I know many people who truly want to commit to the principles of tikkun olam… But when it comes to Israel, they are paralyzed.
[/pullquote]As a child, I recited these words each year at Yom Kippur services during the “Al Chet” prayer. I joined the chorus of the congregation, listing sin after sin from the prayer book and asking for forgiveness. I always participated, eager to show that I was grown-up enough to take part in services, but the prayer made me feel confused, even unsettled. If the High Holidays were about identifying personal mistakes and resolving to leave them behind, why were we reciting a generic list of confessions from a prayer book? While I eventually gained appreciation for the idea of communal repentance and taking responsibility for the transgressions of the group, I still didn’t understand why we had to recite the same list of sins year after year. The prayer seemed to imply that we could never improve; that we were doomed to make the same mistakes again and again, and our only hope was to ask for forgiveness.
Now, as a young adult, I’ve realized I was right to worry about our approach to repentance. Too many American Jews do nothing to address the most important moral issue that our community faces today — the occupation of the Palestinian Territories — and continue to perpetuate it.
I know many people who truly want to commit to the principles of tikkun olam (healing the world): they treat people in their life with kindness, they host philanthropic events, they sign petitions on behalf of Syrian refugees, they might even show up for Black Lives Matter. But when it comes to Israel, they are paralyzed. When it comes to recognizing the experiences of Palestinians, they are hardened, without empathy. It’s complicated, they say, too complicated. We are entangled in this conflict, they say, and it’s regrettable, but there’s nothing we can do.
I understand why we say it’s complicated. I understand the great shadow of inter-generational trauma that has led us to the point, and how it has warped our priorities. I was born half a century after the Holocaust and yet as a child I had nightmares that Nazis would storm through my front door as my family sat down for Shabbat dinner; I watched Fiddler on the Roof and imagined my own family being targeted by pogroms like the ones my great-grandparents fled. I understand how the illusion of safety and liberation through dominance and state power is seductive, especially for the historically vulnerable. And I understand that if you’ve grown up hearing one narrative of Israel your whole life, it can be easier to deny the truth of Palestinians’ experiences under occupation than to believe that people you love and trust with your whole heart might have misled you. So, you close your eyes. So, you mislead others. So, it goes on. Another year.
But I also understand that the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation of Palestine is not an inevitable phenomenon. In reality, there are concrete choices that our institutions make every day to enable the occupation and the pain of Palestinians to continue. Our synagogues encourage us to donate to the Jewish National Fund to plant trees, even though the JNF has donated millions of dollars for the construction of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. Summer camps, day schools, and religious schools deliberately omit information when teaching about Israel to children, failing to draw the Green Line on maps of Israel and avoiding any mention of Palestinians or the occupation. Hillel International, supposedly the home of Jewish life on campus, has rules that effectively bar most Palestinian speakers and leftist Jewish students with dissenting views on Israel, yet it welcomes those with far-right anti-democratic ideas. Organizations from Federations to synagogues relentlessly push young people to go on free Birthright trips to Israel, where the occupation is hardly mentioned, if at all, while many Palestinians are still unable to return to the the land where their family used to live.
I also understand that what is “complicated” to us can be a matter of life and death for Palestinians. While we wait, while we fight and call each other “self-hating Jews” from the comfort of our homes, Palestinian people die, their villages are demolished, and their quality of life is compromised by Israeli policy. For example, right now, Israel is threatening to demolish the village of Susiya in the West Bank and expel its residents. This would be the fifth demolition in Susiya’s history. Susiya residents have tried for years to obtain legal building permits, but the Israeli government continues to reject them, even as it lends its support to Jewish settlements that are illegal under international law. Susiya residents were able to build support for their cause around the world, including from the Israeli left and progressive American Jewish groups, and the court date to decide about the demolition was postponed, but the future is still uncertain. Such demolitions are common in the Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank, and yet the majority of mainstream American Jewish institutions continue to turn their backs.
I attended a tashlich service for the first time ever this year. I ripped pieces of stale bread and tossed them out into Lake Michigan, recounting my failings one by one, from procrastination to selfishness. As the seagulls gobbled up my castaway sins, I decided I liked this ritual. There is something crucial in naming what we have done wrong, and resolving that we must leave it behind. I am not naive enough to think that I will ever be perfect or get everything right; next year I will return with more baggage and more bread. But I believe in myself, and I have the ability to do everything I can to improve.
This year, I’m resolving to be a better advocate for justice around the world, including justice for Palestinians. I have started by joining IfNotNow, a movement of young Jews to end the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation. During the 10 days of teshuvah (repentance), I marched through the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago with IfNotNow, imploring our community to heed our call to repent for its role in the occupation and resolve to end its support.
I am not satisfied with an approach to Yom Kippur that assumes we are powerless to avoid transgressions. For me, the deeper meaning of the High Holidays has always been that we do have power: to wholly and openly confess our wrongdoings, and to make a plan for how we will do better. I truly believe American Jews are capable of this. We are not slaves to our worst tribalistic impulses or doomed to submit to a vision of the world shaped by our experiences with antisemitism, in which we must always be suspicious of others. We have a choice to stand on the side of freedom and dignity for all people, and to commit to doing everything we can to end the occupation and support Palestinians in their struggle for justice.