As Jews, We Must Demand Justice for Shireen Abu Akleh

The current situation is appalling not only to Palestinians; it also marks the Jewish community worldwide

As Jews, We Must Demand Justice for Shireen Abu Akleh
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Growing up in a Jewish household means engaging in a lot of political discourse: discussions about oppression, death, injustice, guilt. In some Jewish households, we discuss social justice, the need to fight for the rights of the oppressed, taking a lesson from the pain of our own history as a “homeless” and shunned people, ensuring that the destructive authoritarianism and hatred that led to the Holocaust are not repeated anywhere in the world again.

The Jewish-American community maintains a strange position within American society. We are largely an affluent and educated community that can “pass” for white and are therefore seen as not subject to the kind of racism and prejudice experienced by other American communities of color. At the same time, we are not considered part of the predominantly Christian, Anglo-Saxon power structure that has held most of the political power in the United States since its founding, and antisemitism has always been present in the United States, which has only worsened in the past six years: Three quarters of Jewish Americans polled by the Pew Research Center said there is more antisemitism in the U.S. today than there was five years ago. Because of this hybrid place we inhabit within American society, we live with the fear that no matter what our economic and social position, we can become the next German Jews — that is, a highly acculturated group that was sent to the death camps during World War II — should right-wing forces prevail to take control of the federal government.

Overall, the Jewish-American community remains a progressive ideological voting bloc, with seven in 10 Jewish adults identifying with, or leaning toward, the Democratic Party and half describing their political views as liberal. It is these considerations that give rise to a complex and conflicting set of feelings regarding the kind of relationship the Jewish-American community should have with Israel. As an example, the same Pew study found that “58% say they are very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel.” The numbers regarding Jewish-American feelings toward Israel, especially about emotional attachment, vary by denomination. However, ‌there is no broad consensus within the Jewish-American community about our relationship with Israel.

During Passover in our family, discussions about social justice come to the forefront. Our Seder and Haggadah (the text used to guide the Seder) lean heavily on the story of Passover as an example of why the fight against oppression and for justice is of immense consequence — a never-ending quest. The lessons I learned growing up reading our Haggadah remind me that our history as a people make us sensitive to changes in societies or governments that might signal a slide toward the type of authoritarianism or ethnonationalism that preceded the Holocaust in Europe. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Jewish Americans are often highly progressive and work on social justice issues.

But like all communities that have experienced severe trauma, memories of which are passed down from generation to generation, we have blind spots. In particular, a sizable portion of Jewish Americans still have a blind spot for the increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic actions of the Israeli government.

I am 35 years old and have watched my family’s viewpoints change from cautious but largely uncritical support for Israel to disillusionment and anger with the way the powers in Israel have become anti-democratic and unwilling to engage in any substantive form of negotiations to end the conflict with the Palestinian people. The ‌discriminatory acts by the Israeli state against Palestinians, such as illegal seizure of land and homes, the indefinite jailing (known as administrative detention) of Palestinians and the consistent use of lethal force by Israeli security forces when confronting Palestinian protesters, show the Israeli state’s disregard for Palestinian lives. Most Jewish Americans would oppose these same policies if they were implemented in the United States. So I often ask: At what moment will we address this blind spot? How do we reconcile these structural injustices with our own fight against extremism, disinformation and efforts to silence journalists here at home? There is no straightforward answer, but there must be a conversation. Our values as a community may be at stake if we do not.

The killing of the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on May 11 — with mounting evidence that the Israel Defense Forces are culpable — is just the latest example in a string of destructive moments in Israel-Palestine history that should push the Jewish-American community and the Jewish diaspora to contemplate their relationship with Israel. The Jewish-American community in particular — arguably the most influential Jewish community outside Israel — must process some uncomfortable facts: Are Israeli’s policies toward the Palestinian people in sync with our values as Jewish Americans? How can we support the continued dispossession of Palestinians to provide settlements for Jewish Israelis? How has the historic trauma of Jews — especially the Holocaust — distorted the justification for a Jewish-only state that is built on inherently undemocratic values and oppresses portions of the Jewish community in Israel, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and Palestinians living in the occupied territories? Is the cost of building “Fortress Israel” at the expense of our community values worth it, just to say that we might have a safe haven for Jews to escape to if the worst were to happen in our home countries?

I feel especially heartbroken for the eldest generation of Jewish Americans, who have lived through so much pain and heartbreak over the past century and, in their waning years, now see a modern Israel that seems completely at odds with many of the core values of the community and those at Israel’s founding. It occurred to me, while reading the story of Moses and the freeing of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt with my 97-year-old grandmother at Passover last month, that the current Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinian people (and the Israelis who support Palestinian rights) has more in common with Pharaoh and his harsh rule than it does with Moses and his righteous quest to free the Jewish people.

I immediately felt a pang of guilt for having this thought. My grandmother experienced discrimination as a Jew in the United States, lived through World War II and experienced the death of family in Europe. Her parents fled tsarist Russia to escape persecution. Prejudice and antisemitism followed Jews to their new homeland in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. Out of the ashes of the Holocaust, the modern Israeli state was born. The birth of Israel was complex and helped sow the seeds of the modern-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My grandmother bore witness to this history, and I can only imagine the effect it has had on her views about her community, Israel and the need for a Jewish state as a bulwark against Jewish victimization.

The Jewish diaspora is split in terms of how it internalizes the lessons learned from our history. The first perspective is the “protector”: Under no conditions can we allow Jews to be victimized again, even if it means supporting policies that seem unjust. According to this viewpoint, Israel is the ultimate protector against unending antisemitism. The second is the “empathizer” perspective: As part of a community that has experienced mass societal trauma and persecution, it is the duty of all Jews to ensure that the circumstances that led to the repression of Jews are never replicated for any group.

I think there is a sizable portion of the Jewish community who fall somewhere in between these two major perspectives. These individuals are generally empathetic when they see injustice and repression, whether at home or abroad, but simultaneously worry that the Jewish community is unique in terms of its historic repression and therefore requires special protection. Both outlooks make sense given what the Jewish community has experienced, but the protector viewpoint presents many pitfalls and risks turning Jews from the oppressed into the oppressor. The line between protecting one’s community and committing acts or policies that are ‌unjust is difficult to traverse.

Yet how can we not see parallels between the Israeli state’s actions against the Palestinian people today and the status of the Jews in Egypt under the rule of Pharaoh before our emancipation? I told my grandmother about the shame I feel to see part of the Jewish community participating in the repression of another group of people who struggle with many obstacles, including chronic statelessness. My grandmother is at a loss ‌why Israel has become so politically right wing and why the Israeli government seems incapable of doing the bare minimum to find a peaceful settlement with the Palestinian people.

“If there was any hope or optimism for what Israel could have been … I do not know what will happen to Israel in the future,” she said to me. “The right wing in Israel is terrible, and Jews should know better than to lean toward this ideology. … I have yet to see anyone in Israel who has provided a serious path for peace between the Jews and the Arabs. … The killing is terrible and needs to stop if everyone is to live in peace.”

Like many in the Jewish-American community, her feelings toward Israel are complicated. Over time these attitudes have grown only more complex as the situation on the ground has worsened. While my grandmother considers herself a passive supporter of Israel, she pointed out that her brother was a staunch enthusiast in the early days of its creation. Our family understood the need for a haven for Jews, especially after the Holocaust.

But the subsequent decades of violence have been detrimental. Israel’s ideological change toward a predominantly right-wing polity is at odds with not only our own values but also the broader political leanings of the Jewish-American community. In this way, we see the gap widening‌ between Israel and the Jewish-American community.

When conducting research for my master’s thesis in 2010 on Israeli national identity, I interviewed a range of Israelis — liberals and conservatives, religious and secular, those who live behind the Green Line that demarcated the nation’s more limited boundaries before 1967 as well as those who live in settlements that breach that line and have exploded in number since then.

There was much dispute about the nature of these identities and whether there was such a thing as a singular national identity that incorporated all Jewish citizens within Israel. It was clear from speaking with Palestinians who had Israeli citizenship that they were excluded from that national identity. Ethnically Arab and mostly of Palestinian descent, one-fifth of Israel’s population are nonentities within their own country. And while the Israelis I spoke with could not agree on a cohesive national identity, the subject of victimhood and the specter of being a persecuted community permeated many discussions. Over and over, Jewish Israelis explained that the politics of their country are complex, and although people’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict varied depending on ideology or religious leanings, all grew up in the Holocaust’s shadow.

There has been a radical shift in the politics of both Israel and the United States over the past six years. The long reign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw the unrestrained expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and an increasingly authoritarian bias toward Israelis who protest corruption or demand the expansion of rights. The animosity between Jews and Arabs has inevitably increased under the crushing weight of hardline, right-wing rhetoric and policies. Concurrently in the U.S., the advent of the Trump administration was accompanied by a huge jump in antisemitism. According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents in the U.S. “surged more than one-third in 2016 and jumped 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017.”

During the Trump years, I remember having numerous conversations with my family about this rise in antisemitism and what it said about American society ‌and the future of Jewish Americans: Would we as a community be safe in the United States in the long term? The generational trauma passed down within the Jewish community contributes to a particular feeling of being not quite safe. There is a tendency to scan society and government for any signs of betrayal or victimization as has happened in the past.

While these anxieties are difficult to live with, I hold the empathizer perspective. I firmly believe that the risks and travails of the Jewish people do not mean we can or should give Israel a pass for its horrendous conduct toward the Palestinian people. We can and must demand justice for the Palestinian people and advocate for their human rights. Just as the Holocaust left an indelible mark on our community’s history and psyche, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians will do the same to us. It is important to affirm that while not all Israelis are Jews and not all Jews are Israelis, most of the political and military power vested in the Israeli state is wielded by Israeli citizens who are Jewish. This ties the wider Jewish community to the actions of the State of Israel and affects our relationship with the rest of the world.

Just as important, numerous Israeli politicians over the years have worked hard to create this nationalist myth that Israel speaks on behalf of the entire Jewish people, even though there is no consensus within the diaspora about whether that is the case. Because of these ties, Israel’s continued path could create an irreconcilable schism within the Jewish community in which Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people overshadows the progressive Jewish values I and others have learned from our families. On the one hand, the Israeli government wants the support of the diaspora — especially the Jewish-American community — but it shows no interest in listening to critiques from this group. This one-sided relationship between Israel and the Jewish-American community is unsustainable, and it helps neither in the long term.

A peaceful settlement with the Palestinian people is necessary not only for Palestinians. The current situation marks the entire Jewish community and undercuts all its achievements. For us, as Jews, to be at peace with ourselves and our values, it is long past time to look in the mirror and ask the hard questions. We can begin by demanding a full investigation into Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.

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