It was the end of the summer of 2014, and the Gaza war continued with horrific casualties. I stood in the hallway, just steps away from my old high school locker, folding and unfolding my staff orientation schedule. Smoothing it out, I stared down at the words “3pm-3:45pm: Israel This Summer.” Two months out of college, I had accepted a teaching job at the Schechter school that I attended from kindergarten through 12th grade. I was thrilled for the chance to return to my community and loved the idea of working alongside all my favorite teachers who had inspired and supported me when I was a student.
Schechter was my home. I had an amazing group of friends and meaningful connections with my teachers and administrators. It was the place where the Jewish values of tikkun olam and tzedakah were instilled in me. It was where I learned the importance of speaking out against injustice and inequality. As student, I looked forward to tefilah every morning and helped lead an alternative minyan. I appreciated how our teachers gave us freedom to forge our own connection with Jewish practice and rituals. All of these positive experiences are what made me want to return as an educator.
The staff orientation had designated time for breakout sessions addressing the ongoing war in Gaza. I chose the “emotional check in” session, because my favorite teacher from high school was leading it. I was worried. My Schecter education had given me one very specific message when it came to Israel—one that I could not reconcile with the war taking place. In an effort to teach us Israel advocacy and prepare us to confront “anti-Israel” groups on campus, my senior class attended David Project lectures where we were taught to justify Israeli military action and disprove human rights accusations against Israel.
In these lectures, I was taught that Palestinians were out to manipulate the public against Jews and against Israel. I remember one teacher telling us in a warning tone that elderly Palestinian grandmothers in refugee camps wore necklaces with keys to homes that had been taken from them in 1948. “But their homes are long gone,” he told us, implying that the displaced Palestinian grandmothers’ desire to return home was disingenuous. That their memories of the Nakba were simply a ploy to discredit the Jewish state.
Three years later, I heard a Breaking the Silence testimony from a former IDF soldier. I listened as this former soldier talked about a common tactic for maintaining control of Palestinian people in the West Bank called “making their [IDF] presence felt.” This sometimes meant waking up families in the night to take their photos, or taking innocent people in for questioning purely as a exercise in intimidation. It was clear these operations were not about finding a criminal or keeping Israelis safe, but about keeping Palestinians suppressed, on alert, and in fear. This did not sound like the IDF I learned about and was encouraged to join in various educational programs over the years. Suddenly, the class photos we took atop tanks and posing with guns at military bases on our Senior trip were no longer fun memories. They were profoundly disturbing ones, showing me how far my beloved community went to shield the reality of occupation from me.
Back in my Schechter hallway, waiting for the “Israel check-in” session, I was nervous. I expected to feel isolated. I walked into the room where about fifteen educators, all veteran teachers, formed a circle around a big table. As we took our seats, the conversation began with a simple question: why did we choose this session?
An Israeli Hebrew teacher spoke first: “I don’t feel like I can express grief for all the people killed in Gaza, it’s as if we need to say ‘it was justified,’ I just want peace, why can’t I say that?” Another former teacher of mine said, “I don’t feel comfortable at this school expressing anything other than 100% support of Israel and its government. But I have doubts, that’s why I’m in this room.” Heads nodded around the room. Another teacher spoke up: “It’s not a comfortable place to be, walking around knowing I would be in trouble if I said how I feel. My students probably have some of the same questions, but I’ll have to keep quiet.”
After the session, I felt a renewed sense of hope. There was a critical mass of educators at the school who wanted to talk about peace with optimism instead of blame, who wanted to question the occupation, who wanted to acknowledge the full humanity of Palestinians along with Israelis. I was relieved to know I was not alone at Schechter and was excited to see my feelings reflected in others around me.
I too kept quiet. I was afraid of being labeled as a “trouble maker” or “anti-Israel” in the eyes of my community.
This issue is much bigger than my high school. It extends across the American Jewish community at large. For decades, teachers, rabbis, and other members of organized Jewish communities have been afraid to speak out about the injustice of the occupation. The cost of dissent—public denouncement, lost jobs, estrangement from the community and fractured relationships—was simply deemed too high.
But we cannot afford to prioritize our comfortable silence over the lives of millions of Palestinians living under occupation. Not this year. I invite my fellow alumni to join me in asking our institutions to live up to the values they taught us and stand on the side of freedom and dignity for all.
This blog post is part of IfNotNow’s #younevertoldme campaign.