Fire Island, NY
I keep wanting to get to this story, and today I will.
At the Penn BDS conference earlier this month, there was a panel of Jews speaking on “BDS, Hillel, and the Question of Anti-Semitism," and Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace began her remarks with a wonderful story:
It wasn’t that long ago that there were quotas on the numbers of Jews at universities, covenants to keep Jews from living in certain neighborhoods, and places of employment where Jews need not apply. So it’s really a bit of a balancing act of being sensitive to Jewish history and trauma without pulling punches about today’s reality. And while Jews in the United States have more political, economic, cultural and intellectual status than perhaps ever before, the Jewish narrative is still about vulnerability.
I just want to tell a little story. For Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, I was invited to spend it in Fire Island, a little island off the coast of New York City where people have summer homes. They did a beautiful job. They opened up the fire house in the town, and we were sitting, and some guy who was a cardiologist was playing the role of the rabbi, and the yoga teacher was playing the role of the cantor.
And I was sitting in the service and really enjoying it, looking out at the ocean and sort of congratulating myself on this do it yourself service that I was in. And then they announced that someone was going to come up and give a little sermon. And this was at the end of September, shortly after the [Palestinian Authority's] UN bid on Palestinian statehood. And this guy, I don’t remember exactly what he was, but he was the chair of the department at Columbia University. And he got up and he gave a talk about how the fact that this vote could come up at the UN was proof that the Jews were not considered fully human in this society and never would be.
So you know my head was exploding. Also I started looking around and saying, Here is a guy who is at a pinnacle of American intellectual success preaching to a group of people who by virtue of the fact that they were in this synagogue for a day were there because they were rich enough to have second homes, or being invited by other people rich enough to have second homes, people who live very comfortable, very successful lives, and there they all were nodding along.
So you know I think that’s part of our job as progressive Jews, those of us who are Jewish, is taking responsibility for challenging that narrative. And I think as a coda to that story, afterwards there was a little Kiddush, like a little reception with food, and someone asked me what I thought about the sermon, as people are wont to do, and I thought, oh God I don’t feel like dealing with this right now, having all these strangers mad at me. But if have to, I have to. I started talking about why I didn’t like it at all. And why I thought he was totally wrong.
And a bunch of them came up to me, and said, thanks so much for saying that, that was so important, I felt so uncomfortable when he was talking but I didn't know exactly why.
So it’s not that hard once you start talking about it, but if you don’t talk about it then that narrative sort of stands. So it really is a process within the Jewish community of having to talk about it.
But we do all need to hold I would say collectively, and that means all of us in the BDS movement, the idea that anti-Semitism in our society is still real, maybe not very potent at the moment, and at the same time recognize and fight how accusations of anti-Semitism are being used as an effective though I would say less and less so weapon to silence the debate on Israel. And of course it would be hard to choose just one example of how participating in the BDS movement for example is equated with anti-Semitism.