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.