Scene: Hebron, June 1997. Palestinian stone throwers clashing with IDF soldiers in the Old City. A friend and I who are living in Ramallah as part of a group of American law students working and learning for the summer pull up in a service taxi, unaware of what is going on. Or why. After standing transfixed with adrenaline pumping, we sidle our way to the doors of shuttered shops.
“Where are you from,” the man next to me asks. Inquisitive, but not overtly hostile or suspicious.
“Are you Jewish?”
“No. Christian.” He clearly doesn’t believe me but looks at my friend, a Christian from Mississippi, and shrugs. Then walks away. As I am still shaking, I ask the man on the other side of me what the clash is about.
“Your Congress voted to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.”
To this day, I remain dumbfounded and ashamed at what I said that day and its implications. Clearly mine was the safest answer, but one I always regret.
I would like to think that I have had resolute moments since then, but I come back to that moment often and wonder what could have been different. Donald Trump’s speech at AIPAC, Max Socol’s post-Trump speech reflection and the Center for Jewish Nonviolence’s new campaign, Occupation is not Our Judaism, have taken me back there again, as it feels like we are hurtling again to one of those times when resoluteness is called for.
Much of what Trump said during his speech does not reflect “my Judaism,” and his concluding reference to the need to move the U.S. Embassy took me right back to that day in Hebron and made me realize again that progressive American Jews must make clear to everyone that this issue, like so many others, is not one to be tossed around for easy applause or political points.
That actually stood out plainly for me in Trump’s speech — its hollowness shines like a reflection back to the American Jewish community of so much of what our leadership has cultivated for decades: simplistic talking points, dismissal of complexities, constant connections of Palestinians to terrorism, and a chauvinistic bravado about what being pro-Israel looks like.
So in the end, what else would Trump say about the conflict than what he said to AIPAC: “We’ll get it solved. One way or the other, we will get it solved.” Trump says that about everything, of course, but when the American Jewish community has distilled the issues down to black-and-white, for-or-against points, no wonder Trump felt so at home with AIPAC.
Max Socol’s powerful blog called out the entire community for failing to act in the face of Trump’s speech and declared it “time to escalate.” The escalation is needed especially through risking our safety and reputations as we explore our now-entrenched privilege in this country, a privilege which keeps us from acting. That call took me back to Hebron, where I was in the midst of exploring my even more profound and complex privilege as a Jew, but not able to risk my safety beyond a certain point. What if I had then, and what would that mean for me now?
I will be honest and say I am not yet sure. I would like to say I will take to the streets, my kids in tow, or do something else just as bold. That is exactly what the times may call for here, and it certainly felt that way in Israel this past January.
But for me, for where my family and I are, perhaps the best I can do is define what “my Judaism” means and make sure I speak it.
So that when they are asked whether the U.S. Embassy should move to Jerusalem, they will know it’s not just a two sentence answer built on a banal talking point. So they will understand why so much of what Trump said and the applause it received reflects so poorly on where we are as a community. So they can explain that we can’t just “get it solved” between Israelis and Palestinians, that we must pursue justice and peace rather than power and conflict.
So they will feel proud enough of their Judaism to answer someone in Hebron or Washington, DC or anywhere else on earth and stand up for what that Judaism means, rather than deny it.
Maybe that doesn’t get us as far as it needs to, but if we could at least all do that, I think our Judaism would mean a lot more.