“The Bible is meant for liberation, not expulsion of indigenous people,” said Reverend Naim Ateek, founder and president of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, during his opening plenary talk on Christian Liberation Theology at the “Voices for Peace and Justice in the Holy Land” conference. The conference, sponsored by Sabeel and Students for Justice in Palestine, was held November 7-8 in Madison, Wisconsin. In his opening plenary, “The Uses and Abuses of Religion in the Palestinian-Zionist Conflict,” Ateek offered a passionate examination of how Palestinian Liberation Theology can de-Zionize the Bible. “We need to rescue the Bible,” he said, arguing that “the Bible is about justice and truth and nonviolence.”
The room was packed. As I looked around, I saw many nodding heads while Ateek spoke. Many Christians and SJP students attended. It was refreshing to be in an anti-Zionist space. The conference was at the Pyle Center, a building on the campus in downtown Madison. The room where the plenaries took place, the Alumni Room, overlooked beautiful, blue Lake Mendota. I remember as an undergrad in Madison studying in the library that overlooked this lake. In the winter, old men would sit on the ice in their little huts, ice-fishing, each man his own island, each with his own little circle cut into the ice. The Pyle Center is also across the street from Hillel–a gorgeous building of glass, wood, metal, and stone, rebuilt in 2008. Walking across the street, one could see the small Israeli flags dotting the large window.
I graduated from The University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1992. An ardent Zionist–at the time this was, for me, synonymous with Judaism–I looked to Madison’s Hillel as a spiritual second home. As an undergrad, I went every Thursday for Israeli folk dancing. Warmer nights we’d find ourselves dancing proudly in the University Square, outside Memorial Library, around the corner from Hillel, the speakers loudly projecting the Israeli folk music. I ordered Passover meals from Hillel, and picked them up fresh every day during the holiday. I heard speakers at Hillel, and bought my Hebrew Wisconsin t-shirt there, Bucky the Badger on the back. I wore it proudly for years. When Louis Farrakhan spoke on campus, I marched in my first protest along with other Jews from Hillel, holding our candles in silent vigil as we walked to the stadium where he spoke. And when I wasn’t at Hillel, I was attending lectures and readings by David Grossman, Amoz Oz, Yehuda Amichai, and others, sponsored by the Hebrew and Semitic Studies Department, one of my two majors. I met Oz in my Hebrew Literature in Translation class. The class was a marriage of my two loves at the time, literature and Israel. It was this class that provided me with a literary foundation that would serve me well when I went on to graduate school in Jerusalem. Oz, terribly handsome, a “sensitive Sabra,” told the class, “Reading literature in translation is like making love with a blanket.” Many of us swooned as he began to read from his latest book, To Know a Woman.
Across the street from Hillel, back at November’s Sabeel conference, Mark Braverman, co-founder of Friends of Tent of Nations North America and Program Director for Kairos USA, spoke to the packed room. Speaking to a mostly Christian audience, Braverman talked about the responsibility of Jews to “move from post-Holocaust to post-Nakba,” arguing that “we Jews have an obsession with our past suffering and we need to look at the suffering we are causing others.” He mentioned specifically the recent Gaza war and emphasized the relevance of Marc Ellis’s newest collection of essays about Gaza in his book, Burning Children: A Jewish View of the War in Gaza. Braverman also discussed Ellis’s work in post-Holocaust theology, and why it’s important for Christians to examine the post-Holocaust guilt that has resulted, for many, in support for Israel. Towards the end of his talk, Braverman told us that when he was in Israel/Palestine many years ago–he called it the Holy Land–he had an identity crisis when he realized how much more comfortable he felt in East Jerusalem than West, even though he spoke the language and shared the culture with other Jews. I had a similar experience as Braverman.
Living in West Jerusalem in the 1990s when I was a graduate student at Hebrew University, I began spending time in East Jerusalem with Joseph, an Armenian man I was dating, who lived in the Armenian Quarter in the Old City and worked in his family-owned shop in East Jerusalem. I had been told by many Jewish Israelis and Jewish Americans to stay away from East Jerusalem because it was dangerous, unwieldy, and violent. The first time Joseph took me to East Jerusalem was to the American Colony Hotel, where we ate and drank, surrounded by other diners speaking almost exclusively in Arabic. I was used to hearing people speak Hebrew in West Jerusalem and didn’t realize until that evening how much Arabic was spoken in other parts of Jerusalem. My Zionist upbringing taught me to associate the Hebrew language with Israel, so it was a surprise to hear so much Arabic. One day when Joseph took me to East Jerusalem, the siren for Yom HaShoah rang loudly throughout the country. In West Jerusalem, people stopped for the moment of silence. Not so in East Jerusalem. I was sitting in Joseph’s car waiting for him when he ran into a store to buy cigarettes when the siren rang and I watched the people go about their day, paying no attention to the siren. As an anti-Zionist today, I don’t blame them. Subsequent visits to East Jerusalem were to various restaurants, friends’ homes and shops. Many nights, after the work day, we’d arrive at a friend’s shop, close the metal doors behind us, and smoke, drink coffee, and play music. “How long do I have to pay for the Holocaust?” a Palestinian friend of Joseph’s asked me one night when we hung out in his shop. After these long evenings in East Jerusalem spending time with Palestinians and Armenians, I’d return to my apartment in West Jerusalem, unable, really, to explain to my roommates–or myself–where I had been and why I was starting to prefer East to West. I had come to Israel to live in West Jerusalem as a grad student, but was beginning to feel more comfortable spending time in East Jerusalem, getting to know the people who lived there, in the place I was taught was scary and dangerous.
Feeling comfortable in one place over another, however, felt more romantic than political. Unbeknownst to me, my “romance” with East Jerusalem was laying the groundwork for my current politics. My anti-Zionism came in stages. Visiting East Jerusalem was just the first stage. Even then, though, when I was visiting East Jerusalem, I still saw it as Israel (“It’s just where the Arabs live”). Then, as a “liberal Zionist,” I believed that Palestine was the West Bank and that the settlers should leave and return to “Israel proper.” Like water that ripples as it moves outward, so too did my vision start to ripple and expand as to what I understood to be occupied Palestine. The “ripples” started to spread from settlements like Ariel, Ma’ale Adumim (“You know, way out there, in the desert) and moved inward. Closer Jerusalem neighborhoods like Pisgat Ze-ev came next (“But isn’t it a neighborhood, not a settlement?”), then French Hill, Ramat Eshkol (“But they’re only short bus rides away from downtown [West] Jerusalem; how can they be settlements?”), and Hebrew University (“What do you mean, it was Jordan? That’s why there are two campuses?”). Eventually, later, I came to see all of Israel as occupied Palestinian land.
I’m not proud that my epiphany of Palestine came slowly over several years. Deconstructing its allure now–by looking at it through how I defined land–sounds ridiculous. But it speaks to the propaganda so many American Jews are fed. That we think we get to decide what constitutes Israel and Palestine. Zionism has given people permission to act as experts on a foreign land. On the most hopeful of days, the whole thing makes me sick.
Later in the day, after Braverman’s talk, I crossed the street and entered Hillel. I was immediately greeted by two men who asked how they could help me. I told them that I had attended the university 25 years ago and had been a “regular” at Hillel. They were happy I had returned. I asked them if they knew that there was a Palestinian peace conference across the street. When they said they did, I wondered how they felt about it. One of the men said that he had prepared a statement, but he didn’t think they would have to run it because most of the people attending the conference weren’t affiliated with the university. He wanted to be prepared “just in case,” because many Jews would be “disturbed” to know what was being said at the conference and Hillel just wanted to be on guard, because the conference “was going to talk about boycott and divestment and stuff like that.” It was clear he was good at his job: representing Hillel, defending and guarding Israel at any moment, and providing a “safe haven” and spiritual home for young Jews on campus. It was for me; I remembered it well.
The other man–an intern named Mikki sent from Israel to work with young Jews at Hillel–noticed the button on my coat that says “Peace” in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. I had forgotten about it when I entered the building. I was outed. He looked at me suspiciously. I thought of the absurdity of the world we are living in where peace buttons make one dubious. Distrustful, he asked me what I was doing in Madison this particular weekend. I started to remember the last time I visited the American Colony Hotel bookstore when I bought Yitzhak Laor’s The Myths of Liberal Zionism. I remembered Laor describing Oz. “Since Oz is a ‘progressive’ he is careful to talk about the natives as if he were a social worker talking about children.” I remembered Braverman’s talk earlier in the day when he said that we Jews need to look at the suffering we are causing others. I felt disgusted by Oz’s liberal Zionism–disgusted, really, by my own liberal Zionism that I upheld. In his book, Laor argues, “The colonized Jews now tried to free themselves by colonizing others.” And then I remembered before all of this, when I was a Zionist, behaving like a missionary sent to defend and protect Israel at all costs, like the people at Hillel did before me now.
Mikki awkwardly invited me to the Shabbat dinner starting there in a few hours as he continued to look at my button. I thanked them, remembering–again–how much more at home I felt across the street. I wondered why I had gone back to Hillel in the first place, unsure of what I thought I’d accomplish. I didn’t know. And I had nothing left to say. As I exited the building, Mikki said “Shabbat Shalom.”