Not This Again

Some reflections on reactions to the violence, and a guest post.

After two agonizing weeks of fighting within Israel and between Israel and Gaza, the news of a ceasefire was a relief. But is it a relief? Something about this round of conflict, many people noticed, felt different. American progressives were more comfortable breaking with the traditional support for Israel, from elected leaders to fed-up Jews to young people who, it occurs to me, might not remember the Gaza withdrawal or Gilad Shalit. It seemed more than ever that many people no longer view Hamas as a terrorist organization, but rather as a kind of civil rights movement comparable to America’s current reckoning. As some have pointed out, Americans are fighting their own proxy war.

Every lull of relative peace dulls us into thinking maybe everything will be ok; every cycle of violence frays the nerves of those of us who can’t help but to feel that vitriol directed at Israel is, at its core, about the problem of Jewish agency and autonomy.

It rattles me when the Seattle City Council puts out statements urging the president to discontinue supporting Israel’s defense — and opens it up to comments on a Jewish holiday.

This initiative, led by Councilmember Kshama Sawant, started as a typo-ridden statement that reduces the conflict into a morality tale between oppressor and oppressed and lightly kisses some anti-Semitic tropes:

Biden asserted the quote-unquote “right” of the aggressor to quote unquote “defend” itself, as though Hamas’ response can be equated with the brutality or scale of Netanyahu’s attack or the decades of racist, vicious policy of the Israeli ruling class. Let’s be clear, the Israeli ruling class has held its boot on the neck of the people of Gaza for decades. This dishonest portrayal of “both sides” and equal responsibility in a situation of apartheid is utterly unconscionable. 

The people of Gaza did not start this conflict – Netanyahu and Israeli ruling class did. And while indiscriminate firing of rockets against civilians should of course be opposed, they come as a response to Netanyahu’s brutal attacks. 

(Emphasis mine)

A slightly less intense version of this letter demanding condemnation of violence and a discontinuation of military aid and weapons to Israel was sent to be* signed by all nine members of the Council and sent to President Biden. (It does not include Sawant’s original demands, which included socialized health care for Israelis and Palestinians.)

I spent the majority of the last two weeks foggy-headed and unable to sleep well, reading in all my spare moments. The most important reading, I believe, is Matti Friedman’s reporting from seven years ago. (I had the honor of hosting Matti in Seattle a few years ago and he is not just a brilliant reporter and writer, but a great guy.) Start here with his 2014 Atlantic article about how reporters are compromised when covering the conflict. He’s been receiving a bit of attention since the bombing of the Gaza AP office, and he defends, with characteristic integrity, all of his work.

Read Matti’s excellent piece, Jerusalem of Glue, about the beauty and complexity of the city, and listen to him on Unorthodox, where he goes into further detail about how the narrative is crafted the way it is, lays out Hamas’s goals, and meditates on Israeli society’s own unraveling.

I’ve also been simmering with the untold stories, the stories that seem to fall outside the narrative. References to “the Israel-Egyptian blockade” of Gaza. Egypt? That Egypt? And while we’re at it, let’s take a look at Lebanon, where Palestinian refugees have virtually no rights. And Jordan. All of these countries have resisted integrating Palestinian refugees, with the help of Saudi and European money, to hold up a very long game. Not to say anything of the conflict between Hamas and the PLO, fueled by Iran. I am astonished never to see these stories make it into the news.

It’s hard to take this all in and view the current conflict as a morality play with Israel as the villain.

Another thing that I think about: language. “Trauma.” “Palestine.” How have these words changed and influenced new meanings? The idea that Jews have to work through “trauma,” or that we have “learned” from our oppressors to oppress others due to our own trauma, deserves some more unpacking. (What I think we’ve “learned” from our oppressors is that…they like to kill us?)

I have been very struck by the widespread use of “Palestine,” as if it’s a country. It would be nice if it were, but it’s not (yet). The media has been very comfortable making this shift. I think it is reflective of the postmodern practice of using words to construct new realities.

As I was writing this, an open letter titled “Statement on Israel/Palestine by Scholars of Jewish Studies and Israel Studies” started circulating among some University of Washington Jewish studies professors and beyond. Here’s a snippet:

We also acknowledge that the Zionist movement, a diverse set of linked ethnonationalist ideologies, also was and is still shaped by settler colonial paradigms that saw land settlement as a virtuous means of solving political, economic, or cultural problems, as well as modern European Enlightenment discourses that assumed a hierarchy of civilizations and adopted the premise that technological progress and development of an ‘underdeveloped’ territory would be an unqualified good. These paradigms, as implemented by the Zionist movement and the state of Israel in twentieth-century Palestine, have erected unjust, enduring, and unsustainable systems of Jewish supremacy, ethnonational segregation, discrimination, and violence against Palestinians that have been forcefully condemned, including by Jews, Israeli citizens, and Israeli human rights groups such as B’Tselem.

So the argument around the war is not about who’s right or wrong or why or even how to improve. Rather, the very premise of the state is being called into question more than in times past. This is coming from within the academy and already embedded in Jewish spaces, particularly those that skew young and progressive. The open letter ends with a word of support for “faculty free speech and academic freedom” and the right to protest Israel, even in the form of boycott or “organized economic pressure.” Does this mean Jewish studies departments around the country are finally emboldened to open the door to BDS?

This is the kind of internal division and self-doubt our enemies can count on. Temporary pain and sacrifice will be redeemed. We can be broken. We can break ourselves first.

There’s only one real question: what’s our long game?

*Correction: the letter by the Council has not been signed; I will be following the story.

Invisible, Yet Exposed

Bainbridge Island writer and film critic Tova Gannana shares her complex emotions around the conflict, her personal history, and her home.

By Tova Gannana

There are times when it feels like the world is talking about Israel and no one knows about the history of the Jews. 

Misinformation has always been spread about Jews. In St. Paul, Minnesota, where I grew up, I reported to the principal of my junior high school that a fellow student asked me if I had horns or if any members of my family had horns. He cried when we sat in her office and claimed he wasn’t trying to offend me. In my high school geography class, the valedictorian raised her hand and asked why were we still having to learn about the Holocaust. The teacher replied that we learned about the Holocaust because it happened to rich Jews. My cheeks burned from shame for not standing up and telling them all the truth. 

These are just two instances in a lifetime of many. I grew up in a Jewish community with a large group of Holocaust survivors. In my Talmud Torah day school we had Israelis, American Jews, and recently freed Russian Jews. We were a complex congregation with a shared history. 

I have always felt that people who are not Jewish know very little about Jews. I have always had to explain holidays and customs, kashrut, and why Israel. I welcome being asked when it comes from a place of curiosity. The past few weeks have been particularly exhausting. And isolating. I go to work with the weight of worry, and everyone else seems just fine. I have family and friends in Israel. My husband was born and raised there and the majority of his family is in the center of the country and in Jerusalem. Between checking in with them and worrying about them and seeing the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish posts that are on my Instagram feed, I feel an exhaustion I haven’t felt since 2014. I am shocked by how people are taking sides. By how quickly they did. I haven’t seen one post by a non-Jew in my social media feed that took the side of Israel. Some advocate, as Gal Gadot and Rihanna did, for not taking sides. I can’t believe how casually these posts supporting Palestine and calling Israel a colonial aparteid state are inserted among pictures of walks with dogs, selfies, and happy moments with family. I have blocked over a dozen accounts, most of them are people who I know live in my community, people who I may run into at the grocery store or on the street. I have sent private messages to those who are posting misinformation asking them to educate themselves more, or better, to just not post at all. 

People have been surprised to hear that I am upset by what they are posting. Arguments between us have ensued. One man from Australia sent his friend to troll me and write disparaging comments on my posts of a manicure, a photo of me smiling in a dress under a tree. I don’t think my arguments with people on Instagram have changed their views at all. If anything, it seems to have made them stronger.

My 16-year-old daughter is going through what I am going through. It is taking an emotional toll on her having to see and interact with online anti-Semitism and the denial by people that they are not spreading anti-Semitism. I have noticed that what is happening to me is that while I am blocking accounts, I am also adding accounts. My Instagram feed is becoming less stressful for me because it reflects how I feel about what is happening in Israel right now. I don’t think that this is the solution either. The Talmud says to get yourself a study partner and a friend. A friend supports you, and a study partner challenges you. We need both. It is ill advised to live only among those who agree with you. For me, this challenge can’t happen online through Instagram stories that disappear in 24 hours, but through conversations, literature, films and listening to both Jews and Arabs tell their stories.

On the radio today, a 22-year-old Palestinian woman was asked if this latest conflict had hardened, softened, or changed her sense of identity. After letting out a long sigh she replied that it had strengthened her resolve to share with the world her people’s history. I completely understand what she means, because I feel the same way about my people. We have to not erase one another from our histories, because whether we like it or not, we are tied together.

No one is asking me questions about Jews or Israel now. I have been going to the restaurant where I waitress wearing my Magen David. It makes me feel vulnerable, but more importantly, visible. If I am going to face this world with its anti-Jewish acts, ignorance, and sentiment, I am going to face it as a Jew.

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