There is a special family of Diaspora Jews who have been deeply changed by our time in Israel and the territories to which I belong. It’s a— fraternity of those scorched so deeply by witnessing what goes on there that we now can’t work on any other issue.— The centrality of our Jewishness within addressing not just injustice but our injustice eclipses all other laudable causes.
It comes not from a day or two or meeting one Palestinian or two. I mean those like me who have stood in the rubble of a house demolition and had the (former) residents try to console us for their loss. I mean those like littlerose who was handed responsibility at her job for saving a dying woman’s life by getting her out of Gaza through last-ditch diplomatic appeal, because all legal routes via Israel had failed. I mean those of us who’ve been to Hebron and seen the ghost town of Shuhada Street and worked with the families shuttered in curfew. I mean those of us who regularly crossed checkpoints between the tanned dustbowls of Palestinian villages beneath green oases of settlements permitting Jews only.
We try at times to leave it be, to continue life, to move on, “broaden our horizons,” and yet each exploration fades beneath the burning impossibility of forgetting.— Every interest we have or would work on hence is colored by the question “Is this more important than the issue that already haunts me day and night?”
Athough it is for the same goal, my work in the States is very different than my activist experiences in Israel. At home, I am an organizer: educational events, campaigns, marketing, teaching volunteers, leading meetings, setting agendas, building collective vision, maintaining listservs, web design, copyediting…I work in an entirely Jewish environment, working on programming to reach that community and, in the words of Last Trumpet, wake them up.
This then is the difference: at home I never see the subject of my work, Palestinians who live under occupation. I care for Israelis, but there is no way they suffer most under present situation. Israelis still have freedom of movement, freedom of livelihood, and so many more national rights enjoyed by Jews both Israeli and Diaspora. At home, I never see them. Yet here, I am side-by-side with them. It is an ingredient otherwise wholly missing in my New York life.
My eyes water when I realize how many memories of living and working with Arabs have been boxed up and set aside in my memory. They are largely— unpalatable— in common conversation, too intense for most contexts, and typically saved for rhetorical usage. Only when certain conditions prevail do they come rushing upwards from the basement of my psyche. Or when I found myself three days ago in Ramallah, guiding my compatriots to attend JustVision’s screening of Budrus. (See my post on Jewschool about that amazing experience.)— The memories plague and wreck havoc on our priorities. We feel crazy for caring. We go sane in an insane world. The urgency eats at us and yet the world begs patience.
As with all great passions, we want to talk about it constantly. And yet within our home American Jewish community, it is precisely the issue avoided the most. The hostility to those unable to set aside an unconditional “love” for Israel makes us all look over our shoulder. I am lucky enough to work for a progressive Israel foundation, where my politics are welcome. But for those in any other line of work, the fear is paralyzing.
It is only among the fraternity then that we can feel at home. We are alone even in crowds unless with those who know, who’ve seen, who feel. Having mentored many, I am always at a loss to explain coping methods. You will never lose the rage, I counsel, but you will learn to channel it, store it, call upon it when needed later. You won’t ever be able to speak your mind completely, not unless you’re willing to lose your audience. And there are too many eager to paint you as anti-Israel or anti-Zionist if you charge ahead recklessly.— And some time down the road, you will grow distant enough to lead a normal life. Still active, for sure, but the overwhelming urgency will calm. But it will return in spikes, surges, flashfloods when given the change, albeit further and further between. You’ll never be totally free of it — nor do I think you want to.
My one consolation to them: the fraternity grows. Its membership includes the most motivated, articulate, creative people I know. Meeting them, I love them immediately and they have my solid loyalty. We share a secret covenant with God, beyond our own volition, to serve a greater cause. We are the chosen Chosen. And we grow slowly but steadily.
When I returned to the States in late 2004, there were so few. And I had to build my own communities friendly to my passion. Now there is an explosion of anti-occupation activity in the Jewish community, there are venues for activism as Jews within the community, and the conversation is more open than ever before.
And most importantly, I say, we need your leadership. With a groundswell of progressive organizing, now more than ever we have leadership roles across Jewish communities in America (and the UK, Australia, South Africa) which need capable, passionate leaders who can convey the immediacy, the outrage, the care and love. There is nothing the right-wing can say to first-hand experiences, nothing a weekend warrior activist can do to compete with you, fresh from Israel and burning with indignation.
This cause needs grand leaders. We are lucky to have grand leaders who’ve never even been to Israel. But you are special, chosen, elected, empowered in ways nobody else can be. I need not convince you too hard — I need only suggest, for I know that for you as for me, the passion will guide you inexorably to the right decision. The fraternity welcomes you, loves you, and needs you.