Beyond Tribal Loyalties
Whenever I visited my father, a self-described “alte Yid”, a refugee from Eastern Europe, in Jerusalem, we would spend hours disagreeing, sometimes disagreeably, about Israel, Judaism, Zionism and Palestinians. Unfortunately, I only got to know Avigail Abarbanel after he died and before she produced her remarkable work, Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Activists. Otherwise, I would have Fedexed the book to him overnight and, waiting an impatient two days, would have called to say: “See, I’m not the only one, see how many other perfectly nice and respectable Jews also reject what Israel is doing, also reject Zionism, also reject the assumption that Israel speaks in our name. It’s not just me.”
I can’t be at all certain that reading the twenty-five stories of Jewish peace activists would have persuaded my father that Israel deserved to be criticized. More likely, he would have dismissed my chapter in the book, shaking his head, saying:Yes, you are just like them. I don’t know how you can write such things. Sadly, he died before the book was published and without our being able to have this particular conversation. It was not until I read the other stories, including her own and mine, that Avigail has collected in Beyond Tribal Loyalties that I understood my own story. Despite their fascinating singularity, the twenty-five stories share the experience of traveling beyond tribal loyalties to become part of a gathering new tribe.
The 5 million annual visitors to this website implies a large potential audience for this book, suggesting that there are many, many Jews at various stages of activism who will resonate with the intimate revelations Avigail has collected in its pages. A psychotherapist herself, Avigail has encouraged her contributors to brave explorations confirming that breaking up is indeed hard to do. With her editorial guidance, the reader understands the emotions and psychological burden of tribal loyalty. The stories reveal what happens when Jews question the ties that no longer bind but now begin to chafe, confuse and confine; the guilt, loss, isolation and sorrow experienced by those who travel beyond their tribal loyalties, choosing paths that lead to political evolution
Avigail Abarbanel was born in Israel, served in the Israel Defense Forces, after which she left the country and renounced her citizenship in protest at her country’s treatment of the Palestinians. She is now a practicing psychotherapist living in Scotland. She has included her own story in the twenty-five that form this important and moving book now available in paperback and comfortably priced (which the original hardcover, published as an academic book, was not). The contributors come from Australia, Canada, Israel, the UK and the US and include well-known activists and writers (Ilan Pappe, Jeff Halper, Dorothy Naor, Maya Wind, Rae Abileah, Anna Baltzer, Jesse Bacon, Susan Nathan). The book benefits greatly from Avigail’s professional insights and commentaries.
In a recent Skype conversation I asked her why she wrote this book. Avigail:
It’s my attempt to try to understand what makes the contributors and others like them special or different. I think it’s still accurate to say that the majority of Jews either do not question or continue to believe in a narrative that is unsupportable and historically incorrect. I also think it’s accurate to say that the views held by many Jews on Israel-Palestine are motivated more by a need to be loyal to the tribe than by historical accuracy.
Beyond the fact that they are Jews who have chosen political activism in one form or other, what do the book’s twenty-five contributors have in common? The answer is not that simple, Avigail replied:
To begin with, the age difference between the youngest and oldest contributor is as much as sixty years. This means that two generations separate these two women. The contributors come from vastly different backgrounds, born in different countries, to different social classes and family types. It was hard to find anything that we all had in common except the fact that we were born in Jewish families and to a lesser or greater extent grew up in Jewish environments with all their diversities. Also, most of the ‘conversion’ experiences took place over many years; it was a slow process. A person asks questions in the context of their Jewish or Zionist environment that only make sense later, often years later, after some kind of transformation has already begun.
Fair enough. But even if the book contains no blinding epiphanies like Paul’s on the road to Damascus, the contributors have provided us with an up close and personal look that is both rare and privileged. They have allowed us to see what led to their transformations. I ask Avigail to sort out these experiences:
For some,books and other written or oral information served as a catalyst: for Ronit Yarosky, it was Benny Morris’s “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem” that she was using to research her thesis. She discovered that her uncle’s moshav, where she visited as a child, was built on the site of the former Palestinian village of Ijzim and that her uncle’s own house was once a Palestinian house.
For me, the catalyst was Avi Shlaim’s “The Iron Wall” and for Rich Forer it was Norman Finkelstein’s “Beyond Chutzpah.” Rich Siegel’s moment came while waiting for his wife at a train station where a table held literature including “Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer”by Phyllis Bennis. He says: “I got to the section about the Deir Yassin massacre. Jews massacring Arabs. My jaw dropped. This had somehow been concealed from me all my life.”
So, we see that loyalty is not always a virtue. Questioning tribal loyalty and breaking away brings with it powerful consequences: Ilan Pappe could no longer work in Israel, Maya Wind refused to serve in the Israel military, you renounced your citizenship. Renouncing tribal loyalty also includes a profound confrontation with oneself. What makes all this so fraught?
Adopting a new narrative is a struggle. Instinctively we wanted to reject it because it made us confront the imperative of loyalty to the tribe. In my Afterword to the book I argue that because it is so challenging to our existing belief systems, it takes more than confronting the new narrative to produce a transformation. It also requires a high degree of emotional resilience which I’ve described as “the ability to tolerate uncomfortable feelings without avoiding them or trying to make them go away. It means that people are able to act according to their values and do the right thing, even when they experience fear, guilt, insecurity, turmoil, confusion and pain, and even when some of these feelings are reinforced by outside opposition or even persecution. Emotional resilience also includes the ability to tolerate the experience of being disapproved of, disliked and rejected by others, sometimes even by relatives and close friends.”
Without sufficient emotional resilience, people surrender to their need to avoid discomfort, doing whatever they can to eliminate its cause. So Anna Baltzer wanted to deny what her Palestinian hosts in Southern Lebanon were telling her, Rich Forer wanted to dismiss Norman Finkelstein as a loony and I tried to tell myself that Avi Shlaim had an “agenda”.
Did the Israeli contributors to the book have anything in common? After all, in Israel they shared the same geography with the Palestinians, experiencing more immediacy and fewer degrees of separation than, say, a British or Australian or Canadian or American Jew.
You’re right, but you don’t have to be Israeli to have a personal encounter with the ‘other’ or to be in direct contact with a Palestinian.Sivan Barak enrolled in a workshop exercise where participants were asked to look into each other’s eyes, which in her case were those of a Palestinian man: “My crossroad was as simple as that. From the day I stared into the eyes of a Palestinian man and saw the human being, I started to see and fight against the injustices my people had instigated against his people. A cloud lifted in me and in those who watched us. It was palpable.”
In Anna Baltzer’s story, we see both exposure to a new narrative and meeting the ‘other’ as an equal. Anna met Palestinians in Lebanon who told her “a different narrative about the state of Israel from the one I had heard growing up as a Jewish American… stories of past and present military attacks, house demolitions, land confiscation, imprisonment without trial, torture, and government-sponsored assassinations. …It was hard for me to believe that Israel could act so unjustly. Questioning Israel in any way felt like a betrayal of my grandmother.’
Yaniv Reich encountered the ‘other’ through the written works of Edward Said that he encountered at university. He says: “I had been so deeply and continuously immersed in Jewish victimhood, that it had never occurred to me to focus on any aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict other than what I perceived as the ongoing threat to Jewish security. Said dragged me through my tribal narcissism, and taught me how to ask what has now become just as obvious and important a question as one about how to make Jews more secure. That question is simply: What about Palestinian security?”
We Jews are taught by our elders to see Israel as a just and good country and ourselves and other Jews as a just and ethical people, concerned with human rights and justice, a teaching that is in direct opposition what we see of Israel’s behavior. How do Jewish activists deal with this dissonance?
Dorothy Naor was born in the US, married an Israeli Jew and moved to Israel in 1958. She is troubled by “how I could have been so blind for so long. … it never so much as occurred to me to ask myself why I don’t know any Palestinians. Imagine. From 1958 when we settled in Israel till October 2000 it never occurred to me to ask why I have no Palestinian friends.” However, witnessing Israeli police opening fire on peaceful Palestinian demonstrators changed Dorothy’s life: “My naivety ended in almost a split second—following Mohamed al-Dura and the thirteen that were shot by the police—and my search for answers began.”
Jeff Halper fits into this category as do Peter Slezak, Ray Bergmann and Jesse Bacon.
These are universal human values. What about Jewish values in particular?
I’m glad you asked that. Yes, we see what happens when specifically Jewish values clash with the reality on the ground in Israel-Palestine.
Several of the American contributors, particularly the young ones who are members of progressive religious communities,write that continuing to support Israel in the face of itsactions and policies was in direct conflict with the Jewish values they had been taught as children.
For Rae Abileah, brought up as a committed Zionist and visiting Israel as a young woman,an activist mostly silent on Israel, it was Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008 that broke her silence.
For Ariel Vegosen, a young American Jewish woman, it is precisely about her Jewish values:“Part of being Jewish has always been Tikkun Olam, which means repairing the world and practicing tzedakah, which means righteousness or charity. In college I learned about these words in Torah study sessions, and as part of Tzedek Hillel.” Once able to face the truth, she could no longer hold onto the old Israel narrative: “Once you know the truth you can’t ever go back. The only time Israel was ever pure and dripping with milk and honey, … the Jewish homeland, my homeland, was when I was seventeen and didn’t know any better. …Now when I go to Israel I see walls, brutality, bombed-out villages, silence, a mask hiding the truth, racism… I cried at the Kotel (Western Wall) when I was seventeen because I thought I was home and that I had made it, finally, after generations of struggle. Now I cry at the Kotel because I know this is not my home and I am still wandering.”
Thank you, Avigail, and thank you all those who have, some for the first time, contributed these wrenching stories with such generosity. It’s not an easy thing to do. We are much the richer for knowing what you have told us.
Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists is available here and at Amazon worldwide. You can learn more about Avigail Abarbanel as an activist and as a psychotherapist. You can also hear an interview with her (2010) titled “A psychotherapist looks at Israel”on my radio program. I will be posting a podcast of this interview on my website in the near future.