Months ago, I was invited by a longtime 87-year-old activist who wanted me to show my documentary film, Voices Across the Divide (www.voicesacrossthedivide.com) at her retirement community in Seattle. She stressed the general excitement she was feeling from other residents as well as folks from the “outside.” People were canceling their ophthalmology appointments and skipping mahjong, but the potential for conflict with lovers-of-all-things-Israel, Holocaust and kinder transport survivors, and older liberal Zionists who tend to see Palestinians as incorrigible terrorists despite their intense dislike of Netanyahu and occupation, hovered over the event. The activities organizer who lately had sponsored a popular four-part series on Islam by a respected Seattle professor was very supportive. “Bring it on!” she is reported to have said. So in December the flyers went out, the mailboxes were stuffed, there was a lot of chatter and expectation in the halls. But on the morning of the event, I got an excited call from my activist friend explaining all hell had broken loose, she had just gotten out of a tense and painful meeting with the movers and shakers in the Jewish community at the retirement community and the apparently intimidated activities director.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived and found hanging all over the halls and doorways:
Alice Rothchild: A Special Kind of Exile
Due to the sensitive nature of this discussion the 2 o’clock presentation is postponed until further notice. We are truly sorry for the inconvenience.
My casual catch-up lunch with my friend was now a private luncheon meeting with these wounded and anxious folks. Over melted cheese and tuna, I listened to their concerns and fears and why they felt postponing the event was critical. The gist of the somewhat agonized conversation was that they were afraid that a critical discussion of Israeli policy would encourage the latent anti-Semitism that lurked within their “Gentile” neighbors and that I would just drop in, cause havoc, and leave them with an uncomfortable mess. One woman was upset that the flyer said “belligerent,” as in “Israel’s increasingly belligerent occupation…” One of the less liberal residents also felt a need to rehash the history of the “conflict” with this kind of framing: We gave them Gaza and they gave us bombs, the Palestinians have prevented the two state solution, they are always the aggressors, etc etc. There was this underlying feeling that there are dangers in airing “our” dirty laundry in front of the goyim and that the behavior of Israel was a private Jewish meshugas best kept in the family.
I shared my personal Jewish journey from nice Bat Mitzvah girl, (yes I did learn the rules on keeping a kosher home) to critical activist, my understanding that thoughtful analysis of Israeli policy, (just read the new Israeli historians) was different than anti-Semitism; that Judaism the religion, Jewish the culture/ethical community, Zionism the political movement, and Israel the country were different categories that needed to be approached separately. That this conversation was an international human rights issue and the lack of resolution was a source of conflict in the entire Middle East. I urged people to be “brave” and described the documentary as a telling of history through the voices of people who are usually not heard, ie., Palestinians. They worried about “balance.” “How many Israelis did you interview? You have to live there to really understand.” I talked about the Jewish tradition of studying and arguing and the dangers of refusing to discuss difficult topics, (think American history without the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans or slavery). They talked about wanting to see the film first. When I asked, “Then what? This feels like a censorship board,” (and I explained the long list of cancelled events, rabbis muzzling my events, etc), feathers ruffled, one man threatened to walk out. I worried that the act of canceling (OK postponing until further notice) would only feed the impression that “the Jews” have some powerful kind of control over the retirement community’s events, that they have something to hide, that they act in secretive tribal ways…. ie. feeding just the anti-Semitism the machers were afraid of provoking. Tensions rose until the now thoroughly reconstituted activities director decided that they were welcomed to watch the film first, but the event would be rescheduled and publicized and people could chose to attend or not. That seemed like an excellent plan and a blow for free speech.
The controversy reverberated throughout the community with many of the residents upset by the threat to free speech and the muzzling attempts by a small number of frightened folks. Interest surged in seeing this “forbidden” documentary and efforts to enact a policy of always having the “other side” when “controversial topics” were discussed were roundly defeated at a community meeting.
Early January, to a packed audience of over 60 folks, (ranging in age from mostly over 70 to 100+), I introduced my documentary film. Many were very moved, tearful, and eager to talk respectfully and openly during the Q&A. One woman asked about the heritage of Palestine, was it Jewish or Palestinian? I had the opportunity to reflect on the historical origins of Palestinians, one theory being that they came from Europe, emigrating from Crete, and another that they arrived from the Arab peninsula, in any case many, many thousands of years ago. Jewish people also have a deep connection to the region, but once again there is lots of controversy about where the various kinds of Jews come from: are some Palestinians the actual descendents of the early Jewish sects, are Ashkenazi Jews originally European as opposed to the Sephardi Jews who are from Arab speaking countries. Who has how much of which gene pool? Add to this all the migrations, intermarriages, and conversions that make this a complicated inheritance and it becomes wildly obvious that these distinctions are not a good basis for claiming a country’s legitimacy or designing its foreign policy.
We discussed how the trauma of Palestinian refugees can apply to the millions of displaced people in the world, most recently the Syrians, Iraqis, and people fleeing northern Africa, and delved into why the boycott, divestment, sanction movement is not anti-Semitic despite all the Israeli hasbara. As a creative nonviolent resistance movement I suggested that BDS is actually a source of tremendous hope and potentially will create political movement where the politicians and generals have failed so miserably. Ultimately I reminded folks that it is important to separate the political movement of Zionism from the religion of Judaism and to be open to understanding the historical narratives of all the players in this controversial story.
Two days later I joined three writers for readings from Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine at the Eliot Bay Book Store in Seattle where once again the issues of our right to speak on these matters, can we ever know enough, is criticism of Israeli policy and support of BDS anti-Semitic, blended with a nuanced appreciation of the human devastation of war, unresolved historical injustices, and the power of literature. And again I found myself making the distinction between Jew and Zionist, fighting the tendency to “other” Palestinians, and clarifying that not only is it not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel, but such political work is profoundly reflective of the best of Jewish values and historical traditions.