Finding My Place as an Anti-Occupation Reform Jew

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This past week at the URJ Biennial, I was blessed to celebrate social justice and my Jewish values, traditions, and songs with 6,000 Jews from across the world. As President Trump unilaterally announced the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem, I was so glad to be with the two Jewish movements closest to my heart: the Reform Movement and IfNotNow.

I grew up in the Reform Movement. I was deeply involved in at my temple, found my home away from home spending summers at URJ Camp Newman, and formed deep and lasting friendships in NFTY. I spent a semester in Israel on NFTY EIE, and found my voice as a songleader at URJ Kutz Camp.

Through all these experiences, from all these communities, I learned to laugh, love, sing, and learn.  But most importantly, I was taught that Tikkun Olam, or fixing the world, was a responsibility of the Jewish people. My Jewish life encouraged me to call out injustices and work to make our world a better place. Through liturgy, songs, programs at camps, youth group events, and sermons at temple, I was called into action, often with a line from the history of our people:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?

With the words of Hillel ringing in my ears, I went to Washington DC with my confirmation class to lobby for gun violence protection laws, marched in the gay pride parade in San Francisco with my camp, volunteered with food banks and community gardens, and raised money for AIDS research. My Jewish upbringing pushed me to always speak and act in the pursuit of justice. Well, almost always…

A key part of my Jewish education was learning about Israel.  l was taught that Israel was the ancient homeland of the Jewish people, that it had always belonged to the Jewish people, that it was ours for the taking.  That Israel was the little guy, protected from its senselessly destructive and hateful neighbors by the world’s most ethical army.

What I did not learn was that the land of was not empty for the taking when Israel’s founders arrived on its shores. It was never mentioned that the creation of our Jewish state came at the brutal expense of the Palestinian people, the people who were living there, had roots there, had tended to olive groves there for hundreds of years. I had no idea that our “War for Independence” is called by others the Nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe”. I thought Palestinians simply chose to abandon their homes in 1948, and had no idea they were forced out to become refugees.

Most of all, it was hidden from me that the biggest impact of the 1967 War was not the “reunification” of Jerusalem, but the beginning of the oppressive military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, an occupation that just reached its 50th anniversary.

I was constantly told that Palestinians only want violence, that there was no choice but to respond with force, that every air strike was defensive. I heard that they were too stubborn to follow in the footsteps of Gandhi and King, a cruel joke given the intense repression of non-violent protests in Palestine that makes widespread civil disobedience nearly impossible.

It was this past winter, immediately after I went on Birthright, that I went to Palestine for the first time and saw the occupation with my own eyes. The feelings of betrayal and hurt and shock came crashing over me like waves that did not stop, and still have not stopped as I continue to learn the truth about the conflict.

Although my Reform community shielded the reality of the occupation from me in my childhood, that is beginning to change. During his D’var Torah on Shabbat morning, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ, said unequivocally that “The Occupation is real.” As the Reform movement reckons with what that means in terms of its support of Israel, I am glad that this is a space where I can continue to fight for freedom and dignity for all. I am proud to be with IfNotNow standing up, raising our voice, and demanding that our Jewish institutions stop supporting the Occupation.

At the IfNotNow biennial exhibit booth, I had the opportunity to talk to hundreds of my colleagues and mentors about how the Reform movement’s values need to carry into our conversations and actions around the Occupation. It was an incredible experience to be part of both of these communities as a proud anti-occupation Reform Jew. I am so excited to finally see our movements side by side, coming together to fight for our Jewish values of Healing the World.

Netanya Perluss  is a junior at Wellesley College studying Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies and is a leader in IfNotNow Boston. Originally from Los Angeles, Netanya is member of Leo Baeck Temple and grew up actively participating in youth programming of the Union for Reform Judaism.