Thursday, August 22, 2013

My Al Quds Speech

Here is the text of my speech delivered on August 2, 2013 at the Al Quds event in Edmonton.

I grew up in a fairly traditional Jewish home, where I often equated Judaism with Israel. Much later on as I began to explore issues concerning the Middle East, I realized that I had only been presented with one side of the story. I began to question why, if Israel is only defending itself from supposed enemy attacks, why the victims of Israeli aggression seemed to disproportionately be women and children. I began to question why I, as a Jewish woman, could get automatic citizenship to a country where I had never set foot, when people who have been living there for generations don't even have basic human rights. And, I began to question why questioning these sorts of things seemed to be such a touchy issues in the organized Jewish community.

A little while after this, in an effort to reach out to like-minded people, I joined Independent Jewish Voices. Independent Jewish Voices is a grassroots organization of concerned Canadian Jewish citizens who are against the unjust, illegal, and immoral occupation of the Palestinian territories. We come from diverse backgrounds, occupations, and affiliations but have in common a strong commitment to social justice and universal human rights. We come together in the belief that the broad spectrum of opinion amongst the Jewish population of this country is not reflected by those institutions which claim authority to represent the Jewish community as a whole. We further believe that individuals and groups within all communities should feel free to express their views on any issue of public concern without incurring accusations of disloyalty. Independent Jewish Voices is also the first national Jewish organization in the world which formally adopted BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) in 2009.

My practise of Judaism includes values such as compassion, social justice, and Tikkun Olam, which is the Jewish concept of healing or repairing the world. The occupation of the Palestinian people violates these principles. Ironically, like many other Jewish people who are also against the occupation, I have been called self-hating and anti-Semitic. I have learned that, besides being absurd (someone who self-identifies as being Jewish is hardly “self-hating”), these are tactics to try to discredit dissenting viewpoints and to try to shut the conversation down.

In the Jewish community, there is a lot of misinformation about the connection between Judaism and Zionism. The bottom line is that the spiritual and cultural practise of Judaism and the political philosophy of Zionism are not intrinsically connected. Historically, Zionism was opposed by almost all organized branches of Judaism. Today, there are some very strong Jewish voices from within Israel who have remained fierce critics of Israeli colonial settlement policy in the Occupied Territories for many years.

I try to communicate to other Jewish people that they should examine the situation in the Middle East from an objective point of view. They should be concerned that human rights violations and murder are being committed in our name. They should be concerned that, despite our culture of intellectualism and open debate, that when it comes to this issue, dissent is discouraged. It is my sincere hope that a new generation of Jewish people is coming of age that is more open to questioning these important issues and not blindly following the Jewish establishment.

Independent Jewish Voices in Alberta

I joined Independent Jewish Voices a few years ago when I became frustrated with the situation in the Middle East, and how, if you are Jewish, you are expected to think a certain way politically. I also disagree with the way politics and faith are purposely interconnected on this issue: if you are Jewish, you are expected to support Israel unconditionally. Finally, and probably the most concerning, is that fact that any debate on the issue of Israel - any disagreement - is immediately shot down in conversation and the person branded as a self-hating Jew or an anti-Semite (a ridiculous accusation to someone who self-identifies as being Jewish).

Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) provides an alternative voice for Canadian Jews like me. It is a political organization that counters groups like B'nai Brith and the Canadian Jewish Congress, which are political (not religious) organizations claiming to speak for the entire Jewish population in this country.

Over the last couple of years I have spoken for IJV at a number of rallies concerning human rights for Palestinians. Most recently, I spoke at Al Quds Day on August 2. What I say in this video pretty well sums up my views and the purpose of IJV:

IJV has chapters in individual cities, with representatives on a national steering committee which shapes the direction of the organization. I decided it was time for more of a voice from the Prairies and recently joined the IJV steering committee as the representative for Alberta. With a few members in Calgary and Edmonton combined, it made more sense to have a province-wide chapter rather than one for both cities.

I have been spending some time trying to attract new members. It's not easy - even amongst "progressive" Jewish people, there can be fear of retribution over speaking out, as well as ambivalence on the whole topic itself. Non-Jewish people are also welcome to join - the only difference is that non-Jews cannot join the steering committee or vote at an AGM. The reason for this is for IJV to maintain its identity as a Jewish but non-Zionist organization.

Membership is confidential (unless one chooses to make it public, like I did) and requires very little in the way of a time commitment. Mostly, members receive emails that contain information about current BDS campaigns (SodaStream is the big one right now), news items of concern, and petitions. BDS, to explain for those who don't know, means Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. IJV is the first national organization in the world to adopt BDS, in 2009.

I will be starting up a low-traffic email list for Alberta members, and possibly organizing one or two in-person events over the coming months (likely discussion circles over coffee). However, for now, if you are someone who is concerned about the one-sided viewpoint concerning the actions of Israel that is propagated by the mainstream; if you are concerned about the human rights violations of the Palestinian people; if you believe in truth, social justice, and peace: please consider joining IJV.

On a personal note, for the record, I am not anti-Israel and have never spoken against Israel's right to exist as a country. I believe that most of the people who live there want peace and that the actions of the Israeli government and IDF are to blame for much of the suffering that continues in that region.