Israel, Palestine, and a Personal Conflict

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Orthodox rebbe during services.

By Rowan Wolf

I come from a varied background which has taken me on a winding and somewhat tortuous trail throughout my life. There are a series of threads that tie me to Judaism and hence Israel, and to the Palestinians.

I come from what is sometimes referred to as “humble” beginnings. In my case I was the only child (as far as I know) of mixed race parents who lived in poverty in the inner city of Kansas City. At the age of 7 (after my father was imprisoned, and my mother “remarried”) I was removed from my mother’s custody and put within the “tender care” of the Jackson County Juvenile Justice department. After almost a year in confinement at the downtown facility I was sent out into foster homes.

Throughout my early life I was steeped in a variety of Christian denominations, and dutifully baptized in each along the way – Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist.

I was also a child from the inner city of Kansas City dumped into a generally middle class world which glaringly contrasted and conflicted with my beginnings. I was deeply aware of the inequalities evident between these worlds, and the prejudice of the middle class towards the poor. I bore the insults and assaults from foster parents, other children, and other children’s parents. That disgust that often bordered on hatred that was directed at me marked me deeply. It was a clear and conscious choice on my part to fight for social justice. It started early – by the time I was 10 – and continues to this day.

One might wonder how this ties to the issue at hand. Throughout my life in a variety of social justice and civil rights movements and actions I have worked side-by-side with Jews. Whether in the Womens’ Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Farm Workers Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, the anti-poverty movement, and even the environmental and alternative media organizations, there were Jews.

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Many Jews reject Zionism for a variety of reasons, from theological to moral. Zionism thus cannot speak for all Jewish people around the globe. 

Some of the Jews were “practicing” and some were not, but they shared a deep (and cultural commitment) to justice and equality. To a person, the hundreds of Jews I worked with were dedicated to the depths of their souls to a world of justice and peace. The religious Jews sometimes framed this as a burden placed in their hands (and the hands of all Jews) by God. Their unswerving dedication to do good was a “mitvah.” In this context, a mitvah commonly means an act of kindness and consideration that is done without thought or expectation of recompense or recognition. In fact, most mitvahs are done or given secretly, and these are the most smiled upon by God. Hence, many of the Jews I worked with were not in leadership positions giving news conferences or getting paid for the work in the movement. They worked, often tirelessly and often at great personal risk, out of the limelight. More “tightly” mitvah means following the 613 commandments in the Torah.

Not surprisingly perhaps, my path of social justice also became part of my spiritual path. Also not surprisingly that spiritual path led me to Judaism.

Being a foster child, I came to adulthood without this society’s “natural” support network of a family. Being a lesbian and childless, I did not plug into the extended support network of family-by-marriage. Being a social justice activist in Reno, Nevada (where I lived at the time) was a small circle indeed.

I found myself in a spiritual crisis that overlapped with my social and political crisis. Long since I had disconnected myself from Christianity and institutionalized religion. By accident, or perhaps divine guidance, I found my thoughts and heart drawn to Judaism. I started studying and ultimately ended up at the doors of Temple Sinai – a reform congregation in Reno, NV. A co-worker who became a friend was a member of Temple Sinai and I went to temple weekly with her and (and sometimes her husband). What I found at Temple Sinai was not just a community, but a community that shared what the activist Jews throughout my life had shared – a deep sensitivity and commitment to justice.

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Member of ultra-orthodox Haredim group in Israel.

Ultimately, I took the classes – including classes in Hebrew – to follow the steps for conversion to Judaism. I converted and became a formal member of Temple Sinai. I had found both a spiritual home and the warm embrace of a community, something that I had never experienced in my life to that point. One of the hardest things I did in moving from Reno to Portland, Oregon was leaving Temple Sinai and the home I had found there.

On arriving in Portland, I visited a number of synagogues a number of times but never found the community I had found at Temple Sinai. One of the Portland congregations (for example) was reaching out to gays and lesbians and wanted to start a separate support group within the congregation. This was so far from the inclusiveness of my Reno congregation that I walked away in sadness. Acceptance is not a group within a group and an effort at integration. It was the hug of the grandmothers (and fathers) of Temple Sinai who saw me and my sexual orientation was just not an issue. This does not mean that they just “overlooked” it, but it was not an issue in that they acknowledged that it was part of who I am – and it didn’t matter.

Since moving to Portland, I have also been privileged to have the opportunity to work and talk with many Muslims, and most of them have also been people of good heart who hope and work for justice and peace. More than a few of them have been dramatically impacted by events in the Middle East, in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Kuwait, Sudan, Palestine, and the “counterterrorism” activities in the United States.

Slowly, I creep up on the heart of this story.

Why? Because of all of the above. because of my understanding of Judaism, and the history and culture of Jews with whom I have worked and worshiped; and because of my friendships and interactions with Muslims. I have long struggled with the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. For a long time, I supported the idea of a Jewish state, but also felt that the Palestinians were not being dealt with in either fairness or justice. Over the last ten years or so I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the very concept of a “Jewish” state. Repeatedly, we are seeing that religiously controlled governments are not particularly “just.” This is true whether looking at Afghanistan under the Taliban, the United States growing marriage of “Christianity” and government, or Judaism and Israel.

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Israeli soldier during operations against Gaza City.

The atrocity of ongoing political and military actions between Palestinians and Israel flies in the face (and soul) of everything I connect to in relationship to Judaism. The leadership of Israel has apparently become what they hate, and embrace it with religious vigor and (self)righteous victimhood.

Yesterday, I received a body-blow to my soul watching DemocracyNow. A reporter (Max Blumenthal) was covering a pro-Israel rally in New York (see clip at end of article). Below are some of the quotes from folks at the rally:

MAX BLUMENTHAL:  So how many civilian casualties would it take before you questioned the attack?

ISRAEL SUPPORTER 3: There is not a number involved.

ISRAEL SUPPORTER 4: Nothing good is going to come out of it, unless they keep fighting all the way with this ’til they wipe them all out.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Wipe them all out?

ISRAEL SUPPORTER 4: Yeah, they got to go strong with this.

ISRAEL SUPPORTER 5: There’s only one way to deal with a cancer. You burn it out or you remove it. And when people don’t want to talk and just want to destroy you and not allow you to live, there’s only one thing you can do.

ISRAEL SUPPORTER 2: They are forcing us to kill their children to defend our children.

ISRAEL SUPPORTER 14: The reason why more Israelis haven’t been killed or wounded is sheerly by the grace of God, because God has been performing just miracle after miracle. Those who are dying are suffering God’s wrath, but–but we also believe that when the Angel of Death comes out, he takes everyone in his path.

So for these supporters of Israel’s continued attacks on Gaza, the total elimination of the people in Gaza is not only OK, it is “God’s” wrath (on the wings of Israel’s – largely U.S. supplied – missiles and munitions).

When does a holocaust justify another holocaust? What does “Never Again” mean? When is genocide ever acceptable? And when do holocausts and genocide ever lead to “peace?”

How does the creation of Palestinian ghettos with Israeli military on the walls become disconnected from Jewish ghettos with Nazi military on the walls? How does shooting and bombing of Palestinians inside these ghettos distinguish itself from the “rat hunts” of the Nazi’s? How does the destruction and confiscation of Palestinian lands and property distinguish itself from what happened to Jews across Europe? How does the passports and checkpoints and endless lines to move from one place to another that is experienced by Palestinians vary from the atrocity of control and cruelty that was enacted on the Jews?

The similarities are so striking that the comparison becomes deja vu. The heart of mitvah is lost in the self-righteous rationalizations and legitimations that are put forward. It is a double assault on one’s spirit and conscience that the U.S. government continues to support (covertly and overtly) the most egregious actions of Israel. This as recent as the votes of support this week in both the House and the Senate of the United States.

On Wednesday (1/14/09) I heard on the evening news that Israel likely had hundreds of missiles left to continue the bombing of Gaza. It implicitly raised the issue of how much of a munitions (and missile) stockpile lies within the Israeli arsenal. It was an interesting point to make even in passing – though as usual incomplete.

Reuters reported on January 9th that the “U.S. seeks ship to move arms to Israel.” According to that report, the U.S. Military Sealift Command was seeking private contract charters in Greece to move 3,000 tons of munitions to Israel. It was also reported that such charters are rare. Why the private charter? Surely the U.S. has gotten the munitions (3,000 tons of them) as far as Greece. Why not just deliver them to an Israeli port? Regardless, clearly such a shipment is meant to refill Israel’s arsenal. Currently there is a hitch in transporting the shipments through Greece, but I have little doubt that they will eventually make their destination.

One has to wonder how much of the ongoing Israeli policies is a mirror of U.S. interests, and how much is actually Israel’s.

But here I am with a history and experience of Judaism that screams out at the wrongness – on every level – of what is happening in Gaza … and what is happening between Israel and Palestinians.

I firmly believe that Israel, or any nation, has the right to provide for the security of its population. However, that right does not extend to the level of the actions taken by Israel in Gaza (or other Palestinian territories). It does not extend to the United States preemptive invasion of either Afghanistan or Iraq either. Such an overwhelming show of force and delivery of destruction does not bring peace – it fans the flames of hatred and reaction. Peace does not come from the total suppression of the opposition – or of a people. Peace is not simply the cessation of war. Peace ultimately comes through the creation of social and political justice where all sit down at the table – if not in friendship at least respect and dialog.

Israel will not achieve security by its activities in Gaza- even if it achieves some of its supporters’ wishes of total genocide of all those within Gaza or all Palestinians. It will spawn a reaction from others in the region. Israel will be more of a target. Jews across the globe will be targets. And Muslims across the world will be targets.

The invasion of Gaza must stop, but my hopes for it doing so before George Bush leaves office are low. The timing of this activity was clearly a “make hay while the sun shines” plan. I am not even sure that it will end with Obama taking office as the first shipment of U.S. munitions through Greece was slated to arrive no later than January 25th (five days after the inauguration). The “fix” seems to be in, and Israel has been given far more than tacit U.S. approval for its “shock and awe” campaign in Gaza.

Meanwhile a civilian population is under attack with the bloody consequences of that, and the necessities of daily life (food, water. heat, sewage treatment, medical care …) continues to become increasingly scarce. Security and peace does not lie in this direction.

One of the most profound (for me) things that I learned in studying Hebrew at Temple Sinai was that Shalom (the common Hebrew greeting and parting meaning “peace”) comes from the root word “shalam” which means wholeness (or making whole as with restitution for injury). For me this came to encapsulate a truth I believe in – there is no peace without wholeness and there is no wholeness without peace. My understanding is that the Arabic “salaam” is virtually an equivalent word and concept.

So in both Hebrew and Arabic we have embedded the necessary relationship between peace and wholeness. It is only in English that we quibble over the meaning of, and requirements for, “peace.” We would all do well to embrace peace and wholeness.

Shalom … Salaam.

Rowan Wolf is a Senior Editor at Cyrano’s Journal Online, and director of our blog area AVENGER212. 


Video Clip from DemocracyNow report  Pro-Israel Supporters Praise Gaza Assault as Justified Despite Mounting Civilian Death Toll

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