During last week’s New York event for After Zionism with Phil Weiss of Mondoweiss, we talked about the responsibility of Jews to speak out against Israeli crimes. But the danger, something I expressed repeatedly, was not falling into the trap of feeling overly obsessed with the internal conversation inside the Jewish community while Palestinians suffer and remain under occupation. It’s an indulgence. Trying to change Jewish minds is only one, albeit important, task.
A couple weeks ago I got in a bit of hot water, and then my wife got in it.
She has an outdoorsy friend who invited us to a garden party in our town. I didn’t know anyone there, but at the end of the party I was in the kitchen talking with an earnest woman about my issue. She said she felt inhibited about speaking out. I told her she wasn’t anti-Semitic if she wanted to engage on it, we needed her engagement; and then I told her what a Spanish woman who works for the UN said to me the last time I was in Jerusalem. “People back home ask me what is the peaceful resolution of this conflict. Then you come here and you see, there is no peaceful resolution.” I said, It’s a desperate situation over there, please get involved.
Just as I said that a darkhaired woman who I hadn’t talked to said, “My friends and family over there don’t feel desperate at all. They like it. Except when the rockets come in to Sderot.”
I was paralyzed for an instant, then said, “Those people in Gaza don’t have any rights.”
“Oh yeah– they don’t have any rights,” she said sarcastically, and walked away.
I mumbled, “I guess I should have been more sensitive.” Her husband refused to shake my hand.
A couple days later our host called my wife and said that the other guest was upset about me and my website. My wife said maybe we should get together and talk about it. She came into my office to ask me when we could get together. I said I wasn’t interested. My wife said, She’s a local artist, and she’s not well informed, you should talk to her. I said that wasn’t true. I told my wife about when I first went to the occupied territories, on a trip with a bunch of Israelis with Breaking the Silence, and after a Palestinian showed us a video of settlers throwing rocks at schoolgirls, I said to an Israeli guy, What do Israelis think about this? He said, They don’t know. And a woman from Machsom Watch who was on the trip turned on him angrily and said, “They don’t want to know.” I told my wife, This woman is very well informed in her way. She doesn’t want to know.
My wife decided to have tea with her and talk about it. She brought maps of Palestinian dispossession and a backgammon set she’d bought for $25 in Bethlehem in 2010. She had thought Bethlehem was a prison, surrounded by walls, and the people there were making handicrafts the way prisoners make license plates. She wanted to show the woman.
Three hours after the car left I saw my wife back on the patio, having a glass of wine and a cigarette. She was upset. She said, You were right. The woman was well informed and didn’t want to hear what my wife had to say. She thought the Palestinians in Bethlehem had to blame. She said, Why is your husband so obsessed with this issue?
My wife said, “Who knows. I’m obsessed with gardening, Sharon’s obsessed with birds. My husband’s obsessed with the Middle East. Who can explain these things.”
I keep thinking back to when I said, “Should have been more sensitive,” and I’m embarrassed about that. It shows how I curb myself in a Jewish audience. I hadn’t known there was anyone Jewish at the party, I’d spoken freely. Then a Jewish woman confronted me and I tightened up.
I told this story the other night at Brecht Forum when Antony Loewenstein and I spoke about the book he and Ahmed Moor edited, After Zionism. My essay in the book is about the constraints on the Israel conversation inside the Jewish community and my determination to break those constraints because my community has such power over the discourse on this matter. But after the incident with the darkhaired woman, I began agreeing with people who have said to me, You spend too much time worrying about that community. It’s a waste of time. They don’t want to know. I love many Jews, and they have an important role to play in the movement for Palestinian freedom, but it’s a waste of time to go into the Jewish community and organize when you’re dealing with such ignorance. Consider that even Peace Now, which has worked for years against the occupation, has to include in its messaging respect for the statement, “God gave us the land,”because it’s dealing inside the Jewish community.
Joseph Dana talks about this issue in his essay in the Loewenstein/Moor book. There are lots of great Israelis involved in the nonviolent protest movement inside the West Bank. But they’re a fringe of the collective: “[a]t the core of the conflict remains the Zionist dilemma… the need of the Jewish population of Israel to adhere to an exclusivist national ideology.” Dana says the ballgame is upping pressure in the international community.
I want to spend more time talking to Americans period. The recent uprising against the Jerusalem plank at the Democratic convention shows that liberal Americans are getting hip about this issue. The recent politicization of the Iran attack by Netanyahu was also helpful; it put the matter on our front pages, it allowed Obama to come out more strongly against war, because he knows that the American people are deadset against it. Barbara Boxer told Netanyahu to mess out; so did a former ambassador in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. These are the people my wife should be bringing that backgammon set to.
One reason I spent time in the Jewish community was compassion. I thought I could help to save my own group by giving them the news. I worry about people losing their lives. I think about the community I grew up in and try to imagine a way to get out of the current situation without anyone else dying; and I imagined that if I could convince American Jews that some Jewish kids in Israel won’t die if they would just wave the wand and declare, We don’t need a Jewish state, they’d wave that wand. I think that’s an illusion. There’s little I can do to end that belief, and at some level I’ve given up caring.