CommentaryBy Cecilie Surasky
On the eve of the 40th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it’s important to reflect on where we as a Jewish community stand on this issue, especially here in the Bay Area.
This occupation, through a system of checkpoints, home and orchard demolitions, detentions, land and water confiscations, assassinations and more, makes normal life impossible for millions of Palestinians. It violates international law, which was created in no small part as a response to World War II, and is universally condemned by human rights groups and governments, including the United States.
Far from bringing Israelis safety, it endangers people in Israel as well as the 400,000 settlers who live on occupied land, at least 40 percent of which, according to Israeli records, is actually owned by Palestinian families.
Given the Bay Area’s extraordinary history in the forefront of major social justice movements, it should come as no surprise that the leadership of the country’s largest and fastest-growing Jewish peace groups hail from here.
There is Brit Tzedek, which does critical work within the affiliated Jewish world as a pro-Israel/pro-peace group; Tikkun, which as part of the Network of Spiritual Progressives reaches across religious lines to raise a voice of justice; and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the only national Jewish peace group that views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of international human rights law.
All of us have experienced some form of censure from the institutional Jewish world for publicly challenging unquestioning support for Israeli policies.
On April 28-29 in Oakland, JVP will hold our first national conference, “Pursuing Justice in Israel/Palestine, Changing Minds, Challenging U.S. Policy.” (Go to www.JewishVoice forpeace.org for information.) The conference will offer attendees a way to learn more about the Middle East, get involved, or sharpen their strategy and skills.
Just 5 years ago, JVP was an all volunteer group based here in the Bay Area. Today, we have four program staff positions; a 24,000-person mailing list; chapters in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Seattle with more coming; and advisory board members including Howard Zinn, Deborah Chasnoff, Tony Kushner and Adrienne Rich.
We encourage all people, but Jews in particular, to attend the conference as a way learn about Arab-Jewish organizing, Christian fundamentalist anti-Semitism, life under occupation and more.
A Jewish movement for
peace and justice
It is challenging to be an “out” Jew on this issue. Many movements simplistically divide the world into us and them. But as Jews, many with close ties to Israel, we are both us AND them. We must constantly fight the temptation of others, and at times ourselves, to dehumanize the “bad guys.”
Many of us needed to break through the one-sided ideas about Israel we were taught from birth. We knew too well the Jewish stories of suffering and exile – we ourselves carry the wounds. And we understood the need to create a place where Jews could be safe.
But we realized we knew little about Palestinians, why they called the Israeli war of independence Al Nakba, the disaster. Or why many still carried keys to their old homes, or why children threw rocks at tanks, or why some became suicide bombers and sought to kill Israeli civilians on buses or in pizza shops.
Many of us decided to learn the whole history, and to go to the West Bank and Gaza ourselves to see exactly what occupation looks like.
It is a searing experience none shall ever forget.
There are no words to describe the anger the first time one sees a scared Israeli teenage soldier pointing a huge gun and callously barking orders at an elderly Palestinian at a checkpoint.
And there are no containers to hold the tears one sheds when one sees a Caterpillar bulldozer destroy a Palestinian family’s home because they lacked an impossible to obtain permit, while the mother watches restrained, screaming, her children’s clothes and toys strewn on the side of the road. As one rabbi who witnessed such destruction just a few miles outside of Jerusalem said, “This is the worst day of my life.”
We come back to the Bay Area, having experienced some of the worst days of our lives, and instead of being greeted with open arms by one of the most progressive Jewish communities in the world, ready to work with Israeli and Palestinian peace groups for justice, we find an increasingly polarized community.
On the one side we find Jewish leaders who, feeling under attack, circle the wagons and go into defense mode. Many repeat superficial and racist platitudes about Palestinians just hating Jews or not caring about their families, platitudes that insult the intelligence of most who know full well the complexity of the situation.
We find progressive Jewish groups who we look to for inspiration on every tough social issue, but who decide simply to not talk about Israel-Palestine, as though it weren’t there.
Finally, we find Jewish leaders wielding the powerful charge of anti-Semitism, at times, to silence legitimate albeit sometimes hyperbolic criticism of Israel. At the same time, we see them take no accountability for the widespread Islamophobia and toxic disregard for Arab lives that has become widespread in many Jewish communities.
We then do our part to add to the polarization.
Out of our collective frustration at being shut out, and our anger at the moral hypocrisy of our leaders, we speak in a way that makes other Jews feel we don’t care about Israeli life, no matter how untrue that may be.
We focus on the failings of the Israeli government, the powerful player, and gloss over the failings of Palestinian leadership, and fail to communicate our acknowledgment of the very real fear Diaspora Jews and Israelis feel about annihilation.
There must be a way to break out of this cycle.
It is a devastating lie that one must be either pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian.
It is possible, in fact, necessary, to be integrated as a Jew who loves the Jewish people and traditions, and who fights for justice for all people—especially those who suffer at the hands of a Jewish state.
The future of Palestinians depends on it. The future of Israel depends on it. The very future of Judaism depends on it.
Go to www.JewishVoiceforPeace.org to find out more and to register for the conference.
Cecilie Surasky is director of communications for Jewish Voice for Peace.