1. The Yom Kippur Transgression
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Religious Jews fast and pray all day, focusing on repenting the sins of the past year.
On the Yom Kippur before my sixteenth birthday, I was at the neighborhood drugstore-soda fountain, probably buying cigarettes.
I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was supposed to be at home, not to fast or think about atoning for anything, but to stand with all Jews by not publicly flouting the Yom Kippur practice.
It was in the decades after World War II. The Jewish High Holy Days were not yet school holidays even in New York State, with its large Jewish population. American Jews were still assimilating. The process had been accelerated by the war and the Holocaust, the genocide attempted and almost achieved by Germany’s Third Reich, yet those same events made us more than ever conscious of our Jewish identity. So it was that my mother, daughter of two militantly secular, even anti-religious, socialist-anarchist Russian Jews, kept her children home from school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a sign of respect for, and solidarity with, observant Jews. My visit to the drugstore was behind her back, sneaking out for something I needed, which is why I think it must have been cigarettes.
Suddenly, a voice behind me said, “Judy! What are you doing here?” It was a Jewish high-school classmate, and when I said I was getting cigarettes, she added, “No, why aren’t you in school?”
“It’s Yom Kippur,” I said. If I was breaking the rules, so was she.
“But Judy,” she protested, “you look so Catholic!”
She was mixing up religion and ethnicity. She meant I looked Irish, which I did, because I am. Half Irish, also half Jewish. Standing in the aisle at the drugstore, I explained that to my classmate. Then I went home and announced that for my upcoming birthday I wanted a gold Star of David and a chain to wear it on. I got it and wore it for years afterward, wanting never again to be taken for not Jewish.
2. My Mother’s Hagadahs
The Hagadah is the account of the Jews’ servitude in Egypt and escape – exodus – from it, traditionally retold during the Passover dinners called seders.
To be precise, I’m half Jewish by matrilineal ancestry, if not by religion, which gets me the Right of Return under Israeli law and would have gotten me death in Nazi Germany. The other half is Irish – my father was born in County Cork – and that’s the half I more resemble. My birth name was Judith Mahoney, and I’m blue-eyed and, through my teens, was fair-haired.
It’s a mixed ethnic heritage, complicated by divorces and remarriages. My sister and I lived with our Jewish mother and Dutch-Jewish stepfather and our two little brothers in a secular but consciously Jewish home, where we lit menorahs at Hanukkah and held (very secular) seders at Passover. We spent weekends with our father and stepmother – also Jewish – and their two kids, half-Jewish like us. For icing on the cake, there were Christmas trees in both homes. I was absolutely Irish and absolutely a Jew, both. And if my face, as my friend Maxine had noted, made only the Irish part visible, I would wear the Star of David to declare the Jewish side to the world.
Ethnically mixed, yes – politically, not so much. All my families were left of center. My mother had gotten from her parents and passed on to her children a lifetime commitment to peace, equality, and social and economic justice. In London’s dedicated peace park at Tavistock Square, one bench holds a plaque that says, “From Beatrice Kelvin [that’s her name – “Bea” to friends and family] of New York City, who works for peace and loves London.” But she also got from her parents, and also passed on to her children, the idea that Jews had a particular and millennia-old relationship to those ideals, because we were slaves in Egypt and, not rarely, victims of attempted genocide.
In the same spirit that, despite being utterly non-observant religion-wise, she nevertheless kept us home on the High Holy Days, so, too, she celebrated Passover – her family’s way. Long before many liberal Jews created Freedom Hagadahs for the Passover seder, our funky, secular seders consisted of an appetizer course of gefilte fish on matzoh, followed by matzoh ball soup, roast chicken and a speech about freedom and the Jewish commitment to it. In our childhood, the oration was delivered by our step-grandfather, later by my mother: We were slaves in Egypt. We were victims of genocide. No more, never again – for anyone.
The Jewish tradition was so important to Bea that she sent her young sons to a secular version of the Torah study observant Jewish boys attend, a “Sunday school” on Jewish culture and history – and called their graduation from it their bar mitzvah. And as the U.S. civil rights movement burgeoned, so it made its way into her seder recitation, as did the participation in it of many American Jews. Not surprisingly, my sister Joan and I were among them. (So were our younger siblings as soon as they were old enough,) In her early teens, Joan protested at a Long Island Woolworth’s against their segregated Southern lunch counters; later, at the University of Chicago, she sat in (with Bernie Sanders, by the way) to change the segregation in local college-owned housing; still later, she marched in Selma. By then, I was a mother and couldn’t take the same risks, but I was at the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. King declared that he had a dream, and both of us vigorously protested the Vietnam War in the name of freedom for the people of Vietnam, as did our siblings in the later years of that long war.
3. Exodus Redux; When We Were Zionists
Zionism in the 19th century was first a movement among European Jews for a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine but soon became and remained a movement for a Jewish state there. In 1947, when the United Nations partitioned the former British Palestine Mandate into two future states, one Jewish and one Arab, the majority of the population in the Mandate was Arab, some but not all of whom called themselves Palestinian. A year later, three-quarters of a million had been killed or driven out of the new nation of Israel, and Arabs at that point constituted 18 percent of the population there.
In 1960, I sat in a movie theater watching Exodus and wept when the battered ship reached Haifa, and the refugee children it carried arrived at what would soon become Israel.
I wasn’t alone. The movie was a blockbuster success, like the book it was based on. Exodus the novel had been on the New York Times best-seller list for an unprecedented eight months. The film’s box-office receipts amounted to four times its costs.
Another, unheralded attraction for many was that it was also the movie that had broken the anti-communist blacklist when producer-director Otto Preminger hired blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay under his own name. The dissent voiced by a friend of mine – “He should have stayed blacklisted,” he said as the final credits rolled – was a rarity.
Most American liberals and leftists, who composed the core of the community that celebrated the end of the blacklist, had also supported the creation of Israel since its beginning. The major world powers had their own reasons for voting for the UN’s 1947 partition of Britain’s former Palestine Mandate: For England and the United States, Israel would constitute an ally in the oil-rich Middle East. (It would also, presumably, lure away significant numbers of unwanted Jews.) On the other hand, the USSR’s Josef Stalin saw it as potentially reducing Britain’s power there, and the U.S. Communist Party supported the partition and the founding of a Jewish state. In 1948, as war raged around the establishment of Israel, left-wing novelist Howard Fast published My Glorious Brothers, a historical novel celebrating the successful fight by Jewish forces in the second century BCE to create the Jewish kingdom of Judea.
The United States of that era still celebrated “how the West was won.” Hollywood poured out Westerns by the hundreds, most of them depicting heroic pioneers making their way across plains empty but for hostile savages who attacked them for no reason (although there was usually one “good” Indian who fought and usually died for the pioneers).
And so we come back to Exodus. Book and movie alike related a story of “a land without a people for a people without a land” yet unaccountably full of “hostiles” (but for a few “good,” that is, non-hostile, Arabs). No one, or at least no one audible to the public at large, or the Jewish public at large, or the left/liberal public at large, acknowledged parallels between that account and how the West was won.
4. Marches and Sit-ins and Boycotts, Oh My!
I grew up. I married young, had a child, divorced, remarried, had two more children. (Both my husbands were Jewish, both marriages and the intervening divorce were performed and declared, respectively, by rabbis.) But I never lost the political engagement my parents had passed on to me, the conviction that no one is free until all are free. I added boycotting California grapes and lettuce to my civil rights and anti’war activism, all of which efforts saw substantial victories. We won civil rights legislation, the end of the war, and the recognition in California of the migrant workers’ union.
Then in the ’70s, like so many other women, I was swept away by the tidal wave of feminism. My second marriage ended, and for most of a decade, I substituted freedom for women for freedom for all, becoming a moderately prominent writer and broadcaster and sometimes poet in the radical feminist wing of the movement. But I had started writing a feminist column for a local paper when I was still married, so rather than change my byline, I kept my married name, thus almost incidentally retaining a Jewish identity, although some time later I added my birth name as a middle name.
Eventually, however, I returned to the creed of my childhood – no one is free until all are free. By 1986, still (as now) a committed feminist, I was also operating again in other spheres, including rigorously observing the boycott against apartheid.
One day in 1986 or ’87, I opened my mailbox and found a letter from Oxford University Press. They were asking permission to publish a poem of mine, “My Bloom Will Never Fade,” a eulogy of sorts for my late grandmother, in an anthology of women’s poetry.
I read it a second time. Yes, that’s what it said: Oxford University Press wanted to anthologize a poem of mine. I stood by the mailbox, letter in hand, crying. If a neighbor had come along, I would have shown her (preferably) or him the request.
No one arrived. My tears dried, and I re-read the letter. That was when I saw that it was from Oxford University Press, Southern Africa. It was from a publisher in the country that we of good will were boycotting as part of the international struggle against apartheid. The letter said the anthology was intended for university courses in Women’s Studies. It didn’t mention that the university structure there was segregated. One of the English language’s most prestigious publishers was proposing to publish a poem of mine – in the country I was boycotting, and I didn’t know whether permitting the publication would be breaking the boycott or not.
I asked people I knew, fellow boycott supporters, about the propriety of publishing a poem in South Africa. No one gave me a definitive answer – publishing seemed to be a gray area. So I drafted an eloquent answer to OUP-Southern Africa, explaining that my soul rebelled at permitting my poem to appear in a book published for apartheid-segregated readers. I spent weeks polishing the letter to a diamond-hard brilliance.
I couldn’t get it quite brilliant enough, so I never mailed it. The poem was omitted from the apartheid text merely in default of the poet’s permission. But at least I hadn’t broken the boycott.
5. Hillary and Me: Not in My Name
Russian writer Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, only a year after the publication of his novel Dr. Zhivago, which was deeply critical of many aspects of the Communist revolution. The Soviet government pressured him into declining the award, but it was given anyway. Many Jews around the world believed that his persecution in his native country was rooted as much in his Jewishness as in his politics. Even my pro-Soviet mother murmured, “Anti-Semites!”
Hillary Clinton and I began our decades-long adversarial relationship in the same stretch of time as I declined to publish my poem in a South African anthology. At first I was unaware of our enmity. I’m sure she is to this day. It started – again, utterly unknown to both of us – at some point between the first intifada and the end of Hillary’s tenure as First Lady.
In the mid-’80s, I introduced a note of discord into my family’s seders at the end of my mother’s exhortation that Jews, particularly, must work for freedom for all people. I started adding, just loud enough for everyone at the table to hear, “including the Palestinians.” When Bea challenged the addition, asking why I was picking on Israel when so many other peoples around the world were also being denied freedom, I answered, “Because it’s we, Jews, who are doing it. We’re doing to another people what was done to us, and we’re the ones who have to stop it.” By “it,” I meant the ongoing denial of autonomy, the statehood Palestinians had been promised in the 1947 partition and had been promised again in the 1993-1995 Oslo Accords between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
In 1999, considering her post-First Lady political future, Hillary announced that she might run for the Senate in New York State, which – she didn’t mention this – has the nation’s largest Jewish community. That July, she wrote to a prominent New York rabbi that, if elected, she would “be an active, committed advocate for a strong and secure Israel … with the United States Embassy located in its capital, Jerusalem.” The letter omitted the fact that she was actively defying Bill Clinton’s foreign policy.
The next year, she did indeed run for the Senate seat. I lived in New York City then (as I did all my life until I moved to Paris in 2011). Her campaign was well under way when I got my first phone call from it, A woman’s voice asked, “Is this Judith Pasternak?” When I said yes to that, she went on to say that she was calling on Hillary’s behalf (she referred to the candidate by her first name) to urge me to vote for her because “she’s such a friend to Israel.”
I got calls like that every time Hillary ran for office, right up to 2016, and she continued to be an uncritical supporter of Israel’s policies, as a Senator and, later, as Secretary of State. (She was also, in both capacities, an unabashed hawk, which would have lost her my vote in any case, but she wasn’t using my Jewishness as an excuse to support the U.S. military incursions, so I didn’t take that personally.)
I rejoiced in 2008 when Barack Obama defeated her for the nomination to the presidency. It was thrilling to be able to vote for the first Black president, and I would have been forever sad if I hadn’t voted for the first major party woman candidate, but I swore I could never vote for Hillary.
I was forsworn in 2016. I voted for her., but not without reluctance. She’s still a symbol of what’s being done to Palestine in my name, and I still take it personally.
6. Twenty-Five Words
On a July morning in 2006, in Paderborn, Germany, I was one of ten peace activists from the United States, Germany, and Israel/Palestine arguing around a table. The bone of contention was a draft statement prepared by some of us in opposition to Israel’s bombing of Lebanon.
We were at a conference of War Resisters’ International, the global pacifist network. Six of us had drafted the statement – three Americans, two Israelis, and the only Palestinian at the conference. The other four were Germans, who objected to the tone of the draft, which they thought was “too hard on Israel.”
We talked for an hour, getting nowhere. The word, “anti-Semitic” was never spoken aloud but hung over the table like a cloud. We seemed to be deadlocked –
Until Dorothy Naor, the U.S.-born Israeli grandmother who is one of the founders of the Israeli feminist anti-militarist group New Profile, said quietly, “I want my Jewish grandchildren to sleep safely in their beds at night – and they never will, as long as there’s a State of Israel.”
The Germans caved. The next plenary session accepted the statement criticizing the bombing in the strongest possible terms. Dorothy Naor’s 25 quiet words had disentangled opposition to Israel from anti-Semitism.
But those same 25 words had had a more far-reaching impact on me, the way an optical illusion changes what you see in the blink of an eye: One moment the chair is upside-down, the next it’s right-side up, and you can never see it upside down again. Exactly so, in the blink of an eye, the two-state solution turned over, revealing the fundamental contradiction at the bottom of the idea of a just, i.e., democratic, Jewish state: That it discriminates by ancestry. To be a Jewish state, it must give Jews – that is, not Israelis, but citizens of any country who are of Jewish ancestry – different status under its laws than non-Jews. That left, as the right-side-up alternative, the one-state solution, not the one espoused by Israel’s right wing, a Jewish state comprising the whole former Palestine mandate, but one multi-ethnic, secular, democratic state from the Jordan to the sea.
7. A Window Over Jerusalem
I saw Dorothy Naor again the next year, in Tel Aviv. Her 25 words had provided the spark that sent me, at last, to Palestine and Israel with a six-person delegation organized and led by the San Francisco-based Middle East Children’s Alliance. The trip took place a few months after the publication of two significant (and controversial) books on the subject. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by the Jewish Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, took a grim perspective on Israel’s early years, while Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid, by former President and Nobel Laureate Jimmy Carter likened Israel’s occupation of the West Bank to South Africa’s former system of enforced segregation.
Now I went to see the situation there with my own eyes. We stayed at the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem in the West Bank. In a densely packed two weeks, we talked with Palestinian journalists and, just before he left Israel for good, Ilan Pappé; we met with NGOs and grass-roots groups; we visited Palestinian homes, a Bedouin village in the Negev, and a clinic in the Golan Heights; we went to the West Bank championship basketball game in Ramallah; we walked around the ancient cities of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron, and the newer city of Haifa. We saw the settlements in the Occupied Territories, new towns built by Jewish colonists in violation of the Geneva Convention that bans building by occupiers in lands under occupation. We saw the 30-foot-high concrete wall Israel is building, often between Palestinians’ homes and their farms and olive trees, along which we saw groups of Palestinians waiting in line to enter what is now, for all practical purposes, Israel in order to harvest their olives. We saw roads that are barred to Palestinian cars and streets that are barred to Palestinian pedestrians. We heard accounts of what Israel calls the “war of independence” and Palestinians call “al nakba” – the catastrophe – and its aftermath.
Near Jerusalem, our Palestinian guide Yacoub Odeh took us to Lifta, the village where he was born, that was abandoned in 1948 when he was six and to which no one can return because the authorities don’t grant permits for rebuilding Palestinian homes. On a bus going back to Dheisheh from Ramallah, we stopped at a checkpoint where armed IDF soldiers boarded and demanded IDs from the basketball players and their coaches. They went up and down the aisle, but never spoke to or even looked at us Americans. In the Negev, we joined a protest against the enforced relocation of Bedouins. In a Palestinian home, we watched a video of settler children waiting outside a Palestinian school and throwing stones at the schoolchildren as they came outside. Our hosts translated the settler children’s shouts as, “Die, Arab scum!”
We walked in Hebron, the site of the tomb of the Jewish and Muslim patriarch Abraham. Hebron is divided into two sectors, one under the Palestinian Authority and one under Israel’s West Bank Military Authority. Israeli settlers live in both, and there are streets in which Palestinian residents may not walk and must reach their homes by clambering over neighboring rooftops. A Palestinian journalist took us along streets roofed with netting that holds stones and sharp objects settlers have thrown down from their windows toward Palestinian pedestrians.
We visited Jerusalem twice – ancient Jerusalem, the city of Solomon’s Temple, Golgotha, the Dome of the Rock, the city for possession of which Jews, Arabs, and Europeans have fought for centuries and still dispute today, with the historic Old City in East Jerusalem now inside the Occupied Territories. We walked its ancient walls, we shopped in its bazaars, and saw over them Israel’s blue and white flag hanging from windows where Israeli settlers have forced Palestinians out of their homes.
And everywhere we went in the Occupied Territories, Palestinians showed us their keys. Generations of Palestinian, uprooted from their homes since 1947, have kept the keys to the houses they left behind, passing on to children and grandchildren the hope of some day returning to the villages their families came from. Some of those houses may still exist.
On the second visit to Jerusalem, late in the trip, we went to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Its galleries of horrors – pictures, possessions, of the dead at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau – lead along a long underground corridor that ascends slowly upward, toward a window overlooking Jerusalem. I was shaken and weeping when I reached the light at the end of the tunnel, thinking, as everyone does in all the Holocaust memorials, “Never again!”
The rest of the group was still walking through the exhibits. I stood at the window for a long time, looking out over Jerusalem, and past it, at Hebron and Lifta and the Wall and the checkpoints and hearing again the litany of freedom I had learned at my mother’s seders. And I kept weeping, because we were supposed to say – we were supposed to believe, to commit ourselves to, “Never again to anyone!”
8. The Arab, the Bomb, and the Trivia Game
The following is an exact copy of a series of emails between me and a former online trivia website. It followed an initial problem report of mine to the website informing them that an ad they were running, featuring a bomb-carrying bearded man in a keffiyeh, was offensive, to which they hadn’t responded.
Me to Website.com
Time of incident: April 7, 2008 – 7:05 AM
Problem or comment: The Web Site
The problem is the racist, offensive ad you carry with the caricature of an Arab holding a bomb. You wouldn’t run an ad with a similar caricature of a Jew or an African-American, yet you feel free to stereotype Arabs negatively and offensively. PLEASE STOP CARRYING THE AD!
Website.com Customer Support to Me
April 7, 9:30 AM
Unfortunately, most sites, as does [Website], use third party banner advertising. We are limited in what we can specify will be displayed. I have forwarded your message to our Advertising Department.
Customer Support Manager
Me to Website.com Customer Support
April 7, 9:41 AM
Thanks for responding. Please forward this to your ad department:
Would you feel unable to refuse an ad showing an African-American behaving like Step’n Fetchit? Would you feel unable to refuse an ad showing a bearded man in a yarmulke caressing his money? The Arab-with-a-bomb ad is at least as bad–that is, all other things being equal, it would be morally equivalent, but all other things aren’t equal, and at this moment both Arab-Americans and Arabs in the Muslim world are enduring real damage because of the credence given to such stereotypes.
Website.com to Me
April 8, 2008
Just to let you know that we have disabled that particular banner ad.
9. Kristallnacht: The New Synagogue in Berlin
I’ve been to Holocaust museums and memorials halfway around the globe. In Paris, where I live, there are many – more than anywhere else, according to (the not always reliable) Wikipedia. Like many Jews, I go to them, on the one hand, as a gesture of respect, like visiting a parent’s grave, and, on the other, to try to fathom the unfathomable.
Again and again I’ve seen and photographed the grim monuments to the dead of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and Dachau in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris and the monument to the deported next to Notre Dame. I’ve looked at and wept over the terrible photos of survivors and wrenching photos of personal effects in museums from New York City and Washington, DC, to Jerusalem.
But when I was in Berlin, I was where it all began.
My sister and I were there for a few days last summer. On our next-to-last day, we went to the Jewish Museum, where we saw what was essentially a history of the Jews in Europe. Then, on our last day, we went to the New Synagogue.
It’s beautiful. It’s immense. It’s not new. It was called the New Synagogue when it was built in 1866 to serve Berlin’s 160,000-strong, largely assimilated Jewish population. And on Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1939 – the “Night of Broken Glass” – as storm troopers raged through Germany killing Jews and destroying Jewish institutions, it was heavily damaged and defaced. Later, during the war, it was bombed. Afterward, it wasn’t rebuilt as a house of worship (there was hardly a Jewish community left), but rather restored as a memorial and a museum. Its great main floor is empty now, but for one prayer room and the exhibits.
The exhibits center on Kristallnacht – the fury, the destruction, the brutality. The murdered Jews, the beaten Jews, the ravaging of their shops, their businesses, their institutions. The Jews who were rounded up for the death camps. The heroism of one German police officer, who ordered his men to stand guard over the synagogue to prevent more destruction.
This exact spot was where it happened. I was standing where the storm troopers had raged. It wasn’t like visiting my parents’ grave, it was like visiting my own. Standing there, so close to it, I became the Jew to whom these things had happened.
I became – there, for that moment, I was – the Jew who was rounded up. I was the Jew who was murdered, and I was her murdered child. I was the Jew with a yellow star of David from the Middle Ages in the Jewish Museum. I was the Jew with the yellow star in Germany, the Jew who died of starvation in Auschwitz, the Jew whose baby died with her in the gas chamber at Bergen-Belsen and whose brother died of typhoid in Birkenau. I was the Jew who cried out, dying, “Never again!,” and the Jew who survived to say “Never again!,” and the Jew who lived to go to Israel and settle there and say “Never again!” I was all those Jews.
I’m all those Jews now. With all of them, I say “Never again!”
I’m all the other Jews, too. I am the Jewish teenager who wore the Star of David to make sure everyone knew she was a Jew. I am my mother, who taught her children that no one is free unless everyone is free. I am Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who died so that Black Americans could vote. I am the woman who wants her Jewish grandchildren to sleep safely in their beds at night. I am the Jewish grandchildren who never will sleep soundly as long as there’s a State of Israel. I am the Jew who said, “As ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” I’m the Jew who says, with all of them, “Never again, not to me, not to mine, and not to anyone else, not in my name, not ever!”
For all those Jews, for Israeli Jews, for Palestinians, and for the world, I am the anti-Zionist Jew.
Now based in Paris, Judith Mahoney Pasternak is a long-time U.S. writer and journalist in the progressive media and an activist for feminism, peace, and Palestinian self-determination.