Israel, Justice

Visiting Israel? Visit Palestine, too.

Staring at the rubble of a Palestinian home recently destroyed by the Israeli army in the West Bank town of Al-Walaja, Sam, a 36-year-old American Jew from Pittsburgh, shook his head. “It’s impossible to reconcile what I was raised to believe about Israel, and this demolished home. I was taught that Judaism is all about hesed [loving kindness] and tikkun olam [social justice],” Sam said woefully. And that was two weeks before the most recent rampage, in which masked settlers in the West Bank set homes and cars on fire and shot at a Palestinian village, killing one Palestinian and injuring twelve.

Sam was one of a dozen American Jews who joined me in early June for a multi-synagogue trip into the heart of the Jewish American conundrum. Over the course of nine days, we partook of life in Israel, protesting against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intensifying efforts to destroy the bedrock of democracy that Jewish Israelis have enjoyed for 75 years, and dancing at the festive Pride parade in Tel Aviv.

But this trip went deeper. We went beyond the Green Line to meet with Palestinians in West Bank cities. Amid the ever-expanding settlements and increasingly confined Palestinian towns, we heard from Palestinians who shared their growing panic about Israel’s alarming violence against innocent civilians.

It is not an easy time for American Jews to engage with Israel. In fact, the current situation is enough to make anyone disengage. And that is, in fact, what many people are doing. Studies consistently show that young American Jews feel less connected to Israel and Israelis. While just over 50% of American Jews between 25 and 40 still feel attached to Israel, a survey from 2017 showed that millennials put tikkun olam before Zionism as the glue binding together the American Jewish community.

The waning love fest is mutual. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been known to show his appreciation for right-wing Christian evangelicals while dismissing the concerns of liberal Jews. Just the other week, Netanyahu’s far-right Minister for Diaspora Affairs, Amichai Chikli, literally gave the finger to pro-democracy activists in New York. In addition, Chikli has criticized Reform Jews, the largest American Jewish denomination.

The need for Jewish self-determination, alongside social justice, however, is larger and more enduring than any individual, even one as seemingly invincible as Netanyahu. As a life-long Jewish social justice activist and student rabbi, this moment requires American Jews to put their Jewish values into action, in the US and in Israel/Palestine.

American Jews have a storied history of standing up for what is right under dangerous conditions. Amid violence, hatred, and uncertainty, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King Jr., Gloria Steinem fought for women’s rights, Harvey Milk advanced gay rights. Now it is time to embrace our Jewish justice values of equity, dignity, and universal safety– all predicated on b’tselem Elohim, that all humans are created in the image of God–and apply them to Israel/Palestine.

Failure to do so damages us all. As Palestinian businessman Sam Bahour told our group in Ramallah, when Israel uproots the trees of Palestinians, engages in military incursions in densely populated cities, and arrests Palestinian children during night raids, the government does so in the name of all Jews.

Rather than drop out, it is time for everyone who cares about Judaism, the future of Israel, and social justice to tune in. There are a number of things American Jews can do to align their commitment to tikkun olam with present day realities in Israel.

First, we must face the truth. Although many of us, myself included, were raised to believe in Israel as blameless and morally justified in all its actions, the Netanyahu government is unabashed in its efforts to oppress Palestinians. Israel is literally building a separate underground roadway to segregate Palestinian movement in the West Bank. If the idea of separate drinking fountains for Black people and white people seems abhorrent, this should be no less so.

The inconvenient truth is that another people lives in the land Israel controls; approximately fifty percent of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are Palestinian. If you are planning an institutional trip to Israel, dedicate half your time to understanding Palestine by meeting Palestinians, inside Israel and in the West Bank and through zoom meetings to Gaza. While it can be challenging to take the step of extending ourselves to understand the realities facing Palestinians, after nearly two decades of life and work in Israel and the West Bank, I am only richer for opening my heart to a people I was raised to fear.

As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” As American Jews, we have a choice. We can bury our heads in the sand and hope things will get better. Or, we can draw from our spiritual toolkit and use the wisdom of our ancestors to face reality. As Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, reminds us, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but nor are you free to absolve yourself from it.”


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