Friday, February 20, 2009

Israel/Palestine - What's a Jew to Do?

The recent violence in Gaza resulted in a number of rallies and events held in Edmonton. I was at many of them, and even participated a few times. The first rally for Gaza took place on January 4, and I sang the song "Walls", as I often do at these sorts of gatherings. I attended and photographed two other rallies, and filmed an educational seminar about the situation in Gaza, from a Palestinian perspective.

As well, in late January, Dr. Norman Finkelstein came to speak at the University of Alberta campus. He is a Jewish American academic who is highly critical of the Israeli government and policies towards the Palestinian people. He is also highly disliked amongst other Jewish people in particular, who view him as an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew (which is ridiculous, because the man identifies publicly as being Jewish. He isn't anti-Semitic. Rather, his detractors are anti-semantic). There was a small backlash from the Jewish community, some of whom felt that he should not have been permitted to speak at the U of A. To some, being critical of Israel is akin to being anti-Jewish.

Being Jewish myself, I know how complicated the issue of Israel/Palestine can be. And I know that speaking out for the Palestinian people comes with a cost. I have been severely reprimanded by members of my family. I have concerns about some of my work arrangements, should those in the Jewish community find out and decide to take action. I've been called a traitor, a Jewish turncoat, told I should be ashamed of myself, and a few other choice things.

And yet I still speak out, participate, and sing. All because I think it is wrong for Israel to bomb the snot out of Gaza and in the process kill mostly innocent women and children. Because badly aimed rockets are being fired into Israel. Because the people are oppressed and are fighting back. The explanation I get, is that Hamas is using human shields, thus accounting for all of the deaths. Hamas is purposely firing rockets knowing Israel will fire back to those locations, where people are concentrated.

If this is true, and Israel knows the tactics that Hamas is up to - why play into it? Israel should have learned from the fiasco in Lebanon in 2006 that lots of dead women and children does not a victory make. A measured response does not involve trying to kill a mosquito with a sledgehammer, so to speak. Violence just begets more violence, and to say that Israel is correct in its actions is to basically justify murder. The human rights abuses committed by the IDF at checkpoints and the general entrapment of the people of in what is essentially a walled-off ghetto (sound familiar?) only breeds a culture of hate.

If saying these sorts of things makes me a bad Jew, then so be it. Part of my understanding of being Jewish is standing up for the rights of others and trying to make the world a better place (Tikkun Olam, as it is called in Hebrew). Too many Jews grow up being reared to have an unquestioning loyalty and patriotism towards Israel. How? Good old Jewish guilt. We are brainwashed into blind nationalism because of the Holocaust - Israel is our protection (and apparently gives us the right to treat other ethnic groups poorly). Israel is our homeland (even to those white-skinned Westerners who have never set foot in the Holy Land). "Hey - it says so in the Torah," cries the Jewish man who has not set foot in a Shul since his Bar Mitzvah and doesn't know Kiddush from Kaddish.

My Judaism is defined by who I am and the way I live my life, not by allegiance to a state. Zionism, to me, is a political ideology that sets Jewish interests above others. I believe in a two-state solution, with a strong and viable Israel and Palestine side by side. Critics of Hamas say that peace will not happen until extremism is eliminated. However, Israel is not immune to extremism either - I argue that bombing resulting in so many civilian casualties is quite extreme.

Criticism of Israel is not anti-Jewish. However, oppressing and trying to silence those dissenting voices, is. After all, arguing, debating, searching for meaning - these are all very Jewish things to do. However, this week, a concern was raised to me that my views on Israel may potentially polarize a faith community with which I am involved - one which is composed of people from different cultural and religious backgrounds. I strongly disagree. As reasonable, rational adults, we should be able to openly discuss our viewpoints and disagreements, without becoming hostile.

Shabbat shalom, salaam, and peace.

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