Speaking out about Israel to save the Jewish soul

Every time a Gazan father faints as he watches his family home demolished; every time a Jew, Muslim or Christian is violently attacked by armed Israelis because they are non-violently protesting the separation wall; every time a rain of Israeli army bullets flies into the body of a young child on her way to school; every time a young Palestinian man is made to play violin by Israeli soldiers, or a pregnant woman dies at a checkpoint, Jews like us must speak out.

Remaining silent is no longer an option. We can no longer let our trauma, our deep fear of anti-Jewish hatred implanted in us through generations of persecution, make us remain quiet at the expense of truth.

Our continued silence perpetuates the fiction that all Jews are of one mind when it comes to Israel — that we think it can do no wrong; that we believe the Israeli government is innocent of war crimes; that we believe US military support for Israel’s illegal occupation is a sign of our special relationship, and not a cynical use of Jewish suffering to provide moral cover for strategic interests in an oil-rich region.

Our silence puts us in more danger, not less. Through it, we give our consent not only to the obliteration of the Palestinian people, but to the end of our own people. If not our bodies, then certainly our spirit.

Jews like us know in our hearts that every time a Palestinian mother stands sobbing in the road, clutching her children and watching her home being demolished by an Israeli army bulldozer, another brick is dislodged from the edifice of 5,000 years of Jewish values, ethics and justice.

We see one of the world’s greatest armies cry ‘self defence’ as it uses tanks, bulldozers and missiles against a poverty stricken civilian population, and we cry inside for the callous manipulation of Jewish fear for the sake of expansionism.

We watch images of teenage soldiers who are told they are making Jews safer, shooting at children and young men, tearing up ancient olive trees and destroying entire neighbourhoods. We tremble inside knowing they are only creating a new generation of children whose anger burns so bright that they may one day wear a home-made bomb meant to kill any Jewish man, woman and child.

We silently cheer for the rabbi who puts his body in front of a Caterpillar bulldozer to stop it from uprooting olive trees or destroying a home for minor permit violations; the young Israeli conscientious objectors who choose jail over serving in the territories; the Israeli women, many of them older, who spend hot days in the sun monitoring checkpoints in an effort to ensure that the soldiers don’t humiliate or torture the Palestinians who must cross them.

We cry when we see the myriad ways the occupation has dehumanised the occupier as well as the occupied. And yet, we remain silent, too afraid to speak the words out loud. We say nothing to our families, our friends, our colleagues, our rabbis, our congregations.

The truth is that if we don’t “come out” about Israel now — speaking openly and clearly about our heartache and outrage, about the injustice we see, the unspeakable wrongness of Israel’s pursuit of land over peace — then in the future there will not be a Jewish tradition left to defend. It will have become an empty shell, and all of the infinite good works done every day by Jews throughout time and place will be rendered meaningless by the actions of a state that claims to be a light to the Jewish people, but has become so accustomed to co-creating death and chaos that it can barely claim now to care for its own citizens.

How did we become so fearful about calling injustice what it is? Worse, how did, with few notable exceptions, our appointed and de facto leaders become so scared? So lacking the moral courage we desperately need now?

Because I work in a Jewish peace organisation, I think I know the answer.

More than one rabbi says he supports what we are doing, but he can’t help us because his congregation is too conservative. Meanwhile, members of temples report they are too fearful to speak because they believe their rabbi is too conservative. A man in a retirement home, where people with hawkish views on Israel dominate, calls for help refusing to give his last name for fear of retribution. An employee of a hawkish Jewish community organisation insists that the staff is split between hawks and doves, but many are too intimidated to speak.

A Jewish doctor confesses she still hasn’t been able to admit to her parents her passionate disagreement with the Israeli government. A rabbi in New York is certain he has lost his job because of a Yom Kippur sermon critical of Israel. A Jewish journalist at a major daily sues because, he says, he is fired for his work against Israel’s occupation, and another’s Sunday feature story on Jewish peace activists is inexplicably killed two days before publication.

An Israeli rabbi who is a world renowned human rights activist frequently meets with Jewish leaders in coffee shops because they are afraid to be seen with him in their offices. The head of a campus Hillel in Virginia is fired because, despite always being balanced at her job, she expressed her personal views to her superiors and to the Israeli embassy. At UC Berkeley, the progressive Jewish student group Tzedek is finally forced to disassociate with the campus Hillel after determining that “the organisation is laden with mechanisms designed to stifle dissent from what it perceives as ‘mainstream’ (Jewish) views about Israel”.

And groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, despite having a large membership, are not accepted in mainstream Jewish institutions. On top of it all, we must weather isolation in our own families, and an almost daily barrage of hate messages from other Jews.

From fear of being socially shunned, and the systematic pressure campaigns launched a few years ago against most major newspapers for being “anti-Israel”, to the Jewish community council that trained others how to neutralise Jewish peace groups by meeting behind closed doors and using pro-peace buzzwords to co-opt their views, there are all too many examples of the mainstream Jewish community silencing dissent and principled Jews staying in the closet.

This phenomenon is all the more puzzling because many would say that questioning and dissent is encoded in Jewish DNA. From Emma Goldman and Saul Alinsky to Betty Freidan, Larry Kramer and refuseniks like Yoni Ben-Artzi, we find a long list of remarkable outspoken Jews whose willingness to stand up for what is right and to question the status quo made history, but also made them enemies. They stand as our heroes not only because of what they achieved, but because of what they faced in order to make all of us better as human beings and citizens of the world.

The atmosphere of intimidation in the American Jewish world has had a corrosive effect not just on our families and communities, but on the very tradition which binds us together. We are famous for speaking our minds when we perceive that an injustice is taking place. That is not true when the perpetrator is Israel. Suddenly, we allow our fears of being ostracised from our communities and families to silence us. And as a result, history will show that much of the mainstream Jewish leadership has failed us, and failed us profoundly. Perhaps we will have failed ourselves.

But courage does not mean being fearless, it means acting in the face of fear. And Jews like me have to ask: If we no longer stand up for moral courage and call injustice when we see it, regardless of who commits it, then what do we stand for?

Related Links

  • What “Peace” Really Means to Israelis, Avigail Abarbanel (21 January 2005)
  • Look for a future Palestine in the past, George E. Bisharat (3 February 2005)

    Cecilie Surasky is the communications director for Jewish Voice for Peace and a New Voices fellow with the Academy of Educational Development. This article was first published in The Jordan Times and is reprinted with the author’s permission.