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American Jewry and the Palestinian Question

Seth AnziskaFilmed at Wexner Institute

Israel’s role as a pillar of contemporary Jewish life and communal politics is increasingly a matter of bitter disagreement. Many Jews feel that a love of Israel is coming at the expense of human dignity for Palestinians. Might we imagine a way to account for both tribalist sentiment and universal values? My talk explores how the Palestinian struggle for equality and self-determination offers a unique opportunity to reconcile these tensions. I believe greater empathy can help us confront deeply entrenched personal and communal blind spots.

Seth Anziska is the Mohamed S. Farsi-Polonsky Lecturer in Jewish-Muslim Relations at University College London. His research and teaching focuses on Israeli and Palestinian society and culture, modern Middle Eastern history, and contemporary Arab and Jewish politics. Seth received his BA and PhD in History from Columbia University, and his M. Phil. in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from St. Antony’s College, Oxford. He has written for The New York Times, the Norwegian Peacebuilding Research Centre, and is a visiting fellow at the U.S./Middle East Project.

Labels, overt and unspoken persist in the Jewish world. Orthodox and Unorthodox, Zionist and Non-Zionist, Male and Female, straight and gay, Jews and Non Jews. I find them deeply troubling and understand them well because I was raised in a modern orthodox Jewish community that privileged religious observance, textual learning and devotion to Israel while at the same time drawing on the richness of American liberalism and secular knowledge. My hunch is that many of you share in the experience of these labels in your own lives. Feeling a sense of belonging to a tribe on the metaphysical level, while grappling with any number of ruptures over time; be they ideological, religious or personal. So, I want to invite you along with me on a trip down a particular slice of memory lane.

We all have the Bar Mitzvah photo, as I revisit 4 snap shots from the last decade that help me grapple with this tension between a deep attachment to the tribe and formative exposure to the world outside it . In returning to these particular moments my aim is to share with you how I’ve approached a question that remains divisive and troubling to many within the American Jewish community and which I never thoughts about as a young Bar Mitzvah boy. How do we respond to the Palestinian struggle for equality and self determination?

Snapshot number 1, the Gush Etzion settlement block in the West Bank, mid Friday morning Fall 2001. I run from Talmud class at Yeshivat Har Etzion where I am spending a year between high school and college to catch the 161 Egged bus to Jerusalem. Like almost all of my friends and classmates from Queens, Woodmere and Riverdale my parents and community have insisted this year of immersion and learning will strengthen my Jewish identity and attachment to Israel. The experience is perhaps not what they expected. As you can see the bus is bullet proof with heavy double plated windows, it is the middle of the Second Intifada and this tunnel road connecting the Gush block with Jerusalem is not safe. Shootings have become a regular occurrence from up on these Palestinian hilltops above to the settler only roads below. The makab game begins, where to sit in case of a suicide bomber, behind the driver, beside the window, I prefer the front. We make out way into Efrat the large settlement founded in part by American Jews from New Yorks upper west side. The grocery store looks busy, those women shopping for Shabbat meals, remind me of my Mother far away in Teaneck New Jersey navigating the packed aisles of Glatt express. The bus circles back out to the tunnel road, driving swiftly by the checkpoint by Beit Jalah. I can make out a long line of Palestinian mothers and their little kids, waiting to pass, papers at the ready. There is a seed of doubt, why does the Israel story of my youth seem so out of touch with this reality?

Snapshot number 2, December 2006 my first trip back to Israel since Yeshiva. I had studied middle Eastern history and Arabic in college a direct result of all the questions I had started asking during my year in Gush Etzion. I returned to the West Bank by invitation of a friend from Arabic class who was volunteering at a children’s village in the Deheisha refugee camp. This time as if in an alternate universe, I travelled by the Palestinian bus from Damascus gate. It drops me outside the entrance to Bethlehem, by now a towering wall with Medieval light turrets jetting above. I am mesmerized and horrified by the cruel irony of this enormous poster from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism emblazon with the phrase Peace be with you in English, Arabic and Hebrew and the iconic graphic conjuring up images of the Biblical Maraglim – spies who scouted the promised land. I passed through the checkpoint dominated by multiple gates and foreboding turnstiles, into or out to the city of Bethlehem. Suddenly an assault of graffiti on the other side of the wall, everywhere I look phrases of anger and hostility, pictures of sadness, sorrow and hope. Invocations of a Palestinian ghetto. An afternoon in Dheishen, a meal with Palestinian children, a tour of the camp. I visit the local radio station emblazoned with the painting of a key invoking UN Resolution 194 calling for the return of Palestinian refugees. I’m struck by more graffiti ‘ To not forget’. I’m startled by this language, it pulls me back to the entrance of the museum of Jewish heritage, a living memorial to the Holocaust in lower Manhattan. I spent a semester in college interning as an educator and tour guide at the museum, teaching New York city public school students about the rich history of Jewish life in Europe before the holocaust, the tragedy of the Shoah and the lessons about discrimination and suffering that remain relevant in our own time. We always started our tours with the discussion of the meaning and adjacency of these two quotes at the opening of the exhibition ‘Remember, never forget” and “There is hope for your future”. I stare at the graffiti in Dheisha, the sober historian within me insisting these are not comparable experiences, the shoah and the nakbar, but here there they are forced side by side, the language of the Jews and the language of the Palestinians shaping each other. The next afternoon, describing my visit to a leading Jewish educator in a café in Jerusalem’s German colony trying to make sense of the dissonance he says, ‘you know Seth as bad as things have gotten, it’s important to remember that we need to care about our own first, before we address the needs of the other side’. His words sting, why can’t we care about both in the same frame I shoot back. His answer does not satisfy and I do not forget the conversation. I am haunted by the question “what happens when loving our “own” comes at the expense of the “other”?”

Snapshot number 3 Summer 2009, Lebanon. I had been doing preliminary dissertation research and studying Arabic in Beirut, a city that has been quickly cementing it’s hold over me. The political and historical importance, the vibrant and cultural life, that particular strain of Arab cosmopolitanism that sets it somewhat apart from Teaneck. I joined several friends on a roadtirp to Sidon in the South, my friend Ramsey pulls over his car on the side of the coastal road by the foot of a large garbage landfill jetting out into the Mediterranean. He takes us up the opposite hillside, thick with sharp dried out underbrush it pricks as I am wearing flip flops. There scattered before met the remains of Sidon’s Jewish cemetery. Large stone graves in various states of collapse and decrepitude. I approach one and make out the Hebrew inscription, a reminder of Lebanon’s largest Jewish community which flourished in the 1930s during the French mandate. How easily we have forgotten these Arab Jews. Immediately I feel a connection and an instinctive curiosity about the lives they led, out of earshot and under my breath, I feel compelled to recite the Kadesh, a prayer to the departed Jews of Lebanon. Why this feeling of kinship and attachment where I least expect it.

Snapshot number 4; new years day 2012. My partner Tarik and I are in Amman for the holidays and we take a road trip down to the Dead Sea. We decide to stop at Al Maltas, the baptismal site by the Jordan River. There is a lot of religious significance in this place, home of John the Baptist and site of the prophet Elijah’s ascension to heaven in a chariot of fire but contemporary events over shadow scripture as we both look out the short distance to the other side. Only a little stream remains of the Jordan River, small enough to swim over in four strokes. An Israeli flag waving in the distance on the opposite bank, a few soldiers patrolling with machine guns, various pilgrims entering and exciting the water from the stone steps. I take this photo unbeknown to Tarek as he looks out across the river. How easy it has been for me to move back and forth between these places, making the short trip over the Allenby Bridge from Jerusalem. The privilege of my American passport, the entitlement of my Jewish identity. But Tarek, the grandson of Palestinian refugees from Jerusalem and Haifa cannot visit. His Jordanian citizenship and Palestinian roots, a red flag for the Israeli authorities who have denied his visa request. After all these years of being taught about my homeland I am profoundly aware of the injustice Tarek experiences not being able to visit his grandparents actual homes. A stinging denial of rights and entitlement. I am reminded of Moses’ death and God’s final words to him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”

4 snapshots, many of them outside the familiar communal space of my youth, but rooted in my American Jewish experience and values, at each step along the way a growing recognition that my religious and ethnic attachments were hitting up against a sensitivity to the wider human condition. It has become clear to me since that formative year in yeshiva, that while certain traditional markers and a love of Israel were informing the core of my identity, they were also coming at the expense of human dignity for Palestinians. I do not think I am the only one who has been holding this tension inside of me. I think this is exactly where many American Jews now find themselves. In November 2010 at the Jewish federation of North America’s general assembly. I heard Israeli Ambassador of the U.S Michael Oren assert in speech that “Israel is the crucible of Jewish morality, it’s greatest testing ground; the American Jewish interpretation of those ideals must be valued.” Oren’s remarks were focused on the challenges of religious pluralism in Israel, a familiar topic to many of you. Perhaps unintentionally Oren’s deeper conviction about Israel as a crucible, shared by many in the audience that day, forces us to ask another question. How do we reconcile our excitement, over Jewish cultural and religious life in Israel and the feelings of historical transcendence in that place, with our deep and persistent discomfort that it comes at the expense of many of our Jewish ideals and values however we may interpret them? Oren’s speech brings me back to the question I posed in my opening, how do we, as American Jews, respond to the Palestinian struggle for equality? If we as Jews are to account for the fate of Non Jewish Palestinians living daily with unequal rights beholding to a long standing occupation, we also need to ask ourselves have we fully internalized the impact of their statelessness? What kind of political rights do Palestinians need and deserve? Should we support full equality and civil rights within Israel or a singular state or Israeli annexation of large chunks of the West Bank? Can Jewish settlements remain or must they be removed entirely.? How can we think seriously about the growing calls for Boycott Divestment Sanction (BDS) against Israel? My insistence on addressing these questions head on is not because I’m trying to undermine Jewish love for, and attachment to Israel, but because when the reality on the ground begs answers to these question so many of our leaders are quick to pull out labels again; self-hating Jew, Anti – Semite, Arab lover. Why cant we address the concerns of our own, whilst also addressing the concerns of the Other? As I was writing this talk I was under no illusion that addressing the Palestinian question would be easy. But I truly believe that this is the challenge of our time and we are uniquely positioned to face it. Eventually like the arc of history tends to bend, Palestinians will achieve equal rights. The question is whether we will support their struggle or whether we will hinder their advance. Who better to understand the challenge they are facing than us, a community that has always been regarded as the Other. Some critics tell me it is too late, American Jewry is not capable of empathizing with the Palestinians but my experiences tell me that is not the case. Labels will always persist even more so when we look outside our communities. Yet sometimes they can also shatter in the most sudden and unexpected ways.

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