The Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, which comes amid the worst violence between Israelis and Palestinians since the last Intifada, marks the first time in my life when the American outlook on Israel has been complicated by a period of wrenching introspection about our own racial and political inequalities.
Both developments leave American Jews betwixt and between. In America, most Jews are white and many lead lives of privilege, yet we are also targets of deadly and intensifying domestic race hatred. American Jews are also progressive—J Street estimates 77 percent of Jews voted for President Biden in 2020—and our values are now in direct conflict with the Israeli government’s staunch insistence that political and numerical dominance over the land it governs is a non-negotiable requirement of Jewish survival. That view invites ceaseless battle over land without regard to the human toll; it commits Israeli politicians to the one political battle they think they can win, while we collectively lose the moral one as hopes of reconciliation and peace dwindle ever further.
In this limbo of uncertain identity, silence can be a refuge; it can also lead us astray from our highest ideals.
I have struggled for some time to put my thoughts on American Judaism into words. This is in part because my life is pretty easy. But I also live in a political world and work in a political sphere and I feel the pain in my silence every time Israel spirals onto my timeline, everytime a conservative pundit starts attacking “globalists,” everytime another madman with a gun fires into a crowd of people who look like me.
There is a trauma in American Jewry; it is a trauma full of fear and pride, buried in a silence that grows more intolerable every day.
I am a proud Jew. I love my culture and my heritage—even if I often struggle with the deep contradictions of my religion. I also have love for Israel. I have wrestled with whether to write those words but I can’t in good conscience disown the only country on Earth that exists to protect my people. I do not support Israel’s present government, nor its treatment of the Palestinian people. I feel much the same way about Israel as I and millions of other progressives feel about the United States. I know what the two countries I love have done. I also know they are the only two that welcome me by birthright. For people familiar with persecution, a place to call home is a hard one to denounce. I’m lucky to have two.
My grandfather was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1930. He lived there for three years before the danger of Naziism became clear and he and his family fled to British-occupied Palestine. They were settlers fleeing religious persecution. My saba grew up a German Jew in occupied territory—he was a teenager during the worst years of the Holocaust. The world’s Jews were being eradicated and the biggest countries in the world had no interest in providing asylum to them, and so the small group of Jews who’d settled in British-Palestinian territory took it upon themselves to build a new Jewish homeland—a place where no Jew would be turned away, where they’d all be protected.
When I think of the trauma of American Jews, this is where my thoughts begin. I think of my saba in those days and I can’t help but feel pride. He saw how much the world hated him and his people, and he chose to fight. He was only 14 when he took up arms to fight the British for control of the land. In truth, I don’t know how to denounce my saba for something I can only hope I’d have been brave enough to do. And yet I can see he helped build a country that now subverts the principles that animated its creation. And so I stay silent.
It is here that the cognitive dissonance becomes hardest to bear. The truth is that a world where Israel doesn’t exist—where my saba was turned away—is also a world where I don’t.
I first traveled to Israel when I was 14—it was about a year after my Bar Mitzvah and just a few months after my saba died suddenly of pancreatic cancer. I don’t know what I expected to see there but I can remember how desperately I wanted to go. And I remember just how shocking the entire experience was. Just moments after landing, as my mother and I were waiting for our bags, a janitor walked past us, sweeping the floor. I kept staring at him because he was wearing a kippah. Here, in a public place, the janitor was Jewish and displaying his Judaism. I’m sure that janitor never thought twice about it but that image had a profound impact on me. I grew up in a small town outside of Buffalo, NY. It’s not that I didn’t know other Jews—I knew a couple—but the thought of wearing a kippah in public, to school, or to a friend’s house was terrifying. For most of my friends, I was their only Jewish friend. It was life in a small, white town, where Holocaust jokes and Jewish stereotypes were the norm. I don’t mean to say that I was bullied for being Jewish, looking back, I’m not sure if it ever really occurred to me that I should be offended, even if I was annoyed. But I do mean to say that I was The Jewish Kid. For that and for so many other reasons, Israel shocked me. It was something of a fantasy land in my mind—a world where being Jewish wasn’t strange, where nobody had to make awkward, self-deprecating jokes to excuse being different. It was a place where I was truly and deeply ordinary. And that was extraordinary.
Of course, the fantasy of Israel I constructed in my mind bore only partial resemblance to the reality of the country I visited. I also know that my experience and my fantasy was far from unique. American Jews are regularly welcomed to Israel with open arms, encouraged to move there and to contribute to a society built by and for Jews. When I was a teenager, experiencing Israel for the first time, I could hardly resist the temptation to drop everything and settle on a kibbutz.
It’s been 10 years since I first stepped foot in Israel, and my love for the country has been diluted by time and distance and access to the internet. But it still exists, and because of that love I feel the need to speak out against the apartheid state that Israel has become.
I still believe in the need for a Jewish homeland. There are still fewer Jews in the world today than there were in the years preceding the Holocaust. We are an endangered and traumatized people and we deserve a home. But I do not believe that one trauma can ever justify another. The Palestinian people have been living in abject poverty for far too long—abused by an Israeli government that refuses to negotiate better treatment but will readily scapegoat and attack these second-class citizens in order to advance their own interests. It is not a cycle that is unique to Israel—but it is one that American Jews should denounce just as we would if the perpetrators were any other oppressor. The Palestinian people deserve better. They deserve freedom, they deserve food and clean water and an education. They deserve better lives and safer communities and no government that holds those opportunities hostage is deserving of our respect.
In a stirring essay for the New York Times, Peter Beinart writes that the time has come for the Palestinian people to return home. In the essay, he invokes the idea of “teshuva” or “repentance.” It is not a word Jews use lightly, and Beinart doesn’t. Repentance runs deep in the Jewish faith, it is the meaning behind our holiest day. On Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—we do not eat or drink or indulge in any comfort. Instead we ask forgiveness for our sins, not just from G-d but from those we’ve wronged. But forgiveness is not enough, instead the Torah asks us to go a step further: it asks us to mend. As Jews, it is our obligation to begin to mend the wrongs that have been committed in the name of our safety.
This obligation scares me. Call it generational trauma or too many years in Hebrew school, but for me and so many American Jews, Israel was a ‘backup plan.’ It is an entire nation dedicated to ensuring that Jews will never again have to live as marginalized people. But that’s the point: We all deserve a promise like that.