My grandmother’s brother and sister walked from Germany to Israel.
In 1938, they left Breslau (which is now a part of Poland) and walked to Greece where they took a boat to British-mandate Palestine. As my grandmother would tell it, her siblings took a boat in the middle of the night because the British had placed a quota on the number of Jews allowed to emigrate every month. Jews across Europe had begun to realize that they couldn’t stay, and they joined the small community of Jews who had continuously inhabited the land, and the nascent nationalist movement called Zionism, for Jews to return to the land of Israel.
My relatives lived on one of the early kibbutzim, haZorea, a secular kibbutz started by German Jews in 1936. They had arrived not out of religious devotion but out of a need for safety. My great-uncle was a family doctor and would regularly visit the neighboring Arab villages to offer his services.
My own grandma moved to England and then America, where she lived the rest of her life on the South Side of Chicago. She rarely spoke about the horrors of what she lived through in Germany, but she loved Israel, because she knew that it had saved the lives of her siblings and so many other Jews. And she felt that if there had been a place for Jews to escape to during the Shoah (Holocaust), then the 2/3rds of European Jews that were killed might have been saved. This is the enduring trauma that Jews inherit and collectively hold: a trauma that reminds us that there needs to be a safe place for Jews to live. And even if it isn’t perfect, that place has felt vital for many Jews.
Within this story of my family, lies another story: one where my relatives participated in the displacement of the Arabs who lived on the land, the very people my Great Uncle tended to in the nearby village. Built into the reality of Israel’s founding is the displacement of over 700,000 Arabs. Built into my family’s trauma and redemption, is the foundational collective Palestinian trauma. Inextricably linked to a legitimate Jewish desire for survival and safety, is the same desire for those who lived on this land when my relatives arrived. My family holds both of these truths in our history. This might be true for your family, too. The Jewish people collectively holds this painful truth as well, whether or not you have family in Israel.
I have heard from many of you over the past two weeks who are experiencing pain, disappointment and sadness.
For some of you, there is a sense of feeling betwixt and between: wanting to defend Israel, for many of the reasons described above, but feeling this last round of violence has exposed painful dimensions of Israel’s history and present that have surprised and saddened you, to say the least.
You have shared that you’re in the destabilizing place of doubting what you may have learned growing up– seeing connections to the movement for racial justice in America, wondering how to be a good Jew in this moment. Israel used to represent the answer to both of those yearnings, and in this moment these things feel in tension with one another. I get it.
I’ve heard from some community members who are deeply disappointed with the Jewish community’s silence on the daily indignities and injustices of Israel’s ongoing occupation, and distraught over the death of hundreds of Gazans in the midst of the IDF’s bombing campaign.
And others, who are disappointed that we (Mishkan, and media generally) aren’t focusing on Hamas’s reign of terror, not just shooting rockets at Israeli population centers (killing Israelis of Jewish and Arab origin alike), but robbing their own people of resources and freedoms.
Indeed, there’s a lot to talk about. As I rabbi, I will doubtlessly disappoint some of you in not saying exactly what you’d like to hear from me. In the ecosystem of people giving analysis and action-items in this moment, I want to amplify the voices of people doing the hard work of peace building on the ground.
The Israeli-American peace activist Leah Solomon writes from Jerusalem in a recent piece in Lilith Magazine, “Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are going anywhere because most of us have nowhere else to go. We are destined to share this land. Neither of us can possibly win until we find a way for all of us to win.”
“But we are not destined for endless conflict,” she writes. “There is enough abundance here for all of us. As I lie here unable to fall asleep amidst the now familiar soundtrack of distant explosions in East Jerusalem, I’m praying for a quick ceasefire and halt to all violence. And then, exhorting us all to hold tightly to the sense of urgency we feel right now, to work not just for a lack of violence but for a future of justice, security, equality, freedom, and flourishing for all.”
As a Jew, I don’t feel the need to defend Netanyahu’s choices in this war or over the last two decades as he has allowed right wing Jewish extremist factions to become mainstream in Israel, giving cover to settlers stealing land designated for a future Palestinian state, and fomenting and enshrining racism against Palestinians in law. Israel has massive teshuvah (reckoning) to do for the killing of so many Gazan civilians. It does not make a Jew traitorous to acknowledge that the death of Palestinian civilians, children in particular, is absolutely tragic.
One can stand squarely against all of this yet still affirm that Jews have a right to a safe and secure home. We also must affirm that Palestinians have every right to the same. To be pro-Israel must mean to support Palestinian rights, dignity and freedom. One can do this and still acknowledge that Hamas is a terror organization that is also taking advantage of this moment for political gain. They also have teshuvah to do for the killing of Israelis, including children, including Arabs.
Similarly, I believe that to be pro-Palestine does not mean one needs to be anti-Israel in an existential sense. We must think beyond the binaries that have failed us thus far. Take a listen to Rabbi Sharon Brous’s sermon from last Shabbos. Her plea is that we not lose anyone’s humanity in this– that we open ourselves to the possibility of hearing a narrative that is not ours, not in order to adopt it necessarily, but because it’s the real story of real people who share a deep attachment to the Land, without whom lasting peace and safety is impossible, because the safety of Israelis and Palestinians is intertwined.
This is a moment of profound grief. I’ve broken down in tears many times over the last week thinking about this, feeling about this, allowing myself to be destabilized by opening my heart and eyes to new stories that complicate my own sense of history. I keep returning to Judaism’s essential truths, the rocks that have been our stability and refuge over the millennia:
“‘What is the most important commandment?’ Rabbi Akiva says, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘Ben Azzai says, “These are the generations descended from Adam…’ to remind you that no human being is above another. (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 30). “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Lev 19:16). “When the ox of your enemy is found wandering away, you must be sure to return it.” (Ex 23:4).
The Torah is an extended meditation on empathy– what it looks like when we practice it, and the dangers of what happens when we don’t.
We will be amplifying and supporting the brave people on the ground working together toward a shared society, toward ending the occupation, toward freedom and dignity and coexistence for Palestinians and Israelis, whatever that may look like. It’s not too late. As we support the grueling and inspiring work of peace builders on the ground, you may feel like there’s more you want to do beyond what we’re offering. GREAT! This conflict needs all of us to bring all of ourselves to the work of tikkun, healing, in all the ways that feel impactful.
If you want to talk, as always I’m here, and we’re here, for you and want to support you during this incredibly trying time.
Resources for Continued Learning
Hear Joel Braunold’s words from this past Friday night at Mishkan on the situation in Israel and Gaza.
If you want to learn more about the pre-1948 origins of the conflict, we’ll be offering our Dual Narratives training later this summer. Sign up to be the first to hear about it once announced!
If you’d like to engage respectfully with other Mishkanites on this issue, join our Israel-and-Palestine Slack channel.
Take a listen to this Hidden Brain piece on Tribes and Traitors, examining how dangerous it is for both Israelis and Palestinians to question the orthodoxies of their narratives and empathize with the other.
If you want to donate to Israelis and Palestinians doing shared society building work toward justice, equality and democracy, check out the New Israel Fund.
The Bereaved Parents Circle holds a daily Zoom called “Peace Square” for conversations among Israelis and Palestinians processing this moment at 6 pm in the Middle East Time, 10 am CST, on Zoom and Facebook
Finally, enjoy this short TikTok video explaining shockingly accurately the origins of the current conflict.