I don’t really know how to start this love letter. I love you? (Because I do.) But you know this already.
I am writing this letter to you to connect over our difference […] so that we can cultivate our relationship to greater depth and do the important work of healing.
When Elise Selig came out two years ago, her mother threatened to disown her. Coming out had nothing to do with whom Selig wanted to date; it was about questioning Israel’s politics. When Selig told her mother of her desire to learn Arabic, she responded that she had raised her daughter to be a bad Jew — and that she had failed as a Jewish mother. Since then, Selig, a UC Santa Cruz graduate student, has not rehashed her anti-Zionism with her mother. She also asked to be identified here using a pseudonym.
Selig is critical of Zionism, which has resulted in a chasm of understanding between her and her family. She hopes to bridge this divide and foster productive dialogue by writing a letter to her mother that expresses her feelings as part of the “Love Letter Project” designed by Tammy Kremer, a graduate student at NYU Gallatin’s program for Individualized Studies. The project will result in a collection of published letters from American Jews expressing non or anti-Zionist feelings to loved ones.
In her letter, Selig writes about the Israeli occupation, and the idea of reclaiming her Jewish identity from its association with Zionism.
I want you to see, so desperately I do, why I am an Anti-Zionist. I want you … to recognize the Occupation for what it is: cultural/economic imperialism, genocide and settler colonialism.
…I know you’ve told me countless times that there are never too many “I love you’s” to share. That’s a hopeful thought; I believe that. But what about the way I say it? The following letter is exploding with I love yous, but they may look a little different. Instead of “I love you,” it may be words like “collective liberation” or “reclamation.” Will you watch out for them? (I love you.)
During her own political coming out last January, Kremer grappled with how to communicate her political ideas to her family and identified a need for models that non or anti-Zionist Jewish Americans can look to when formulating their own coming out strategies. In October, The Pew Research Center of U.S. Jews published that three-quarters (76%) of Jews who say their religion is Jewish are very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel as a Jewish state. Jews who identify as non- or anti-Zionists are a minority.
Many Zionists view non- or anti- Zionist perspectives as “some forceful, flag-burning big scary thing,” Kremer said. She hopes that her project, on the other hand, will serve as a model for Jewish Americans to express their sentiments non-violently, intimately and with love.
When Selig received an email about Kremer’s project, she immediately recognized its importance. She wished that something like the project had existed when she came out to her family. “Letter writing is a good method because it’s a nonviolent method and it speaks to emotions,” Selig said. “Setting the intention, sitting down and imaging a particular person on the receiving end of it will be very productive for me.”
Ever since I can remember, you have cried, laughed, and found groundedness in your Zionist Jewish identity. I can connect to the fact that you believe in something so profoundly and deeply it inspires in you tears at the thought of it. I think tears of such inspiration can be beautiful. But no matter how beautiful tears can be they can also distort visibility.
As a kid, Selig believes her perception was distorted too. She grew up learning Zionist songs and hearing Zionist rhetoric from teachers, classmates and family members who promoted Israel as a tenet of Jewish identity. It was not until college that she started questioning Israel’s politics: government discrimination toward Arabs, the occupation of land in the West Bank and Gaza, the settler movement in which Jews are illegally building communities in the West Bank. She felt disgusted by what she perceived as her family’s racism and ignorance toward Arabs and Arab culture. Her family, Selig said, is “all about tolerance and very liberal ideologies.” That these values couldn’t be enacted in regard to Israel, Selig said, was her wake-up call.
I want you to understand that to me, being an anti-Zionist Jew in this moment, in this place, at this time means choosing to see the realities of our collective situation. It means waking up each day and committing myself to the work of unlearning.
…Can you not see the politics of your love affair? Can you not see the ways in which the rhetoric of your life and love of Israel are exploited for the benefit of the few you have so much disdain and sadness for? It is wrong for your Judaism to be exploited in such a way.
Selig says her mother was raised in a secular Jewish home and doesn’t know the Hebrew prayers. In her 20s, she moved to Israel where she worked on a kibbutz, a collective community based on agriculture, for two years. Almost everyone in Selig’s family has a deep, personal connection to Israel. “I think my grandparents feel a little guilty for not remembering more of the Yiddish and rituals their parents taught them,” she said. “Supporting Israel is a way for them to feel Jewish.”
One time, Selig questioned Israeli politics during a conversation with her uncle. “I just remember him all of a sudden being an inch from my face screaming at me and his spit was all over— It spackled my glasses,” Selig said. “My cousin had to pull him off of me and we avoided sitting next to each other for a while.”
The meaning of Zionism often differs, even among Jews. Writing to me by email, Dr. Robert Alter, professor of Literature and Founding Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UC Berkeley, said Zionism is “the idea that the Land of Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, open to all Jews who want or need to come, and that the Jewish people has the right to exercise political autonomy in that land.” Zach Stern, a program manager at the Zionist Organization of America, wrote that Zionism is central to Judaism. “To be anti-Zionist,” he said, “is an aspect of being anti-Jewish.” Stern said that any Jew who prays or follows “just about any Jewish custom” such as breaking a glass at their wedding or praying facing Jerusalem partakes in acts of Zionism. To Selig, to be anti-Zionist is just the opposite. While her family’s unyielding Zionism, she believes, stems from a desire to access their Jewishness, Selig feels that Zionism exploits Jewish values by enacting violence, discrimination and intolerance based on race.
Selig decided to write the letter because she is better at writing than speaking, she said. She hopes that it will show others that it is possible to talk about “the hard stuff.” She hopes that the writing process will help her reflect on her own feelings about Israel, and that her mother would receive it as an act of love and an investment in their relationship.
Mum, you may also know, connecting across moving difference is critical to the pursuit of Justice. Let us then together toast: L’chaim! Here’s to Justice with a capital “J”. Ttzedek tzedek tirdof. [Justice, justice you will pursue]
…Being an anti-Zionist Jew means knowing that my liberation is inherently intertwined in everyone else’s liberation. And that work begins with healing my relationship with you. I love you.
But she hasn’t sent the letter yet. Selig submitted a copy to Kremer last month, but is still debating whether or not she will send it to her mother.
Kremer will debut the letters on April 16th at NYU’s “–ISM Showcase” in an audio piece. At the showcase, audience members will be invited to consider a topic that they care deeply about and a person they love that has a very different perspective on the issue. They will be encouraged to write them a love letter. Kremer will distribute the piece in other contexts as well. To contribute your own love letter, contact Kremer at [email protected].