Culture, Israel

The Silence Inside: How Jewish Institutional Culture Supports the Occupation

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.
[pullquote align=left] But until I stood there, staring at that creased orientation schedule, I hadn’t considered how my school’s attitude towards Israel would affect me as a teacher.
[/pullquote] But until I stood there, staring at that creased orientation schedule, I hadn’t considered how my school’s attitude towards Israel would affect me as a teacher.
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.[pullquote] I waited for someone to share the conversation with our administration or bring up these issues again when we were together in the teachers lounge or cafeteria. But the year—and the school’s Israel programming—went on as usual. Teachers knew the risks of voicing these concerns outside the privacy of that classroom.
[/pullquote] I waited for someone to share the conversation with our administration or bring up these issues again when we were together in the teachers lounge or cafeteria. But the year—and the school’s Israel programming—went on as usual. Teachers knew the risks of voicing these concerns outside the privacy of that classroom.
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.

2 thoughts on “The Silence Inside: How Jewish Institutional Culture Supports the Occupation

  1. As a graduate of the same high school as the author of this article, I think that this article is disgusting – a disgusting misrepresentation of the way this Schechter conveyed what it means to support Israel. And I think its pretty disgusting of the author to misrepresent the school in this way, especially since the author comes from a family that is very active in the community. The author seems to have taken for granted the safe space to question that the school and that Jewish academia has fostered. Anyone who is too shy to question something on this topic or say their opinion if they desire to is going to have a tough time in the real world and that is on individuals and not the school. The school did not convey that innocent Palestinians should suffer for the benefit of a homogeneous Jewish state. Rather, they explained that is up to Hamas to recognize Israel as a state before any peace can be achieved. When democracies are at war with non-democracies, the democracies must stoop to the moral level of the leadership of the non-democracy, and the leftist camp that is this website is misguided in criticizing Israel’s actions because of this. Other democratic countries’ choices when at war with barbarians, such as Hamas, (distinct from innocent Palestinians living alongside members of Hamas – hence why the IDF is accounting for all Palestinians in the territory – and war is scary, duh, so fear will ensue) are not held to the Western, 2019 moral standards when at war. It is obviously extremely difficult to decipher who is innocent and who is a terrorist in wars such as this one. I evidence this point by comparing the war against ISIS: that it was not against a country, but rather a terrorist group living among innocents. Western countries fighting ISIS were not held to the same moral standard as the author is holding Israel to here. I am willing to go as far as to say that its misguided to blame Israel for the horrible livelihoods innocent Palestinians must face, rather its the surrounding Arab countries’ fault that they will not call out Hamas for refusing to recognize Israel (recognizing Israel and its thriving economy and inventions is totally utilitarian at this time in history), refusing to stop sending rockets and MURDERING innocent Israeli families ON PURPOSE), and compromise at a discussion table like democracies do with other democracies. Democracies that have made efforts to forfeit war in favor of civil negotiations. I think Schechter would be outwardly thrilled if a two state solution was the product of the extinction of Hamas and a commitment to co-existence. I condemn the author for taking for granted the Zionist values that the school taught us and publicizing this bullshit about the high school experience at Schechter. The David Project does not seek to hide truths, it seeks to teach graduates like us to explain whats going on to those who do not know and to defend Israel when exaggerated “fake news” about the Hamas terrorist breeding den that is (what you call) the occupied territories (fake news – a term that of course did not exist when we were in high school) Rhetoric such as this fuels already rising antisemitism and BDS blah blah blah that the author should be ashamed of herself for putting this sentiment on the internet. We don’t have to agree about the extent that Schechter taught us about the Palestinian plight, but I’m sure we can agree that school taught us how to differentiate primary from secondary sources and form an opinion. I don’t remember being taught at school that anything is 100% perfect, even Israel. Don’t blame Israel for your inability/shyness to read primary sources and rationalize your own opinion and say it. This article has nauseated me for over a year. The utopian standard that this website holds Israel to is so irritating, and if there were ever a case that global extremism lead to a rise in Jew hating cough cough like NOW, those who take Israel for granted at times when the Jews are clearly in a golden age, in terms of historical highs and lows of social status of Jews, should be banned from seeking refuge in the only Jewish asylum in the world.

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