Recently I attended our Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat Service at our Reform synagogue. This is a big deal at our temple, with gospel choirs, important guest speakers, and notables from all levels of politics and culture — the event a clarion statement of our earnest desire to recognize people by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.
This is a celebration of our synagogue’s progressive values, seen through the lens of the civil rights movement where Jewish people did important things.
Our synagogue does a great job in passing on the legacy of this concern for equal rights for African Americans — my teenage daughter going with a synagogue group last year to Mississippi to study the early years of the civil rights movement.
One might think this regard for humanity and dignity would extend in other directions. Sadly, the story is less rosy.
About a month ago my 15-year-old son told me he was an anti-Zionist because he couldn’t support the notion that in Israel the Jews received preferential treatment over Palestinians in all aspects of life, such as education, housing, employment, and access to justice. He sees the military oppression of the Palestinians and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as inherent to political Zionism.
My son has been to Israel four times, speaks basic Hebrew, and graduated a K-8 Jewish day school. He did his middle school matriculation project on the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger and raised money for immigration issues. He believes it is in his Jewish DNA to show empathy and compassion for the stranger. “If you don’t embrace this value, practicing religion is useless,” he said at the middle school event showcasing the capstone projects.
The Torah instructs Jews only 36 times to care for the stranger, a precept mentioned more than any other law and central to my own concept of what it means to be a Jew.
In America welcoming the stranger is not so problematic, as Jews are a minority and generally would like all minorities to be treated justly. But in Israel (not including West Bank and Gaza) Jews are the majority and this respect for the minority, the stranger, is replaced by the Talmudic concept that one must first rise and kill those who would do harm. And according to many prominent voices in US Jewish community, all Palestinians wish harm to Israelis.
So how then did the kid come by his anti-Zionist views and embrace the boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) Israel movement?
One could certainly blame me, his permissive father, for steering him down a bad path with my liberal Zionism.
Other factors might include the deafening silence in Jewish education and community about Israel’s administration of the occupied territories, where one is free to be as flag-wavingly supportive of Israel as one chooses, but criticism is “too political” and must be quickly silenced.
If Jewish kids are concerned about the treatment of Palestinians and occupation what in Jewish community is there for them? Crickets.
At our synagogue the clergy and leadership chant the evils of BDS, how this is only for anti-Semites and hateful people. But if kids are aghast at the occupation for the simple reason that people should be treated equally what then? A sympathetic counselor might tell them to hang in there and attend a college where there is a chapter of J Street U or some other group that offers critical analysis of Israeli policy.
As stated, I’m a sucker, a liberal Zionist who believed the hype. Unstated, yet there in our national conversation, was the decades-old belief that if Israel had security, a strong military, diplomatic protection, then it could take steps to end the occupation. Boy, was I wrong! Now that Israel has the strongest, most technologically sophisticated military in the region, the most obscenely pro-Israel US administration ever, economic integration with key markets, far from taking steps to enfranchise the Palestinians the policy growing popular in the Knesset is to annex the West Bank.
With continued right-wing Israeli governments annexation appears probable, with the land in the West Bank becoming Israel proper. The Palestinians who live there, however, would not become Israelis, rather their second-class citizenry would just be enshrined by a new set of Israeli civil laws, replacing the military courts the Palestinians currently suffer under.
The usual reason US Jewish community is resistant to a more sympathetic understanding of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has to do with what the AIPAC regulars call security. How can Israel’s security ever be guaranteed when Hamas could fire missiles from Gaza? “What the hell do you want? Missiles for breakfast every day?” an AIPAC acquaintance responded when asked about Palestinian human rights.
My concept of security is a room with no ceiling. Always there will be a space to climb over the walls regardless of how high they become. At some point the US will grow weary of the prioritization of the Israeli perception of safety over the basic humanity of Palestinians. We can see this trend starting in that there are now members of Congress who support BDS and a few of the Democratic candidates for president talk about Israel, not in terms of Israel’s security as in past decades, but with an acknowledgement of the Palestinian narrative.
I understand how as Israel is the Jewish state, we in the US, as Jews, are compelled to be engaged — and our synagogues, cultural programming, and organizations reflect this. What is unsaid and insidious is that this engagement is only for one side of the equation. Jewish community has sucker punched my son, telling him to be a good person, a good Jew, but to throw out the empathy, compassion, and the critical thinking of Jewish thought and drink the Israeli Kool-Aid.
I’m not happy my son now states he is an anti-Zionist. But I am happy he wants to be an ethical person. I keep hoping for the day when these seemingly intractable problems will be put to rest and Zionism will lose the stench of inequality and oppression. Halevai.