A Wholehearted Jewish Future

I am not one of the next (brave) generation.

I am a member of the older, frightened, quiet generation.

What I learned at the Open Hillel Conference was this: my generation cannot let the younger one do our work for us. We have credentials and we have experience. In the early 1980s, I was among those who spoke out about the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. The massacre occurred with the aid and knowledge of the Israel Defense Forces, a miserable fact most recently highlighted by Israeli director Ari Folman’s documentary, Waltz with Bashir.

In those days, emboldened by my academic studies of systems of racial oppression, I demonstrated against apartheid in South Africa. I founded and led peace groups advocating nuclear disarmament. Fellow members of the older, frightened, quiet generation worked for women’s rights. They protested against senseless war in Vietnam. They fought in the Civil Rights movement—risking their lives, in some cases, to enfranchise African Americans.

Portrait of woman rabbi

'My generation has left the peace movement in Israel hanging,' says Rabbi Barbara Shulamit Thiede. Credit: Author.

And yet we have watched year after year—decade after decade—as Israel has abandoned even the pretense of creating the Labor-Zionist utopia that many of us believed it could be. We have watched in disbelief, turning our heads away, unable to acknowledge what it has become.

My generation has left the peace movement in Israel hanging.

Now we are relying on the next generation to articulate what we have been thinking but haven’t said. What we do say, we whisper. Then we congratulate ourselves for getting that far.

Why are we frightened? Why are we silent?

Because we are in an intellectually abusive relationship.

In such a relationship, any rebellious thoughts have to be ignored. Any sentence that begins with “but” must be repressed. Thus, we of the frightened generation open the door to the expression of our mildest reservations with the protestation, “of course I believe in Israel’s right to exist, but….”

After I returned from the Open Hillel conference, I wrote an editorial for The Charlotte Observer. I described the essential aims of the movement, the speakers present, the many and differing voices present in the sessions I attended. I noted, simply, that there are Jews who need to be heard. “These students ask,” I wrote, “that all Jews be encouraged to come to the table to express their hopes and dreams for themselves, for Israel, and for peace in this world. They want older Jews to understand that they may feel differently than we do, and that they hold a wide range of opinions and positions. They ask that we assure them that no Jew is censored, rejected, or denied a hearing.” I insisted that open conversation is a necessity for democracy to flourish. A healthy community acknowledges disagreement and respects the right to protest.

Girl reading a pamphlet

The Open Hillel conference was an intergenerational event, with older Jewish community members flocking to the energy of the youthful organizers. Credit: Alli Gofman.

I joked with a few people that I had “come out” in a public forum in order to say, “Can we talk”?

Remember: I am a member of the older, quiet, frightened generation.

It didn’t take long for an employee of the University of North Carolina’s Hillel to tell me that I had caused a lot of trouble and that I should expect to see a rejoinder in the paper. It was fascinating to discover that this employee had never read Hillel’s Standards of Partnership rules.

It was even more fascinating to note my internal reaction: was the Jewish community I loved, which I serve as rabbi and teacher, going to punish me?

In past years, I served as Hillel advisor at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where I teach Jewish studies in the Department of Religious Studies. I focused entirely on helping students access the things I knew from my own college years with Hillel. All things Jewish. Programs and creative services, fun times with Talmud and surprising facts about Jewish history.

That particular employee—the one who opened the conversation by telling me how upsetting I was—would like me to present a program for Hillel students on the history of anti-Semitism, a topic I teach every year. (He’s timing this program, of course, around Israel Independence day.)

Am I being wooed so that I go back to behaving appropriately?

The Open Hillel conference brought this truth home: I cannot purchase the right to my deep and abiding love for Judaism and for the purpose(s) of Jewish community at the cost of remaining silent on Israel. A healthy love is one that permits disagreement, even dispute. A healthy love is one that guarantees respect.

The younger generation modeled this fact for me. But honestly, this is our work. This is work we should have done decades ago.

To the older, frightened, quiet generation: the relationship we are in with our own community is insulting our intelligence and abusing our trust.

It’s time to leave such relationships behind. It’s time to insist on articulating a Jewish future we can subscribe to with whole hearts—one that supports the human and civil rights of Palestinians.

If not now, when?

(To read more about the Open Hillel movement, return to the Open Hillel table of contents.)


3 thoughts on “A Wholehearted Jewish Future

  1. These are refreshing words, expressing thoughts too long absent from discussions about Israel that include American Jews. Most of the Jewish folks I have known have, for a long time now, taken the perspective that not being for Israel — period, no matter what — was equivalent to being anti-semitic. The few I’ve heard express misgivings about that viewpoint have — like the writer of this article — done so quietly, afraid of being ostracized if their misgivings were known.
    Israel is well on the way to becoming a fascist state. Brutal to the point of being war criminals against the Palestinians, but also becoming more and more repressive towards anyone, especially Jews, who hold less than completely uncritical opinions about Israel and the Israeli government. I think the writer’s criticism of her generation is fair. Her generation, and the one before that, gave up on the peace process after Rabin was assassinated by another Jew.
    Since then, it has been considered tantamount to a thought crime to consider anything but right-wing, expansionist views of Greater Israel, as though the Palestinians are subhumans unworthy of even the most basic considerations.
    So it is refreshing to hear a Jewish American willing to discuss this publicly. I would salute her courage, but something like this shouldn’t require courage. Not in America, for god’s sake. That’s been part of the problem. This isn’t being courageous. It’s being HUMAN.

  2. Wow, how original! Yet another column attributing the oppressive and clerical fascist policies of the (Pentagon-propped) hamas and fatah regimes to Israel!

  3. Regrettably, the writer of this article fails to recognize the intellectually abusive relationship emanates most onerously from the BDS movement which wishes to eliminate Israel entirely because Israel dares to defend itself against those who wish its annihilation.

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