For many young American Jews, this time of year is about light: summer sun, expectations of a new school year, the renewal and joy that comes with the coming Chagim.
Hillel will be a center of light for many of these young American Jews. A center for learning, for socializing, for service, and for “enriching the lives of Jewish students so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world.” For many, Hillel represents the light at the center of their Jewish experience – either where they discovered their Jewish connection or where it grew brighter.
But light means something much different in Israel and Palestine now than celebration and connection. It means what is absent in Gaza as neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority have chosen to end the electricity crisis, and Palestinians there struggle to manage on a mere three hours of electricity per day. It means what is absent from so much of Palestine, in fact, as the Occupation drags into its 50th year and the light of hope and of peace dims.
And light means what is absent from so much of the American Jewish community’s engagement with Israel, as Congress considers various pieces of anti-BDS legislation, including a bill that would criminalize speech and other support for boycotts related to Israel, and Israel denies entry to American rabbis and others who criticize its Occupation policies.
In Gaza as in so much of this tragedy, light increasingly means death, or at least something other than life. And so last night IfNotNow in DC demonstrated at the headquarters of Hillel on August 3, at the heart of the future of “enriched” American Jewish communal life, to force a recognition of how our community is enabling this twisting of light into death.
IfNotNow’s action interwove light with death. The action went beyond songs and words about the gravity of the crisis in Gaza and the Occupation beyond. Participants placed stones of mourning among candles, ensuring those stones were placed at Hillel’s door and chanting the mourner’s Kaddish. We are all familiar with the Jewish custom of placing stones on graves — but stones among candles?
It is stark to contrast light with death like this, although it is becoming a daily occurrence in Gaza. The core of the Jewish approach to death is to reaffirm the glory of life, often centered on the light of a candle. Yet now, we must look at light through its connection to struggle and to death.
The Gaza electricity crisis is not new – this iteration has gone on for months, and it has been a recurring issue since Hamas took over control of Gaza. It happened in 2007, in 2012, and in 2015. And the Palestinian Authority bears much responsibility for this crisis because of its political conflict with Hamas.
But above it all, there is the control that Israel maintains over Gaza from outside, as well as over the whole of the West Bank. That is the part we bear responsibility for, particularly as American Jews. And the next generation of American Jews, now entering the halls of their local Hillels, will need to wrestle with what that means. Hillel tells us that as an organization it seeks to “enable students to share a rich connection to Israel and to each other as a people” and that “[e]ngaged and educated students can become committed Jewish adults who are passionate supporters of Israel.” But will that passionate support stand for light, or death?
In morning prayers, we say:
Or chadash al Tzion ta-ir, v’nizkeh chulanu m’heira l’oro
Shine a new light on Zion, and may we all soon be worthy to share its light.
IfNotNow made clear to Hillel that we are not yet worthy to share in a light that also means death, and that it is time to shine new light – literally and spiritually — on Zion, and on Palestine.