Pittsburgh High Schooler Wins First Prize for Bravery

Jesse Lieberfeld (second from left) and his fellow essay contest winners

Some of the wisest words I heard on the occasion of MLK Day last week came from Jesse Lieberfeld, an 11th grader at Pittsburgh’s Winchester-Thurston High School, whose essay “Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering Up for a Hidden Wrong” shared first place in Carnegie-Mellon University’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Writing Awards Contest.

In his essay, Jesse discussed his epiphany in discovering the commonalities between the American Civil Rights struggle and the “conflict” in Israel-Palestine:

In that moment, I realized how similar the two struggles were — like the white radicals of that era, we controlled the lives of another people whom we abused daily, and no one could speak out against us. It was too politically incorrect to do so. We had suffered too much, endured too many hardships, and overcome too many losses to be criticized. I realized then that I was in no way part of a “conflict” — the term “Israeli/Palestinian Conflict” was no more accurate than calling the Civil Rights Movement the “Caucasian/ African-American Conflict.”

In both cases, the expression was a blatant euphemism: it gave the impression that this was a dispute among equals and that both held an equal share of the blame. However, in both, there was clearly an oppressor and an oppressed, and I felt horrified at the realization that I was by nature on the side of the oppressors. I was grouped with the racial supremacists. I was part of a group that killed while praising its own intelligence and reason. I was part of a delusion.

I thought of the leader of the other oppressed side of years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. He too had been part of a struggle that had been hidden and glossed over for the convenience of those against whom he fought. What would his reaction have been? As it turned out, it was precisely the same as mine. As he wrote in his letter from Birmingham Jail, he believed the greatest enemy of his cause to be “Not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who … lives by a mythical concept of time…. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Just more evidence for what I’ve been saying for a long while: the new Jewish generation simply isn’t buying the classical Zionist narrative any more. What encourages me even more is that Carnegie-Mellon would be brave enough to award Jesse’s essay first place – and that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette would see fit to publish it.

In his piece, Jesse described his disenchantment with the ways his synagogue and his rabbi responded to his questions – and how he consequently “walked out and never came back.” Jesse if you’re listening, here is one rabbi who honors your questions and is immensely proud of your brave public stand.

16 thoughts on “Pittsburgh High Schooler Wins First Prize for Bravery

  1. Mark Braverman

    Oh my goodness Brant this is amazing — and, as you say, so hopeful. Here’s an 18-year old who has come to the realizations I came to in my late 50s, and you and many of our Jewish friends also at, shall I say, a somewhat later stage of life — because of the confrontation with the State of Israel. The connection he makes with MLK and the Civil Rights movement is so perfectly and powerfully right — precisely where we are with Kairos USA, with the addition of the other modern parallel — the struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa. I am particularly thrilled with the quote about the white moderate and the KKK — people who know me are tired of hearing me pull that out whenever I talk about where we are today in the cause for justice for Palestinians and to end Israeli apartheid.

    I trust you have been in contact with this young man — if not, you need to do that, to let him know that you exist. He may have walked out on the Rabbi, and in his adolescent anger (may we all hold on to that precious commodity in ourselves!) he is saying that he is walking out on Judaism — but I don’t think so. What he has rejected is what it has become institutionally. You know where I go with that, you already know where I’m going with this — there was this other Jew, a visionary radical, a itinerant teacher/prophet from the Galilee — who was up to the same thing about the institutional Judaism of his time. What Jesse has done here makes him not an ex-Jew, but the best Jew. Reach out to him. And while you’re at it, send him to my website. http://www.markbraverman.org.

    Keep it up, my friend.


  2. i_like_ike52

    Yes, the famous “moral equivalence” between the struggle of the Blacks in the US against Racism, and the struggle of the Palestinians against the JEWS (i.e. Israel). Definitely. Even Condi Rice discovered it. During Israel’s war of Independence, i.e. the first official war of the Arabs against the Jews, 6000 Jews were killed, i.e. 1% of the Jewish population of the yishuv. EQUIVALENTLY, the Blacks must have killed 1 million whites, a comparable percentage, in their just struggle for Civil Rights. And just like the Arabs killed 1500 Israelis in their suicide bomber campaing starting in 1994, the American Blacks, in their parallel struggle, killed a comparable percentage of whites, which in the US would be 75,000 in suicide bombings carried out for “civil rights”. And just as HIZBULLAH and HAMAS have fired thousands of rockets and mortar bombs INDISCRIMINATELY into Israeli population centers, the blacks had sympathizers in Mexico and Canada fire thousands of rockets into American cities in order to promote their “Civil Rights”. And just like an ally of the Palestinians, the Iranians are claiming that Israeli is a “cancer in the body of humanity that must be removed” and are feverishly building nuclear weapons in order to give them “flexibility” in dealing with this cancer, the Blacks got their fellows in Africa together to threaten the whites of the US in a similar fashion. Yes, there are definite parallels in the two “just struggles”.

    1. Vicky

      “During Israel’s war of Independence, i.e. the first official war of the Arabs against the Jews, 6000 Jews were killed, i.e. 1% of the Jewish population of the yishuv.”

      Roughly this time last year, I was talking to an elderly Palestinian lady who was expelled from Lydda in 1948. She described to me how she drank her own urine just to give herself the strength to keep walking, dazed in the wake of the infamous Lydda massacre (over four hundred Palestinians were shot dead by the Haganah, with roughly a hundred of them being herded pell-mell into the Dahmash mosque to make the shooting more efficient). The expelled townspeople had few supplies and didn’t dare to keep stopping to replenish. This refugee described how she saw disorientated parents clutching cushions and heaps of blankets, thinking that they were their babies. She reached Ramallah and safety. Many of her family members didn’t, and to this day she doesn’t know whatever happened to them. Of course the parallel with the African-American quest for justice isn’t perfect. This didn’t happen to African-Americans either.

      It should be noted that there were black resistance groups in the USA who did believe in the use of armed resistance, including terrorist strategy, such as the Black Liberation Army (which used hijacking and assassinations to further its ends). So yes, that is a legitimate part of the parallel.

      However, we need to be clear that drawing a parallel with other struggles for justice worldwide is not the same as presenting them as identical. I might see similarities between China’s current treatment of Tibetans and Australia’s former treatment of aborigines, and I might find it helpful to discuss them, but this doesn’t mean I think they’re exactly the same. Each situation is unique. I think this young essayist appreciates that – he is just paying particular interest to the two civil rights struggles that hit closest to home for him personally, both as an American and a Jew.

    2. Vicky

      P.S. Where are you drawing your statistics from? The death toll for suicide bombings stands at eight hundred and four, according to Israel’s own Ministry for Foreign Affairs. That includes both civilians and soldiers. You have nearly doubled it.

      Since the Second Intifada began, the Palestinian civilian death toll stands at six times that of the Israeli civilian toll, and that only includes people killed in direct acts of war – shootings, bombings, etc. It doesn’t account for all the deaths accounted for by poor medical treatment (severely hindered by occupation in the West Bank, and by siege in Gaza’s case), inability to access hospital, etc. Looking further back into history, it is striking that the massacre at Lydda alone – one short killing spree – is over half that of the Israeli death toll for the entire Second Intifada.

      It’s been like this since the beginning. The problem is that the staggering loss of Palestinian life is not something that has been talked about much in Israel (although that, thank God, does seem to be changing). I’m uncomfortable with this sort of comparison, because I am of the belief that one killing is no less a tragedy than a hundred killings. But if you want to contrast the African-American experience with the Palestinian experience by invoking Palestinian acts of violence, you’re going to have to take a long hard look at this.

      It might also help to wonder whether armed African-American groups would have resorted to rocket fire had they been corralled into one area of, say, Georgia and kept there as virtual prisoners. If they were never permitted to visit family who were seventy miles distant from them, but as unreachable as the moon. And so it goes on. There are some differences in the nature of resistance used (although both peoples have had armed factions), but there are also some differences in the methods of oppression…

  3. Dave

    Sorry, already been debunked. Google “Daniel Lieberfeld” and “anti-Israel”. This kid did not grow up in anything like a pro-Israel household like he claims.

    I’m puzzled why anyone with access to this internet thingy wouldn’t do a bit of checking beforehand. I suspect that lots of people who you would want to point this essay out to already have the info on his Dad.

    It would be a good thing to check the internet before posting an article.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      If you actually read his essay, Jesse never claims to have grown up in a “pro-Israel household” – though to judge by the reports you’ve Googled, it does seem clear that his father, Daniel is a leftist scholar with progressive Zionist leanings. There’s nothing to “debunk” here.

  4. Steve

    I have to debunk the following bunk anecdotically. “Just more evidence for what I’ve been saying for a long while: the new Jewish generation simply isn’t buying the classical Zionist narrative any more. ”
    My daughter goes to a very prominent north suburban high school. My family belongs to a conservative synagogue. She often speaks about the connection her friends from high school have with Israel. These include Conservative and Reformed Jewish teens. She has not found any of her fellow Jewish students who are not proud of Israel. She says that her Christian friends feel this way too. In fact those Christian friends think that Israel is a cool place to go. Again, no formal poll or survey, just my daughters interactions with some very thoughtful kids.

  5. i_like_ike52

    Regarding the Cohen-Kelman study, it has been pointed out that it is not showing how future trends will be….it is true that younger Jews don’t identify with Israel as much as older ones, but another study pointed out that 30 years the results were the same, indicating that as young Jews grow older, their Jewish identity and identification intensifies.
    But let’s say that the study DOES presage a distancing of many (but not all) American Jews from Israel. What does this mean? The main ones who will be damaged will be the liberal Jewish community, not Israel. In the link to Brant’s piece criticizing Gordis, one of the commentors pointed out that Jewish alienation and assimilation have been around for thousands of years and will continue in the future. At the same time, a strong nucleas of Jews passionately committed to their Judaism and Jewish-Zionist (whether in Israel or outside it) identities will continue as always, so Judaism and the Jewish community will continue no matter what. Those, like Lieberfeld who choose to cut off relations with Israeli Jewry are cutting themselves off from the most vibrant, alive Jewish community in the world, which today makes up almost half of world Jewry. Now, if someone really wants to go his own way, disassociate himself from the rest of the Jewish world and become “an American of the Mosaic religion” or “progressive citizen of the world” there is not much that can be done. We feel sorrow at the loss of another Jewish soul to Judaism and the Jewish community, but as I said, things will continue. However, if someone feels that they are somehow part of the Jewish experience and it is important to them, then they are cutting off their nose to spite their face if they disconnect from Israel and pro-Zionist world Jewry because that is where the the truly “Jewish” religious and cultural life is. The fact is that before the Holocaust Judaism and the Jewish world were in a serious downward spiral of assimilation and indifference, if not outright internal hostility (e.g. the Communist Yevseksia). It was the rise of the state of Israel and physical contact with the ancient Biblical homeland that gave renewed power and pride to the Jewish people. The fact that Jews are treated with respect around the world IS DUE TO THE EXISTENCE OF THE STATE OF ISRAEL. Just compare the situation today of the Jew in the street with that of 70-80 years ago anywhere in the world, including the US.
    If it is thought that the loss of liberal American Jewish support from young Jews for Israel will weaken American support for Israel, it must be remembered that the large bulk of strong supporters of Israel in the US are NON-JEWS. Political support for Zionism in the US goes back to the 1830’s-long before there was any signficant Jewish voting bloc in the US!
    Thus, American Jewry that is Jewishly committed needs Israel a lot more than Israel need American Jewry.

    1. Steve

      A little more anecdotal evidence. I recall the 5th grade math fair at the public middle school my daughter attended. I saw several kids display math projects either costing out trips to Israel or costing out having their Bnai Mitzvot in Israel.

      Also, I haven’t met any Jewish parents who are not proud of Israel. The usual complaint is how unfairly Israel is portrayed in the media and they also worry about their kids being pestered about their affection towards Israel and having Anti Semetic canards hurled at them while they are in college.

      My guess is that Jewish kids who grow up in households where the parents are anti Israel might be more inclined to also have feelings against Israel.

      My daughter and her friends still go to the Walks With Israel. The only difference now is that she wants to go with her friends and not me.

      I read the pieces that you linked. I just don’t see this trend at all with the people I encounter. Maybe, Rabbi you encounters are with different although our communities are very close geographically.

  6. Nancy Bruski

    Excuse me, but is anyone saying that Israel should not exist? Perhaps I’m not as good as some at reading between the lines of the post and the responses, but I’m not seeing it. It’s such a shame that apologists for Israel’s horrendous governmental policies of oppression immediately go to such a defensive and extreme response…it reminds me a little of the protests of the 60’s here in America, where there were bumper stickers that screamed at protestors, “America: Love it or Leave It!” The answer to that is “No, the essence of America is to embrace protest and to work towards perfecting itself. Telling those who point out wrongs to simply leave is ridiculous.” In the same way, telling those who oppose Israeli’s repressive policies that they are supporting Israel’s demise as a nation is equally ridiculous. Can’t nations change and evolve and right wrongs? We’ve done it in America over the years, certainly! And what about South Africa, which eventually reversed Apartheid and became a democracy after years of cruel oppression? And this came about, in part, as a result of the divestment policies of other nations that decided to shun South Africa for their violent oppression of the majority of their citizens.
    I, for one, am deeply thankful to those, like Brant and this high school student, who speak up and speak out against oppression, cruelty and injustice wherever it appears, even when it’s in “our own backyard.”

    1. i_like_ike52

      First of all, RabbiBrant’s and the Jewish Voice for Peace’s position is that the creation of the state of Israel was wrong, regardless of whether or not they are willing to “allow it” to continue to exist.
      Secondly, I, and many people reject the claim that Israel is “an Apartheid state” or carries ot “horrendously cruel policies” or is using “repression” against the Palestinians.
      :Let’s not be naive, Jews and others who claim that they “support Israel’s continued existence” while, at the same time harshly castigating it for a being a criminal state that perhaps never should have come into being in the first place are either conciously or unconciously allying themselves with Israel’s enemies. Many well-meaning people around the world may say that such a criminal state deserves being attacked by terrorists or neighboring countires. After all, Brant has repeatedly made the point that young Jews supposedly don’t want to have anything to do with Israel for these reasons which means they will not involve themselves in activities that lend support for Israel so in the event of a crisis like the 1967 or 1973 wars, they would turn their backs on the Jews living in Israel. As I said, Israel can manage without the support of American Jewry, but then those American Jews who disconnect themselves may find themselves regretting their actions afterwards.

  7. Lee Kaplan

    Let’s face it. The kid’s article was probably written by his father, Daniel, who as part of the anti-Israel crowd doesn’t mind deceiving people to get American Jews to stop supporting a Jewish state. The kid has no knowledge of what the Chosen People means and the judges are idiots since Dr. King supported Israel and felt American blacks were duped by the anti-Israel crowds. Israel is not an apartheid state, but anti-Israel Jews do have terrible problems with the truth,

  8. Piotr Berman

    First, I would like to express thanks to Lee Kaplan that he was so gracious in calling the judges “idiots” rather than, say, Nazi or Radical Leftist (a book explains that this is the same thing, especially in the case of vegetarians or supporters of public transit).

    As it was written in Mother Jones:

    Yet, year after year, Israel’s apologists rush to use those once-spoken words as the capstone for a line of reasoning which goes something like this:

    Israel uses violence in the “disputed territories” to protect its own security. If you criticize that violence, you don’t care about Israel’s security; so you don’t care if Israel ceases to exist; so you are against Zionism. And Martin Luther King himself said that that’s anti-Semitism. In other words, only anti-Semites oppose Israel’s occupation policies.

    Obviously, performing that line of reasoning takes some intelligence that judges sadly lacked. By the way, what does it mean “Chosen People”?


Leave a Reply to Steve Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s