4 Suggestions for an American Jew navigating Israel-Palestine discourse during the Gaza crisis and in general (Part 1 of 2)

”I come from an orthodox background, and the fact that I am no longer religious makes my opinions even more easily dismissable. Right now I’m just at ‘I refuse to take sides’ and ‘I don’t want to talk about this.’ Neither of which are honest… I was thinking there are likely many others like me, so it might make a good blog post, offering some sort of advice for Jews living in America faced with the eerily one-sided dialogue that is all too common in our communities.”

This was part of an email I recently received from a friend of a friend. She said that she has been reading this blob, and has found points of resonance and hope, and continued with the above. I responded, asking her to write some specific questions. Her questions are below, with my suggested answers after each.

I am not an expert. I am not a researcher. I am not a Sociologist. And yet, my opinions are objectively true. Kidding, kidding: of course, everything I write is biased. While I have spent the last six years (and the last thirteen years, to a lesser degree), searching for answers and trying to ask what I see as the right questions about Israel-Palestine, activism, violence, et cetera, everything I believe has been shaped through the prisms of my experiences.

With that, here goes:

Big picture: 

(1) Do I have a place in this discourse? I’m not Israeli and I’m not a Zionist – what am I doing here? Do I have a right to an opinion?

Yes. Resoundingly, entirely, yes. This is applicable to anyone, Jewish or non-Jewish: the issue of Israel-Palestine is an internationally important issue. It is not the most severe human rights crisis in the world (pro-Israeli Goverment pundits are right to note that Bashar al-Assad’s policies are far more murderous and oppressive than Bibi Netanyahu’s. However, their rhetoric fails to convince when it becomes clear that it is just that: rhetoric, and they care about as much about the people in Homs as they do about in the people in Shujaiyeh, ie., not much at all). The numbers of people being killed here do not compare to numbers being killed in other places (the ongoing violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has claimed more lives than any other conflict since World War II, and many people don’t even know that it is happening). But there are serious, horrible things being done here, and the suffering is real and immense. Additionally: the international community is relatively aware of the situation, and people pay relatively close attention to and care about what happens here, and therein lies the greatest chance that things will change and get better in the nearish future.

Apartheid South Africa was not the single worst oppression in the world at its time, but it was horrible, and it became an important part of international discourse. Or, if the apartheid metaphor does not resonate, let’s talk about activism in support of Soviet Jewry: in this case, it was we, the Jews, who called on non-Jews and non-Russians and so forth to get involved, because what was happening was wrong, and because the international community had the capability to influence the situation. And they did. And that was right and decent and good, even though it was not the single worst human rights issue in the world, and even though the US was probably doing or supporting far worse things in Central America contemporaneously.

So. What are my criteria, then, as to whether one has the right to voice their opinion, if they are not national- or identity-based criteria? Your next question touches on them directly.

(2) If I care about what happens to Israel but I’m not a Zionist – what am I? 

The kind of activist most needed on this issue. What I understand you to be saying is that you care about what happens to Israeli people and Israeli society, but you are not supportive of an Israeli State Zionism that seeks to expel Palestinians from the land, or a Diaspora Zionism that sees Israel as the only home for Jews, and for Jews only– is that right? (One sec: lemme email and check before proceeding).

[Exactly. Yes.]

In that case, I want to re-frame what I just said: I think that anyone who can can access decency and differentiation has the right to speak on this issue. By decency, I mean the ultimate desire for maximum well-being of other human beings, as contrasted to concern for only people of a certain race or religion or nationality at the expense of others.

What do I mean by differentiation?

Too often, people in the diaspora mix up taking a stance against Israeli policy with taking a stance against Israeli (or Jewish) people. The worst cases are those like British MP George Galloway’s recent call to ban Israeli tourists from a part of the UK, which is simple, hateful bigotry, and cases from ‘the other side,’ in which folks like the ADL’s Abe Foxman conflate critique of Israel with hatred of Jews (and thus also conflate support of Israel with support for Jews, even in the most dubious cases…). And there are also less extreme and more commonplace instances that happen all the time in which “Israelis/Jews” and “the State of Israel” are mixed up and seen as the same. That is a failure of both differentiation and decency.

A “State” is “the monopoly over the legitimate use of violence in a given territory.” I think anyone should feel free to critique each and every one of ’em, and also to specifically critique States that claim the mantle of Democracy but fall short, like the State of Israel or the State of the United States of America or the State of Russia, or other violence-monopolies (When we phrase it like that, States sound a lot like Mafias, no? We tolerate their violence and ugly deeds, and in exchange, they give us protection from real or imagined enemies, or else…)

“Israelis,” on the other hand, are folks like me and my wife and and the four little kids with huge backpacks running down my street right now (one of them is a Jewish Israeli, two are African Israelis, one is a Thai Israeli- I live in one of the better neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, and also one that has been severely stigmatized by the media, but condescending and inaccurate and well-read media is a connected-but-also-separate story). Or the two women, one Palestinian and one Jewish, who clean the health clinic across the street and whom I saw this morning sitting on the stoop outside of my building, smoking (and teasing me about my haircut). Or these guys. And so on. The ability to care about Israelis without being a Zionist, or to care about Palestinians without being a Palestinian Nationalist, is a crucial ability that should be nurtured, uplifted and given more centrality in the discourse. It is humane and decent– which is not to say that there aren’t humane and decent ways to be Zionist or Palestinian Nationalist: there are. This point is just to emphasize that one need not show their Nationalist or National Credentials in order to prove that they care profoundly about the people living here.

(3) Many Jews in America seem to categorically support all things Israel does – how do you explain this? Is it worth trying to fight?

Hmm. This is quite a question. I want to restate that I am just one young dweeb with lots of opinions, so keep that in mind. With that, I’m happy to give my shnekel, as it were. So: I think my answer to the first clause of your question, which I agree with, is threefold.

First, I explain it empathetically. Many Jews in America do categorically support all things Israel does, like many Jews in Israel, and this is not because they are bad or hateful people, but because of the real, crippling fear -a direct result of our collective trauma, and, to a lesser degree, a failure on the part of some our community leaders to turn this trauma into an imperative for just action on behalf of others, as some others did (not a full but a fun wiki-list, going in both directions (those who did and those who did not), here).

Second, I explain it humanly. Most people don’t break from the molds that are born or raised or pushed into. Most white-Americans supported segregation, or at least were indifferent about it, most public-Americans supported the Iraq war, or at least were indifferent about it.

Third, I explain it with an immense amount of disappointment and a decent amount of hope that it can change: Just because this is how things have been, it does not mean that it is how things must be.

It is worth trying to fight? I surely think so. And thankfully, there are hundreds of thousands of others who agree and are trying to push back against our community’s blanket support for Israeli policy (vis-a-vis the Palestinians), each in their own way, from the grassroots of If Not Now and Open Hillel and All That’s Left to the more established groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and J Street and the New Israel Fund and so on.

(4) How are programs like Birthright (propaganda experiences) serving to hold us back from true dialogue?

While propaganda may seem to some like an extreme word, as a past participant of Birthright myself, I agree that Birthright is, essentially, a propaganda experience. Now, that is not bad in and of itself- we all promote and consume and are swept up in various forms of propaganda, constantly. The bad part is that many do not recognize it as such. Birthright participants should be know that their trip is every bit as ideological as a CAMERA-funded venture, just less open about its bias.

We live in a world of capitalism: when something is free, it generally has an agenda (like this blob! My agenda is to convince people that the occupation is bad and worth opposing and endable, to uplift nonviolence and love and anti-oppression, to sort out my own thoughts, and also to gain recognition as someone who thinks good thoughts, hoping that my grandchildren will be proud of me when I’m dead. That is my agenda). Birthright lists it goals as follows: ”The vision of Taglit-Birthright Israel is to strengthen Jewish identity, Jewish communities and solidarity with Israel by providing a 10-day trip to Israel for young Jewish people.” Which sounds nice, but could also mean a whole host of things (Jewish identity including the non-Zionist parts of Jewish identity? Solidarity with the Israeli people? Or just the Israeli State? Or both? What about being in solidarity with Israeli people who are struggling against policies of the Israeli State? And so on).

I also think that these are only some of Birthright’s goals. It’s important to look a bit deeper, and to recall that Birthright has received well over 140 million dollars to date from Sheldon Adelson. Recall that Sheldon Adelson has said publicly that Palestinians are an imaginary people and yet “There isn’t a Palestinian alive who wasn’t raised on a curriculum of hatred and hostility toward the Jews,” and that “The Muslims…want to kill 100 percent of the Jews.”

With that in mind, just the trailer to Mor Loushy’s film, Israel Lt’d, shows some of Birthright’s more explicit Sheldony-moments:

How does Birthright hold us back from true dialogue? By perpetuating a status quo in which Palestinians either ignored or demonized and in which the Israeli State and military are painted as The Paragons of Jewish identity. Which ties back to the critical need for decency and differentiation.

I’ll stop here for now.


 Stay tuned for Part II, on more Day to Day questions (and in the meantime, feel free to submit other questions, critiques, comments, etc. (Regardless of identity! This one was focused specifically on American Jews as that was the requested framing, but that is only one of many crucial conversations going on about all this… Stuff).