A Rabbi’s Zig-Zag Learning Curve on Israel/Palestine

I’m sure readers of this blog get sick of my posts on Israel and Palestine, if only from overexposure to a single, somewhat bludgeoning point of view. So here, for a change of pace, is a link to a blog post by Rabbi Maurice Harris, the rabbi of String of Pearls, the Reconstructionist synagogue that I attend. This post of his, “My Israel/Palestine Learning Curve Is a Zig Zag,” reminds me a bit of Robert Nozick’s account of the “zig zag of politics,” and of Chris Sciabarra’s “dialectical libertarianism.” Here’s the first paragraph or so:

I am the child of a family of Moroccan Jewish refugees who found refuge in Israel. My mom was 16 on the day in 1956 when her entire life in Morocco abruptly ended — the day that her father was tipped off by an Arab friend that he was marked for death by the Moroccan liberation fighters (who were trying to oust their French colonizers) because he was discovered to have assisted other Jews to emigrate to Israel. She and her many siblings and their parents packed what they could take with them in suitcases and left their home in the middle of the night, taking their place in steerage on a ship loaded with livestock and other Jewish refugees. They headed to a refugee camp near the southern French coast, penniless and waiting to figure out their future.

Israel gave them that future.

You can read the rest here.

For whatever it’s worth, my own view has been less a zig-zag than a pair of shocking realizations. Despite decades of engagement with Israel-Palestine from afar, I didn’t visit the place until a decade ago, in my forties. Until then, I was convinced that the conflict involved a kind of moral equivalence between the parties involved; both were victims, both were guilty. In that context, my personal obligation consisted, not in crusading in partisan fashion for either side, but in waging a kind of non-partisan jihad against the part of the conflict most proximate to me: Islamic anti-Semitism. I grew up in a Muslim milieu; I was familiar with Islamic anti-Semitism; I regarded it not just as an abstract threat but as a deeply personal one; and I wasn’t short on energy or motivation in wanting to fight it. And so I did.

Things changed after I started visiting Palestine in 2013, and began to grasp how much I had missed by trying to understand the place from afar, and by focusing my energies so narrowly on a single proximate target. Within short order, my views changed, as did my priorities. The moral equivalences I had drawn were, I’d come to realize, based on ideologically-motivated deceptions. And though Muslim anti-Semitism was a real phenomenon, and a real menace, claims about its present-day ubiquity were part of the deception.

I grew up around real, persistent, vicious anti-Semitism, but that was primarily in the 70s and 80s. Obviously, Muslim anti-Semitism in the United States didn’t disappear overnight–it still exists–but, in 2023, it simply is not, en masse, what it was two or three decades ago. There’s been a sea change in attitudes over the decades, undeniably for the better.

As for Palestine, though anti-Semitism certainly does exist in Palestinian culture, a decade of immersion in that culture has taught me that the pseudo-anthropology that Americans are fed about it is pure gaslighting. I have not, anywhere in my travels in Palestine, encountered anything like the anti-Semitism that my American political education had prepared me to encounter.* To understate the point, Palestinians are no more racist than Americans are. The real issue worth considering is not the supposed ubiquity of “Islamic anti-Semitism” among Palestinians, but how Americans, of all people, have managed to gaslight themselves into believing that they have moral standing to judge the racist malfeasances of others.

The real shocker was not Palestinian anti-Semitism but the racism of the American Jews I encountered abroad, particularly in the West Bank settlements of the Hebron Hills–most of all in Hebron itself. These were people who, as far as their racial attitudes were concerned, could just as well have been plucked out of the Jim Crow South of the mid-50s or a white nationalist organization of the present. As far as they were concerned, God had put them on Earth to fulfill a divinely-ordained mandate to claim the land for the Jewish People, whatever that entailed for lesser beings, like Arabs. And they were fucking well going to fulfill it, though the heavens might fall (on everyone else).

From their perspective, the Palestinian population of the West Bank had three choices: subordination, departure, or mass death at Israeli hands. And as far as they were concerned, it was my moral obligation, as an American, to fund and arm this divine project against my nominal co-religionists–against people with names like mine, against people who looked like me, and against people who, but for the grace of God, could have been me. I just had to make a decision: was I on the side of Judeo-Christian Civilization, or of Islamo-fascist barbarism?

It was a bit much, but the really shocking realization was the uptake this same narrative had among American Jews in the US. That shouldn’t have been surprising; it was really just the same script I had heard all of my life–from the ADL, from The Jewish News, from the JCC–and that, in some sense, I myself had been partially, indirectly complicit in. It’s not that I believed it. It’s not that I promoted it. It’s not that I respected or liked it. It’s that I had mostly gone with the flow, ignoring the unpleasant bits, until I grasped at last, pretty late in the day, that the narrative in question wasn’t just abstractly “mistaken,” but was a gun pointed at my head, and at the heads of people I cared about. Characteristically slow off the mark, the realization didn’t fully hit me until a member of the Israeli Border Police actually pointed a gun at my head, and raised the question of pulling the trigger. At that moment, the “mistake” took on a salience that it had previously lacked. On the bright side, I get it now: the Jewish supremacy of a Jewish State is not an abstraction. Push hard enough against it, and you’ll get your head blown off.

That realization has not quite found its way to the hearts and minds of American Jewry. With notable exceptions like Tikkun, Jewish Voice for Peace, the New Israel Fund, Reconstructing Judaism, and a few others, American Jewry is content to mouth the platitudes, dogmas, and clichés of yesteryear: Israel needs free rein (or reign) to defend itself against the irrational depredations of Jew-hating fanatics. Muslim Americans have made progress over the last thirty years, but the one-eyed Islamophobic narrative of American Judaism remains what it was back in 2003, 1993, or 1983. Rabbi’s Maurice’s voice is a welcome exception to that rule. But unfortunately, the rule is what it ever was.

*Ironically, I’ve encountered far more anti-Semitism among Pakistanis than among Palestinians, despite (or perhaps because of) Pakistanis’ relative lack of familiarity with real-life Jews.  The treatment of Jemima Goldsmith, ex-wife of the former Prime Minister, is typical.

3 thoughts on “A Rabbi’s Zig-Zag Learning Curve on Israel/Palestine

    • Thank you. Yes. First-hand experience is very under-valued in intellectual life. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that one needs first-hand experience to have any knowledge whatsoever of a given topic, but you do need first-hand knowledge for full understanding.

      I’ve had very strange experiences in life, but find it very difficult to translate those experiences into intellectually respectable thought or prose. I do my best, but always end up unsatisfied. Much of what I say seems banal; what I’ve left unsaid seems impossible to articulate. If I had more free time, and a life less cluttered by mindless drudgery, I might overcome this problem, but I don’t.

      Liked by 1 person

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