On Empathy, Yom Kippur, and the NFL – October 3, 2017

first published in Mondoweiss

Last week it was Yom Kippur when religious Jews and their twice a year compatriots crowd the synagogues and some secular types like me get a strange yearning for challah and are nudged by an insistent internal voice that ponders the very insane state of affairs in which we find ourselves. This voice asks: What exactly are you doing about it anyway? I mean really doing; it is after all Yom Kippur, not a good moment to dance around the truth.

At a time when there is so much ridiculously bad news on an almost hourly basis, (latest tweet, shooting, private planes, private emails, alt-right, health care debacle, global warming, tax cuts, hurricanes, earthquakes, genocide, nuclear weapons, Koch Brothers, father and daughter Mercers, Betsy Devos, Syria, Yemen, you pick…) it is easy to feel utterly outraged, overwhelmed, numbed, out-financed. It is also easy to do nothing: let’s just throw up our hands, go for a walk, hug our children, watch another episode of Game of Thrones, fold the laundry, toss back another glass of flavonoid rich Pinot Noir and head to the gym. Let’s just focus on self-improvement and prayer if so inclined.

When the bullies are in the ascendency and when the oppressed and the oppressor are equated as equally at fault, (anti-fascists vs.KKK and Puerto Ricans vs. hurricanes-big banks-Jones Act-the inheritance of colonialism for starters), how do we change the narrative and the beliefs and behaviors of the society in which we live? And how do we nurture and support ourselves and our friends (and even the people with whom we totally disagree who are our neighbors and coworkers). How do we create a beloved community that is also empowered and resourceful and aiming for justice in a world trending in the opposite direction?

U.S. Jews are at a particularly difficult moment. After decades of anti-Semitism, we have successfully joined White America in a big way; we can pass. We can go to medical school, join the country club, live in any neighborhood, marry almost anyone’s daughter with a minimum of fuss. As we crawled out of the Jewish ghettos of the Lower East Side, went to school on the GI bill, moved to the suburbs, we flexed our liberal-minded political muscles. One of the bargains we made in the years of the civil rights struggle, in our joining hands with our black brothers and sisters, in our laying our bodies on the line for voting rights, union rights, women’s right, gay rights, was to believe that discrimination directed towards us no longer applied and that we ourselves were beyond racism and discrimination within our own communities. Not us! We’re Jews, we know better!

At home we now face an unleashing of extremely dangerous anti-Semitic attacks and attacks on Muslims, African Americans, and basically anyone perceived as different from white, hetero, Christian people. At the same time there is a new phenomenon: anti-Semites who are “pro-Israel.” Even within our own communities, as long as someone supports the policies of the State of Israel, we are urged by many of our own leaders to ignore the ugliness that may come along with that. For the alt-right, neo-Nazi, fascist types who are dreaming of a white Christian nation (where Jews, Muslims, Blacks, people of color are not welcome), Israel looks like a perfect solution: a place for Jews to go (solves that problem) while being an example of an extremely successful nation whose goal is ethnic purity. And for extra credit the Israeli government is eager to destroy “Muslim terrorists,” African asylum seekers, and Iranians in the neighborhood, and to serve perceived U.S. foreign policy in general. What’s not to love?

This is all highly problematic. With the mounting awareness of Israeli occupation, in the context of our growing understanding of colonialism, racism, immigration, and Islamophobia, older Jews are increasingly disenchanted with their Hebrew school, Exodus version of Israeli history and younger Jews never bought the glorious mythology in the first place. It is becoming increasingly and painfully clear that today’s Zionism is a movement where people who ran away from existential danger, created a homeland for those victims on the backs of an existing indigenous people. History shows us that the people who have intruded on this Jewish dream will be gotten rid of through genocide, expulsion, segregation, and dehumanization. The mainstream Jewish community does not do well with that particular historical fact. The problem is that no amount of incredible Israeli dance, theater, music, computer technology, devastating weaponry, great pharmaceuticals, gorgeous desert hikes, or spiritual moments can erase the facts of Israeli dispossession, occupation, siege, and institutional discrimination. These facts are deeply corruptive to Israeli Jewish society and Jews in the diaspora as well, and obviously deeply destructive to its victims.

So how do we change the old narrative and challenge the very core of our Jewish self-image: We are the good people, the victims of anti-semitism, the Holocaust. We deserve our own country; maybe even promised by the Almighty himself. Our victimhood gives us permission to do whatever is necessary to feel safe. Security is a holy word and the rest be damned.

On Erev Yom Kippur, I found myself at a benefit dinner for the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU), a growing organization that works to provide US journalists with accurate and contextualized stories, facts, and analysis of Palestine and Palestinians. See a story in the New York Times or CNN that has unusual depth and understanding of Palestinian life? Thank the IMEU. I had prepared myself for a long evening of speeches, networking, and overcooked salmon but was unprepared for how moved I was, particularly in the context of my holiday.

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, an amazing poet and essayist of Palestinian, Syrian, and Jordanian heritage, spoke eloquently of the Palestinian struggle, the growth of media coverage in the US, and the role of the IMEU. Noura Erakat, human rights attorney, activist and professor at George Mason University, talked with passion and brilliance about the parallels with Black Lives Matter, the long tradition of nonviolent resistance in Palestine, the power of the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement, and the need to address the US role through campaigns designed to re-educate the public. The evening’s honoree was Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks football player and activist who turned down an Israeli government sponsored trip to Israel. He quoted track star John Carlos (black power salute on the Olympic podium in 1968), “‘There is no partial commitment to justice. You are either in or you’re out.’ Well, I’m in…It is never the wrong time to do the right thing.”

This was a fundraiser, a celebration, a showcase of the active, committed Palestinian community, but also a uniquely Yom Kippur moment. Clearly my role as a white Jewish woman with all the privilege and entitlement that entails was to step back, listen, ask: What do you need from me? At that moment: to join the celebration of a movement of creative, thoughtful, very visible Palestinians who are building their own powerful voice in US society, linking arms with others in the struggle for justice. It seems to me, this is how we build empathy, increase understanding, face conflict honestly, and build the resistance. This is how we take steps to make this world a better place. To quote Martin Luther King, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I want to be a friend and I do not want to be silent.

The evening ended with raucous dabke dancing, snaking around the hall, young and old, reminding me of the hora at every Bar Mitzvah and Jewish wedding I’ve attended. It seems, everyone loves to dance.

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