As a Jew Living in America, the Past Week Has Changed Me Forever

As a Jew Living in America, the Past Week Has Changed Me Forever

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Ed. Note: The past week has brought renewed fighting between Israelis and Palestinains following the murder of a young Palestinain, Muhammed Abu Khdeir, 16, believed to have been committed in response to the deaths of three kidnapped Israeli teens earlier in June. That was followed by the beating by Israeli police of a 15-year-old Palestinain American who is the cousin of Khdeir. The violence has heightened tensions in the area and inflamed calls for revenge from both sides.

Growing up outside of Atlanta, I learned to crawl with Bob Dylan’s “Only A Pawn In Their Game” as my soundtrack, anti-war posters hanging on the walls, beckoning me and my raw knees forward. I was weaned with the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. reverberating down the narrow halls of my parents’ apartment, formed my first words as though delivering a soliloquy on equality.

In first grade, I asked the teacher if the ‘Indians’ still celebrated Thanksgiving. When she asked why I wanted to know, I responded, “Because the people they ate with took their land,” something I’d learned from an honest mother. During a Little League game, my father intervened when coaches tried to initiate a prayer circle, wanting us to give thanks in Jesus’ name. He fiercely believed in the separation of church and, well, everything.

As an American Jew, I was mostly instilled with progressive values as a child. Rather, I was instilled with progressive, American values – particularly those which aligned with liberal, Jewish ones. A love of social justice, human rights, equality. A disdain for racism, fundamentalism, colonialism. Sure, I attended Hebrew school, but my scripture was more the Bill of Rights than the Torah, and my anthems came from hip-hop and rock, not the Book of Psalms.

Despite this, my early love for progressivism was accompanied by a love for the State of Israel. As a short, Jewish kid who wanted to be an NBA star, I was naturally inclined to root for the underdog. And at synagogue, we were taught that Jews were the ultimate underdogs, miraculously surviving the Holocaust and a history of oppression to create a contemporary “light unto the nations” which fought with dogged determination against evil and had a cool flag. And I was taught that I was vulnerable, that there were people who wanted me dead, and that Israel was a safe haven, a beacon, a garden to which I could always escape.

Palestinians, accordingly, were portrayed as just one in a series of people who have risen up throughout history to destroy us, being painted as a caricature of evil. As a boy, I nodded and understood. Israel was not just good, it was necessary.

As an adult, I’ve moved away from such naiveté while holding on to both my Zionist and progressive leanings, despite the growing struggle for coexistence between the two. And it’s not as though I’m mildly informed about the region or mildly invested in Israel and my Jewishness. The opposite, in fact, is the case. I’m a Jewish studies teacher at a day school, yeshiva-educated with a master’s degree from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I’ve authored a memoir about my experience with terror and reconciliation, and write extensively about the region, often critiquing Israel from a progressive perspective while maintaining my desire for a two-state solution to the conflict.

As an adult, I’ve learned about the cleansing of Arab villages which took place from 1947-1949 to make way for the Jewish state. I’ve learned about the ongoing settlement enterprise, the appropriation and bifurcation of Palestinian lands. I’ve learned the horrors of Israel’s decades-old occupation of the West Bank, about the suppression of basic human rights and the atrocities committed. I’ve studied Israel’s use of indefinite detentions, home demolitions, restrictions on goods and movement, and the violence visited upon those being occupied.

I’ve learned that – and this is just one example of many – a Palestinian child has tragically been killed every three days for the past 14 years. That bears repeating, since such deaths are rarely, if ever, given any attention in America: Palestinian parents have had to bury a child every three days for the past 14 years.

Knowing all this, I’ve still held fast to my ‘progressive Zionism,’ hoping Israel could become that beacon of liberalism I was presented as a child, a beacon which never truly existed in the first place, despite the country’s socialist roots. Why have I done so? For two reasons: 1) deep down, I still believe in the promise of Israel, and 2) I can’t shake the notion that a Jewish state is absolutely necessary for our security.

Over the last decade, I’ve formed alliances with progressive Americans and the Israeli left, working in my own, small ways to try and move Israel away from those illegal, geopolitical policies causing so much suffering for Palestinians and undermining Israel’s ability to not just thrive, but survive. All the while, I’ve watched the anti-war movement in Israel weaken, watched racism flourish and religious fundamentalism grow, watched Israel’s government build settlements at a record pace and make clear it has little interest in peace.

These realities have forced me to consider the incongruity between my American-borne progressivism and my Zionism. They have forced me to admit, like Peter Beinart, that in order to continue supporting Israel as a Jewish state, with everything it continues to do, I must compromise my progressivism.

However, the mind-numbingly horrific events of the past week have forced me, for the first time, to wonder whether such compromising can be sustained.

The past week’s events have shaken me to my core, and have forced me to look long and hard at my personal politics. For if this were any country but Israel, my progressive values would not allow me to support, much less love, such an enterprise. Yet the reality is this: I do.

I’m not ready to abandon the dream of a Jewish state that lives up to its democratic promises, and continue to hold tenuously onto the idea of two states for two peoples. However, I have begun, for the first time, to consider what a single, bi-national state might look like, to consider that it might finally end this madness.

And here’s the irony: Israel’s extreme-right leaders, embracing various one-state solutions, have forced me to do so. Hell, Israel just elected as its President a one-state proponent. How can I not consider what that might look like?

As it happens, during all of this, I’ve just finished Ali Abunimah’s The Battle for Justice in Palestine, which makes an impassioned case for a democratic, bi-national state as the only way to end this conflict.

The progressive American in me agreed with much of his arguments. The Zionist in me was scared by its premise.

The humanist in me just wants all of this to end. Wants all of the suffering and pain on both sides to end.

If not now, when?
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications. A longer version of this story originally appeared in Tikkun magazine.