Pursue Justice: For Young American Jews Searching For Answers In Trying Times

I write this as an American Jew, now a thirtysomething, who once thought I understood everything I needed to know about Israel. At synagogue growing up, the Rabbi’s sermon would often explain our collective support for Israel and the importance of Israel to Jews around the world. At family gatherings, older relatives, my grandfather, my great uncle, my mother, my cousins, would talk politics and I would absorb information from the opinions they gave. I thought I knew what I needed to know because I had traveled to Israel and my madrich (guide), a student at the prestigious Hebrew University, explained why Israel took the actions it took.

These influences definitely strengthened my Jewish identity, but as a twenty-something making my way in the world, I was confronted with angry protests over Israel’s actions during the Second Intifada. I did not understand why young progressives would identify with Palestinians when I, a young progressive myself, was taught that they were an invented people intent on doing violence to Jews who only wanted a place of our own on earth.

But the problem with teaching young Jews to love Israel is that the more emotionally involved we get, the more we want to solve Israel’s problems. And it would be difficult to solve any problem without first understanding why anyone would ever support the other side, right? So, that is when I began to read and listen. I began to understand that there was a whole lot that I did not know. I felt like a traitor, but I felt compelled to listen to the voices that told me I did not know anything close to the whole story. Palestinians do exist and there are at least four million of them living under Israeli control. They are also not interchangeable with other Arabs, but are rather connected to their homes, communities and identities.

These past several weeks have brought staggering violence in the Middle East, first with the revelation that three teenage Israeli boys had been kidnapped and murdered and then with the horrifying murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir of Jerusalem. Almost immediately afterward, the Israeli government began bombarding Gaza from the air as rockets fired in from Gaza on Israeli cities and towns. The official reason Israel gives for this latest round of strikes is to defeat Hamas, but we know that even if the Israelis succeed in delivering a crushing blow Hamas, this will probably not end Palestinian resistance or bring peace anytime soon. So, the time to learn is now.

The following is the best advice I have, as someone who has been a young Jew and who has felt the pain and cognitive dissonance that comes from the hot rhetoric and polarizing emotions Israel brings up. So, here goes:

1) Listen To Palestinians In Their Own Words

First, we must learn from many perspectives and sources if we want to understand. We must read, surf the net, travel, and ask others. Do not allow anyone to tell you that ANY perspective is out of bounds. I encourage you to read from the right and the left and beyond. Most importantly, read the words of Palestinians themselves; don’t simply be content with reading pro-Israel characterizations of their views, or decontextualized quotes in the media. Read the Electronic Intifada, or Permission to Narrate, or Jadaliyya. Read novels, like Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin. Watch films, like Five Broken Cameras or pretty much anything by Hany Abu-Assad.

2) Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge Your Beliefs

On Facebook the other day, an Israeli friend of a friend wrote the following comment in response to the death of a Palestinian in Gaza: “ I can assure you that I don’t know of a single Israeli who is happy about them; nobody here passes around sweets when an innocent Palestinian is killed.” Like her, I once believed certain axioms about Israel and the Palestinians that I now realize were rooted in prejudice. I believed that Israelis don’t celebrate when Palestinians are killed. Well, stories such as this one, and this one, and this one, seem to refute that idea. Some Israelis do rejoice when innocent Palestinians are killed. And it’s not because Israelis are so awful, but rather because they are human beings, capable of the full range of human behavior, some of it laudable, some of it not so laudable. So are the Palestinians, who have among them both secular and religious people, progressives, conservatives, capitalists, feminists, and everything in between. Contrary to disparaging opinion pieces like this one, they love their children as much as we love ours. So, if you care about getting to peace and about being part of the solution, don’t be afraid to go deep and discard old prejudices. As a rule of thumb, if you would feel insulted were someone to characterize Jewish culture the way some article or statement characterizes Palestinian culture, look deeper.

3) You Cannot Get It All From One Source

When I was in college, Jewish community leaders would consistently tell us to stay away from “biased” sources and media. Worse advice has never been given to young people. First of all, there are plenty of sources they characterized as unbiased which in fact had an agenda, but which were written persuasively, so that they seemed like absolute, irrefutable truth. Take with a grain of salt any material you are offered which claims to be “unbiased facts.” Trust me, there are a lot of facts. Second, when it comes to Israel/Palestine, there are many voices you should read. If you want to be informed, you cannot get all of your information from any one source or one perspective. So, my advice to you is get them all! Read Zionists and anti-Zionists, women and men, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, right and left! Read them all!

4) Reach Out

When I first started feeling misgivings about the community’s positions on Israel, I thought I was the only Jewish person in the world who felt this way. After being derided by some Jewish classmates for choosing to attend a New York City antiwar demonstration, I found a rag tag group of young (and a few old enough to be my grandparents) Jewish radicals calling themselves Jews Against the Occupation. That group of people changed my life forever and helped me connect my love for Jewish identity with my changing understanding of Israel. Now, there are so many Jews who feel the way we did back then, you should have no trouble finding your folk. If you need to connect, the rabbinical council of Jewish Voice for Peace is offering spiritual support during the Gaza crisis.

5) Always Be A Self-Loving Jew

Despite assertions to the contrary, I live my life with deep reverence for my Jewish heritage. If anything, being on this journey has introduced me to new expressions of being Jewish that were not emphasized by my suburban Zionist upbringing. I knew very little, for instance, about Jewish workers and the social movements they created at the turn of the 20th century or the Mizrahi Jewish experience in Israel. I still go to synagogue, observe Jewish holidays, and participate in Jewish community where I am able to and welcome to. There is no contradiction between supporting Palestinians rights and being a good Jew, in fact, many would argue that this is what the Torah means when it instructs us ‘V’Ahavta L’Reacha Kamocha’ or ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ All the rest is commentary.

We owe it to ourselves, to our future children, to our ancestors who struggled so we could live freely as Jews in this moment to challenge ourselves, to reach out, and to add our voices to the discussion. Use this time of terrible sadness, of violence and anger, to transform your own voice into one that speaks peace.

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