It was exactly one year ago that I read the first news accounts of Israel’s military assault in Gaza:
Waves of Israeli airstrikes destroyed Hamas security facilities in Gaza on Saturday in a crushing response to the group’s rocket fire, killing more than 225 — the highest one-day toll in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in decades…
(There) was a shocking quality to Saturday’s attacks, which began in broad daylight as police cadets were graduating, women were shopping at the outdoor market, and children were emerging from school. The center of Gaza City was a scene of chaotic horror, with rubble everywhere, sirens wailing, and women shrieking as dozens of mutilated bodies were laid out on the pavement and in the lobby of Shifa Hospital so that family members could identify them. The dead included civilians, including several construction workers and at least two children in school uniforms.
By afternoon, shops were shuttered, funerals began and mourning tents were visible on nearly every major street of this densely populated city.
Previously, whenever I’d hear this kind of news out of Israel/Palestine, my shock and anguish would quickly be tempered by a familiar voice telling me to calm down, don’t overreact, don’t forget how terribly “complicated” the situation is. (Indeed, I recall hearing that voice distinctly three years earlier when the IDF responded to Hezbollah rocket attacks with a similarly massive military onslaught.)
This time, though, it was different. This time I didn’t hear the voice. Somehow, it just didn’t seem all that complicated to me any more.
This is what I wrote on my blog that day:
The news today out of Israel and Gaza makes me just sick to my stomach.
I know, I can already hear the responses: every nation has a responsibility to ensure the safety of its citizens. If the Qassams stopped, Israel wouldn’t be forced to take military action. Hamas also bears responsibility for this tragic situation…
I could answer each and every one of these claims in turn, but I’m ready to stop this perverse game of rhetorical ping-pong. I don’t buy the rationalizations any more. I’m so tired of the apologetics. How on earth will squeezing the life out of Gaza, not to mention bombing the living hell out of it, ensure the safety of Israeli citizens?
We good liberal Jews are ready to protest oppression and human-rights abuse anywhere in the world, but are all too willing to give Israel a pass. It’s a fascinating double-standard, and one I understand all too well. I understand it because I’ve been just as responsible as anyone else for perpetrating it.
So no more rationalizations. What Israel has been doing to the people of Gaza is an outrage. It has brought neither safety nor security to the people of Israel and it has wrought nothing but misery and tragedy upon the people of Gaza.
There, I’ve said it. Now what do I do?
As I read this post one year later, I remember well the emotions I felt as I wrote it. I also realize what a critical turning point that moment represented for me.
As a Jew, I’ve identified deeply with Israel for my entire life. I first visited the country as a young child and since then I’ve been there more times that I can count. Family members and some of my dearest friends in the world live in Israel.
Ideologically speaking, I’ve regarded Zionism with great pride as the “national liberation movement of the Jewish people.” Of course I didn’t deny that this rebirth had come at the expense of another. Of course I recognized that Israel’s creation was bound up with the suffering of the Palestinian people. The situation was, well, it was “complicated.”
Last year, however, I reacted differently. I read of Apache helicopters dropping hundreds of tons of bombs on 1.5 million people crowded into a 140 square mile patch of land with nowhere to run. In the coming days, I would read about the bombing of schools, whole families being blown to bits, children literally burned to the bone with white phosphorous. Somehow, it didn’t seem so complicated at all any more. At long last, it felt as if I was viewing the conflict with something approaching clarity.
Of course I think we’d all agree that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is technically complicated. But at the same time I think we all know that at the end of the day, there is nothing complicated about persecution. The political situation in Darfur, for instance, is enormously complicated – but these complications certainly haven’t stopped scores of Jews across North America from protesting the human rights injustices being committed there. We do so because we know that underneath all of the geopolitical complexities, oppression is oppression. And as Jews, we know instinctively that our sacred tradition and own tragic history require us to speak out against all oppression committed in our midst.
I’d suggest that if there is anything complicated for us here, it is in possibility that we might in fact have become oppressors ourselves. That is painfully complicated. After all, our Jewish identity has been bound up with the memory of our own persecution for centuries. How on earth can we respond – let alone comprehend – the suggestion that we’ve become our own worst nightmare?
More than anything else, this is was what I was trying to say in that anguished, emotional blog post one year ago: is this what it has come to? Have we come to the point in which Israel can wipe out hundreds of people, whole families, whole neighborhoods and our response as Jews will be to simply rationalize it away? At the very least will we able to stop and question what has brought us to this terrifying point? Have we become unable to recognize persecution for what it really and truly is?
Those who know me (or read my blog) surely know that it has been a painfully challenging year for me. My own relationship to Israel is changing in ways I never could have predicted. Since I started raising questions like those above, I’ve lost some friends and, yes, my congregation has lost some members. If Zionism is the unofficial religion of the contemporary Jewish community then I’m sure there are many who consider me something of an apostate.
But at the same time, I’ve been surprised and encouraged by the large number of people I’ve met who’ve been able to engage with these questions openly and honestly, even if they don’t always agree with me. I suppose this is what I decided to do one year ago: to put my faith in our ability to stand down the paralyzing “complexities,” no matter how painful the prospect.
One year later, I still hold tight to this faith.
I am so heartened to read what you have written here. As a Jew raised on Leon Uris’ “Exodus” and other stories of the Holocaust, I have long been horified to find that my own people have become the oppressors in the name of “never again”. It makes sense psychologically. (I’m a psychologist). I have compassion on us for getting lost in this way. But I am horrified to see us losing so much of what has made our culture unique in the name of preserving it. I just signed up for this blog, and was not sure what views would be expressed in it. So many otherwise wise and compassionate Jews seem to have a blind spot when it comes to Israel. So I am heartened… Thank you.
Up to the line again, then back again. How much worse does it have to get?
Like Sandra, I’m a psychologist; also an Episcopal priest. What strikes me is our common capacity to lose our way … and later to wonder how on earth we could have been so blind. As many Christians review our own history, we wonder how we could ever have used our own Good News to justify our oppression of others. It’s most humbling. Many thanks, Brant, for your willingness to struggle publicly with this terrible situation. You give many of us courage to struggle with our own culpability.
Right ON!!!! After reading “Broken Promises-Broken Dreams” by Alice Rothchild I got a better perspective of the human toll on both Palestinians and Israelis that the current Israeli policy has inflicted. I believe it is so important to open this topic up for intelligent discussion to lance the boil of ignorance that many American Jews and Evangelical Christians have towards this conflict. Also, I found that this point of view is also expressed in the Israeli press at times. A suggestion that might give additional insight to others like me, who have struggled with this issue, would be to point out those editorials and articles that support a more humane policy.
While your congregation may have lost some members this past year, it has also gained new members due in large part to the courage and clarity you bring to this challenging subject. I, like many others, applaud and support your efforts in this space and beyond.
While I make no claim to understand the historical, geographic, and political complexity of the occupation, my heart is quite clear. Kill someone’s child and you make an enemy for generations–perhaps for as many generations as you’ve wiped out by killing that child. When the killing is done in my name and by my people, I’m not entirely sure how to manage my own culpability. Your complex (!) understanding of the relationship between Israel and Palestine and your clear comments about oppression make me a proud (and better-educated) member of JRC.
Thanks for coming over to the dark side Brant. We need you, we’ve been waiting for you, and you’ve made it easier for many of us to speak up. Thanks for reminding us that belief in Zionism is not a the same as belief in Judaism.
hi Rabbi Rosen, when I was in Australia 2 1/2 years ago during the Israeli bombing of Lebanon, I saw an article by a rabbi in the Sydney newspaper that I wish I’d clipped and kept. He said in effect, I don’t accept the burden of defending Israel’s racism and brutality along with my Judaism, I refuse to sign on to that….and it was written before the Gaza siege. I think as events unfold, this position is being reached by a number of Jewish clergy and laity around the world. The burden for you is that everyone wants to push you forward to voice the views they don’t feel the safety to state publically. No one enjoys being called anti-Semitic, and only a rabbi seems to be able to toss that one off! Keep up the great work. You are a “light unto the nations.”