This summer, I returned to the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center to relax in the Connecticut woods, canoe on the lake and take part in the workshops that participant/leaders were offering. When I arrived late afternoon, the lake was shimmering in the sunlight, framed by tall trees. Up the hill lay the organic farm; to the right was the kitchen where fresh goat cheese was made and lacto fermented vegetables were put up. I made my way up to my cabin, unpacked my yoga togs, then set out for a walk in the woods. But even the quiet tranquility of the woods could not totally distract me from the terrible images of Gaza’s destruction that filled my thoughts.
I’d come for the ‘Mikvah’ retreat, named after the purifying ritual immersion in water which is an integral part of Jewish practice. The Center described the retreat as a ‘transformative experience’, where we could delve deep into spiritual practice and emerge refreshed and purified. Isabella Freedman, part of the Jewish Renewal movement, also welcomes other spiritual traditions and practices. I was here to teach a yoga meditation workshop. I’d also volunteered to lead some discussions on Israel/Gaza.
Awful as Israel’s previous assaults on Gaza had been, there was something qualitatively worse about this latest war. How could anyone remain complacent as the images of murdered children and gutted homes flooded the media? As Israeli journalist Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz:
No other war had turned my stomach, every day and every hour, like this one did. The horrific pictures of Gaza haunted me. They were almost not shown in the Israeli media, the greatest voluntary collaborator of this war. I thought it was impossible to not be appalled by the crimes in Gaza, that it was okay to express compassion for its residents, that 2,200 killed people are an outrageous matter – regardless whether they’re Palestinians or Israelis. I thought it was okay to be ashamed, that it was necessary to remind ourselves that some people bear responsibility for the brutality, and these people aren’t only Hamas, but first and foremost the Israelis, their leaders, commanders and even their pilots.
Levy was addressing primarily Israeli Jews. But his words express just as well the feelings of European and American Jews of conscience. After all, we can’t ignore the fact that this war would never have happened without American backing and support. Americans, including the American Jews who supported this war, who gave contributions, who belonged to organizations that sent money to finance the war, were also responsible. Still, one vacationer told me that the war was not relevant to American Jews; it was only really of concern to the Israelis. For her the conflict was, in Neville Chamberlain’s words, ‘a quarrel in a far away country’.
We were mostly American Jews, some with joint Israeli-American citizenship, many with family in Israel. We were all, in one way or another, vicariously involved in the Israel-Gaza conflict. Could we reach out across our ideological differences? Could we have a respectful dialogue about the Jewish state and its policies? Count me naive in hoping so; in hindsight I’d agree.
The first thing I noticed was the silence. Gaza was on everyone’s minds, but no-one was talking about it. Not one person. People talked about food and permaculture and open-source software and the drug war. People talked about pickling and making goat cheese. There was a lot of talk about spirituality: Mindful Walking, Mindful Yoga, Embodied Spiritual Practice. But it felt abstract and disconnected. When someone asked me what I most admired about the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, I mentioned his practice of Engaged Buddhism. During the Vietnam war, he had risked his life to help the fleeing boat people. As a result, he was exiled from his homeland. At this, my questioner abruptly changed the subject.
How did I like the baked tofu? she asked. Personally, she had never been a great fan of tofu. But it wasn’t that bad if one smothered it in sauce.
After dinner, people relaxed on overstuffed sofas, powered up their laptops, and caught up on the news. A ceasefire was declared, then quickly broken. The bombing started up again. Gaza was burning: apartment blocks leveled, mosques destroyed. More children murdered, more grieving mothers, thousands without shelter, without power, without water, without medicine. Hospitals bombed and doctors and patients shelled. Gaza was burning. But not a word was said. We were living in an alternate world, a claustrophobic world where the food was organic and the weather was perfect and the early morning yoga sessions got you feeling spiritually psyched for the labyrinth walk and the life goals workshop.
A few people told me pointedly that they didn’t intend to attend the Israel/Gaza discussions that I would be leading. They seemed offended that I’d even brought the subject up. A kindly silver haired woman confided that she had hardly been able to sleep since the recent Gaza conflict began. (She was the only person I met who seemed genuinely upset by the carnage.) But she too couldn’t understand why I was bringing the subject up. What does this have to do with spirituality? she complained to one of the other vacationers. If she’d asked me directly, I would have told her: Everything. It has everything to do with spirituality. One can’t divorce spirituality from ethics without rendering it bankrupt. As Isaiah put it:
Stop bringing meaningless offerings…. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
We held the Gaza discussion in the synagogue. Above the Ark, a flag announced ‘Prayer must be subversive.’ A woman pointed to the flag and objected. Here, in the synagogue? Talk about revolution? How inappropriate!
Only five people turned up to the discussion. We sat in a circle on blue laminate chairs, surrounded by sacred books. I introduced myself: raised in a secular Zionist family in London, spent time in Israel, a son who lives in the Galilee. Descendant of Holocaust victims. So far, they were with me. Then I talked of how the Jews had barely survived the Holocaust, how a terrible reversal of history was occurring: the very people who had once been segregated, starved, demonized and murdered were now doing the same to the Palestinians.
For a moment, there was a deathly quiet. Then an intense dark-haired woman opposite me launched into a tirade. Never, she said, had she heard a fellow Jew speak like this. I was anti-semitic. I was a traitor. Didn’t I know that Israel was under existential threat? Hamas was planning to kill all the Jews, after they’d killed their own children. All they cared about was killing….
Gideon Levy has railed against this kind of racist rant for years in his columns in Haaretz. For this, he’s been thanked with death threats and forced to hire bodyguards. In a recent article, he summed up the prevailing mindset in the Jewish community, both in Israel and America:
They thought that comparing between the blood of Israelis and Palestinians is a sin. That feeling dismay is treason, compassion is heresy and that placing responsibility is an inexpiable crime. It’s no different in the American Jewish community. A spurious innocence and ersatz righteousness blinds them into condoning, even supporting the massacres of innocent Palestinian women and children, rights workers, health workers, journalists.
And so it was at my discussion group. I tried to talk facts in vain; no-one was listening. A vicious hasbara indoctrination had overtaken these people’s minds and shuttered their ability to think. A woman explained that Israel was a small, weak, oppressed country surrounded by hostile Arab states who would throw all the Jews into the sea at their first chance. When I pointed out that Israel was the world’s fourth most powerful military force, with a substantial nuclear arsenal, and with allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and of course America, she shouted me down. In a sickening reversal of reality, these people viewed Israel as the innocent victim and the Palestinians as demonic aggressors. In this twilight zone nothing made sense, facts were irrelevant, black was white, up was down. The Palestinians were murdering their own children, who in any case deserved to die because they were, well, Palestinians; while the Israelis naturally deserved to live, because they were innocent/oppressed/Holocaust survivors/God’s chosen people. Wasn’t I Jewish? Couldn’t I stick by my tribe? What exactly was wrong with me?
A young Israeli-American man burst into the room just as the workshop was degenerating into a shouting match. He sat down across from me, and told me I was doing a terrible job of moderating the ‘discussion’. I didn’t know anything about Israel, he said. He lived there, and he wanted me to know what it was really like living with the constant threat of Hamas’ rockets: He’s driving his kids to school and the sirens go off, and he has to get his children out of the car and lie down with them by the roadside until the all clear sounds. Is that any way to live? Why are they attacking us? he asks me, feigning perplexity. All we want is peace. We don’t want war. Hamas brings it on themselves. Haven’t I read the Hamas charter? If I’d read it, I’d realize what Israel was up against.
In the Israeli narrative, there is only one side to the story. Israel has a history, a mission, a right to exist. But the Palestinians? Their history is ignored, their suffering blamed on themselves: They voted for Hamas, which proves beyond a doubt that they are all depraved, murderous terrorists, every last one of them, even the children. They deserve everything they get, as popular Knesset lawmaker Ayelet Shaked recently proclaimed on Facebook. Her post, as translated by Gideon Resnick, states:
Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there….(Israel should declare war on) the entire (Palestinian) people, including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.
If the Palestinians aren’t human beings, if they are nothing more than reptiles, as Shaked and her like believe, then it stands to reason that they should have no right to self-defense. No right to live in dignity. No rights whatsoever. Terrible parallels come to mind: the Nazis’ characterization of the Jews as vermin, which provided an obscene ‘justification’ for genocide. Faced with such brutality, is it any wonder that the Palestinians in Gaza choose resistance?
“In actuality, if you really do want peace,” I told this man, “then end the Occupation. Open an airport in Gaza. A seaport.” “We can’t do that,” he said. “That would be asking for trouble.” And he stormed out, leaving me hanging in mid-sentence.
A staff member came to tell me I was late for my meditation workshop. Rushing down the trail to the tent where people were waiting for me, I tried to compose my thoughts. Despite my nervous shaking, I made it through the workshop, barely.
Next morning, an Israeli musician led a choral workshop. We divided into three groups, each chanting in contrapuntal rhythm.The woman who had called me anti-semitic was singing a song full-pelt about how life without soul is worthless. Oy vey. It was enough to turn one’s stomach…
After the Gaza workshop, people who hadn’t even come to it started avoiding me. By no means did everyone behave this way. But enough people did so to make a point: Talk about ethics in the Jewish community and you’re out. Show moral indignation and you’ll be sorry. No-one can criticize Israel without being accused of anti-semitism. Israel has become the golden calf of religious Jews. The ideological merger between Judaism and Zionism has given rise to a form of idolatry that one rejects at one’s own peril. But in actuality, Judaism is a religion, not an expansionist nationalist enterprise. Equating Judaism with Israel’s violent colonialism only degrades the Jewish faith.
One evening, I was relaxing in the lounge when a plump blonde woman started recounting her recent trip to London. She had switched flights in Berlin on her way home, she told me. It gave her the shivers to be in Germany. Even stopping over. The Germans! She hadn’t even left the airport, and yet she felt spooked in that place. How could we ever forget what the Germans did to us? We must never forget! Thank goodness she didn’t end up sitting next to a German on the plane home, she said. Or worse, an Arab! Her face grew hard and dark at the thought.
I asked her what she meant by ‘Arab’. She looked confused. Did she mean a Jordanian? An Egyptian? A Palestinian? “They’re all the same,” she replied. She screwed up her face in disgust. “I think you meant a Palestinian,” I said. She nodded. I told her that If I found myself sitting next to a Palestinian, I’d be honored to talk with him.
The woman’s eyes opened wide. She was nonplussed. I was breaking rank. She’d never heard a Jewish person talk like this. Then she launched into a tirade: Didn’t I know? The Palestinians kill their own children. They kill their own children! We Jews love our children, but they use their children as human shields…. It was as if Israeli spokesperson Mark Regev had implanted a diabolical endless loop in her head. I tried to get a word in edgeways, but she was off on a hate-filled diatribe. They would kill me too! They would kill all of us! We have to defend ourselves…
An overweight man sitting nearby was more honest. He didn’t need excuses. He knew what needed to be done, and he had no qualms about doing it. “I’ve been staying quiet all this time,” he told me. “But now I’m going to talk! My family are settlers in the West Bank. Let me tell you something. Did you know that there is no letter ‘P’ in Arabic? There is no word in Arabic for Palestinian. Why? Because they don’t exist as a people. They have never existed. They are a fictitious people. You didn’t know that, did you? Now you do.”
“They were the indigenous inhabitants of what is now Israel,” I reminded him. “It sounds to me like you’d prefer them not to exist.”
“I wouldn’t go as far as genocide,” he said. “Almost, but not quite.” And he smiled.
I wondered what ‘almost genocide’ might look like. What exactly did he have in mind? Killing off most of the Palestinians, but keeping just one or two alive as showpieces? Or was ‘almost’ a sardonic, contemptuous nod to my misguided compassion? I was sitting face to face with a man who was advocating mass murder. A religious man. A devoted father and husband. A smiling, confident psychopath.
A petite older woman with deep blue eyes and blonde hair took me aside. She said she’d been at my meditation workshop and wanted to talk to me. Something had happened during the meditation, she said. She had felt something that she’d never felt before. We had done some Pranayama (breathing) exercises, in which I’d suggested she experience her breath as a river of light. “I entered a space I had never been before,’” she told me. “I felt this great love washing over me. Love for myself. Love for you. I had never felt anything like it.” She wanted to continue meditating. I made some suggestions. We exchanged phone numbers. I told her the love she had felt was not just for herself or for me; it was for all humanity. She nodded, and folded my phone number into her purse. And a wild hope came to me: If she continued connecting with the spiritual force she’d accessed, would the feeling of love and peace she’d felt gradually extend to embrace everyone, not just people close to her?
On the last day, we all gathered at the lakeside in a circle. Each of us held a sprig of purple flowers as we said our goodbyes. The man who had openly advocated genocide stood opposite me. He said how much he had missed his minyan (prayer group) during the retreat, how much he was looking forward to praying with them again. I wondered what this man said to God in his private prayers. Would God grant him his wish for a Greater Israel, where the Palestinians were eradicated, both physically and in memory? Would what had almost happened to the Jews happen to the Palestinians at the Jewish state’s hands? Would God once again fall silent, as He had during the Holocaust?
I held the purple flower close. It was fragile, wilting in the summer heat. We all posed for one last photo, then the group dispersed. On the train ride home, I suddenly felt terribly tired. I had shared meals with men intent on murder. I had sung choral chants with racists. I felt defiled by it all.
A few days later, Israel and Hamas declared an extended ceasefire. The guns fell quiet and the people of Gaza danced in the streets in celebration. The work of reparation won’t just mean restoring clean water and shelter and electricity to Gaza’s devastated population. It will also mean shedding the lies that made this brutal war possible. Each truth spoken will bring us one step closer to peace. As Gaza rebuilds, we must dismantle the pervasive hasbara indoctrination that feeds the war. Only then can we start to reclaim Israel/Palestine from the false gods of nationalist fanaticism.