Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011

The Ethical Challenge for Diaspora Jews

by Tirzah Firestone

Having just returned from a ten-day human rights trip to Israel and the West Bank, I am faced with the painful and inevitable question: What's the point? Do the goodwill efforts of North Americans really matter there? Does our solidarity with the beleaguered (and dwindling) Israeli Left have any impact at all?

To be sure, the situation is bleak in Israel, and growing more so, despite Bibi's salutations in the direction of peace. With violence against Israelis down, there is little incentive for them to make concessions. On the contrary, a feeling of immense security, unquestioning self-confidence, and a booming economy prevail, at least on the surface. That democratic values in Israel are quickly unraveling, that time is running out for a Jewish majority there -- two facts that are frequently voiced in the United States -- seem to go unnoticed.

Worse yet, the suffering of Palestinian farmers and villagers at the hands of the Occupation and vigilante-style Settlers does not seem to be a big issue for the majority of Israelis. The continuing appropriation of Palestinian land, water, and olives trees; the flagrant negligence of untreated sewage on their lands; the violence against Palestinian farmers, elders, and children, often under the blind eye of the army -- are waved away with the coolest of explanations. Armed against all forms of criticism, the Israeli public is increasingly sequestered in its own psychological fortress. Two responses that dominated my discussions with Israelis were: It is just a chain reaction. You should only know what they have done to us; and Why are you here? Go home and tend to your own country's problems.

Both of these are justifiable comments. But I am a Jew, and even though I have chosen to live in the Diaspora, I am deeply attached to Israel. It matters to me how this miraculous gift of Jewish sanctuary turns out. Moreover, I do understand that the oppression I experienced in the West Bank must be understood in a larger context, a lethal system of the interlocking traumas of two peoples. Still, the kind of obliviousness that I encountered on the part of Israelis blights the otherwise beautiful features of Israeli culture.

Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this extreme callousness, the voices of Diaspora Jews and the voices of concerned activists everywhere are crucial now. The picture of Jews, both secular and with covered heads, working side by side Palestinian farmers in their olive groves, harvesting and planting and thereby serving as human shields against extremist Settlers, breaks down the sinister stereotype of Jew, for both Arab and Jew alike. Likewise, the weekly demonstrations by Israelis and internationals held in Sheikh Jarah against the judaization of East Jerusalem neighborhoods matters, as much to the evicted residents as to Jews around the world who want to hold Israel to a higher standard of political ethics.

Do these and many other acts of righteousness solve the problem of Israel's Occupation? Of course not. But every time we break out of our own callousness and take a stand, we are saving a dream, holding Israel to its original values, as declared to the world in 1948: to "foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; [Israel] will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel."

Israeli civil and human rights organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights, New Israel Fund, and B'Tselem are under fire now from Israel's draconian right-wing government. They deserve our solidarity. Will our efforts pan out? Only the future will tell. In the meantime, for many of us, there is no other way to be a Jew in this world.

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone is an author, therapist, and congregational rabbi in Boulder, Colorado. She serves on the board of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, for whom she leads human rights tours to Israel-Palestine. The next tour is scheduled for November 2011.

Her articles in Tikkun include her "Response to Max Frankel's 'Why Am I Here?'," January/February 2000; and "Sharing Our Suffering," September/October 2008.

Source Citation: Firestone, Tirzah. 2011. The Ethical Challenge for Diaspora Jews. Tikkun 26(1): 38

tags: Israel/Palestine, Vision for Israel/Palestine  
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