Tag Archives: Gaza

Behaving Like Jews

This post was originally published at Tikkun Daily.

I am going to behave like a Jew

and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,

and pull him off the road.

-Gerald Stern, “Behaving Like a Jew”

fergusonIt’s been almost a month since a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown.  In the wake of the shooting, residents of Ferguson concerned about police brutality and racism turned out in the streets to protest peacefully, and were met with tanks, riot gear, and tear gas.  (A small number of people were involved in either looting local businesses or throwing bottles and other small-scale weaponry, which was used to justify the police crackdown.)  Journalists, local politicians, and scores of people doing nothing but exercising a constitutionally protected right to free assembly were arrested and harassed.

During this period of unrest, my Facebook newsfeed was full of outrage and despair.  But very little of that passion was directed at Ferguson.  Instead, it was largely about Operation Protective Edge, in Gaza.  Every day I was greeted with scores of articles defending Israel’s right to defend itself, justifying the scale of force in Gaza, and reporting on both rocket fire and tunnels dug by Hamas into Israeli territory.  (To be fair, I also saw numerous articles reporting on peace demonstrations, critiquing the scale of Israeli response to rocket fire, and mourning the loss of life on both sides.)

Though this is merely anecdotal, it seems fairly representative of the institutional American Jewish response to events in Ferguson.  While individual rabbis and Jewish leaders have called attention to and even protested against the violence in Missouri, and many articles, including those in Tikkun, have argued strongly for a Jewish ethical obligation to the Ferguson protestors, major, mainstream Jewish organizations have been largely silent.  The Anti-Defamation League offers a lesson plan for talking about Ferguson with students on its website, but its only official statement is a denunciation of the presence of the New Black Panther Party at the Ferguson protests. Of the mainstream American Jewish religious movements, only the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism issued a press release regarding the violence in Ferguson.

Institutional American Judaism was once at the forefront of the civil rights movement.  Famously, prominent rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with civil rights leaders in the American South.  Many of these Jewish leaders were inspired to ally themselves with powerless people of color in the United States because of their own experiences of oppression in Europe.  We continue to celebrate the history of Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement over half a century ago, but have little to show for it today: what prominent American rabbi or lay leader went to march with the people of Ferguson?

We know that American Jewish institutions are capable of raising their voices for causes they hold dear: witness the recent strong public defense of Israel.  Why have the same organizations been so quiet about the violence and anti-democratic tendencies in their own back yard?  It would be impossible to answer that question definitively, but I would like to suggest one contributing factor that should trouble American Jews.  Is it possible that the institutional American Jewish community – that is, the major organizations representing various facets of American Jewry, who have the money and visibility to exert the most influence in the public sphere – has been distracted, or worse, that its commitment to social justice in America has been adversely affected by its focus on Israel?

In its most benign interpretation, this theory would suggest that American Jewish institutions are so thoroughly occupied by their attention to Israel, not just in the recent crisis, but on an ongoing basis, that they no longer have the energy, interest, or time (not to mention funding) to fight injustice at home.  That is, perhaps these organizations have made a conscious or unconscious decision to direct most of their energy toward support for Israel.  The front page of the website of every major American Jewish organization, bar none, mentions various programs and initiatives designed to support Israel, so it is clear that Israel is a top priority.  While this makes sense, and organizations must always make decisions about where and how to direct their necessarily limited energies, it would be worthwhile for American Jews to ask whether this focus on Israel draws Jewish attention away from engagement with important social and political issues in America that have always benefitted from Jewish involvement and support. As many people have pointed out, Jewish tradition necessitates our involvement.  Sympathy and solidarity with the powerless and oppressed has become a hallmark of what it means to be Jewish in America.  It is part of how being Jewish has come to be defined.

ferguson gazaDoes this withdrawal from active institutional defense of civil rights in America, then, reflect a change in how the American Jewish community defines itself and its Judaism?   Partly, it demonstrates a changed relationship to power.  Certainly, Jews in America are relatively prosperous and successful, largely insulated from the kind of anti-Semitism that has been on the rise in Europe and, for the majority of us who are white, privy to the privileges of whiteness.  But this cannot fully explain a withdrawal from active engagement in the crisis in Ferguson.  Rather, I think it is partially the result of a more troubling, hidden connection to the American Jewish focus on Israel, one that only becomes clear when we draw the lines between the two conflicts.  To be clear, the recent war between Israel and Hamas and the confrontation between police and protestors in Ferguson are not the same.  Each situation has its own particular and unique history and context.  But when tanks rolled down city streets and confronted unarmed protestors at the same time that a powerful military bombed areas densely packed with civilians, it was possible to see the ways in which power and powerlessness played out similarly in each situation.  Even those involved in the conflicts recognized it: Palestinians in Gaza began to share advice on dealing with tear gas with Ferguson protestors on Twitter.  And it was also easy to see which side of the power equation American Jewish institutions stand on: with Israel, with its tanks and its tear gas and its dominant military.  I am not arguing whether this stand is justified – that argument is furious and ongoing.  But any alliance with power has its consequences, and I am asking us to consider seriously the possibility that American Jewish organizations, steadfast as always in support of Israel, saw the inevitable parallels, imperfect as they are, between the people of Ferguson and the people of Gaza, and remained quiet.  If so, American Jews must consider the possibility that our attention to Israel has paradoxically caused us to forget how, to paraphrase the words of the poet Gerald Stern, to behave like Jews.


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Violence and its Ends

Many, many friends of mine have been posting on Facebook recently about the conflict in Israel-Palestine, the bombs falling on Gaza and the rockets falling on Israel, and other aspects of the situation, including recent violent attacks on left-wing protesters in Israeli cities. These posts tend to fall all over the political spectrum: some of them resolutely defend Israel, some of them express sympathy with Gazans and Palestinians more generally, some of them are critical of both Israel and the Palestinians, some of them are critical of only one side or the other. I don’t agree with them all, although I am often curious to read even those opinions and ideas that I am inclined to automatically reject. Generally, I don’t comment unless I feel I can add something to the conversation and the conversation is respectful and thoughtful (this automatically disqualifies many posts, sadly).

Golda Meir

Golda Meir

Yesterday, a quote attributed to Golda Meir (which as far as I can tell is legit) popped up several times in my news feed. Printed against the backdrop of a photo of Meir speaking, the quote read, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” This quote raised my hackles in a way that nothing else has, and after starting a conversation about the appropriate response to racist and hateful posts, I was inspired to comment (more on what those comments were in a moment). But it also occurred to me that this quote, and my response to it, is at the center of recent events, far flung and mostly unrelated, that have created a sick knot in my stomach over the last week: the crisis in Israel-Palestine, the downing of a Malaysian passenger plane, the botched execution of an Arizona man, and the horrifying murder of my college classmate Dan Markel. I had an anxious sense that all these things were related, but until I thought deeply about the Meir quote, I didn’t know why.

If we look more closely at Meir’s claim, we can see that it depends on the assumption of a faceless group called “the Arabs,” who act and feel as one monolithic entity.  This monolithic entity, she claims, loves its children less than it hates Israeli Jews.  If it is an inherent quality of human beings that we love our children unconditionally and above all, then to love one’s children less than one hates someone else is necessarily to be somewhat less than fully human.  Of course, as with any essentializing claim about humanity, it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.  If even one Arab loves his children above all, then Meir is wrong.

But proving this claim wrong is not enough; we have to understand why it is so dangerous. Examining its insidious mechanism reveals the way that generalizing, monolithic claims about religious, ethnic, and national groups dehumanize individuals and enable both the kind of mass killing we see now every day in the news – in Gaza, in Ukraine, in Sudan and elsewhere – and the kind of personal violence that killed Dan. Statements like these dehumanize whole groups of people, reducing them to nameless, faceless Others who are not like us, whose actions are the cause of our suffering (and their own), whose deaths are incidental to the larger human drama of which they are not a part.

I am thinking here not only of the Golda Meir quote, but also of the pro-Russian rebel commander who, when asked why a civilian plane would be flying over Ukraine, allegedly answered, “It means they wanted to bring some spies to us. Fuck them. They should not fly, we are at war here.” The people on the plane were not vacationers, scientists, children – they were spies. Spies who don’t belong, who, by flying inadvertently into a war zone, brought their deaths upon themselves. I am thinking of a professor friend who told me of an Iraq war vet in one of his classes who explained that the only way to kill someone is to convince yourself you are not killing a person, by persuading yourself through racism or other forms of magical thinking that your target is not human, but less than. I am thinking about the heinous murderer Joseph Wood, who was left gasping on a gurney for nearly two hours as the state of Arizona experimented with a new combination of lethal drugs for execution, and his victim’s brother-in-law, Richard Brown, who asked, “Why didn’t we give him Drano?” Without in any way minimizing Wood’s crimes or the suffering he caused, his prolonged execution and the subsequent suggestion that his death should have been horrible smacks of the kind of human experimentation that has only been carried out by the most abhorrent regimes in history against those deemed unworthy of life. I am thinking about the person who put a gun to Dan’s head, who in order to pull the trigger must have thought that his own grievances superseded Dan’s very humanity, his right to continue to live on this earth as a father, a son, a friend. I am thinking about Dan himself, whose field of study was retributive justice, a form of punishment that repudiates vengeance, and whose opposition to the death penalty was well known.



This is why I think it’s so important, right now, to fight the twin reactions of despair and silence. We have to speak out when we see dehumanization occurring, in speech or in deeds, point to it, disarm it with more speech, with dialogue, conversation, and respect. And we have to hope that our words will have some small effect, even if only to strengthen our own commitment to humanity and to humanism. We must remember the names of the victims of violence regardless of whether we feel the violence against them was justified, as in war, or not. We must commemorate and analyze and create beauty from destruction. We should mourn and rebuild what was destroyed when we can, strengthen community and human ties, move forward and go on.  The Israeli journalist Haggai Matar posted a reflection yesterday titled, “A Few Optimistic Thoughts in a Nearly Empty Airport.” (Sorry, it’s only available in Hebrew.) He wrote, “Despite the despair and pessimism all around, I stubbornly believe that there is still hope here….I know there are those who will say that this is naïve, but it’s not.” It may be naïve, actually, but if it is I will accept this naïveté as the price I pay for a world in which we never stop fighting for an end to violence.


Dan Markel.  This photo seemed more like him than the posed one that's been reprinted everywhere.

Dan Markel. This photo seemed more like him than the posed one that’s been reprinted everywhere.


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