I. Wearing Blinders
I grew up listening to stories of Jewish exceptionalism, stories that were both beautiful and exceptional. These stories I grew up with weren’t biblical tales of chosenness, nor were they Zionist visions of Israel.
Instead, they were tales of progressive heroism, tales of American heroism, stories of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, stories of Gertrude Weil organizing women’s suffrage leagues in the early 1900s, stories of Jewish immigrants’ integral role in sparking America’s labor movement.
They were stories of Jews fighting for the human rights, equal rights and dignity of those oppressed, maligned or ignored. They were stories of progressive activism spurred by Jewish values.
I thought of all these stories this past week as my inbox filled with messages from local and national Jewish organizations, all with a singular message: support Israel.
They were messages of solidarity as Israeli civilians cowered in fear from Hamas-launched rockets. But they were also messages sent as over 100 Palestinians lay dead in the rubble of Gaza, as blockade-depleted hospitals turned away the injured, as entire families were erased by American-made missiles.
They were messages that completely ignored the other side, a Palestinian people brutally oppressed for decades. They were messages that didn’t square with the stories I was told as a youth. They were messages that don’t square with any notion of American progressivism, with any notion of Jewish progressivism – with the notion that one of our greatest concerns should be for the human rights of the oppressed.
II. The Question
Where is our humanity? It’s a question Sara Roy asks in The Boston Globe, a question I cannot get out of my mind.
It’s a question she asks knowing that, as the Palestinian Authority prepares for a United Nations vote next week that will upgrade Palestine to a non-member status, America will likely punish the PA with funding cuts.
It’s a question she asks, gazing upon the destitution and destruction in Gaza, knowing how long oppression of the Palestinians has persisted (both there and in the politically and geographically separated West Bank).
It’s a question she asks after the recent violence between Israel and Hamas, after Israel’s military campaign in Gaza that starkly revealed like never before the civilian suffering on both sides. And it’s a question she asks knowing how desperate Palestinians are for international relief, for humanitarian intervention:
The current crisis is framed in terms devoid of any real context. The issue goes far beyond which side precipitated the terrible violence that has killed innocents on both sides. The issue – largely forgotten – is one of continued occupation and blockade, a grossly asymmetrical conflict that has deliberately and systematically disabled Gaza’s economy and people.
The Gaza Strip is now in its 46th year of occupation, 22nd year of closure, and sixth year of intensified closure. The resulting normalization of the occupation assumes a dangerous form in the Gaza Strip, whose status as an occupied territory has ceased to matter in the West; the attention has shifted – after Hamas’s 2006 electoral victory and 2007 takeover of the territory – to Gaza’s containment and punishment, rendering illegitimate any notion of human rights or freedom for Palestinians.
Where is our humanity? It’s a question she asks of us, as Americans. It’s a question I ask of us, as progressives.
It’s a question I ask myself, as a Jew.
III. Behaving Like a Jew
Several years ago, I took the esteemed poet, Gerald Stern, out to breakfast. It was on a Sunday morning in the sleepy, North Carolina coastal village of Wrightsville Beach (just outside of Wilmington), where he was living while teaching creative writing at UNCW.
I was his student.
I asked him to breakfast because he is, well, Gerald Stern. He accepted because I was a Jew, one of the few he’d met during his Southern, coastal stint.
So I took him to the local dive, where the food is awful and joint is always packed. And as he scooped over-easy eggs into his mouth from a white, ceramic plate, he asked about terrorism, about my experiences in Israel, about living with violence. I asked him about a poem of his I could not get out of my mind that echoed Stern’s post-Holocaust mentality, “Behaving Like a Jew.”
Behaving Like a Jew
When I got there the dead opossum looked like
an enormous baby sleeping on the road.
It took me only a few seconds – just
seeing him there – with the hole in his back
and the wind blowing through his hair
to get back again into my animal sorrow.
I am sick of the country, the bloodstained
bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking through the grilles,
the slimy highways, the heavy birds
refusing to move;
I am sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything,
that joy in death, that philosophical
understanding of carnage, that
concentration on the species.
—I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death.
I am going to behave like a Jew
and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,
and pull him off the road.
I am not going to stand in a wet ditch
with the Toyotas and the Chevys passing over me
at sixty miles an hour
and praise the beauty and the balance
and lose myself in the immortal lifestream
when my hands are still a little shaky
from his stiffness and his bulk
and my eyes are still weak and misty
from his round belly and his curved fingers
and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet.
I asked him whether or not he felt uncomfortable with the implicit Jewish exceptionalism in the poem, about the narrator’s view that, in a constructed rural world of hunting and highways and death, it is the Jew who stops his car, bends down and mourns. It is the Jew who touches the opossum’s body and silently weeps for a life once lived.
He looked me in the eyes, set the fork upon his plate, and recited the poem in his gravely, aged voice, emphasizing the words I am going to be unappeased. Upon finishing, he gulped from a glass of sweet tea, slammed the cup upon our wooden bench, and said, “This is not exceptional.”
And he’s right: Jewish Americans have largely chosen to be unappeased by their engagement in progressive social causes and political issues. And I’m not making an exceptionalism argument here – no human’s blood is redder. I’m simply stating what some are afraid to say: Jews, who make up only 1.2% of the U.S. population, are (in my ranging experiences) disproportionately represented in social action and progressive endeavors in the United States.
Why? Perhaps it’s Talmudic values. Perhaps it’s the shadows of Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Perhaps it’s the reverberations of European socialist values. Or, as my Mom would say, perhaps it’s because every Jewish mother wants one thing for her child more than anything: that he/she be a mensch (a good person). It’s cultural, this unique, American melding in Jewish communities of progressive, humanitarian values and traditional Judaism that occurred (remarkably, perhaps miraculously) in the shadow of the Holocaust.
However, in America, while it’s not exceptional to find a Jew championing the rights of an oppressed minority – see the civil rights movement then and marriage equality now (Evan Wolfson founded Freedom to Marry) – what is exceptional today is to find American Jews championing the rights of one particular people: the Palestinians.
For one thing trumps being a mensch in that ever-present shadow of the Holocaust: survival. Which is one reason why AIPAC has grown into one of the more influential lobbying bodies despite its narrow, hawkish positions, positions that, were they transposed onto a different political map or geopolitical conflict, would not receive a plurality of support from American Jews. For deep down, existentially, Jews fear one thing more than any other: being exterminated. And Israel is literally and emotionally entwined (inextricably) with such survival.
And so many American Jews allow themselves to largely be ignorant of or ignore the plight of the Palestinians. Not out of malice. But out of an uber-sensitivity and hyper-focus on Jewish victimhood, on Jewish survival.
However, an increasing number of young Jews are growing up with a greater understanding of the complex realities in Israel and the Occupied Territories. A growing number of young Jews are learning not just about Jewish suffering, but about Palestinian suffering.
A growing number of young Jews are refusing to view the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate as a zero-sum conflict, and some, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, are continuing those stories I heard as a child and applying them to what I consider one of the greatest moral challenge of my generation: the occupation of the Palestinians.
I am a Jew.
I am an American.
And I have chosen not to be appeased.
Not by the criminal violence perpetrated against my people in the name of resistance, nor the criminal violence perpetrated by my people in the name of security.
And those like me are growing. By the day.
Follow me on Twitter @David_EHG
David, thank you. Never have I seen these feelings so well articulated. Thank you. thank you.
Thanks for the kind words, Greytdog.
We made a promise with statehood — education for all, pride of selfhood for all; opportunity
for all. Have we forgotten this amidst the fear? Let’s share the bounty in peace.. Teach the promise nothing more nothing less.
David, Your words are truly inspiring. How well they express my own thoughts. I had to find where Wilmington, NC is because I just saw “Lincoln” and one of the scenes was about the attack on its fort and harbor. I didn’t know it was next to Cape Fear, another great movie.
I’m WAY off topic. Forgive me; I’m a retired cartographer.
Behaving Like a Jew. How could I not comment on the Gerald Stern poem? I believe Jesus captured the essence of Judaism when he said what you do to the least among you, you do to me.
What I find depressing is that so many people (including Jews) equate Judaism or Jewishness with Israel, when in fact these are quite different things. I am not, as a Jew, a representative or extension of the government of Israel. It really cheapens the tradition (chillul ha shem – hollows out god’s holy name) when people make that mistake.
For a few years I have been an avid student of Jewish spirituality (as expressed, for example, the in Babylonian Talmud’s Tractates of Derek Eretz)…as a result of which I have learned that there is nothing in our tradition that supports the violent oppression of another people. There is probably nothing in ANY spiritual tradition that supports this. It’s sad if people think Judaism is OK with this.
Do people just not know that progressive values are an extension of the tradition? What seems to happen is that secular Jews might receive the values via inter-generational cultural transmission, but without knowing (specifically) where they originate. Perhaps others who are more religious continue to fear that spirituality is both naive and dangerous, because that’s what they learned from the Holocaust. I don’t talk about Israel, because it tends to induce some sort of rabid psychotic break in most people, regardless of what they believe about the I/P conflict.
I think the rabbis of the Talmud understood that Torah is a means to an end (living a spiritual life) and not an end in itself – not something to be pasted on from outside, but a philosophical approach to engaging with life that can only come from inside. Hence, any religious tradition or spiritual practice that gets the job done is fine. “The righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come.” In other words, don’t be Jewish for the sake of being Jewish – but be Jewish because it is a technique that can bring you to spirituality as you learn about it.