Notes for a talk on a panel at the School of Social Work:
Can ‘good’ Jews be critical of Israel?
December 1, 2011
Hillel: If I am not for myself who will be for me?
If I am for myself alone, who am I?
Jewish identity values for me have always been a balance between these but more stressed the second.
My own upbringing as a Jew was steeped in universalism/humanism/socialism.
My grandfather, my mother’s father from Vitebsk in White Russia, was a Bundist. They sought to maintain the duality between their identity as Jews and yet fully participate in the class struggles of the time in Russia in the 1900’s Indeed they saw Zionism as a form of escapism in a sense.
As Peter mentioned in his intro of me, both my parents were socialists, born and grown up in Toronto and indeed met through the Young Communist League whose major focus was against fascist Spain, the prodrome to Nazism. As soon as he was able by age, my father joined the army and went to Europe to fight against Hitler. He was seriously injured and suffered combat shock “PTSD” as we call it now.
Israel was actually a very background notion although I was aware of the horrors of the Holocaust although not in great detail. My father once took us to see a swastika grafitti on the St. Clair water reservoir tower when I was about 8 and it was a very significant memory.
My first real encounter with Israel (and Zionism) really came to be with my experience at camp at the age of 8. This was a bit of a “mistake” really – my parents happened to send us to Zionist camp and I’m still not sure why. We first went to Camp Kvutza, a Habonim camp, but then it got shut down and I ended up at Camp Shalom a Young Judea camp.
It was here at Camp Shalom and its leadership camps, that I felt the dissonance of my own identity as a Jewish universalist. There was only talk of Israel, of the threat of anti-semitism, of our duty to make “aliyah” to Israel. I remember being upset and asking about why we weren’t talking about the genocide in Biafra that happened that summer? No one really answered me.
At the age of seventeen, I watched Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 Battle of Algiers about the struggle for Arab Algerian independence from France. A light went on in my head which paralleled it to the Palestinian situation and raised the possibility of Zionism as colonialism and the struggle for Palestinian self-determination as an anti-colonial struggle. I managed to rent the film at the local theatre near the camp and the campers went to see it and I handed out the Palestinian Manifesto. I began to realize that this was NOT an empty land for a people without land as I was told was the unequiovical truth.
In my late twenties, I became involved in Peace Now and started the Toronto chapter. I wanted an end to the 1967 occupation. I envisioned a two state solution with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
I thought that this is what most Labour type good Israelis wanted too and was devastated when President Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 was assissinated by a right wing fellow Jew. But other facts revealed themselves: That the Labour Government under Rabin and subsquent governments between 1993 and 2000 were actually responsible for building thousands of units for settlers on the occupied West Bank and that the settler population increased by almost 100 percent at that time. Indeed the landscape had been so shifted by facts on the ground that viability of a Palestinian state had become an untenable solution.
I left Peace Now when they really couldn’t criticize these things and what is called internal occupation in Israel. Israel is supposedly a secular democratic state with equal treatment of all citizens. Of course no state really treats its citizens equally – there are inequalities inherent in every democracy based on racism, class, sexism etc. But Israel is especially nasty about how it segregrates and discrimates against the Arab/Palestinian population within Israel. Although they are allowed to vote, they are denied land ownership, equal education and indeed access to their own history. My sister–s kibbutz of course, can have no Palestinian members. It sounds familiar, much like we have treated our indigenous population. And also many Israel–s laws are of course largely religious laws, like marriage laws etc. Is this a democracy or theocracy?
There are has been an endless road to dissillusionment and enlightment from my original days of Zionism. The Wall, the invasion of Gaza, the incarceration of thousand of Palestinians including children, the night raids against those practising non-violent resistance, the blind eye to the destruction of olive trees by Israeli settlers..... the spraying of high velocity water guns on Gazan fishermen... Israel has indeed shown itself to be absolutely brutal and arrogant and a rogue state not caring to comply with international law.
But my identity as a Jew is strengthened because I know that this path of criticism is joining voice with
many other Jews: The shministim, the refuseniks, who refuse to serve in the army. The 500 Israelis who signed against the invasion of Gaza in 2009 including those living in Sderot. The group called Matschom Watch or Checkpoint Watch who wrote the powerful poem and video “Obama Take Away the Pain in my Stomach saying :Come Obama Save us from ourselves, be a true friend“. The group of Jewish McGill students who bravely wrote and published the letter “Criticism of Israel is not Disloyal” in 2008 saying “We can no longer justify a system of oppression that promises continual destruction for Palestinians and Israelis alike”. The many Jews here and the in U.S. who continue to speak out and question and take action.
In 1982, a patient of mine, a journalist for McLean’s magazine interviewed me and I spoke with
despair about the mass killings of Palesitinians especially the children in Lebanon. I proudly showed this to my socialist father, then living in Israel, to show that I had stayed true to our family values. He was explosively angry with me “you can think these things but never speak out in public – it’s like speaking out against your family”. I felt terrible, guilty, bad. I didn’t know what to do next and I found myself leaving the issue behind for some time.
Dad, now almost 30 years since you’ve died, I need to say – I do this for a greater vision of a healthier world and my own moral conscience as a human being, allows me to do nothing less. I hope he would get it.