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.

the implosion conspiracy

2216003For some reason I’ve been really interested in Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for quite a long time, and I’ve been wanting to read a book about their trial. But unlike a lot of subjects, I was finding it hard to find the definitive work on this topic. So one day when I emailed the rabbinical school list about something unrelated, I also asked if anyone had recommendations. One of my classmates responded extremely enthusiastically with an endorsement of Louis Nizer’s The Implosion Conspiracy, which he read decades ago and still remembered vividly. It must be out of print now, because I was only able to find a copy on Amazon Marketplace (but for $0.78!).

To be honest, the book wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. However, it was a great read, and I definitely recommend it to the fellow Rosenberg-obsessed. Nizer was a lawyer, and he approaches his subject via an in-depth look at the trial itself. His perspective is that the truth can be found in the record.

He writes (somewhat pompously), “My objective was to know every inch of the thousands of pages of the records, as if I were going to write the briefs; and every word and authority in the briefs, as if I were going to argue the appeals; and every word of the many judicial opinions, as if I were going to write a critique for a law review; and every book I could find for or against the verdict, as if I were going to review each one for the Sunday Times; and every newspaper reference I could find, as if I were an editor preparing an editorial; and every person I could find who touched their lives or deaths, as if I were a reporter on a Pulitzer-Prize mission.” Indeed, his account, published in 1973, is incredibly thorough.

Nizer acknowledges in his introduction the “strong feelings” that the case engendered. In 1951, the Rosenbergs were convicted of passing information about the atomic bomb, being built under the auspices of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., to the Soviet Union. Just after the war, there was a certain amount of camaraderie (pun intended) in the United States with the Russians, who had been just about pulverized in their defeat of the Nazis on the eastern front. But by the time the Rosenberg case went to trial, the cold war had started, and communists (which the couple indisputably was) were viewed with considerable suspicion. Sen. Joe McCarthy would begin his infamous hearings just two years later, right about the time the Rosenbergs were executed for their espionage. Add to this opposition to the death penalty; horror at the fact that the chief government witnesses were Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law, whose damning testimony allowed them to escape more serious prosecution; and the possible role of anti-Semitism, fairly common in the mid-20th century — and one might think that the case would have hinged on some less quantifiable factors than Nizer claims. During sentencing, the judge himself made the following extreme statement:

I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-Bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason. Indeed, by your betrayal you undoubtedly have altered the course of history to the disadvantage of our country.

Pres. Eisenhower cited a similar concern when he denied clemency a few months before their execution.

But this account provides almost none of that context or how it might have influenced the outcome. However, I now feel as though I lived through the trial and the appeals. In fact, I probably now know more than what most of the public did at the time, given how much of the testimony was embargoed because of national security concerns. In one of the few moments of levity in the book, the judge asks the public to leave, only allowing press to stay, because of the evidence about the atomic bomb about to be presented; I think today the press would be just about the last group allowed to hear such privileged testimony.

the rosenbergs in a rare embrace, but one so characteristic of their deep love for each other

the rosenbergs in a rare embrace, but one so characteristic of their deep love for each other

I finished the book over two Shabbatot, during one of which I was sick, so I just stayed in bed all day reading. Even though I knew the outcome, I cried at the end. The Rosenbergs were executed just over two years after their conviction, lightening speed when compared to today’s process. Through a practical deus ex machina, the legal team was able to get a stay of execution ordered by one U.S. Supreme Court judge, William Douglas, on the day after the Court’s summer recess. It initially seemed that the Rosenbergs would gain months of their lives while the appeal based on the stay made its way through the lower courts. However, exhilaration turned into shock and despair when, in a completely unprecedented move, the Court was called back for a special session and vacated the stay. The Rosenbergs were executed by electric chair a day later — on Shabbat, despite the pleas of their lawyer for respect for their Jewish heritage. Even more horrifying, Ethel had to be electrocuted three times after it was discovered she was still alive after the first course.

Since I’ve practically read the trial transcript, I’ll weigh in on the verdict. From the book’s account of the trial, it certainly seemed like Julius Rosenberg was involved in espionage activities. However, the government’s case was pretty weak, based on circumstantial evidence and verbal testimony (and absolutely no physical ties). As a juror, I think I would have had trouble concluding that the government had made its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, based on evidence released decades after the trial, it is clear that he was indeed a spy for the Soviet Union, but it is not at all clear whether what he passed on helped the Russians in their quest for the bomb, or whether he even passed on anything at all about the bomb.

Ethel’s involvement was always dubious, and the government had even less of case against her. In the years since the trial, her role has pretty much been completely debunked (her brother having admitted in 2001 that he gave false testimony about her involvement). She almost certainly knew of her husband’s activities but did not participate in them in any substantive way.

Ages 10 and 7 when their parents died, the Rosenberg sons were adopted by their foster family, the Meerepols. The father Abel was a poet and song-writer who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Allen; his most well-known work was the anti-lynching poem “Strange Fruit,” made famous by Billie Holiday.

The affair would ultimately claim another life. Upon hearing the Supreme Court’s decision to vacate Justice Douglas’s stay, the Rosenbergs’ lawyer, Emmanuel Bloch, called the warden at Sing Sing: “Please tell Julie and Ethel I did the best I could for them. Tell them I will take care of the children. Tell them I love them. Tell them . . . ” and then collapsed into a chair sobbing. He died of a heart attack, at the age of 52, six months later.