hard to be a pro-palestinian moderate jew


As my friends know, I’ve been an outspoken critic of Israeli policy forever. Specifically, I lost my faith during the Israel-Lebanon war in the 80’s and never got it back. I’ve supported Palestinian rights and have had to defend myself from the usual “self-hating, Noam Chomsky-loving Jew” slurs ever since. I’ve been to Israel once, during the first Intifada, and got into daily debates with a member of the “praise Israel first” crowd-he read the right-wing Jerusalem Post while I read the left-wing Ha’aretz, and finally had to ignore his e-mails trying to convert me upon our return. I have a former colleague from a startup who is a proud member of AIPAC and with whom I have agreed to disagree, since our debates were starting to get personal and ugly. At a former synagogue, where the Israeli Ambassador to Philadelphia was speaking, I had the audacity to ask him during a Q and A why the Israeli government was in the business of assassinating people. That felt like the moment in my favorite Ibsen play where everyone in the town points to the protagonist and calls him an “enemy of the people.”

In my current synagogue, as chair of adult education, I’ve spearheaded dialogues on the Israel/Palestine conflict, which regrettably did little to resolve the current divides in our community over this important issue. Still, I was glad I did it-dialogue is always a worthwhile path, even if it doesn’t always provide the desired immediate results of mutual understanding and tolerance. I’ve even managed to have a program that raised awareness of the Naqba, the “catastrophe” that was Israeli independence in 1948. I think that just as it is important for Palestinians to acknowledge the significance of the Holocaust, so too should Jews and Israelis acknowledge the suffering of Palestinians from the Naqba. Each population is similar in that it has experienced great loss and horrific tragedy. I have never shied away from criticizing Israel, and tend to associate with fellow travelers who think beyond the usual propaganda that has propped up Israeli actions and cruelty since the 60’s and even earlier. Unlike many other Jews, I freely use the word Palestine, despite being admonished that no such country exists. So I’m anything but pro-Palestinian and horrified by the Israeli idiocy and barbarism that is exemplified by the recent massacre on the Gaza flotilla.

But I’m also moderate-I don’t see the world as black and white and try to avoid generalities (I don’t always succeed, but at least I make the effort). I am not free of criticism from some on the “blame Israel first” side who can’t understand why I’d take issue with what are floridly antisemitic and ignorant comments about the flotilla incident. Contrary to what some of these folks think (and it is a minority, but still a vocal one), Israel is not synonymous with Judaism. One-fifth of Israel’s population is not Jewish, but Palestinian/Druse/Christian/Muslim. Nor is Judaism like Catholicism-as with Islam, there is no single centralized authority in the form of a person who speaks for everyone. We don’t have a pope, nor is Israel the Vatican. Israel doesn’t speak for Jews any more than Iran speaks for Muslims. Yet anger towards Israel frequently devolves into hatred towards the Jews. I joined a group on Facebook that ostensibly is a protest group against the Israeli massacre of civilians on one of six vessels that tried to break the Gaza blockade. But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t get past the overt antisemitism of many of the posts, so I finally left. In addition to the photos of a skull above a Star of David and a Photoshopped Israeli flag with the Star of David replaced by a swastika, many of the posts contained gems like

“THE JEWS ARE THE MODERN DAY NAZIS YOU ALL SHOULD BE MASSACRED HOW BOUT WE BOARD 1 OF YOUR BOATS AND DO THAT YOU COWARDS!”

“Hitler said: I could have exterminated all the Jews of the world, but I left some of them for you to find out why I disinherit them.”

“IS SO IRONIC THE WAY THEY ACT NOW WITH INNOCENTS, JUST ONE PERSON WILL MAKE THEN SLOW DOWN, BUT HE IS GONE, HITTLER ALWAYS KNEW THIS, THEY WILL GROW TO DESTROY AND HERE THEY ARE.I LOVE PEACE BUT EVERYTHING IS A PATERN THE FOLLOW THE WEAK, THATS WHAT THEY ARE. LOSERS.”

“zionists are nazis”

blah blah blah blah etc etc etc etc. It just keeps going. What I’m undecided about is which is worse-the comments or the people who Liked them on Facebook. To be fair, several people did take offense and express a desire to leave the group, but most kept on spewing all sorts of hatred. I understand and share the visceral response to what Israel did, but at no time should that devolve into hatred and frank antisemitism. A lot of the comments seem to derive their rationalization from two basic misconceptions:

  • All Jews view themselves as “chosen” and therefore superior to gentiles
  • Israel claims to be a Jewish state and so represents all Jews

First, many Jews reject the concept of “chosenness,” Reconstructionist Judaism in particular, of which I am a member. Not because the idea of being “chosen” is meant to imply superiority, but because it has been mistaken that way and been a source for division and conflict. Second, while Israel does indeed claim to be a Jewish state, it doesn’t speak for all Jews. Iran is an Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia is for Muslims only-so what? That has no relevance to Shia and Sunni Muslims outside of those countries. Ahmedinejad and Khatami do not speak for all Shia, for example. Furthermore, what a Jewish state constitutes is open to debate-I think it’s really something that goes to the original intent of the secular zionists who founded Israel, namely a land where Jews can live without fear of persecution. Not a religious state. Not a state where only Jews live. Zionism came out of the very real fact that at the time of the late 1800’s, Jews were being discriminated against and brutally killed in Europe and Russia. Folks like Herzl, who were anything but religious, tried to come up with some place (Uganda was one potential site) to which Jews might migrate and be safe. Eventually this all got melded with religion and, I think, went to hell. But the original intent wasn’t to usurp Palestinian land and be colonizers but to share the land and be free of persecution. That doesn’t mean that Arabs were viewed as equals to Europeans-they weren’t, and that’s shameful. But Israel was not, and is not, synonymous with Judaism nor does it have any control over the religion.

Anyway, to paraphrase the novelist Sholom Aleichem, it’s hard to be a pro-Palestinian moderate Jew. Neither side of this interminable reality accepts you-you’re essentially scum to both sides. Many Jews who support Israel think of me the way they think of Noam Chomsky (and yes, he’s one of my heroes), and no, they don’t admire him for his excellence in linguistic scholarship. Some on the left who criticize Israel as I do demand absolute fealty to their version of reality, which is often unbalanced and veers dangerously towards the neo-Nazi line. The truth is never black or white but rather grey. Israel isn’t always right, nor is it always wrong. At the same time, its arrogance, its neverending colonization and occupation of Palestinian land, its apartheid-like structures and violence against Palestinians and their supporters (including Jews) resemble the once pariah state of S. Africa. While South Africa eventually got past all that and, while imperfect, has found a way to meld its citizens together and go beyond racism, I’m not optimistic about Israel’s future. I’ve said this for years and will do so once again-the gravest danger to Israel isn’t Iran or its neighbors or Hamas. The gravest danger to Israel is Israel itself.