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Liberal Zionists are afraid their parents will reject them if they come out

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Ilyse Hogue
Ilyse Hogue

For weeks now I have been meaning to post the speech below, an astonishing speech given at J Street’s conference last March 26 by a longtime progressive activist, Ilyse Hogue. It’s best I get out of the way and let Hogue speak for herself, but a few words in advance.

Hogue’s was the most majestic performance at J St after Mustafa Barghouti’s appearance. Her ten-minute speech was beautifully written, and beautifully delivered. Its thrilling surprise ending brought the crowd to its feet.

But the speech is tragic. You will see in Hogue’s words everything that is problematic in American progressive Jewish identity: our vanguard liberal position in American politics and culture coupled with our reactionary stance on Israel and Palestine and the Arab Spring, our cowardice on the one issue for which we have the greatest responsibility, and our inability to grapple with our wealth and influence, even as we are shouting down the Tea Party. You will see in Hogue’s emotionally-honest account what Israel represents to countless American Jews: family but also sexuality, and connection to a more primal, earthy, less materialistic existence.

When you wonder why Paul Krugman was so afraid to speak out, and why Rick Perlstein was afraid to speak out — big brave liberals– it’s because of these community adhesions and constraints.

Finally, notice that when Hogue does advocate a political position (on prisoners), it is a retrograde position, completely divorced from Palestinian reality, from any awareness of Palestinian conditions, from any interaction with the beautiful young people in Tahrir.

That said, I honor Hogue’s feelings. She was brave to address them so honestly. And she is representative of a huge segment of Jewish life in the Zionist captivity. But listen to her:

I’m Ilyse Hogue, and as I was listening to the incredible rich portfolio of all the speakers that precede me, I have this tune going through my head. Anyone here remember ‘Schoolhouse Rock’? I kept thinking, ‘I’m just a Jew yeah, I’m only a Jew.’ And the reason for that is, while my progressive political resume is long, when I stand here before you today, I stand here as a Jew. I’ve not been involved in progressive Jewish politics the way all the speakers that I follow have. And that’s really important for what I have to say today.

Anyone here ever seen the movie ‘Milk’? About Harvey Milk in San Francisco. Really, really, really powerful movie. For me one of the most incredible scenes in that movie was when Sean Penn playing Harvey Milk gathered all his core community together in his living room after a political loss and said to them, ‘I figured out what our obstacle to victory is. I have it now, it is that until every American knows that they know one of us, we will never win.’ When I got the call from Carinne [Luck, J Street’s vice president of field and campaigns] to be on this panel, my mind went to that scene. My mind went to that scene, because I’m not out, I’m not out as a J street supporter.

So I went to the same place that that man in the scene went to when Harvey Milk handed him the telephone and said, ‘Call your parents now, tell them that you’re out.’ I felt the same determination that now is the time to speak out and that same terrified feeling that I could be rejected by those I most love.

I’m not a shy person. I don’t scare easily. I was the political advocacy communication director for move.on org for six years, I got in my fair share of fights. [wild applause] I have negotiated with bank CEOs for stronger environmental standards on their lending policies. I have stood my ground when rightwing radical activists have shouted down congresspeople supporting the health care law in town halls of 2009. None of that stuff has scared me as much as standing here right today with you all, right now with the cameras rolling and the tweeters tweeting and saying, ‘I’m out, I’m a J Street supporter.’

I come from a very conservative Jewish Texan family. I love my parents. They’re wonderful people. I get my activism from them. My mom was the president of the JCC in Dallas, my dad was the president of the [Jewish] Federation. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom being very involved in Operation Moses airlifting Ethiopian Jews to save them from famine. My dad in his role as as president of the Holocaust Museum in Dallas has expanded the content of that museum from the the persecution of Jews in World War 2 to include the persecution of African Americans in Texas. I’m very proud of that.

My parents as well as most of our tightknit Jewish political community in Texas are also AIPAC supporters. They do lobby days in Dallas. And they are that 7 percent you hear about where Israel does decide their vote in elections. Because I love my parents, I have made sure to avoid this topic at all costs in my progressive activism. I have not wanted to go there, to disappoint them, to make them sad, to make them want to reject me.

But I love Israel, I love Israel with all my heart. The family lore has it that when I was a child and they took me I didn’t sleep for two weeks straight because I was so invigorated by my surroundings and I didn’t want to miss a single thing. I love Israel the way you do when you’re 16 and you’re free from your parents’ grasp for the first time and go on a team tour and you get to go out and experience things on your own. I fell in love with Israel when I fell in love for the first time, with a boy in Israel, drinking Maccabi beers and dancing at the nightclubs in Tiberas. Anyone been there? ‘You spin me right round, right round.’ That was the tune that will always remind me of Israel and my first boyfriend. It will always take me back there.

I remember being young and playing hide and seek in the Old City inside the Dung Gate with my Israeli cousins and teaching them how to shout, ‘Come out, come out wherever you are’ as we ran along the twisty turns in the stone walls. I remember watching my older cousins bargain in the shouk. It was a sport, I wanted to learn it, I wanted to be as exciting and passionate as my Israeli cousins. It was such a contrast to the safety of my strip mall existence back in Texas.

I love Israel with everything I have, and because I love Israel, I can’t not notice that the range is getting smaller. That when American teen tours go, they don’t go to the souk as much. They’re not free to wander the Arab quarter. Many of them don’t go to Bethlehem anymore. And the place that I used to go when I was in my mid 20s and went back to study in college… the night club I went to hang out in Tel Aviv where they played Grateful Dead tunes, that was bombed. That was bombed several years ago. It’s no longer there.

I cant help but notice, we’re retracting, that we’ve taken the unprecedented step of trading one soldier for thousands of Palestinians, emboldening Hamas, and undercutting Fatah.

And I can’t help but notice when I do talk to, when I do venture into political terrain with my Israeli and my American family that hope seems to be retreating and everybody seems to be hunkering down. And it is for this reason that I’m here today. I’m not an expert. I’m not an expert on this issue at all. Everybody who will speak here this weekend will be more an expert than me. I have probably already belied my stature by some of the language I’ve chosen to use in this talk.

It’s part of what’s kept me silent– that nuance, that sophistication that’s required to avoid the rhetorical and political landmines that we don’t even know we’ve hit until we step on them, that’s what’s kept me silent.

But I cant be silent anymore, because I understand that in order to secure the future of Israel so that my nieces can go back and create the kinds of memory– experience the magic of floating in the Dead Sea and the power of watching the sunrise over Masada– we cannot continue with the status quo. We have to open an honest conversation, and opening an honest conversation requires us to challenge the conventional wisdom that questioning– questioning in itself is heresy.

And in order to achieve the questions and the open dialogue, we all need to go somewhere where we fear to tread. When we’re in rooms like this, it’s really easy to feel like we’re the majority. But I know I’m not the only one who has to go home and get nervous and have my heart clutch when I have to have this conversation. But it’s more important than ever– to walk to the seder table, to walk into the living room, to walk into the communities, and say, I’m out, I’m proud, I support J street. And I support an incredibly open conversation, so we can secure a safe future for Israel.

I am the future of pro-Israel and I invite you to join me and ‘come out come out wherever you are.’

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Those afraid to speak out include our Jewish media moguls and managers. Surely all do not support occupation and ethnic cleansing.

That woman is despicable. For her kicks, for her pleasure of playing hide-and-go-seek in Jerusalem, how many children have been displaced? How many families torn apart? That woman – pretending to be a progressive, negotiating with banks for the environment – cares not a whit for the actual people in the actual country. She wants to play hide and seek with her cousins there, but when she goes home and they spend years conscripted in… Read more »

When I think of “brave” I dont generally think of well-heeled people “opening up” in front of other well-heeled people who share their same views – it was a J street conference, yes? Isnt that the biggest problem of all, people saying one thing in one setting, and something different in another? Where has she been? O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-S-T. The one thing I will give her credit for is not mentioning anti-semitism, so I guess thats progress… Read more »

It might have been a great experience to hear Ilyse’s speech, but there is so little substance in the text it could mean anything. You could just change a few words and it would have cheered at an aipac conference. It only increas’s one scepticism that j street is substantially different than aipac. For example, Texas Governor Rick Perry is among those who also recently said ” I love Israel with all my heart”. How… Read more »

>> But listen to her: I read the comments and waited for something substantial…and got nothing. >> We have to open an honest conversation, and opening an honest conversation requires us to challenge the conventional wisdom that questioning– questioning in itself is heresy. >> And in order to achieve the questions and the open dialogue, we all need to go somewhere where we fear to tread. Wow, that sounds dramatic! But…she fails to mention: –… Read more »