The other night I went to Hunter College to hear Alice Rothchild read from her new book, On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion. The room was jammed with students and faculty, and Rothchild, a doctor and activist, was engaging, lively, warm, and genuine– the most you could ask from someone describing what she’d seen and seeking to change people’s minds back home.
At the bottom I publish Rothchild’s own report from her NY visit. But first, here are two videos in which she responds to her audience at Hunter.
In the first video, Rothchild seeks to explain the differences between Jewish religion, Jewish nationalism, and Jewish community advocacy.
“Love of Israel has become the way to be Jewish in the United States. So if you don’t love Israel right or wrong, then you’re not a good Jew.”
But she sees more and more young people rejecting that equation. Zionism has hijacked Judaism, they say; Rothchild reports that there are a “whole lot” of anti-Zionist rabbis coming out of the Hebrew College in Boston.
In the next video, a professor describes the blowback at Hunter against her starting a CUNY Center on Palestinian studies; Rothchild responds by describing the resistance to her message from Jews. She begins with the liberal Jews who “really don’t want to believe this.”
The way that I try to understand this is, I think of my mother. My mother lived through the Holocaust. She was in the U.S. but her emotions were there. She wrote all about the Holocaust. She was an author. She loved the state of Israel; I mean, this was going to be this fabulous place. So watching her go back and forth and write there, and really be part of that country, and then having a daughter who does what I do. And having her realize that I’m not making this stuff up, that this is actually going on. I watched her heart break.
So for many many people, particularly Jews who are very involved in the myth of Israel, coming to terms with this is an emotional heartbreak. They have to give up a dream that they realize they were duped. And so that’s sort of like doing family therapy. I’ve done presentations at temples where people sat around and wept, because they’re confronting the fact that what they had thought was going on wasn’t going on.
That’s a kind of response that you can really work on. Because people are listening and they’re open, and they know you’re bearing witness to what you saw, you didn’t make this up. That’s stuff you can work with, you can help people move on, you can address the pain they’re feeling.
The kind of pushback that’s really hard to deal with is the people who say you’re lying.
She goes on to the Israel messengers who tell her she’s lying. “I absolutely will not rise to the hysteria.”
There’s a Jewish PTSD stemming from the Holocaust, and it is fastened on Israel:
“I get hit with rage, I get hit with pain, I get hit with fear.”
Then Rothchild says: “Basically I feel like the way the Israeli state functions is really a danger to Jews. Not only to Palestinians but also to Jews. We need to really think about, What does Zionism mean. Was it a good idea? We must look at what happened. That really triggers a lot of people.”
Compare her comments to Rev. Bruce Shipman’s comments on Israel fostering anti-Semitism, which got him ousted at Yale.
Now here is Alice Rothchild’s account of her visit to New York, published with her permission:
Just back from two events in New York City. Jewish Voice for Peace organized a Brooklyn screening of Voices Across the Divide which was well received by a sympathetic audience. The Q&A included a discussion about how to get this kind of conversation into synagogues. I talked about the need to commit to prolonged and brave conversations with rabbis, (often afraid of losing their jobs), working through members of the congregation, focusing on social justice or Israel committees, and the enormous challenges to this work. Not only is the issue of boycott, divestment, and sanction red lined within mainstream organizations, (“delegitimization of Israel,” “new anti-Semitism,” etc.), but acknowledging the Nabka challenges Jewish sensibilities about what kind of people we are. Thus having this discourse is akin to doing group therapy with a community that is being asked to give up a love and belief in a mythical Israel, a heart breaking and painful experience for many. Acknowledgement of the Nakba also involves grief, remorse, recognition of responsibility and recompense, challenging issues as well.
I was asked if the politically right wing and orthodox religious swings happening in Israel make it easier to reach US Jews. I think this reality creates some daylight and discomfort in the usual discourse, but mainstream Jews are still unwilling to face the contradictions and consequences of Zionism, of Jewish privilege. Happily the younger generations are much more open on all of these fronts.
A spunky Israeli came up to me after the screening and said that she is tired of starting these discussions with the Holocaust, we should be able to learn about the Nabka on its own. She stated forthrightly that “the Holocaust is over, the survivors were compensated, and it is time to move on and focus on the Nakba. The Holocaust can’t be used an excuse for what actually happened in Israel/Palestine.” Wow.
Fifty people packed a small student activities room at Hunter College, where a vibrant and energetic Students for Justice in Palestine invited me to do a book reading from On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion. The SJP has experienced push back from the administration as well as right wing Jewish groups and students and this fall has primarily focused on building coalitions and working on the Black Lives Matter movement in NYC. On September 1, 2014 the faculty of the sixteen colleges of the City of New York issued a letter that included the following paragraph:
“We have viewed with great concern instances of unequal and unfair treatment of SJP by members of the CUNY administration over the past few years. These have been well documented by legal rights groups such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Lawyers Guild, and Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, as well as by students involved in SJP at CUNY and their faculty advisers. These include arbitrary changes in policies regarding student groups, aimed specifically at curtailing SJP activities; the over-policing of SJP events and activities, including simple actions like handing out fliers, in a way that has caused intimidation to students; and making unfounded accusations that lead to “investigations” into widely publicized events. All of these actions have a chilling effect on free exchange and open dialogue.” For the full letter see: http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/19058/on-sjp%E2%80%99s-freedom-to-organize_an-open-letter-from-cn
During the discussion, my comments were referred to as a “breath of fresh air.” We had an in depth discussion of the role of racism within Israeli society, that the State of Israel is not only a product of Jewish nationalism as well as British imperialism, but a settler colonial state with deeply rooted racism not only towards Arabs, but also towards Mizrahi Jews from Arab speaking countries and northern Africa, as well as Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers. These Africans have suffered enormously, often walking across the Sinai, experiencing kidnapping, rapes, etc and are referred to in Israel as “infiltrators.” They are housed in a desert detention camp (Holot), and shipped back to their oppressive home countries without any concern for their safety or survival. I talked about meeting some of these men in a Tel Aviv clinic run by Physicians for Human Rights Israel and their utter desperation, fear, and multiple medical and psychological issues mostly of the PTSD, stress, trauma variety. We reviewed the endemic and well documented (FYI by Israeli academics) racism in the Israeli educational system, the use of soldiers as teachers and mentors, the field trips to military bases, all to prepare students to serve in the Israeli Defense Force with the appropriate cultural attitudes. In Israeli schools there is no Nakba history and in fact commemoration of the Nakba is now a civil offense. I discussed the experience of the Israeli organization, Zochrot, where my film was shown in their festival on Nakba and Return (two contentious issues) last year, and this year the Israeli government threatened the Cinematique sponsoring the festival with defunding. Thankfully the festival went on.
We examined questions around the Palestinian struggle for national rights, I suggested that given the realities on the ground, the struggle now is really centered around civil and human rights and against the particular form of apartheid that is present in Israel/Palestine.
I was asked about responses to my work and reflected on how lefty Jews welcomed this discourse but more mainstream Jews were much more hostile, the main issue being their inability to face the detrimental consequences of Zionism. Progressive Christians on the other hand are much more open once they get over their fear of hurting their Jewish friends and the mythical view of Israel that is promoted on Holy Land tours.
After the Q&A a Jewish student approached me and asked why I did not condemn Hamas. She felt that while she agreed with my analysis, she couldn’t mention Palestinian responsibility within SJP where everyone totally “loves Palestinians.” I answered that I wished she had asked her question publicly, there are issues on all sides and Hamas is not monolithic. Hamas has produced horrific suicide bombers and incredible social service agencies building schools and hospitals and caring for a forgotten population. Hamas grew out of a response to Israeli oppression during the First Intifada and was originally supported by Israel as a counterweight to the nationalism of Fatah (think US and Al Qaeda). You could also argue that Hamas was elected to the legislative council in a democratic election, but because of the international blockade was never given the opportunity to mature as a governing body or to be voted out of office in the next election (which obviously never happened). Palestinians also voted for Hamas because they wanted an incorruptible government and were sick of Fatah’s failures, not because they wanted to drive Jewish Israelis into the sea. Additionally, I suggested that Hamas and Fatah have both failed the Palestinian people. It is also important to remember the context: these are resistance movements fighting severe and longstanding oppression, Gazans supported Hamas during the recent war because Hamas fighters stood up to the IDF, but they are also aware of the disastrous situation in Gaza and Hamas’ inability to provide even basic needs. The student asked, “If there is an end to occupation will there be peace?” I replied, “If there is an end to occupation there will be the possibility of peace.” She queried further, “What about anti-Semitism?”(confusing hatred of Jews with hatred of Zionism and the policies of the Israeli state). I suggested that creating a heavily militarized, racist state that oppresses Palestinians on multiple levels and systematically privileges Jews, could not possibly make Jews safer in the long run.
I had talked about the ironic “de-Arabization” of Israeli Jews from Arabic speaking countries that occurs in Israel and another Jewish woman, a Mizrahi Israeli from Haifa, wanted me to know that her grandparents and parents spoke Arabic, made alliances with Palestinians with Israeli citizenship in Haifa, and still identified as Arabs themselves. This clearly is different from the wide spread de-Arabization that I have seen and heard during my travels.
We discussed what can we do and I suggested that the first step is education, given the utter inadequacy of our media in presenting an accurate picture of the political and on-the-ground realities. I urged students to pressure US government representatives since we are funding the occupation, although these activities are unlikely to produce a change in US policy given the power of AIPAC and the Christian right. Mostly I think it is critical to honor what Palestinian civil society activists are calling us to do: build a strong boycott, divestment, and sanction movement and create coalitions around mutual struggles like Black Lives Matter to both localize and internationalize the struggle for justice.
The next day as my taxi wended its way towards Penn Station, I spotted a large billboard plastered across a building:
New York Times Against Israel
Stop the Bias
This was sponsored by the ferociously well funded and ironically misnamed Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. The work continues…..