my home, I rarely lit the candles at Hannukah. The few times I was around a group of Jews, I felt awkward. I believed that there was one right way to be Jewish—know all the Hebrew songs and prayers by heart, observe Shabbat, and offer unwavering support for Israel and the occupation. I just didn’t fit into that mold. I didn’t know how to be Jewish and still be me. Then, in the fall of 2015, I watched the show Transparent, about a Jewish family whose patriarch comes out as a trans woman when the children are grown. There is a scene in the second season when one of the adult daughters in the present day occupies the same space as
her teenaged grandmother, whose family is fleeing the Holocaust in Germany. For that moment, they are not separated by time and space. They are simply together. That scene took my breath away, just as if a huge wave had crashed over me. I thought of my dad lighting the Hannukah candles and our family reading from the Haggadah at Passover. I thought of my grandmother and grandfather patting my head while they gushed over me in their thick Flatbush accents. I thought of their parents, living between two worlds and preparing borscht Rachel Aronson for dinner as first-generation Americans in New York. I thought of their parents, leaving behind unknown horrors in Russia and spelling their names for immigration officers at Ellis Island as the city loomed in front of them. I thought of the hundreds of ancestors that I know nothing about. What if we’ve interacted across time and space, and I didn’t know it? What if they’re here with me right now? There is a phenomenon in quantum physics called “spooky action at a distance,” or “entanglement,” wherein tiny particles start to vibrate at the exact same frequency, and at the exact same time, even when widely separated in space. This happens faster than any known means of communication across that type of distance, including the speed of light. There is no scientific explanation for this; these particles simply resonate with each other on some unseen level, like ripples across a bed sheet being straightened. I realized watching that show that to find my resonance, I’d need to be willing to show up at my own frequency. Even so, I can’t emphasize enough how resistant I felt towards entering a Jewish space again. I had become more involved in activism in Boston, but I had kept my distance from Jewish social justice groups. But when I heard about IfNotNow’s training at another organizing event, something I can’t explain—perhaps an ancestor—pushed me to sign up. It felt like an opportunity to explore my Jewish identity in a way I never had before. Though I worried it would be yet another space where I wouldn’t be Jewish enough, and where I’d be the outsider, I showed up. And something clicked. As we came together as Jews from different backgrounds, united by our conviction that our freedom as Jews is tied up in the freedom of Palestinians, I found a resonance I had never experienced before. I started showing up at exactly my own frequency of Judaism. I don’t know any Hebrew, but singing Aish Tamid at the training felt like it was unfurling some piece of my DNA. I felt the music at Shabbat dinners on a cellular level. Each new song I learned felt like having a conversation with my Russian ancestors, and their ancestors before them. It felt like Judaism was bursting out of a tiny, narrow, locked box to grow as big and expansive as the number of Jews in the world. To my surprise, it felt like reclaiming a piece of myself that I hadn’t realized was missing. I felt Jewish. I felt like me. And that felt like a personal revolution.
I Got Lost in the Old City Once Lee Frankel-Goldwater It
was somewhat intentional. I had been to the markets a dozen times and felt that the streets were becoming familiar: the smell of spices wafting across rows of shops draped with textiles, souvenirs for every faith, half a dozen languages spoken by twice as many nationalities. White, worn stones of ancient make were oddly soft beneath the feet, as sunlight carved a way through the ramparts and canvas awnings. I turned right at the hummus vendor along a main drag, one of the best in Jerusalem, and that is saying something—even religious Jews came to the Arab proprietor to buy the stuff in quarts. I’d not traversed this way before, and after a few blocks, a claustrophobic, yet mind-expanding sensation took hold of me as the old city took on a completely different character. There was a sense of poverty here, a sense of localness, and Emily Skydel shift of language telling me I had ventured deep into the Arab Quarter. My nerves and New York street sense kicked in as I took on the role of a sore thumb—what with my light eyes, scraggly beard and tourist’s overstuffed backpack—a quiet observer receiving an increasing number of stares. While the streets were technically open to all, it was clear that I had stepped off the beaten path into a lived-in section of the Old City. The traveler in me knew that a calm and respectful presence and a friendly, genuine smile can carry you beyond the most uncomfortable scenarios. As a matter of fact, most of the best stories begin right there. A small, hungry cat walked along the edge of the cobblestone path, a curious creature seeking kindness. As it came closer, I squatted to greet it, feeling a brief respite from the tense atmosphere. At that moment, a man just out of my peripheral vision began calling to me. At first I thought his aim was conversation, but the calls quickly turned to accusations. “Why must you be here?” he said, and somehow I knew it was a question directed not just at me personally, but at what I represented: the other, the invader, the source of his plight. “What do you want?” he continued, insistently, less interested in my response than in making sure those around him heard his questions. He looked to be in his late 20s, dressed simply in a sleeveless and worn white T-shirt, plain shorts, and sandals. It was not his muscles or stature that scared me, nor his proximity, for he stayed back, but the energy and fervor with which he channeled his words. I was a momentary splinter in the flesh of an already aching wound. I quickly left the scene, taking but a moment to catch the man’s eye. Here was a human, who saw me not perhaps as a fellow human, but as a representation of sectarian ideology, years of anger, humiliation, and distrust. Did I deserve it? In a sense, yes, and yet, not at all. Who was I but a curious explorer? A cat who got too close to the edge. But curiosity killed a bit of this cat’s naivety. To ignore the reality of the world behind a veneer of interfaith souvenirs would squander the gifts of privilege—education, opportunity, and an ability to share what I learn, see and hear with those who might help to reshape our world for the better. In this way, I will be silent no more.
#TashlichInterrupted Action at the Jewish Federation of North America Headquarters, September 29th, 2014 Andrew Gordon-Kirsch
During the summer of 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, a war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The fighting killed 72 Israelis and 2,300 Gazans. Witnessing such excessive force against Palestinian lives, the silence of mainstream US Jewish organizations was deafening. Groups of Jews around the US began demonstrating outside Jewish institutions. We said kaddish over those who died on both sides. We demanded that our communal leaders denounce the violence committed in our name. We called ourselves IfNotNow. I participated in several of these vigils, including one on Tish’a B’av, an annual fast day commemorating tragedy in Jewish history. The next month I spoke about my experience during our Tashlich ceremony, an atonement ritual performed during the Days of Awe, on the High Holy Days, 5775. This is an adapted version of that speech.
The author speaking summer 2014 Tashlich action outside JFNA headquarters, New York City.
In college I decided I wanted to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By choosing to study Arabic, I thought I could explore the conflict from voices I hadn’t heard growing up in my San Francisco Bay Area Jewish community. From 2008 to 2009, I studied abroad in Cairo as part of that quest for more perspectives. In Cairo I met Zaynab, a painter originally from Gaza City. Zaynab was a friend of my roommate and often came over to visit. We stayed up late talking politics over a bottomless finjan of coffee. We grew quite close over the course of that spring, in the months after Operation Cast Lead. We held each other after the dust settled and the reconstruction projects began. Zaynab and I eventually parted ways, and it’s been years since we were in touch. This summer, I came to an IfNotNow action on Tish’a B’av. We read the names and ages of the Israelis and Palestinians who died over the past weekend. Previously this list meant little to me. I knew the purpose of reading the names of the dead aloud was to keep those souls from becoming mere numbers. And yet, in practice, it was hard for me to connect, to truly 9 feel the loss.
This night was different. My throat locked up and my lungs stopped as I read the names of people who shared the same family name as Zaynab: Ismail, 60 Muhammad, 32 Ismail, 11
Khadra, 62 Hamadi, 28 Malak, 5
Wael, 35 Asmaa, 22 Mustafa, 24 days old
Zaynab’s relative, a journalist, confirmed my fears in an online article a day later: nine members of her family were killed by two IDF missiles the morning of August 3rd. After not speaking for over two years, I wrote Zaynab a letter of condolence, praying the address I had was still active. I told her how sorry I was to hear of the deaths of her family. I told her about the Tish’a B’av vigil with If Not Now, how I felt paralyzed by the war, understanding that Israel was acting in my name, for the security of my people. Zaynab responded the next day. She confirmed that her uncle’s family was killed in their house that night. The same house that Zaynab herself was born in. For a month, during the height of the bombings, she wondered whether she’d be able to see her family again, whether she’d even be able to say goodbye. And despite the incredible terror she faced, her commitment to peace remained resolute: “I’m still against killing and violence against each other as human beings living on this planet!” She thanked me for the work I was doing, and for IfNotNow’s response to the deaths of so many people. I stand behind Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. I refuse, however, to accept the racist falsehood that the security of my homeland is predicated on the continued occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. Instead, I stand with IfNotNow, and with all of you tonight, demanding that the leaders of our community in the US represent our voice, critique the actions of the Israeli government and compassionately push for an end to the occupation. I cannot expect that our people, targeted for centuries and narrowly surviving annihilation in the last hundred years, could emerge without the scars of trauma. Sometimes that trauma can make us to want to commit violent acts out of fear, out of anger. Sometimes that trauma can make us want to kill. “Hurt people hurt other people,” Penny Rosenwasser once told me. Our trauma is real, but we have a choice about how we move forward. We can choose the path of continued violence. Or we can choose the path of healing. Zaynab chose the path of healing. So am I. I cannot let our history and our ancestral pain dictate my actions today and in the future. And I will not allow the people who claim to represent my voice do so either. I stand here tonight, practicing teshuvah in this Tashlich ceremony. I may not be guilty for the deaths in Zaynab’s family, but I am responsible. We as Jews may not individually be guilty for upholding the occupation of Palestine, but collectively, as a people, we are responsible. Tonight we ask for forgiveness. Tonight we demand action. G’mar chatima tova. May we all be inscribed in the book of life.
Editor’s note: Zaynab’s name has been changed, and the shared family name redacted, to protect her privacy. The first names of the dead are unchanged, to honor their memories.
When I Say “We” Arielle Angel
I’m in Israel on a work trip and visiting a friend in Jerusalem on my day off. It happens
to be the Jerusalem Day Parade, a provocative, nationalist spectacle commemorating the unification of Jerusalem under Israeli control following the Six Day War. When it’s all over and the flag wavers have dispersed, my friend and I emerge to get a drink. She is depressed on the walk to the bar, pointing out the Arab street-sweepers cleaning up the resulting mess. In a reflective mood, my friend, who emigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel as a small child, tells me her Israeli origin story: “We were at the Moscow airport, all Jews with exit visas waiting to go out. And I have a memory of two lines: one very long line of people going to America, and one sort of pathetic little line going to Israel. I remember thinking,”—she laughs sadly—“‘Why are we in this line?’” * My boss has inadvertently knocked a glass of water onto my laptop keyboard, sending me running down the short New York City block to the computer tech place on the corner. The computer guy, a short, doughy, bespectacled man in middle age, seemingly dressed for the boardwalk, unfolds the laptop to take a look. My desktop photo is from the front page of the New York Times, the morning after the Eric Garner non-indictment came down and people took to the streets in protest. My boyfriend’s in the photo, one face among many, but still distinct, and I’d been tickled when I spotted him in the paper the next morning. 11
“What is this?” says the computer guy. I’ve been to his shop a few times over the last year, and though we’ve never spoken about anything other than computer parts, he must feel familiar enough to ask. “A Black Lives Matter protest,” I say. “And why not All Lives Matter?” he asks in a nasal singsong. He has a thick Israeli accent. I’m readying for an argument, but as soon as I begin to explain, he relents. He was just testing me. “I understand,” he says, sadly. “This country has a bad history...black and white.” “But it’s the same in Israel,” I say. Now I’m testing him. “How do you mean?” He doesn’t take his eyes off his work, my keyboard, all those tiny screws. He seems to know that I’m Jewish, in that way we often just know. “They shoot to kill. Like that soldier recently in the stabbing attack.” He puts down his mini-screwdriver and turns to me. “Listen,” he says. I hadn’t realized how close we’ve been standing to one another. “I know this feeling. “I was a soldier in the first Lebanon War,” he tells me. He starts to describe a checkpoint he was guarding. The details are hazy, but I sense this isn’t the kind of story you interrupt. “I am saying in Arabic, ‘OK, you can pass, pass through,’ and meanwhile there is a crowd of men forming, and they’re getting closer. I keep saying—in Arabic I’m saying it—‘stay back, get back,’ but us being there and holding them up, it’s making them crazy and they keep coming in closer and closer. And there’s only a few of us and many of them. So I raise my gun in the air—” He makes his hand into a gun, raises it, and shoots twice: pah pah. “I was ready to commit a massacre. Me…Somehow I realized it, in the moment.” He turns and picks up the screwdriver but doesn’t use it. He rests his hands on his worktable. “I come from eight generations in Palestine. You know how rare it is? But that day, that’s when I said to myself, there’s no future here. When I got out of the army, I left. I was never the same from that war.” I’m needed back at work, and my computer won’t be ready until the next day. Still, I stay in the shop another hour, talking. * Later that night, I recount the conversation to my boyfriend, amazed at the intimacy of that hour in the shop. But his focus is elsewhere. “You only go to Israelis,” he says. I furrow my brow. “The doctor?” he reminds me. Indeed, the week before, I had found a new gynecologist online, a man with a Hebrew name and lots of open time slots. As he examined me—his hand inside me, my eyes closed—he
asked, in lightly accented English, what I did. He called me Ariella—my Hebrew name, but not my real one. It was like a wink, the way he said it, like he had caught me. I told him I helped manage a development project in the Bedouin community, pleased that he would have some context for the Bedouin, a collection of historically nomadic Arab tribes with a sizeable population in Israel’s Negev desert. “People don’t have something better to throw money on?” he said. “Excuse me?” “I have the solution. Throw them out of there.” “They’re Israeli citizens,” I said, stunned by the turn in the conversation, and nauseated to be having it with my legs in stirrups and him fishing around in my body. “They don’t belong there. Send them to Jordan, or Egypt.” I was quiet. I answered the rest of his questions with yeses and nos, and left the office steeped in an unnameable shame. Can I report him? Should I leave a bad review? What would it say exactly? “I don’t only go to Israelis,” I tell my boyfriend. “They were just convenient.” He gives me a sardonic look. I’m annoyed when he highlights my tribalist habits. Both the computer guy and the gynecologist were located within blocks of me—there wasn’t anyone closer, as far as I could tell. Would someone else have seen those search results differently? And yet, I can’t deny that I sought them out. Not through the initial internet search, but once we were in the space together. I baited them with our perceived sameness, and asked them to reveal themselves to me. I think of my boyfriend’s most consistent complaint when we argue about Israel. “Stop saying we,” he’ll say. “You are not Israeli.” “I could have been. My cousins are. My great aunts and uncles.” “But your grandparents came here. They made a choice.” It’s a fact, but I’m not sure I can swallow wholesale its implications—cling to the “foresight” of my paternal grandmother, for instance, and separate myself from the “folly” of her sister, both of their decisions made from a DP camp in Athens, shortly after liberation from Auschwitz. I’m not sure what I would have done in their position. My maternal grandfather’s Arabicspeaking parents traded Haifa for Ohio—the Zionist dream for the American one—in the ’20s, leaving the rest of their families behind. I don’t know why my family chose America and it’s too late to ask. What I do know is that when I talk to Israelis, I’m searching for the splinters of this split—wartime traumas I can’t imagine, nationalist expressions I can’t excuse. I’m searching for that mysterious, elusive we. For better or worse, it’s always there. 13
WhatsApp, West Bank Ilana Masad
A few months ago, a very dear friend of mine was in the West Bank participating in an artist’s
residency that involved theater for development and social change. Led by a Palestinian actor who has traveled Europe as part of her activist work, my friend and the other residents performed pieces based on their experiences with members of Palestinian Bedouin communities in the occupied territories. Prior to my friend’s trip to the West Bank, she’d told me she was going to Israel via online messenger, our primary form of communication. I squealed, excited to think that she’d see my home country, the place I came from and which molded me. Since I now live in New York, I reached out to friends in Israel in the hopes of getting her together with them. My focus was on this part of her trip—the part of it where she’d get to be a tourist—for whatever reason, I hadn’t quite understood what she was traveling to Israel to do. While she was there, we messaged back and forth on WhatsApp, and I kept trying to nail down her location, trying to figure out whether I knew of the Palestinian village she was staying in. During a stressful night, when she was waiting for the Israeli army to come and bulldoze the houses of that village, she finally told me off: she was upset that I kept using the word Israel to describe the West Bank. Below is a transcription of my responses to her that night. The time stamps are in EST—it was seven hours later where my friend was. She only responded to me once, and I have not included her words out of respect for her privacy. To me, these messages demonstrate the tumultuous relationship I have with the country I spent most of my life in, where I was not the activist I wish I could have been, where I am still not the activist a part of me wishes I could be. May 15, 11:44: Wait shit did I never put you in touch with ___?? Shiiit I’m sorry! Oh fuck, I’m sorry, I actually wasn’t sure you were in the West Bank – I thought you were in a settlement near Jerusalem which are called something else in Hebrew…
May 15, 11:46: Also um I grew up there, believe me I know the difference, the problem as I see it is that Israel has claimed the West Bank so it is unfortunately in the legal state of being part of Israel, so I usually consider it occupied territory, and its being called part of Israel isn’t something we can ignore because that means not admitting that there’s a need to liberate the place. May 15, 11:56: And tbh it makes me really uncomfortable that you assumed that I was ignoring the issue when I actually wasn’t certain where you were. I didn’t go to the military because of what it does to Palestinians on a daily basis, I’ve gone to Hebron to see the state of apartheid there, and I despise the Israeli government and everything it does regarding an oppressed people, especially when Jews were oppressed for millennia and should fucking know better. This has been most of my life, ____. I’ve lived there. I’ve dealt with everyone on both sides of the issue telling me I’m a terrible human being for being American and not supporting the Jews and for being Israeli and not supporting the Palestinians when both of those things are false. I have voted in every election I was there for parties that were either aiming to end the occupation [sic]. I lived through the intifada and was scared of my father dying in the bus every day but I never thought that a fringe group of violent folks were indicative of a society and still believe unlike most of my friends that there is a huge human rights issue going on. May 15, 11:59: Sorry for the rant. I’m not mad. I just feel strongly about this. And I’ve had to be defensive for most of my life because of having opinions that were never the popular ones. May 15, 12:26: [Friend’s response.] May 15, 12:59: Okay. Have a good walk. Palestine is also a term that changes according to who you’re talking to in terms of meaning. There’s a whole complex system of ideas of what it would constitute were it to be recognized, yes Jerusalem no Jerusalem, etc. Plus the territory as a whole was called Palestine before Israel was founded and Israel before that and who knows what before that so there’s a whole mess of connotations attached to that term as well. So sure I have no problem with that term, but I think it’s more complex than it seems at first. I hope you have a nice walk xox May 15, 13:27: I’m sorry again. I am not defensive about Israel, just about my position in it as a citizen and someone who grew up in the relative ignorance of children and so was unwittingly complicit. I suppose by living abroad I am complicit in a way as well and I hate that. But I couldn’t deal with it all anymore. I can’t see a lifetime of trying to make people stop hating one another. May 15, 15:50: Are you upset with me? * Who was I addressing that question to, really? Transcribing this from my phone, feeling the words reverberate in my mind, as they travel through my fingers to the screen, I keep thinking “the lady doth protest too much.” What am I defending if not Israel? My right to avoid it? My right to want the occupation to end without being proactive? My right to escape what is theorized to be a country with constant humming state-wide PTSD? There’s elements of that. But there’s also an identity crisis. A need to convince someone that I am Israeli, really, I am, truly, deeply, as much as I deny it, I am of Jewish heritage and Middle Eastern Israeli American upbringing, and both my countries are damned—and that precisely because of that, I believe in human rights. I believe in the rights of Palestinians to have their own land without the constant military fear of Israel. And part of me believes that it is utterly impossible. And yet—and yet I hope I’m wrong. I hope fiercely that I’m wrong. 15
Flirting with Men and Racism in Israel Jonathan Paul Katz
It’s an evening during Chol haMoed Pesach – the middle of Passover – in Israel. Haifa’s train
station is buzzing with people returning from tiyyulim, excursions around the country. I, too, have taken a day trip, during this family visit to the “Jewish state,” to the city where my parents met and my uncle currently lives. I had spent a lovely day hopping between social engagements, catching up with beloved family and friends who are usually too far away. Now, I board the first of two trains back to the leafy suburb of Tel Aviv where my grandparents live, ensconced in the bubble of their South African community. I walk through the train, scanning the cabin for a free seat, preferably away from the loud children that seemingly fill every row. Finally, in the back, I notice an attractive man in one of the seats – he has tan skin with a greyish tinge, a short, muscular build, a trim beard, and thick black-rimmed glasses. He looks like the men my eyes tend to linger on back home. I take the free seat across from him, open a French book, and settle in for the half-hour ride to Binyamina, where I will change trains. My seatmate answers his cell phone and says a few short sentences in Arabic. The tone is soft. Maybe it’s his girlfriend or his mom, I think as I turn to read the book on my lap. Five minutes in, and I’m lost in my reading. Then, I hear a voice – it’s the young man across from me. “Que lises-tu?” What are you reading? he asks me in French. He has a slight Arabic accent in his French, and a friendly tone. He has used the informal tu rather than the “proper” vous you’re supposed to use for a stranger. I look up and smile at him. I show him the book cover – Un ange cornu avec les ailes de tôle (A Horned Angel with Metal Wings) by Michel Tremblay. “Tu le connais?” Do you know it? I ask, returning his tu. “C’est québecois. It’s from Québec.” He chuckles. “Unfortunately not. Are you Canadian?” He smiles softly. “Nope, but I speak their French.” A dati le’umi – Modern Orthodox – couple sitting across from me is staring at us. “Well,” he says, “your accent is charming, my friend.” I blush. Is he flirting with me?
“Not as much as yours,” I reply. He bites his lip. It’s cute when he bites his lip. We chat a little more. His name is Mohammed, he lives in Haifa, he is going to the south of the country to see his cousin. I tell him about New York and my time with my grandparents. We talk a little more, mostly about how and where we learned French. Mohammed’s hitting on me the whole time—“ta voix est si élégante!” your voice is so elegant!—and even leans over once or twice to brush my knee with his hand. He’s pulled up his shirtsleeves; I find myself increasingly distracted by the heft of his forearms. Then we reach the Binyamina station, where I have to transfer. I rush off with a hurried ciao, disembark behind the dati le’umi couple just as the doors are closing. On the next train, I’m wired. I, socially awkward Jonathan, was flirting with a handsome man in French and it was awesome. I was flirting with a man in homophobic Israel, where under the ads for gay beaches in Tel Aviv, toxic heterosexual masculinity is alive and well; where adulthood continues directly from the Army and its competitive straightness, after all. I’m jumpy and the words on the page before me swim into a mess of black and white. I’m happy. And kind of proud. The dati le’umi couple from the first train, now sitting across the aisle on this train, is staring at me in an awkward silence. “You know, um,” the man begins in English, and the heavy nasals of his American accent seem to take over the train car. “Um, you, reading the French book.” I look up. The man frowns. “You shouldn’t be talking to men like that,” he says. I’m confused. “Like what?” I ask. “Arabs!” He says. “It’s not safe.” “It’s not proper for Jews to talk to Arabs,” the woman continued. “They’re dangerous. Foreigners like you don’t know that.” “Histaleq!” Beat it! I respond in Hebrew. I roll my eyes and turn back to my book. The train’s automated announcement comes over the PR system: “ha-takhana ha-va’ah, Herzliyya,” Next station, Herzliyya. Oh good, I think. I get up to go to the train door, but the couple follows me. The man stands close to me. “You should have called the police. Men like him shouldn’t be on our trains.” He’s clearly trying to impress me with his Hebrew, the “local.” His pronunciation of mishtarah, “police,” is forceful. I respond this time in English. “What’s it to you?” They stare at me like I’m a lost cause. The woman turns to the man and whispers something involving the word “learn.” The train pulls into the station and I get off. I get off the train, fuming, and begin the walk back to my grandparents’ apartment. What business was it of this cartoonish couple’s anyways, who talks to and flirts with whom? Was it a threat to their own sense of safety, to their racist fantasy of what Israel should be? Or was it simply garden-variety racism, the same kind I encounter in American and South African contexts? As I walk from the station along Herzliyya’s main road, I find myself lost in my own thoughts, wondering as to the intentions of the couple. I realize, after my anger subsides, I never did ask for Mohammed’s number.
My Great-Grandfather’s Grave: Russian-Speaking Jews and the Israeli Occupation Oksana Mironova
My great-grandfather, Abram Borisovich
Rakhlin, was orphaned sometime around the Russian Revolution. The establishment of the Soviet state was arbitrarily violent and brutal. Abram’s survival is both statistically anomalous, and central to my family’s lore. Benefiting from a brief moment of loosened quotas on Jewish enrollment in universities, Abram started medical school in the late 1920s. However, with ramped up militarization, he was drafted into the Red Army. By the time the Soviet Union entered into World War II, Abram was a seasoned officer, having participated in the undeclared SovietJapanese Border War. Before this military engagement, Abram got married to another Jewish orphan. Between 1939 and 1945, Abram traversed the expanse of the Soviet Union, acting as a Soviet emissary to Josip Broz Tito’s partisans toward the end of the war. After the war, he received what by all accounts seems like a cushy Abram Borisovich Rakhlin’s grave. Photo courtesy posting in the Republic of Georgia. of the author My relatives describe Abram with a mixture of fear and awe. Layers of mythology obscure his actual personality. Descriptions of him are characteristic of the generation of Soviet Jews whose lives were punctuated by WWI, the Russian Revolution, and WWII: tough, haunted, and generally difficult to be around. While my great-grandfather was settling into his postwar life, men and women shaped and haunted by the same set of historical circumstances were in the process of defining Israel’s identity and trajectory. The period after WWII saw a return of explicit anti-Semitism into Soviet policy, which was deeply rooted in the political and economic structures of the Russian Empire prior to the Russian Revolution. The newly established Soviet state abolished Tsarist era anti-Jewish laws, most notably Jewish quotas and the Pale of Settlement, a geographic region in imperial Russia used to control Jewish settlement patterns. While Judaism (along with Christianity and Islam) was frowned upon by the Soviet Union, there was a brief flowering of secular Yiddish culture, and in the early 1920s, the Yiddishist-Socialist intelligentsia even managed to establish a modern, secular Yiddish educational system. However, the repression that followed Stalin’s consolidation of power quickly suppressed all non-state-sanctioned institutions. Stalin’s persecution of ethnic minorities was by no means limited to the Jews, as he oversaw the deportations of Crimean Tatars, Chechens and Ingush, and Azeris, among many others, during and after WWII. Stalin began ramping up his campaign against the Jews after the war, with the 1948 prosecution of “rootless cosmopolitans,” resulting in the execution of many
prominent Jewish authors and artists, and the 1953 Doctor’s Plot, which precipitated the arrest and execution of Jewish doctors. Many historians view the Doctor’s Plot as a possible first step toward a more open campaign by Stalin against the Jews, which did not come to fruition because of Stalin’s death in 1953. After Stalin, anti-Semitism persisted, but became more indirect. While the danger of arrest and murder by the state faded for the most part, the threat of casual street violence, university quotas and limited access to certain occupations continued. The Soviet Union’s decision to support the Arab states in the Arab-Israeli conflict reinforced its unofficial policy of anti-Semitism. When Soviet Jews began to exert their identities, or to seek exit visas, official statements were careful to frame the resulting repression as a process for rooting out Zionism. A small number of Jews were allowed to leave. Some went to Israel. Others, through complicated bureaucratic, cross-state maneuvering, ended up in the U.S. Many of those who were refused exit visas and aggressively persecuted by the state became identified as a victimized political class: the refuseniks. Soviet Jewish identity continued to be defined by martyrdom and victimhood, as Jewish activists received 10 to 20 year Gulag sentences. For the generation of Soviet Jews that heard about, witnessed, or directly experienced these arrests, Israel became an infallible and spiritually pure idea, whether or not they intended to immigrate there. As more and more Jews sought to leave the Soviet Union, a confluence of internal and external policies created an opportunity for a slow trickle of immigration to the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, which became a wave after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. As the efforts of the refuseniks became well-publicized in the United States, heavy lobbying from the Jewish community—especially organizations established in the wake of America’s failure to address the world’s last great refugee crisis during the Holocaust (mirroring America’s contemporary hostility to refugees)—pushed through legislation that tied the Soviet Union’s ability to trade with the United States to a mandate lifting restrictions on emigration. This small amendment to an act regulating U.S. trade policies with non-market economies became relevant as the Soviet economy in the 1980s—under the heavy weight of multiple military engagements— began to completely come apart. Gorbachev liberalized the Soviet Union’s immigration policies in 1988, and a very large number of Soviet Jews used the opportunity to leave. At the same time, as part of the U.S.’s broader anti-communist policies, the U.S. passed the Lautenberg Amendment, which granted Russian Jews refugee status. My family, along with hundreds of thousands of others, quickly learned to negotiate the bureaucratic complexities of another empire. Words like grinkarta became part of everyone’s lexicon, followed by Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and New York Association for New Americans (NYANA). My family’s Columbus was my grandfather’s distant cousin who made it to southern Brooklyn in the 1970s. She got a coveted Section 8 voucher and found a rent stabilized apartment on Avenue P. My great-aunt, who lived in the same apartment in Tbilisi that Abram received as part of his commission, followed in 1990. My great-uncle left in 1991. My grandfather, the last of Abram’s three children, left in 1993. Abram passed away in 1979, not living to see his family’s exodus from the state he undoubtedly had complex feelings about. Today, there are anywhere between 500,000 to 750,000 post-Soviet Jews in the U.S., with about half in the New York City metro area. From the ubiquitous influence of Brighton Beach’s “Little Odessa” on Russian and Ukrainian Jewish culture in the U.S., to Bukharan Jews in Rego Park and Forest Hills, to the pockets of Azeri, Georgian, and Tajik Jews in southern Brooklyn, there is a multitude of post-Soviet American Jewish identities that have developed in the past 30 years. Despite the cultural differences between them, most post-Soviet Jews in the U.S., including my family, provide unquestionable support for Israel, in parallel to Russian-speaking Jews in Israel who tend to vote for right-wing parties. 19
There are multilayered and sometimes contradictory reasons for this support. Due to the accidental nature of immigration, many families share transnational ties between Israel and the Soviet Union. In addition, the reliance of frequently lower-income post-Soviet Jews on American Jewish institutions (in the U.S.) or the Israeli government (in Israel) for both material support and Jewish education, both brings them into contact with, and establishes a dependent relationship on, institutions that promote dominant ideas in the Jewish establishment: namely that Israel is under attack and needs to be protected. Many older post-Soviet Jews have clear memories of the anti-Zionist Soviet rhetoric, and balk at critiques of Israel, no matter how valid. Many have a general distaste for anything left of center, and any language, slogans, or tactics (like academic boycotts) that are reminiscent of those used by the Soviet state. Unsurprisingly, the post-Soviet Jewish vision of Israel, born out of experienced victimization or transgenerational trauma, continues to closely align with Zev Jabotinskyâ€™s romantic nationalism. This vision does not leave room for an end to the occupation. There is not a cohesive lived experience among post-Soviet Jewish immigrants. However, many of us share the alienation associated with displacement and immigration, and carry the weight of transgenerational trauma, including the anti-Semitism experienced by our great-grandparents and grandparents. I have often heard other post-Soviet Jews use these experiences as justifications for Israeli state repression. As a result of my early identification with leftist politics, I have never shared this viewpoint. However, I do understand how unflinching support for Israel emerges out of the Soviet Jewish experience, which was largely defined by Soviet policy limiting information about, and access to, Israel. I have only a couple of concrete physical objects that I associate with my great-grandfather. There is a small, faded photo of him in full uniform in the former Yugoslavia, his etching of a bucolic landscape somewhere in the Caucasus mountains, and a photo I took last year of his well-maintained gravestone in a semi-abandoned Ashkenazi cemetery in Tbilisi. His life, as a Soviet Jew, was defined by state violence. I find that the best way to honor his memory is to reject policies that create yet another generation of people whose lives are defined by violence.
How the IDF Failed to Indoctrinate Me Colin Meinrath
When I was still in high school, I went on a summer trip to Israel.
We traveled the whole country with other Jewish teens from across the United States. There was so much to take in. Walking the streets of Jerusalem was incredible. Many of the buildings there are hundreds of years old, and some date back thousands. At the time, my interest in history was just emerging, and this journey was full of opportunities to learn about the past. We were told about the importance of having a Jewish homeland, and how this homeland was under a constant threat of destruction by people who hated us. The origins of this homeland were left somewhat murky. In a museum, we were shown a picture of David Ben-Gurion, and told that he was like the George Washington of Israel. The history of the region before the Second World War was not discussed at all. After I began I learn some of this history, it became clear why this was. The Jewish National Fund was created in 1901 to buy up land within the mandate of Palestine for Jewish settlement. Only Jewish settlers were permitted to work land purchased by the fund, and absentee landlords from around the region were happy to sell their plots for the right price. For a while, Jewish settlers and Palestinian peasants got along pretty well. But before long a vicious cycle of dispossession began, as Palestinians whoâ€™d worked the land for generations were replaced by European Jewish workers and driven rapidly into urban slums. This is when serious resentment began to set in. As tensions rose within the British mandate of Palestine during the 1920s, a number of Jewish paramilitary groups were formed, nominally for self-defense. Nobody played a greater role in this than a man named Zev Jabotinsky. He was born in Russia with the name Vladimir, but he changed his name to Zev, meaning wolf, when he started studying Hebrew. As a young man, he became known as a strong speaker and leader aligned with militant Zionism. He helped in forming Jewish self-defense units while still in Russia, and continued this practice in Palestine. These paramilitaries were eventually consolidated into the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF. For part of the trip, we got to choose an elective. Amidst a range of outdoor and cultural activities, there was Gadna, which was a few days of training with the IDF. This was the activity I chose. Each day consisted of our unit doing several tasks (cleaning mainly) that were timed and monitored. At the time, I felt that the strict discipline was good for me. Between random tasks and physical training we also had ideological lessons. I remember one of them vividly. We sat on the floor of a small room with our commander, less than ten of us, all youths from the United States. She gave us a scenario: we were on a covert mission in a nondescript village, hunting nondescript terrorists. A child sees our unit, and is about to alert the rest of the townspeople. Our choice was this: kill the child and continue the mission or let the child live and blow it.
Arielle Angel 21
When this situation was presented to us, we had only a few minutes to give our responses. It’s been on my mind ever since. Most gave the answer that the officer seemed to want: shoot the child. I was very taken aback by this. It didn’t line up with the noble things we’d been told about Israel during the trip, or what I’d seen on the news back in the United States. While most Zionist leaders proclaimed that the native Arab population must be treated with kindness and respect, a vocal few disagreed. Zev Jabotinsky wrote the following in his 1923 pamphlet, The Iron Wall: We cannot give any compensation for Palestine, neither to the Palestinians nor to other Arabs. Therefore, a voluntary agreement is inconceivable. All colonization, even the most restricted, must continue in defiance of the will of the native population. Therefore, it can continue and develop only under the shield of force which comprises an Iron Wall which the local population can never break through. This is our Arab policy. To formulate it any other way would be hypocrisy. During our trip to Israel, we were systematically taught a one-sided history of the State of Israel. Far from making me into a fervent Zionist, this made me eager to seek out the other sides of the story.
A Child’s Nation, A Nation’s Child Liat Mayer
Fear’s network is habituated into my body.
Sometimes it’s triggered by reading the news, being overwhelmed by popular media’s focus on plane disappearances or ISIS violence. I fall prey to fear, thinking of the supporters of authoritarianism and what befalls the world when they gain momentum and take control. World War II is not that far away in my cultural memory. Perhaps my fear stems from having attended a Jewish day school from elementary through middle school that instilled the experience and memory of the Holocaust regularly. Perhaps it was my time growing up in Israel, a society ravaged by the trauma, guilt, fear, shame, and nationalist hubris that came with surviving and moving on. Acknowledging this cultural inheritance of fear, and the weight of carrying it around, I feel how my fears are begging to be calmed. I moved to Israel from Milwaukee with my parents and older sister when I was four years old. There was an element in both my parents’ Zionism born out of a desire for another identity besides the ChristianArielle Angel oriented consumer culture available to them in America. We lived in Israel together for three years, until the first Gulf War in 1990. My mom and sister left quickly for safety in France and the United States when the war broke out, but my father and I stayed in Israel, moving around from place to place because our apartment in Tel Aviv did not have a safe room we could seal off in case of chemical attacks. We carried gas masks around with us everywhere. After a month’s time, my mother returned to take me out of the country and my father followed suit. The reason he had stayed and I with him was somewhat unclear. In retrospect, he struggled with mental illness that fed into delusion and paranoia about anti-Semitism, which fit well within a framework of Zionist nationalism. He would move back to Israel permanently, not returning to the U.S. for the rest of his life. His is but one among many reasons people are drawn to a nationalist outlook, to comfort and calm both founded and unfounded fears. As a 7-year-old returning to America, I struggled with writing backwards and fitting in. My time in Israel was formative, and also deeply tied to my desire to stay close with my father. In fourth grade I wrote a poem about my experience in the Gulf War which showed me later in life that as a child I thought I stayed in Israel during the war because I was a good nationalist—I stood my ground, I did not waver in my love of country, I stood by my comrades during difficulty. I was passionate about Israel for many years, longing for it as my true home. At Zionist summer camp, I idealized and looked up to the Israeli soldiers who were brought there as counselors. But by middle school, I had begun to distance myself from the pain such 23
longing caused me, and to problematize the history I’d been taught about the world. Israel began to fall from its pedestal. In my junior year of high school, I moved to Jerusalem to live with my father. I felt like this was my last chance to be a child in my father’s home. Three months later the Second Intifada broke out. The Second Intifada was very present in Jerusalem, with buses, restaurants, markets, and neighborhoods affected by suicide bombings and gunfire. Some of my Israeli classmates would later leave the country, and resist in various ways, but at that time, they had not yet begun to engage deeply with the conflict around them. I, on the other hand, found myself very conscious of the ways in which Israeli history and policy was implicated as an impetus for the Palestinian uprising. I also saw how Zionist nationalist rhetoric pervaded everything: from the creation of national food brands, to patriotic commemorations with emotional songs and rituals, to the segregation of Palestinians and erasure of their history on the land. From my position as insider and outsider—as a budding American anarchist and as a daughter shedding her intense longing for Israel in its modern form of nation-state—I had to go through a process of rage, powerlessness, grief, shame, and acceptance around my relationship to Israel and the nationalism it had inspired in me. After I left as a senior in high-school, I refused to go back for four years because of the destruction and degradation of Palestinian lives and homes, but eventually, I felt I needed to see my father. When I did finally visit, I protested the building of the separation wall in Hebron and other places in the West Bank. At the protests in Palestine, I found that what was eye opening was not something new, but something old. Even though I had worked to not think or feel negatively or prejudicially about Palestinians, my body still felt the fear it had been taught. As I joined a gathering of Palestinian men chanting with posters in Arabic, like I had seen on TV, I felt the contrast of actually being in a real place with real people as another real person, and at the same time, feeling the rush of images, ideas, stories, that I had grown up with about the “Other.” I never took on the rhetoric of hate, but I realized then that I had not avoided the rhetoric of fear that fuels so much hateful action. It was impressed on my body, even as I had avoided it prevailing as a belief about others. During these new experiences in Palestine, I observed myself without completely aligning with what arose in me. I take responsibility for my fears. They come not only from larger forces but also personal experiences I have survived. I have found that in many ways, fear’s pathways in the body mirror old physical wounds, so when it rains, it’s my scarred ankle, broken over ten years ago, that hurts. There are often reasons to feel fearful, and fear has an important function in the mechanics of survival, but that does not mean that we do not have, as individuals and as a culture, the tools to reassess the feelings of being threatened, to calm our bodies before our minds begin to race.
how many jews are/ destroyed in this country each year? Ben Nadler
In his poem “New Year,” d.a. levy recounts experiences of observing Rosh Hashanah from
1948, when he was six years old, through to 1968, the year the poem was written. At some point in the 1950s, levy accompanies his father to synagogue services “to hear that haunting/ language for a moment.” However, levy and his father are soon kicked out of their seats, which are reserved for those who have purchased expensive tickets. levy writes: we left & it was thus i completed my external jewish education My father was right we never visited another temple and now i wonder how many jews are destroyed in this country each year. These lines always resonate with me, because I can remember my own father walking out of a Philadelphia-area Reform synagogue in disgust, never to return. Unlike levy’s father, my father (and his parents) always paid membership dues and bought High Holiday tickets. But they couldn’t stomach jingoistic sermons, Israeli flags on the bimah, Israeli Independence Day commemorations which didn’t mention the expulsion—or existence—of Palestinians. When my family attempted to question these things, they were ignored, or effectively silenced. The choice was presented clearly: You can embrace nationalism and be a Jew with us here, or you can leave. So we left. Jews are only truly Jews when we are together—as the saying goes, ten cobblers (levy’s dad was a shoe salesman, by the way) can make a minyan, but nine rabbis can’t—and for a Jew to be shut out of the community is for them be destroyed as a Jew. I know we aren’t the only ones who have experienced this. We aren’t the only ones who loved the culture and languages (in our case, Yiddish) of the diaspora, who rejected tribalism 25
and nationalism, who wanted something more out of our ancient tradition than the uniform veneration of a modern, militarized nation state. But when I was growing up, those people had no place in the American Jewish world. They were pushed out. So like levy, I wondered how many Jews are destroyed in this country each year. There is no way to know what levy would have thought of the ongoing occupation, because he killed himself in 1968, when it was just beginning to unfold. He was in no uncertain terms a radical, who opposed the war in Vietnam and preached liberation. Famously, these outspoken views led to his arrest on obscenity charges, and a protracted free speech battle with the city of Cleveland. On the other hand, the land of Israel held a strong place in levy’s mystical, romantic world view. “when did the first images/ appear in my head?” he asks in “New Year”: ‘a place with sand where it was warm—the blue sky—strange trees’ my fathers eye had never turned from Israel And of course, there’s no way to know what a dead young man might have thought had he aged, and witnessed history. What we do know, though, is that levy printed poetry chapbooks, literary magazines, and underground newspapers, like the The Marahwannah Quarterly and Third Class Buddhist Junkmail Oracle. His mimeograph and letterpress publications were important predecessors of zines. levy is part of the American Jewish radical tradition, as are Allen Ginsberg and Tuli Kupferberg (of the Fugs), who both participated in the benefit for levy’s legal defense. Decades before them there were Jewish anarchists in America, like the publishers of the Yiddishlanguage Fraye Arbeter Shtime newspaper, who swore to support no nation state, anywhere, ever. Contributors to Fraye Arbeter Shtime included Anna Margolin, David Edelstadt, and Emma Goldman. For a long time I didn’t know about most of these ancestors, these dissident people of the book, and I didn’t know to look for them. But I started finding clues that there were ways to be Jewish without compromising one’s political conscience. I remember being in a punk house in West Philly and hearing a CD by Black Ox Orkestar playing on the stereo. It was shocking to hear klezmer in this context. This was a band which sang in Yiddish about nationalism and militarism, which compared the state of Israel to the Golem, and spoke about ending the occupation. They hadn’t had to choose between playing Jewish music or rejecting nationalism. Jewishness was theirs as much as anyone’s. I never really found my way back inside a synagogue, but I found other Jews in the streets. In 2012, I attended a Rosh Hashanah service in Zuccotti Park, celebrating both the Jewish New Year, and the anniversary of the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Two years later, in the summer of 2014, I stumbled upon IfNotNow’s Tish’a B’Av service in Grand Army Plaza, lamenting the destruction during “Operation Protective Edge.” That summer was a time when I felt farthest from the American Jewish community, and most terrified by its silence. So I was amazed that young Jews had found a way to express their rage and pain at this horrific violence by turning towards Jewish tradition, rather than away from it. Our Hebrew prayers were no longer rote; they became conscious lamentations for innocent people killed in Gaza. Rosh Hashanah 5777 passed recently. This is a painful number: it represents a full half-century of occupation. My eye has never turned from what is happening in Israel and Palestine. But this year I am asking: How many American Jews won’t let themselves be destroyed this year?
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Jewish Narratives Confronting the Occupation