A Jewish Woman Working for Peace in Israel/Palestine

From the September 2014 PNL #837

by Mara Sapon-Shevin

Several weeks ago, as I stood with a sign as part of a vigil against the Israeli actions in Gaza, a woman passing by rolled down her window and gave me a huge thumbs-up. Moments later, she had parked her car and came running across the Erie/Genesee triangle where we stood to introduce herself as a Palestinian woman. We embraced and I introduced her to some of the other protesters, including another woman from Palestine. She cried and said, “I didn’t know there were people here that cared about this.”

Since that moment, Aziza Zahran has joined our CNY for a Just Peace in Israel/Palestine group and become a consistent participant in our activities. As she and I have begun to know one another, she shared “You were the first Jewish woman I had ever met who didn’t have a gun.”

That statement, clear and stark as it is, makes me weep.

Source: Jewish Voice for Peace

I have been involved in political action working for a peace and justice in the Middle East for over thirty years, beginning with New Jewish Agenda in Cleveland to my move to Syracuse 23 years ago when I co-founded Syracuse Jews for Peace, was a member of Women in Black and then became an active member of CNY for a Just Peace in Israel/Palestine.

I have consistently spoken out against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and because of that stance I have been called, among other things, a “self-hating Jew” and an “enemy of Israel.” I have been adamant that I am not a “self-hating Jew”—and maintained that it was, in fact, my Jewish upbringing and education which made me such a staunch advocate for social justice. I took to heart the Jewish teachings about clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.  As a child I said that I wanted to make the world better. Every Yom Kippur for the last eight years I have chanted the haftorah from Isaiah that says that God does not want you to merely tear your clothes and fast and repent, but that you must do the real work, the hard work, of working for justice.  Many who supported my social justice work when it pertained to South Africa or Nicaragua wanted me to suspend those same principles when it related to Israel.

And, I also argued that I was NOT an “enemy of Israel” but rather someone who wanted to hold Israel to a high standard of moral behavior. I supported Israel’s right to exist as well as the rights of Palestinians to self-determination and statehood.

Now, painfully, I am no longer certain that I can say that I am not an enemy of Israel, if that means that I believe that Israel’s right to exist excuses any of its current policies or means that Israel’s right to exist trumps the rights of Palestinians.  Although I never would have called myself a “Zionist,” I, like many American Jews, was brought up to celebrate Israel as the safe homeland of the Jews.  But the ways in which Israel was founded and the current policies and practices now disturb me greatly. I find myself in a position of separating myself from Israel in many ways, including through Boycott, Divestment and Sanction campaigns and I cannot glibly say that “Israel has a right to exist,” much less a “right to defend itself.”

It has always been painful for me—and has sometimes made coalition work difficult—when people have been unable to separate “Jews” from “Israel.”  I have defended non-Jews’ rights to criticize Israel without being labeled “anti-Semitic” and I have worked hard to explain to many that “Israel” and “Jews” were not synonymous. There have been Jews for thousands of years—far longer than the State of Israel has existed. I do not want my values as a Jewish activist and my identity as a Jewish woman to be conflated with Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

A recent article in the New York Times, is entitled “The End of Liberal Zionism: Israel’s Move to the Right Challenges Diaspora Jews,” and this makes it clear that I am not alone in my extreme discomfort about Israel now. In this article, by Antony Lerman, he writes, “The original tradition of combining Zionism and liberalism—which meant ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, supporting a Palestinian state as well as a Jewish state with a permanent Jewish majority and standing behind Israel when it was threatened—was well intentioned. But everything liberal Zionists stand for is now in doubt.”  But Lerman is also concerned—as am I—with the ways in which criticizing Israel can feed genuine anti-Semitism.

 Recent attacks on Jews in France and Germany are terrifying to me; a kosher supermarket and pharmacy were smashed and looted, crowds chanted “Death to Jews” and “Slit Jews’ throats.” In an article in The Guardian by Joe Henley entitled “Antisemitism on rise across Europe ‘in worst times since the Nazis,’” he writes. “The conflict in Gaza is breathing new life into some very old and very ugly demons.” But some argue that this response is not simply a reaction to this latest version of the Israel/Palestine conflict and that “the threats, hate speech and violent attacks feel like the expression of a much deeper and more widespread anti-Semitism.” It has been pointed out that the protesters are not screaming “Death to the Israelis” but “Death to the Jews.”

At the same time, the Syracuse Jewish Federation has launched a major new fundraising campaign to raise funds for Israel in its “hour of need.” And the most recent issue of the Jewish Observer (the newspaper of the Federation) has a front-page article explaining how the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement is an attempt to “de-legitimize Israel’s right to exist” and is both wrong-headed and dangerous.

So, where does that leave me and others like me? I am buoyed by the large numbers of Jews who are also speaking out against what is happening in Gaza. Jewish Voice for Peace and other organizations have taken strong stands, and massive protests in Washington, London and Cape Town have been organized to protest current policies.

I do not feel alone as a Jew who is working for social justice, but I am, indeed, frightened. I want peace and justice for all—and I want to continue to do this work as a Jew. Being Jewish and working for peace and justice are not incompatible.

Mara is an active member of CNY Working for a Just Peace in Palestine and Israel (an SPC committee).