Struggling to talk about Israel? Start by listening

Community members gather to mark the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'av last week by, in a service hosted by Jewish Voice for Peace at Volunteer Park. (Photo courtesy Eitan Isaacson).
Community members gather to mark the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’av last week by, in a service hosted by Jewish Voice for Peace at Volunteer Park. (Photo courtesy Eitan Isaacson).

I grew up thinking that Tisha B’av was only for hardcore Jews. One of six fast days in the Jewish calendar, the melancholy holiday commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem and exile from the Holy Land.

Though ritualizing mourning is a big part of Judaism, the holiday goes overlooked by the majority of Jews in America, unmoved to spend a summer’s day tearing clothing and refraining from all pleasurable activities.

After eight years of Jewish schooling, five of summer camp, Hebrew and a smattering of Yiddish and Ladino under my belt, I came to realize how Jewish I actually was, despite blending in with a vision of all-American whiteness.

My family walked the narrow bridge that many Jews in the diaspora do, moving between the insurmountable forces of assimilation and tradition.

Like many American Jews, we also spent a lot of time in Israel. Whether it was to visit family and friends, for work, or for study, Israel was a place that felt somewhere between an exotic vacation and summer camp. Before the word became synonymous with war, Zionism was tossed around freely during my youth, conjuring images of the happy, back-to-the-land socialist kibbutzim of Israel’s founding.

Last week, I found myself marking Tisha B’av for the first time in a quiet corner of Volunteer Park. In the midst of a bloody war in Gaza, the day of mourning felt appropriate, and being a hardcore Jew felt right. Young and old and from all denominations were joined in the belief that on a day centered on exile, it would be fitting to talk about Gaza.

The old city of Jerusalem, the epicenter of religious significance for Jews, Muslims, and Christians, has been at the center of debates about religious statehood since Israel's inception. (Photo by Anna Goren)
The old city of Jerusalem, the epicenter of religious significance for Jews, Muslims, and Christians, has been at the center of debates about religious statehood since Israel’s inception. (Photo by Anna Goren)

For progressive Jews, talking about Gaza and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general is difficult. That difficulty is not to be compared with the immeasurable suffering of Palestinians living under occupation, nor of Israelis and Jews who are seeing a worrying rise of anti-Semitism. But it is still it’s own particular shade of difficult, unique to our time when a war of competing narratives has come to a head.

For Jews in progressive activist circles, the conflict does not always surface in conversation easily, the way a feminist sound-byte rolls off the tongue, or in the eager way we chime in on an immigration debate. What we have to say on the subject weighs heavily — wrapped up in our own belonging-ness to a people with thousands of years of history in exile, and trauma, while balancing our membership in another tribe — of American progressivism.

Since its birth, Israel has been a focal point for Jews looking to carve out an identity in the galut (a term used to express the Jewish feeling of uprootedness from a homeland, dating back to the second temple).

But recent Gallup and Pew Research polls show what already feels palpable to anyone with a twitter feed — young Jews are less and less likely to support Israel. Instead they’re re-directing their sense of Jewish identity toward everything from farming to anti-poverty work. Meanwhile, we try to avoid the subject of Israel and Middle East politics at family dinners or social gatherings — it’s just gotten too hard to bridge a significant generation gap on the subject.

“We need to talk about it. Or at least talk about talking about it,” said a participant to a crowded room at the final gathering of the 2013 Hazon Food Conference. She was referring to Israel, in a room full of progressive Jews identified with the ‘new Jewish food movement’, who had spent the weekend discussing everything from school lunch programs to sustainable gefilte fish. She was right.

A generation ago, the Holocaust still fresh in the Jewish collective memory, Israel held a promise of safety and home for Jews of the diaspora.

Now, we are stuck trying to decipher competing narratives both unraveling and happening in real time.

Artwork and graffiti cover the barrier between Jerusalem and the Palestinian West Bank, which was created by the Israeli government following the Second Intifada. Referred to as everything from an apartheid wall to a security fence, ideas about the barrier are reflective of multiple narratives of the conflict. (Photo by Sam Shonkoff)
Artwork and graffiti cover the barrier between Jerusalem and the Palestinian West Bank, which was created by the Israeli government following the Second Intifada. (Photo by Sam Shonkoff)

I didn’t learn what the ‘Naqba’ was until I was in my twenties. In school, I had spent the day of mourning among the Palestinian world known as ‘the catastrophe,’ instead celebrating Israel’s independence with barbecues and lawn games.

In a midst of the recent war in Gaza, when dialogue was vital, it seemed as if meaningful conversations about Israel were shut down everywhere you turned. By the Jewish establishment, fearful of Israel-critiques for it’s likeness to anti-Semitism, by the activist community, who see Israel as a pariah void of much complexity, and by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement who have included academic boycotts on Israeli thinkers and universities.

Just last week, a Jewish film festival was canceled in London, even though Israeli cinema has been one of the forefront points of entry for Jewish critique, holding complexity within the conflict in a medium that is humanizing and accessible.

Religious states makes it easy for a government and a people to be caught in the same war of ideas. (For tips on how to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic, check this out.) The conflation is so powerful, it has resulted in a paralyzing fear of dialogue and critique from the American Jewish establishment. At its worst, it manifests in chants of ‘gas the Jews’ in France, a comparison of Zionism to Nazism, and blatant racism in Israel towards Arabs.

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Israeli children play on the beach in Ashkelon, a town of 120,000 just 8.1 miles north of the border with Gaza. The town has historically been a primary target for Hamas rocket attacks for its proximity. (Photo by Anna Goren)

From my seat in Seattle, thousands of miles from the conflict, I am left asking a question that Judith Butler, who was forced to cancel a talk on Kafka due to her views on Israel, contemplated in Gender Troublewhat is the condition under which we fail to grieve others?

When we don’t know them.

A growing separation between Arabs and Jews has arguably contributed to the deterioration of a peace process. In a conflict that is easy to feel hopeless about, young Jews recognize that peace cannot just be some kumbaya fantasy, but a real call for serious introspection and dialogue across communities, modeling what is absent from the conflict itself. It’s why in a new institutional landscape established by younger Jews, there is a enthusiasm for alternative birthright trips and organizations like Encounter, bringing American rabbis and lay-leaders to Palestinian communities.

In 2008, on my sixth trip to Israel and first to the West Bank, I went on a tour called ‘Breaking the Silence.’ Ex-Israeli soldiers bring American Jewish tourists (Israelis are not allowed into the West Bank) interested in learning about life in Hebron, a contentious area sacred to Jews and Muslims.

It was an eye opening experience hearing ex-soliders who used to patrol this area known for violent clashes between zealous Jewish settlers and Palestinians describe in plainclothes their reflections on the army and power dynamics in the country.

A view of the surrounding areas of Hebron, where ex-Israeli soldiers lead tours for American Jews looking to understanding a different narrative of the conflict, called 'Breaking the Silence.' (Photo by Anna Goren)
A view of the surrounding areas of Hebron, where ex-Israeli soldiers lead tours for American Jews looking to understanding a different narrative of the conflict, called ‘Breaking the Silence.’ (Photo by Anna Goren)

Instead of shutting down the conversation, being careless with language, or fearful of change, I would ask everyone, those already deeply engaged and those just beginning, to seek out a different narrative than the one you already know backwards and forwards.

Israeli author and peace activist Etgar Keret wrote in the L.A. Times last month about the misguided desire for “peace.” Instead, he offers the word ‘compromise,’ that “doesn’t have the same cool look on T-shirts,” but demands something from both parties involved.

“They must first agree to concessions, maybe even more,” he writes — referring to Israelis and Palestinians. “They must be willing to accept the assumption that beyond the just and absolute truth they believe in, another truth may exist”.

In our solemn service last week, we read out the names of the Palestinians who had died in the conflict, the ones for whom we had no photos or obituaries. The process took nearly thirty minutes, slipping into a meditative hum of unfamiliar names that came out clumsily on our mostly American tongues.

Since the service was my first observance of Tish A B’av, I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right, but it didn’t matter. Judaism has always encouraged interpretation and questions, and progressivism has always encouraged dialogue. It’s time we drew on those traditions.

2 Comments

  1. Anna,

    I’m so proud you. This is a very well written, thoughtful and introspective article. I agree with you that we should all ponder aobut our old truths and be open to other narratives, as the landscape has changed for everyone.

    You go girl!

    Barri Rind

  2. Hi Anna,
    Impressive and thoughtful exploration of new steps, new ways, new directions we all need to pursue. Thank you!

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