Reimagining Judaism: The Great Teshuvah

Wilderness Torah Participants

How do we apply our personal experiences of teshuvah to a Great Turning—a broader social transformation toward justice and integrity? Here, Wilderness Torah participants gather in the forest to sing, meditate, and tap into Judaism’s earth-based roots. Credit: Zelig Golden (

While it felt like it would never end, the 2012 election season (and its barrage of pesky campaign emails) is over. The apocalyptic buzz associated with the end of the Mayan calendar cycle has come and gone. The Arab Spring, the Israeli Summer, and the American Autumn, all features of a bygone year that shook the world with protest, have left our ears ringing from the clamor of Canadian casseroles and the echo of a mic check. Spring 2013: time to usher in a new paradigm, one of teshuvah, of turning (or returning), to the earth, to each other, to integrity.

In turning to each other through teshuvah, we gain the capacity to see the humanity within those with whom we are most deeply in conflict. For those of us on the left, it is often most difficult to accept the humanity of leaders who use their power to uphold economic exploitation or military occupation. It takes work not to harden our hearts to these leaders and their supporters, but this work is an essential part of building an effective movement for social change. Although it feels counterintuitive to us, we must do the work to persuade ourselves, deep in our bones, that accepting the humanity of those whom we risk labeling as the “other” neither condones the violence wreaked by the policies they support nor weakens our condemnation of that violence.

Suing in Court with an Unhardened Heart

Simultaneously engaging in emphatic political struggle and struggling to stay conscious of the humanity of those we oppose is a deep form of teshuvah with the power to transform our lives and our struggles in unpredictable ways. This year I experienced firsthand the power of this practice through a series of unexpected interactions with two men, one who attacked me physically during a protest action and another who expressed regret on his blog for having failed to join in the attack.

My story begins in May 2011 when I spoke up as a young Jewish-American for equal rights for Palestinians during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in the Capital. Tikkun readers will remember this first part of the story from my article “Fresh Tactics and New Voices in the Movement for Justice and Freedom in the Middle East,” which appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of this magazine.

Social transformation, the author writes, must involve the “holy no” of protest, structural change, and consciousness-shifting cultural work. Here, Saria Idana performs Homeless in Homeland, a solo theater show about Israel and Palestine. Credit: Caicedo Photography ( 917-541-9068.

On that spring day, I stood up, heart pounding, hands trembling, and unfurled a banner, standing among those who had come to hear Netanyahu’s speech. Words came out of my mouth that I knew to be true with every bone in my body but had never said so boldly, so publicly: “Equal rights for Palestinians! No more occupation!” I was grabbed and gagged by a man sitting near me, rushed to the hospital, treated for a neck injury, arrested, and taken to jail. It was a whirlwind day that changed my life. Inspired by the courage of Palestinian activists nonviolently resisting Occupation daily, and activists here in the United States like the “Irvine 11,” I felt compelled to speak up. I hadn’t always felt so passionately about the Occupation, or been able to see the conflict as such, but traveling to the region in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead in 2009 opened my eyes, showing me the cruel reality of systemic oppression in a place I’ve always thought of as my homeland. I felt particularly emboldened by Beyt Tikkun and Jewish Voice for Peace—groups that showed me that I would be loved and accepted by the Jewish justice-seeking community for applying Jewish teachings to the Middle East crisis, not shunned or expelled.

I pursued legal action to identify my assailant, pressed charges, and filed a civil lawsuit for medical damages. When I discovered that the man who attacked me, Mr. Stanley Shulster, was a volunteer lobbyist with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, a retired lawyer, and a Jew, I felt even more hurt and betrayed.

A year later, Shulster settled the civil suit by financially compensating me for my injuries, issuing a public apology, and offering a statement that included this important sentence: “Mr. Shulster respects the right of Ms. Abileah to hold a different view on the Israel-Palestine conflict and believes she holds this view in good faith.” This strays from the boilerplate language of AIPAC lobbyists, as it affirms the capacity for multiple perspectives on the conflict at a time when much of the right-wing institutional Jewish establishment seeks to silence dissent. In the statement, both Shulster and I jointly “recognize the right, as Americans, to agree to disagree peacefully.” While I still experience pain from my neck injury and continue to heal from the emotional trauma of the incident, I have found this joint, free-speech-affirming settlement to be unexpectedly powerful and comforting. It is a statement based in the basic humanity of both my assailant and myself.

An Unlikely Ally at the RNC

I had another remarkable experience of teshuvah last August when I went to demonstrate at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa. This time the interaction involved well-known Orthodox author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (pronounced Bo-tey-ach), who had been sitting a few seats over during Netanyahu’s speech when I rose in protest and when Shulster attacked me.
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