In 25 Years of Anti-Occupation Activism, All I Have Learned is That I Want an Honest Conversation
Twenty-five years ago this month, I arrived in Ramallah for a summer program that brought American law students and lawyers to participate in what we thought was the development of a new Palestinian state and end of the Occupation.
The program changed my life in myriad ways, but after two decades of part-time activism on the Occupation, I, like many, feel more despondent than ever. What have I learned about myself and my community in all this time?
Going to Palestine to Find Judaism
The only reason I am in any Jewish space at all in my life – and I am an active mainstream synagogue member and parent of kids who spent many years in Jewish day school — is because I lived in Ramallah. My standard Jewish education, upbringing, family connections, USY, and two trips to Israel before I spent a summer in Palestine did not truly cement my connection to Israel, or even to Judaism. I had developed an interest, to be sure. I studied Hebrew and Arabic in college, I took classes on Middle East history and politics. But I never set foot in Hillel and hardly observed holidays. It was an interest, like punk rock or baseball; it was not a connection.
It did not really connect or matter to me until I was, in essence, perceived as its enemy. Until I wasn’t a part of Judaism or Israel but was assumed to be the Other. Until I was looked at as if I were Palestinian by Israeli Jews, riding in service taxis that were delayed at checkpoints for hours between one Palestinian village and another for no reason other than Israeli soldiers felt like it, because they wanted to make their presence felt. Until my group of law students had to sneak into Israel to go to Yad Vashem because the border was closed after a suicide bombing, observing far too close a resemblance in the looks of the Israeli soldiers peering at us in unknown hatred to those of the German soldiers we’d see on the walls of the museum. Until I had rubber bullets fired at me during protests in Hebron, injuring both my roommate on the program and many local Palestinians. Until I worked on legal cases on administrative detention and torture where the Israeli courts simply supported and rubber stamped whatever the Civil Administration (i.e., Occupation bureaucracy) asked. Until I was in Gaza meeting Arafat, experiencing the wealth of a few, the poverty of many, and the dreams of millions slowly withering away.
That was 1997, and it was when I understood what Judaism and Israel were becoming; it was only reinforced in 1998 when I lived/worked in the community of the Palestinian citizens of Israel for part of a summer, looking back to the civil rights cases of the 1960s in the United States for ideas on what kinds of cases could be brought to address the analogous wrongs that they were facing.
And through it all, I was committed to learning about it more, to being connected, to being a part of the Jewish community and, hopefully, of change. Because, I thought, “this can’t be what Judaism is about: oppression of another people.”
Why bother? Why not just forsake it all, since I wasn’t that connected anyway? Because the other voices I heard didn’t work for me either. The voices in these summer programs or others outside of the Jewish community I heard simply decrying Israel, or Jews in general, offended me, even if (many of) the facts they had about Palestine were accurate. I knew from the outset that if I was going to help change anything, it was going to be from within. The voice that always resonated was the Jewish one, the one of Martin Buber reassuring Gandhi that Israel would protect everyone’s rights because that’s what the Torah and the core of Judaism require.
Community and National Epigenetics
But, it turns out, Buber was wrong. The core and essence of the Torah is not what the bulk of the Jewish community thinks or stands for, at least in this specific case. For the last 25 years, I have slowly had to accept that, to the mainstream community here and in Israel, oppression of another for the betterment of ourselves is what we actually are about, despite all the protestations, excuses, and efforts to shift blame to the contrary.
Of course, there is more to Israel and to modern American Judaism, but there isn’t less.
Think of it as the application of epigenetics to Israel and the Jewish community as a whole – the traumas before and during the creation of the State of Israel and the behaviors during the ongoing conflict have caused a change in the genetic expression. The place and the people we believe in have been changed at their essence, no matter whose fault it is or how we’d like to explain it away. In fact, that change is what explains so many otherwise unexplainable things – like the increasing alliance between ultra-right nationalists and Israel. It is what happens when your genetic code changes in response to conflict and trauma.
Can We Have Honest Conversations?
What I have been desperate for over 25 years in the Jewish community is the space to have the honest conversation about that central and profound change to our communal genetics and what it means for all of us who share the code. The reality of that genetic expression: what settler power and violence looks like and means, the true meaning of what the checkpoints are about, the policy of home invasions and the pure fear it is designed to create, the way the system of administrative detention works, the creep of annexation, the shifting “red lines” in any number of moral norms, the influence of the Occupation on Israeli politics and society, especially related to Palestinian citizens of Israel and other minority communities as well as civil society organizations.
As a friend and much braver activist than I wrote a few years ago, “Twenty years ago if someone had told me that Israel arrested nonviolent activists I wouldn’t have believed it. But that was the Israel I wanted to believe in, not the one that actually exists.”
I just want to be able to talk about the Israel that exists in its new genetic code. And yes, I also want to talk about the Palestine that exists, with its repression of civil society, glorification of terror, anti-democratic norms, the violence committed against Israelis, etc. Because, like it did in 1997, simply criticizing everything Israel sits no better today. Not out of an interest in both-sidesism or establishing moral or legal equivalencies. As Yossi Beilin told our group in 1997, “everyone here is right, and everyone is wrong.” Although I agreed with him then and do today, I also am clear that not everyone is equally right and wrong.
In the mainstream American Jewish community, though, we don’t talk about them equally either. Rather, we talk about those things that are negative to Palestine plenty in our effort to say, “It’s not because we want to; it’s about security” or “You need to make sure you are aware of the context,” or “They don’t deserve a state of their own.” We don’t have conversations, so much as precepts you either subscribe to, or not.
The bottom line for me is that the wrongs, problems, and traumas of Palestinian society are not not my community and not my fight. Maybe they will be someday if there’s true peace, but not yet. Even then, those will not be my genetics.
I also recognize, in the spirit of honest conversation, that there is an element of those concerns about Palestinian violence that are correct. That is, if the Occupation ends, those issues and the epigenetic changes in Palestine will likely mean more harm, including fatal, to Israeli Jews. I hope this does not need saying, but in case it does – I do not want that by any stretch, whether because of my own friends who live there or because I am part of the Jewish people.
But I do not believe that the price we are paying on any level (moral, human, economic, genetic) through maintenance of Occupation or the manifold harsher toll we are and have been exacting on others to prevent that harm to Israeli Jews is justified or acceptable (I would also like to think it’s not sustainable, but I actually think it may be in the world we now live in).
I spend my day job focused on atrocities in other parts of the world and working with civil society in East and Central Africa trying to bring change to these places. So yes, I know things in Palestine are not worse than they are in Eastern Congo or South Sudan or Myanmar or, for many people, even in the Gulf. And certainly than Afghanistan and Ukraine. But although I work to bring change in those places and help others to do so, that is also not my fight. And to feel that Israel is not quite exacting the horrors of Salva Kiir, Putin, the Myanmar junta, or the armed groups of Eastern Congo is, well, cold comfort and ultimately a distraction from the core issues.
My Own Efforts at an Honest Conversation
I have tried desperately to promote that honest conversation in my own small way. So we can work together to find new ways forward, given how the ones we have tried to date have failed. Which we can only do if we acknowledge who and where we are.
The efforts to promote that conversation have left me exhausted. Not because the effort at change has failed but because the conversation is still so hard to even have in the first place. In 1998, after I published a piece in the Women’s League of Conservative Judaism’s Outlook magazine asking American Jews to go see Palestine when they visited for the 50th anniversary, several prominent rabbis took out a full page ad blasting me as naive and disloyal and the magazine itself for even publishing it. In 2001, I gave a d’var Torah at my mainstream synagogue asking that we pursue nonviolence after 9/11, not just in Afghanistan but also in Palestine. I eventually left the shul because of the harsh response, both on the day of and in the weeks and months after (I did return many years later, when the clergy and spirit of the synagogue changed entirely, and very positively).
I then shifted to put my own voice aside and elevate those with real “credibility” and “experience.” In 2004, I helped bring a leading Israeli military refuser, who was a decorated combat pilot, to DC. During the visit, we met with AIPAC’s senior leadership about the reality and dangers of the Occupation. They told him that they knew he was right in what he said and was fighting for, that they’d like to think they would do the same as he was doing if they were in his shoes, but that they would now instead fight to ensure his voice was never heard in the US because of political realities here and their sense of the danger his views posed to the Jewish people.
The same organization that now that dominates mainstream Jewish community politics on Israel and provides political support to far-right, white nationalist candidates from anti-Semitic organizations simply because they share a political view on Israel told a decorated Israeli hero that it was his views about peace and the Occupation that were the danger. In defense of backing candidates who voted to overturn the 2020 election, AIPAC noted this was “no moment for the pro-Israel movement to become selective about its friends.” Is there any clearer sign that one’s genetic code has changed than willingly working against the core of what you claim to believe in?
The frustration goes on. Being happy when we can arrange secret meetings with local rabbis who are not able to meet or host anti-Occupation organizations publicly. Being told that local day schools, including the one my sons attended, routinely use maps with no 1967 lines is not a problem when any Palestinian who ever dares to show such a map is accused of wanting to destroy the Jewish people. Watching as one mainstream community organization after another contradicts itself on BDS (horrified when it applies to Israel but quick to advocate for such penalties on organizations focused on ending the Occupation) and normalizes settlements and settler violence while decrying peacemakers, etc.
And this is just what I do in my spare time. For those truly trying to promote change every day through organizations and activism here and in Israel/Palestine, the vitriol and opposition and exhaustion they face is far, far worse.
The Community Threshold to and Hypocrisy of the Term “Pro-Israel”
Still it leaves me tired and angry because most of all, it means there is a threshold to what “pro-Israel” or “loving Israel” means.
“Pro-Israel” today means we are not ready for anti-Occupation images and words in our own communities, yet we are angry and outraged if they are hosted in another. Anti-Occupation facts and images are already online in numerous forms, but the immediacy and presence in our own physical spaces is apparently too much if we want to remain “pro-Israel.” We worry about the impact on our youth, who we so desperately want to be “pro-Israel,” but we see the statistics saying they are growing increasingly distant from Israel (and the American Jewish community) anyway, in part because of a lack of honesty with them. We fear the facts provide aid to our enemies, yet we refuse to engage with those who could become allies if only we invested time, honesty, and respect. We support those who would have torn American democracy asunder because they are “friends” of Israel but shudder when anyone, from inside or out, accuses Israeli democracy of being at the brink.
We tell ourselves we must love Israel before we criticize it. But once there’s so much underlying (and often well curated) “love,” we never really get around to criticizing. And if we start out criticizing, then we are told we don’t really love.
Our genetic code is changed, and with it, the way our community thinks, feels, and operates. Yet we refuse to acknowledge or believe it.
Do I (We) Have More Answers Now?
None of us, or anyone, has the real answers to change or peace. I know enough after 25 years to know that there is no “solution,” whether 1-state, 2-state, or multiple. There are only ideas that we could be pursuing and working from, and we know that every single one of those ideas will be fraught.
But we – all of us, on all of the many sides — are refusing to let ourselves be exposed to the full set of facts and perspectives that can help us ask better questions and find new ways to change and make everyone safer. When we refuse to open our communities to the viewpoints we disagree with, we are little different than those banning books about the truth of American history or LGBTQ+ lives. That is true of those from AIPAC and the center/right who object to and shout down Breaking the Silence, and it is true when Jewish Voice for Peace shuts down the Friends of the IDF. Shining lights like Resetting the Table and the “How Do We Love Israel” program that my synagogue recently convened are notable mostly because they are exceptions to this rule.
It is easy to blame others and say it’s toxic and polarized all around, especially on our campuses. That may be true, but unless we act to make it different, we simply promote the same because, like it or not, our genetics have also changed. We as a community spend hundreds of millions of dollars on ensuring Jewish youth/college students are connected to Israel, yet they are telling us with their hearts and feet that they want something else.
I also want something else. I know I am not the same person I was when I arrived in Palestine 25 years ago, and I know neither is the place. I know that I am not sure about much of what I believe and that most of what I learn makes me concerned.
What I have learned across 25 years is that what I want most of all is just to be able to talk to my community honestly about all of these issues and feelings.
And as of today, I still can’t. But for now, I’ll keep trying. Hopefully it won’t take 25 more years.