I was planning to reflect on the last few months during which the international community has awakened to the horrors of the war in Syria, the millions of internally displaced and fleeing Syrian refugees, (some Palestinians forced to flee again), the ISIL shooting down of a Russian plane, bombings in Beirut and Paris, the “knifings” of Jewish Israelis and the state and settler sponsored shootings and “extrajudicial killings” of Palestinians and the horrific backlash in the US. A Palestinian doctor friend of mine is flying all over the US applying for residencies. Not only does he routinely get picked for the “random” check of people with Arabic names, he is now fearful because more than six people of Middle Eastern background have been forced off domestic flights because the white person sitting next to them didn’t feel safe flying next to an Arab. Meanwhile, I have been on the road, feeling the pulse in the great out there, doing a record 26 events from Richmond to Seattle.
But today something happened that was so extraordinary, I need to start with that. Months ago, I was invited by a longtime 87-year-old activist (I should be so spunky 20 years from now) who wanted me to show my documentary film at her retirement community in Seattle. She stressed the general excitement she was feeling from other residents as well as folks from the “outside.” People were cancelling their ophthalmology appointments and skipping mahjong, but the potential for conflict with lovers-of-all-things-Israel, Holocaust and kinder transport survivors, and older liberal Zionists who tend to see Palestinians as incorrigible terrorists despite their intense dislike of Netanyahu and occupation, hovered over the event. The activities organizer who lately had sponsored a popular four-part series on Islam by a respected Seattle professor was very supportive. “Bring it on!” she is reported to have said. So this week the flyers went out, the mailboxes were stuffed, there was a lot of chatter and expectation in the halls. But on the morning of the event, I got an excited call from my activist friend explaining all hell had broken loose, she had just gotten out of a tense and painful meeting with the movers and shakers in the Jewish community at the retirement community and the apparently intimidated activities director.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived and found hanging all over the halls and doorways:
Alice Rothchild: A Special Kind of Exile
Due to the sensitive nature of this discussion the 2 o’clock presentation is postponed until further notice. We are truly sorry for the inconvenience.
My casual catch-up lunch with my friend was now a private luncheon meeting with these wounded and anxious folks. Over melted cheese and tuna, I listened to their concerns and fears and why they felt postponing the event was critical. The gist of the somewhat agonized conversation was that they were afraid that a critical discussion of Israeli policy would encourage the latent anti-Semitism that lurked within their “Gentile” neighbors and that I would just drop in, cause havoc, and leave them with an uncomfortable mess. One woman was upset that the flyer said “belligerent,” as in “Israel’s increasingly belligerent occupation…” One of the less liberal residents also felt a need to rehash the history of the “conflict” with this kind of framing: We gave them Gaza and they gave us bombs, the Palestinians have prevented the two state solution, they are always the aggressors, etc etc. There was this underlying feeling that there are dangers in airing “our” dirty laundry in front of the goyim and that the behavior of Israel was a private Jewish meshugas best kept in the family.
I shared my personal Jewish journey from nice Bat Mitzvah girl, (yes I did learn the rules on keeping a kosher home) to critical activist, my understanding that thoughtful analysis of Israeli policy, (just read the new Israeli historians) was different than anti-Semitism; that Judaism the religion, Jewish the culture/ethical community, Zionism the political movement, and Israel the country were different categories that needed to be approached separately. That this conversation was an international human rights issue. I urged people to be “brave” and described the documentary as a telling of history through the voices of people who are usually not heard, ie., Palestinians. They worried about “balance.” “How many Israelis did you interview? You have to live there to really understand.” I talked about the Jewish tradition of studying and arguing and the dangers of refusing to discuss difficult topics, (think American history without the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans or slavery). They talked about wanting to see the film first. When I asked, “Then what? This feels like a censorship board,” (and I explained the long list of cancelled events, rabbis muzzling my events, etc); feathers ruffled, one man threatened to walk out. I worried that the act of cancelling (OK postponing until further notice) would only feed the impression that “the Jews” have some powerful kind of control over the retirement community’s events, that they have something to hide, that they act in secretive tribal ways…. ie. feeding just the anti-Semitism the machers were afraid of provoking. Tensions rose until the now thoroughly reconstituted activities director decided that they were welcomed to watch the film first, but the event would be rescheduled and publicized and people could chose to attend or not. That seemed like an excellent plan and a blow for free speech. I am hoping for an overflow crowd eager to see this almost-banned documentary. Who knows how dangerous understanding history may be?
My fall events reached a wide diversity of ages and settings from havurahs to universities to the American Public Health Association. Mostly audiences were open-minded, sympathetic, struggling, emotionally moved. We talked about the two trauma narratives and the massive power discrepancies, how Israelis need their own civil rights movement to confront their own racism and Palestinian expulsion and occupation, but the Jewish community is not even at square one in relationship to recognizing the Nakba and its ongoing consequences. Within our own communities, I proposed that challenging the dominant paradigm is the task of the Jewish Diaspora and our youth, but that political change will only come from international pressure and the boycott, divestment and sanction movement. No country gives up power voluntarily.
I remain fascinated, of course, by the level of pushback. Two events were cancelled in Richmond, Virginia after pressure from a rabbi and the Richmond Jewish Federation which I am told was “warned” by the Boston Federation. Dovid Asher, rabbi of Keneseth Beth Israel, attended some of my events and wrote a letter to the organizing group objecting to my being invited in the first place. Doni Fogel, the Director of Jewish Community Relations & Israel & Overseas Programming for the Richmond Jewish Federation, attended one of the private classroom events and took numerous notes and photos. The word spy comes to mind, but I guess that is how the opposition keeps track of people like me. Even at the well-funded mostly mainstream tech and business oriented Harvard Arab weekend, one donor pulled out due to last year’s discussion of BDS and the hosting of Noam Chomsky. And then there is Brookline High School, my alma mater, where I was invited to show my documentary but the event has yet to be scheduled as the principal is reportedly afraid the school will be attacked, like “what happened in Newton.” A quick google reveals that the oddly named Americans for Peace and Tolerance accused Newton high school of an anti-Semitic, Saudi funded, pro-Hamas curriculum. Check it out:
peace & tolerance. Really?