one of them

I step back into my hotel room from the balcony and turn around to put away my tallit and tefillin. I’ve just davenned Shacharit, the morning service, and ended my prayers with the traditional refrain: oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom, alienu v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teveyl, “may the one who makes peace above make peace for us, for all of Israel, and for all of the earth’s inhabitants.” As I turn I catch a glance of myself in the mirror, the thought flashes through my head: “I look like one of them.”

I’m in East Jerusalem, traveling with Interfaith Peace-Builders on a delegation to the West Bank, with a special focus on the effects of incarceration and detention on Palestinian society. This hotel is our home base for the 10 days we’ll spend learning about the occupation. There are 27 of us, mostly non-Jews from the States (with a Scot thrown in for good measure), plus a handful of Jews. 

For me the difficulty started as soon as our bus drove out of the airport: “This is the Jewish neighborhood of [x],” the guide intoned, “built on the Palestinian town of [y]. It was called [a], but now it’s called [b].” This has been a constant refrain over the past three days.

“One of them,” of course, has become Jewish Israelis, and specifically religious Jewish Israelis, whose racist government continues to systematically oppress the native Palestinian population. As has been said more than once, the Nakba, the Palestinians’ word for what Israelis call Independence Day — May 15, 1948, the day the state of Israel was established — is ongoing.

photo by Asher Emmanuel


I identify as a religious Jew. But what really brought me into my Jewish practice was social justice. I understand Judaism as requiring that I act in pursuit of the liberation of all people. All of my social justice work is rooted in Jewish values. And those values are antithetical to destruction of homes, and building of walls, and detention of children, and forcible removal of peoples, and use of Biblical names as a signal of colonization. To witness the devastation that religious Judaism has wreaked in this land has been . . . well, devastating. For the first time in my life, I have felt ashamed of being Jewish.

Yesterday, we visited the Palestinian town of Yaffa, now annexed to the city of Tel Aviv. (The latter is officially called Tel Aviv-Yafo.) Our guide told us about the private construction of an apartment building on municipal land: The religious Jew who won the bid declined to rent units to non-Jews, with the excuse that they would not “respect Shabbat.” When asked whether apartments would be let to secular Jewish Israelis who would respect Shabbat, the answer was affirmative. Just not to Palestinians — even if they agreed to “respect Shabbat.” The extensive litigation process by a Palestinian activist group was unsuccessful in preventing this discrimination.

Shabbat is sacred to me, essential to my survival as a Jewish seeker of peace and justice in this painful world. As Heschel said, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” To hear about the use of Shabbat as a tool of racism is heartbreaking. More than once I’ve felt like I literally cannot hear anymore the onslaught of the catalogue of Israeli crimes. And then I feel guilty, because Palestinians live this reality every day, and they cannot opt out of it.

I know this is part of my process of learning and of integregrating that new knowledge into my identity: What does it mean that these human rights violations are perpetrated in my name, as a Jew, and what is my responsibility in responding? How do I deal with the internalized anti-Semitism that I’ve been experiencing? I feel confident that I’ll eventually work it out. It’s been hugely helpful to have two Jewish leaders who have gone through this process — as well as being able to get and give support to and from the other Jewish participants on the trip.

I will note that this is just part of my experience. I have criticisms of this delegation and its speakers as well. There are things that aren’t being talked about (as there are in a Zionist narrative), but I also think this is not the trip for me to point that out. My job here is to listen to what Palestinian civil society has to say.

Comments

  1. I love reading your posts – they touch me deeply. And I consider how we’ve been on…reflective arcs. I recall being in Hebrew School as a child and being filled with the narrative that “all Arabs want to kill all the Jews” – going on walk-a-thons for the UJA, and being taught to support Israel no matter what. Now I find that those who wish to continue this narrative and who wish to make it the dominant narrative of Judaism continue to keep me away. I’m so glad that you are on this road. You need to be the voice of contemporary Judaism. You need to be the prophet who remembers that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt, so we must never treat anyone else as a slave. I’m so glad you’re there to witness.

  2. Salem, thank you for not being afraid to wrestle with these excruciating questions. I am so moved by your writing and impressed that you are able to turn your experience into words so quickly. It’s invaluable to get to hear your immediate expressions of and reflections on what you are seeing and hearing. Sending you love and strength!

    • Thanks, Leo! I will say that I got a lot of clarity around what I was thinking this morning during meditation, which is not exactly what meditation is for. Or maybe it’s *exactly* what it’s for.

  3. Salem, thank you for not being afraid to wrestle with these excruciating questions. I am so moved by your writing and impressed that you are able to turn your experience into words so quickly. It’s invaluable to get to hear your immediate expressions of and reflections on what you are seeing and hearing. Sending you love and strength. ❤ Leora

  4. adelmanr says:

    Salem, I am impressed that you challenge yourself to see the Palestinian narrative. Your writing is lyrical and inspiring. What worries me is that you are not also expressing your critical views. It disturbs me that this kind of process entails an “either/or” — either the Palestinian narrative OR the “Zionist” one. While it is commendable that you feel “one of them” — as a compassionate person deeply concerned with civil rights — it must create cognitive dissonance for you as a Jew. I would think an alternative or critical perspective would be important for the non-Jews in the group to hear. But if it is too difficult to say, then please let us know. Shadows and light, not black and white. I would love to put you in touch with a friend of mine, Gideon Sylvester (a left-wing Zionist, who worked for Teru’ah). He is an activist and a nuanced thinker.
    B’khvod rav!
    Rachel Adelman

    • Hi, Rachel. Thanks so much for taking the time to read my post. I so appreciate your thoughtful comments. I don’t think that the conflict requires an either/or — but I do think that this trip does. I’m here to hear Palestinian activists talk about their work and tell their stories, and I think that right now, I only need listen. I have heard a lot that has been painful, some that borders on/is anti-Semitic, and a bit that is plain inaccurate. I do think that alternative perspectives are good for the non-Jews to hear, and they have been getting those along the way, from a variety of sources, including me. But my own process as a Jew trying to come to grips with all that I am hearing is not helpful to the group, least of all the Palestinians among us. In the length of this conflict, I think there is room and time for everyone to get their say, and right now it’s just about all I can do to try to make sense of all of this in my own mind.

      • adelmanr says:

        Thank you, Salem, for responding. I trust your integrity. It must be a very difficult position to be in now. Let’s be in touch after I get to Jerusalem on June 10th. Would love to share a “palace in time” (and place) with you, and hear what you have been through. Hugs!
        Rachel

      • Gosh, Salem, even when you’re directly disagreeing with people you sound so respectful and articulate ❤

      • Have to give my teacher Rachel all the kavod!

Trackbacks

  1. […] On Friday evening, I left the delegation on for Shabbat: The group was traveling and spending money the next day, neither of which fits into my practice. Plus, to be honest, I felt like I needed Shabbat (even more than I normally do). This past week has been so, so hard.  […]

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