It was Yom Kippur 2012. I was sitting in the backseat of my parent’s car, driving to the cemetery to visit my Grandpa’s grave. I didn’t know that Yom Kippur is chag, a day for not driving, just as it didn’t occur to my parents that the Jewish graveyard would be closed on this holiest day of the Jewish year. En route to the cemetery my father and I started to compare notes about the services we had attended for Kol Nidre. He shared with me that the Rabbi of the shul where I had grown up had been particularly incensed about some organization called “J-Street,” and was telling the congregation to beware of and denounce these self-hating Jews. He asked me if I was a supporter of J-Street, and I replied that J-Street wasn’t Left enough for me. I told him that I don’t think there is anything visionary about their platform. That I want equal rights for all inhabitants, and that I thought the two state solution was a dead end. Needless to say, the conversation quickly took a turn for the worse.
My father was horrified by my assertions. He retorted with centuries of Jewish suffering and vulnerability. He spoke of Israel and its military as the thing that stands between Jewish life and annihilation. We argued all the way to the cemetery, arrived at the locked gates, and without breaking our vitriolic exchange, turned the car around and drove toward home. He was yelling, I was crying, and my mom was shaking her head in stunned silence. It felt as if we had unknowingly chosen this family outing in search of some temporary autonomous zone in which a total, ugly purge could be actualized. The fight ended with my father, incensed, yelling at me to show him proof of a grass-roots Palestinian peace movement. I cried because I did not know enough to answer his call. Because I feared that I wouldn’t succeed. I cried for shame and ignorance, and for the limitations of my idealism. I cried.
That car ride followed me back to downtown Detroit after Yom Kippur. It followed me to New York the following fall, and it followed me to Israel this winter. I came here to face the challenge that my dad leveled at me. And in a profound way I have not found myself wanting.
My father spoke from a vantage point that I used to be unable to understand. From a place of Jewish fear. He was afraid for the Jewish people, afraid that our position as a powerful minority could quickly shift toward being powerless. The equation was simple: either we’re the victims or we’re in power, and we’d rather be in power, even if it means having blood on our hands. My Dad didn’t say those exact words (and because I know he’ll probably be reading this, because he’s a good Dad, I should underline the obvious– I’m using our story not to single him out, but to share an experience that I believe to be universal).
We Jews have a long memory of being victims. It’s hard to shake off a memory of suffering. Our own history tells us best– the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years so that a generation of slaves could give way to a new generation of liberated people. But the Israelites were still bound in their freedom, bound in their covenantal relationship with God through Torah. Torah tells us how to be sovereign, but that sovereignty is steeped in responsibility and accountability. Torah tells us of a freedom that understands power to be about radical responsibility. (cue the line from spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility”).
Yet the loudest Jewish conversations tend to spend significant time focused on the intractability of Palestinian resistance, trying to understand the ongoing Palestinian longing for this land. I posit, Palestinian memory is something we cannot erase, as we should well know from our own 2,000 year exile. It is imperative that we take Palestinian memory and longing as seriously as we take our own. By squandering our communal conversations on questions of when Palestinians are going to change their attitude, we miss out on a far more productive and provocative conversation. For Jews deeply committed to justice and human rights, do we have a vision for the future? Are we willing to fight for it? And if so, what Jewish communal fears must we address and teach-away as we fight for that vision?
So I find myself asking, is the freedom the Israelites were promised more akin to the current Israeli mainstream, which looks at power as something we, Jews, need in order to be safe? Or can our understanding of power be visionary– seen as an opportunity and a responsibility to be just and courageous, to stand up for what is right. Let us put our questions about Palestinian desire for self-determination aside—not because they are irrelevant, but because we should prioritize the work we need to do on ourselves. Could we, the Jewish people face the future with courage? Can we imagine a framework of human rights for all inhabitants of the land, including the occupied territories, regardless of what it means for Jewish demographics? Can we imagine taking down the wall, and all the psychological walls that have been built? What could Jerusalem look like if we fought for human rights with the same passion that we fight for security? I feel, with conviction, that if we believe in human rights, these are the kinds of conversations we must be having. I’ve been thinking lately of how the literary origins of our peoples are bound together through Isaac and Ishmael’s feud, through Sarai’s jealousy and Hagar’s suffering. Is this not for a reason? The Jewish people didn’t come into being in isolation of other people’s narratives and we can’t hope to thrive by walling ourselves in, or others out. Truth and reconciliation have been put on hold for so very long, can we rediscover what it means to be serious about peace?