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At a Philadelphia vigil, Jews talk of the division within their families over The Conflict

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Last night and this morning, a group called Philadelphia Jews for a Just Peace had a vigil outside the Israeli consulate in their city to commemorate the fact that the anniversary of the massacre at Deir Yassin outside Jerusalem in 1948 falls on the same day as Passover, today, April 8. En route to my parents' place outside Philly, I took a bus to town and got to the vigil at 10 p.m. The order of the night was that they were having a "workshop" on their feelings about The Conflict. A woman in boots from Milwaukee led us through actions in a tight circle. She was fair-skinned and dark haired, I thought of her as the second coming of Golda Meir (a schoolteacher in Milwaukee).

In this way we stayed warm for a couple of hours till a delivery of humus and hot chocolate from some fellow travelers in West Philadelphia arrived and the circle broke up for a while. We had just begun an exercise in which everyone was to write down a question on a piece of paper and the questions were gathered and redistributed, so you got someone else's question to read aloud. My original question was, Why are there so few men here? Only four, out of 20 or so people.

The workshop petered out on account of the food, and it being 12:30, and the Milwaukee woman said, Well let us just read the questions aloud and finish up. So we did. The one that struck me was, "How much support do you have from your family in your work on this issue?" I asked Milwaukee if before we finished up we could just get a nose count, Yes or no, on that question.

We ended up spending another half hour on it, with people talking. Any impression I had that the division this issue has brought to my family was unique soon disappeared. A couple of people cried.

Here are some of the things people said, a little garbled from a long night:

–My father won't leave the place of, It's complicated. It's too complicated to have an easy answer to.

–I've argued with my mother for years about it. She's never wanted to hear anything. But this year when the bombs began falling in Gaza she came to a demonstration with me. She stood there and even held a sign. That was real progress.

–My father's Peace Now. So he feels like he's done the right thing. He's a liberal. He used to go into the Hebrew school and tell them to put the green line on the map. They didn't even have the Green Line on the '67 lines. But they're Zionists. I was born there. When I got into the issue, they couldn't believe it, they couldn't believe how radical my sister and I were. For a while I wasn't welcome to come to the house. They're in Israel now, having Pesach. My sister and I aren't invited.

–When I got into it, my parents thought, She's a Jew for Jesus. That was the only way they could explain my stance, emotionally. It was that foreign to them. They did visit me in the West Bank. They saw a refugee camp and faced some of the conditions there.

–My mother's Israeli and the child of Holocaust survivors. My father's American and he studies the Holocaust. I was afraid to look at the issue all my life. Then when I looked into it, my mother said, Yes it's apartheid and we should have just killed them all, or moved them out. It was shocking to me, especially the casual use of terms that Nazis might have used. My father is much more reasoned. It's like the difference between Americans and Israelis.

–When I was in the West Bank, I was afraid to come home. I didn't want to come back. Then my mother did a great thing. She said on the phone, You come home and I promise you, I will listen to you for two weeks. Anything you want to say, anything you need to express, I will listen and not say anything back, or argue with you, for two weeks. So I came home. And my mother did that for me. But I never talked to my father about it, he was too upset.

–My parents are dead, and frankly it's good they are because they would not understand the work I'm doing. My son got me into it, so we get along great. We talk all the time. But my extended family, where I'm going for seder, one of the cousins is a leader of the religious community in Hebron, in the West Bank. So we never talk about these things.

I'm forgetting a lot of the stories. It went on for a long time. It was like a Seder in that the stories were liberating, the understanding of shared grief around the issue. My own story seemed so humdrum and bourgeois, I said it in a line, I have a very loving family and we don't talk about this stuff.

The question came from a woman called Susan Landau. She's very involved with these emotional questions and seeks support from others. Landau told us that she teaches at a Hebrew school and on Israeli independence day last year she stood out on Benjamin Franklin Parkway with a group of other women dressed in black and held up a sign that said "Nakba." A float went by with a bunch of kids on it, and three of the kids were in her class. They stared at her in confusion. She was hurt by the incident and later sent all the kids an email explaining what she was doing there.

It was 1 a.m. and Adam Horowitz was to give a little presentation. He got out his computer and showed us a movie about Deir Yassin. I think he wanted to bring the night back to the reason we were there: what has happened in Israel and Palestine. It was a wrenching video, and this is not the place to go into it. I was still in the feelings of the workshop. Adam then gave me a ride home and we talked about the appropriate proportion in this work of Agonizing about our Jewish feelings/Describing the experience of the Palestinians. It's an important question. This morning I'd say that the first part is an essential part of the process for American Jews to come to terms with what they have underwritten in Palestine. There is a lawyerly part of Jewish tradition, best embodied by Alan Dershowitz, that is fierce and abstract and unstraightforward. The energy in the workshop was the opposite, and I guess that answers my question about Why there were so few men there. Afterward the women passed around a big cloth big of hot rice to warm our hands with. I was amazed at how long the rice held the heat. That bag's got a lot of places to go yet…

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Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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