When the Jewish community had a Grand mal seizure this summer over the Movement for Black Lives’s use of the word “genocide” in their policy platform, it felt like we had achieved peak Israel/Palestine polarization. Everyone from the ADL to T’ruah denounced the platform, while Jewish Voice For Peace and If Not Now stood boldly by it. Op-Ed after Op-Ed came out in a now predictable ping-pong of point and counterpoint. The polarization around this subject has been ongoing since the turn of the century and while the ensuing increase in the range of voices is surely a positive development, the tenor of the conversation has become rather shrill. Against this backdrop, a new media project called “Love Letters To Zionists” came to my attention. I’m attracted to subversive ideas, so I emailed the project’s creators Tammy Kremer and Adam Golub to better understand what they were trying to do.
EUS: What is Love Letters to Zionists?
Adam: Love Letters to Zionists is a documentary podcast series based on love letters written to Zionists by Jews who dissent from Zionism. Each episode is based on an individual letter in addition to interviews and archival materials. The stories told in the series seek to unveil and create space for the tensions that exist within our community around Israel-Palestine and break through a wall of long-standing censorship. The overarching goal of the project is to support effective advocacy for Palestine and Palestinians and delink the notion of inherency between Judaism and Israel.
EUS: Where did the idea for Love Letters To Zionists come from?
Tammy: The idea for Love Letters to Zionists emerged from my own experience of being alienated from my beloved family as my conception of Palestine/Israel shifted dramatically away from that which I was raised with. I grew up in an Israeli-American family in a conservative Jewish Zionist community in which Israel was the savior of the Jewish people and Palestinians didn’t exist. I had plans of joining the Israeli Defense Forces until I was 17. A few different moments in high school set off questions I wasn’t allowed to ask: Why did my classmates in my American Jewish high school abroad program boo the only Palestinian speaker we had? Why didn’t my teachers stop them? And why was my private Jewish high school training me to respond to accusations against Israel without talking about the perspectives those accusations came from? If Israel was morally “right,” why was it so hard to “defend?” Before I left for college, I committed to learning about “the other side,” despite fear that I was committing heresy by doing so.
Over the last ten years my views have shifted immensely. Cliche as it sounds, acknowledging the violence committed by Israel was like having the rug pulled out from under me. I needed to redefine who I was and I was terrified by the way this would affect my relationships with my family.
I used the opportunity as a graduate student at New York University Gallatin studying Arts and Peacebuilding to develop an activism project that addressed the alienation that many Zionists turned anti-Zionists experience. Love Letters to Zionists evolved into its current iteration over the course of ten months from fall 2015-summer 2016.
EUS: There’s an old saying that friends don’t let friends talk about Israel. What is it about this subject that makes people lose their minds?
Adam: The subject of Israel-Palestine is rooted in collective notions of survival. In developing this project and in our lives we’ve heard many iterations of the sentiment “The Jews are in trouble in this world and always have been.” Much of contemporary discourse around Israel is couched in the rhetoric of fear; the fear of being a minority is a real one, as it often means abdicating one’s security in the greater structure of power. This coupled with the horrific history of the Holocaust, and the perception that demographically our minority status will lead to our community’s extinction creates a real sense of urgency and immediacy around Israel as a place to secure our “existence.” Thus, conversations about Israel are really conversations first about our physical survival and then about survival of a thousands of years old tradition.
EUS: There has been an intense polarization around the Israel/Palestine conversation over the past decade in the Jewish-American community. Do you see this project as a challenge to that dynamic?
Tammy: My research on Jewish anti-Zionism in the US showed me that while the polarization around Israel/Palestine has increased in recent years, there has always been contention around Zionism and Israel within the Jewish community. On the one hand, the project seeks to give greater voice to a marginalized segment of the population, and amplifying dissenting voices will contribute to greater polarization in the Jewish-American community. We believe that this polarization is necessary for change to be pushed through the Jewish establishment. Further, we are not creating a platform for “dialogue” per se, as these letters are not necessarily intended to be delivered, and we are not building equal space for Zionist and anti-Zionist voices.
On the other hand, this project challenges polarization in the Jewish-American community in that it supports non/anti-Zionists in being in authentic, loving relationships with Zionists. The structure of the project continually asks that writers and listeners speak from their hearts. Some episodes feature conversations between the writer and addressee. While these may be contentious, the love between the individuals is palpable. The emotional content encourages listeners to listen openly. For those listeners who are themselves in similar relationships, the letters and conversations elicit reflection on the way they navigate their relationships, and provide potential new strategies for expressing themselves.
EUS: In many ways, this is an internal Jewish conversation. Do you ever worry that this project might take the focus away from the Palestinian people and thereby reinforce a problematic Jewish privilege in the conversation?
Adam: Yes, definitely. This is something we discuss in-house all the time. One of the original and most important (in)tensions of this project is to create space for voicing dissent within our community, with the ultimate goal of supporting advocacy and activism for Palestinians AND, practically speaking, de-funding the Israeli military occupation of Palestine. We feel that all US citizens, not just Jewish Americans, are implicated in this issue as our tax dollars are a part of funding the Israeli military complex.
What arises very often in our stories is that experiences on the ground have given rise to people’s ideological shift. For example, in one of our episodes we hear a description of the racial profiling that happens to Palestinians in Israel and in another we hear of the housing demolitions that happen regularly to Palestinian homes. That is to say, it is through hearing first-hand accounts of the human rights violations on the ground that often times we accompany the letter writer in her/his changing political orientation.
One of our letter-writers reflected with us on what a privilege it is to come to a “realization” and then have to reconcile within the ensuing emotional chasm that it can create. It is our intention to reflect on our privilege throughout but also maintain the practical aim of moving our community forward in having a truly pluralistic dialogue so that ultimately those of us who have shifted can live both in community with our loved ones and in advocacy with Palestinians. We are intentionally working within our privileged community because we believe that our community has unique power to create change.
EUS: Can Palestinians participate in the project? Do you worry that it might be misunderstood by Palestinians?
Tammy: We are accepting any letters submitted to us regardless of a person’s background, and are interested in sharing them on our website in some form. For the podcasts specifically, we are focusing on Jewish voices at the moment because we believe that the specificity of our project is one of its assets. However, in the future, we are interested in expanding the focus of the podcasts.
This is not a “dialogue” or “co-existence” project. When I first was developing the project I researched initiatives that brought Jews and Palestinians together, and found that many of these initiatives were counterproductive in that they recreated the power dynamics that already exist–Jews went home with the same privilege they came with and Palestinians with the same oppression. Instead of feeding into that, I wondered what it would look like to embrace the phrase “act locally, think globally” by focusing on my my own community where I knew I was least likely to cause harm, and most likely to create an impact.
The strongest point of confusion about the project that I have encountered is about whether the project is about healing for Jewish communities or about human rights for Palestinians. The project is first and foremost about how we can be better advocate for a land in which Palestinian, Jewish, and all people’s rights are equally valued. If along the way relationships are improved, that is an added benefit.
EUS: As American Jews who have had their consciousness raised to the plight of the Palestinians, do you feel any responsibility towards your co-religionists inside Israel/Palestine?
Tammy: Both Adam and I are Israeli-American Hebrew speakers, with close family living in Israel, and we each have spent significant time living in and visiting the country. I have worked extensively with the Tel Aviv-based NGO Zochrot, which focuses on educating Israeli Jews about the ongoing displacement and structural violence against Palestinians and the Palestinian Right of Return. Adam spent two years teaching at an open school in Tel Aviv.
The work of consciousness raising among Israeli Jews is critical, though not sufficient to accomplish real transformation. Adam and I see the fear of obliteration and sense of victimization that many Israeli Jews carry as the primary barriers to consciousness raising. It does scare me that my family may experience the very radical reallocation of power necessary for the attainment of full human rights for all in Palestine/Israel, and that this transition is unpredictable. But I am equally scared for the Palestinian people whose safety is in the hands of the Israeli military and government.
While currently this project focuses on activating American Jews, we have discussed creating episodes based on letters written by Jews living in Israel to other Jews there in the future.
To experience Love Letters To Zionists, check out their SoundCloud page: https://soundcloud.com/user-797672523