The Book of Jonah
IfNotNow, the High Holidays, and Lessons on Running Away
Every Yom Kippur, I pick at the bones of the same story. A prophet is sent by God to warn a city of its impending destruction and ask for its repentance. Instead, he turns the other direction, and, because of this, is cast off a ship in a storm and swallowed by a whale.
Jonah is a runaway, an escape artist, a flight risk. He is cynical of his own ability to make change, and equally skeptical of the possibility that others might actually make the changes he calls for. Even when they do, he becomes frustrated with the inconsistency of God. He is angry at the east wind, unable to look straight at what must be done, and deeply afraid of progress. Jonah may be a prophet, but he is no saint.
And still, he spends his three days in the whale’s belly singing to its bone-rafters in prayer. As a child, I would spend my Yom Kippur imagining myself singing in the belly with him. This was the best part of the service to me, a story at the end of the longest day of the year. I have loved Jonah for a long time without ever understanding him.
This year, I am learning new lessons from Jonah as part of IfNotNow. IfNotNow is a movement of young Jews calling on the American Jewish community to end our support for the Israeli occupation. And since joining the movement, Jonah’s story has opened up new questions for me. How can we call a community into account, to ask it to change its ways, and do so without turning our backs and running away? How can we be critical of something while remaining fully a part of it? In other words, how can we act as Jonah but avoid his mistakes?
Throughout my life, I have struggled with my participation in Jewish institutions that make me feel invisible for being a Queer, anti-occupation Jew. As I have learned more about the abuses of the Israeli occupation perpetuated in my name, and in particular as I watched mainstream Jewish institutions distance themselves from Black Lives Matter after it released a platform this summer that included a call for a divestment from Israel, I have felt a strong desire to run away from a Jewish community that remains caught in a simplistic narrative of past oppression without being able to acknowledge the complex mix of victimizations and perpetrations we carry within and among us.
And I have run away, many times and in many ways, only to find myself missing the songs, the sense of home, the food, the complexities and diversities of who I am and what I am part of. I have followed Jonah’s instinct to run, to distance myself from the community I want to call to account, to hide on a ship crossing to another port and throw myself into other work that feels less risky, less uncharted, less personal.
And like Jonah, I find myself having to turn back. Part of this comes from my sense that this distance is in itself dangerous. Despite being anti-occupation, I am also critical of movements and organizations that demand that I distance myself from Zionist friends, relatives, and spaces in order to be a “good Jew,” a fully assimilated Leftist. I have at times felt that any association with anything Israeli would ruin my social justice credentials. Without turning back, I am left voiceless and isolated in these movements, both from the humanity of my own community and from full solidarity with others. Without turning back, I leave my community to the destruction of its humanity, leave its future prewritten and unchanged.
This year, Jonah seems to be telling me exactly what I need to hear: that although running away may give us the time to change ourselves, to sing our prayers in the dark, it will never lead to real change. Real change requires turning back, facing our community, holding it accountable while holding ourselves inside of it. It requires polarizing the Jewish community, asking each other which side we are on, while still remaining whole.
This is no easy balance. If the task I set myself is to hold my community accountable without running away from it, I am faced with the full reality of my own complicity. I wonder if this is what Jonah was running away from, the fear that if he spent time in Nineveh, he may have seen his own human reflection in the wrongdoing of those around him.
If I stop running away, I have to examine my own complicity in the occupation. I have to look into the Jewish organizations I support or have supported, understand that my “Right of Return” to the land of Israel is not shared by Palestinians displaced after the Nakba, understand the role of white supremacy within the Jewish community. I have to put down the narratives I have been told about my “safety” and “security” and examine their real costs. I have to look at the trade-offs my family and friends have made by assimilating into whiteness, Anglo- and Ashkenazi-normativity, and participation with the colonial American empire through Israel, at the expense of Jews of Color and Palestinian lives. Complicity is a difficult topic to digest.
And, perhaps even more painfully, I have to lose my instinct of othering. Not only can I no longer cast Palestinians as the other, but I can no longer hold myself at arms distance from members of my own community, from Zionists who I would rather avoid or disengage from entirely. I have to be seen walking with them, talking with them, welcoming them into conversation with me. I have to challenge them, even if that challenge means temporary fragmentation, because, unlike Jonah, I have to believe that communities can change.
There is a Yom Kippur tradition that says everyone is welcome into the synagogue on this day, no matter what they have done. I have to sit in community sharing the prayers and repentance of those I would rather run from. It is precisely by sitting in the room with them that I can begin to feel this community accountability. Until the last note of Ne’ilah, I will sit with my whole community- young, old, Zionist, anti-Zionist- and we will all have to repent for what we, as individuals and as a community, have done in this past year and beyond.
My blessing this New Year is for the movement. That we can polarize while including. That we can be grounded in our Jewish community without becoming insular. That we can hold ourselves as accountable as we hold those outside of our circle. That on this day, we can repent for the occupation while repenting also for our own instinct to other each other. That we can pray together from the belly of the whale we find ourselves in, and be cast up on shore wiser, stronger, ready to return to our community as part of it, ready to hear change and meet it generously, with equal parts love and justice. That we can learn from Jonah’s mistakes so we don’t make our own.