This personal story was told by Menucha Sara, bat Eliyahu, to Phil Weiss a year ago. His questions have been removed from the narration. –Editor.
I grew up modern orthodox, very Zionist. I went to Jewish day school, but I was always questioning. Not about Israel, but I was a questioning kid. There’s a prayer that’s said every day by the men, “Thank you, God, for not making me a woman.” I used to bug my teachers about that.
When I got to high school, I’d hear about antiwar demonstrations. This was Vietnam days, and I couldn’t go to demonstrations because they were on Saturday and I was a Sabbath observer. But I would read stuff. One teacher recommended we read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I read Michael Harrington’s The Other America. So I was starting to find out what was happening in the country. Though nothing about Israel.
Then I went to college in 1968, which was a really cool time to go to college. I was in New York, and I went to a couple of antiwar demonstrations, and by 1970 I got real active in antiwar activism. Lots of schools across the country, including mine, shut down in May of 1970, with the murder of the four white kids at Kent State, and then two Black kids two weeks later at Jackson State. Attica happened the next year. And it just opened my eyes to– everything I’d grown up learning about the land of the free and the home of the brave was a crock. And I started reading more, and understanding imperialism more.
It was also the time of the women’s liberation movement. So I was pulled in both directions, women’s liberation and left politics. I got into a Marxist study group and into a woman’s consciousness raising group, and my last two years of college I was doing both, along with school and two part-time jobs.
I had stopped being religious. It was 1969. Some friends of mine said we’re going to a music festival upstate, do you want to come? It was the end of freshman year. I had never ridden on the Sabbath before. I said ok, sure. So I went. That was Woodstock, the first time I ever rode on the Sabbath.
It was no big deal once I was in the car and riding. Because I hadn’t stayed observant when I got to college. I didn’t go to synagogue. I just kept kosher and kept the Sabbath. I didn’t do all the other things around it that had been in the structure of my life growing up.
And then one day some friends invited me over for dinner and I said, what are you eating? Chili. I just ate it. I didn’t ask, How did you kill the cow? I just ate it.
The next step was, I was in my dorm room, and I took a piece of kosher salami and a piece of cheese and put them together, and I kind of looked for the lightning to come through the window. And it didn’t. So that was it on kosher. I don’t remember it being loaded. But I really did look out the window, that’s my memory, but nothing happened.
You’d think I might have had guilt and disturbance and anguish, but I didn’t, because, for me, a lot of orthodox Judaism was about rules. You have to do this three hours after you do that. You have to put the mezzuzah this many inches from the floor, tilted at a particular angle. But not about ruach, the spirit, about belief in God. I don’t remember learning– so what is God? It was, if you’re Jewish, if you’re orthodox, this is what you have to do. You go to shul on Shabbos and all the holidays, that’s what you do.
There wasn’t any spiritual basis. So it wasn’t hard to break the rules. It wasn’t being backed up by any firm beliefs. When I was home living with my mother, I lived by her rules. I might not have believed them, but it was her house so I went by her rules.
Then Israel started coming up. As I got into the leftist politics, it was Arafat, it was the PLO. I remember going to some family Hanukkah party, and I got into an argument with my uncle or maybe it was a couple of my relatives. He would say, “they want to throw all the Jews into the sea”. I remember having this thought– like how, like in a coffin? What are you talking about?
But I didn’t know enough about it. I just had some sense of– they’re not treating the Palestinians right. The political people I was hanging out with, none of them were Palestine activists, none of them were involved in any of that. It was just one of many issues. There was Vietnam, and apartheid in South Africa, and death squads in South America. It was just another issue I should understand, and what I had been taught was wrong and something else was right.
I’d gone to Hebrew-speaking camps as a girl. Camp became an important thing for me. I went to Jewish Hebrew-speaking camps for 6 summers. And then kids from a whole bunch of different camps came together to go to Israel. Between junior and senior year of high school. That was 1967. We were supposed to leave June 8. Then there was this war. We were, Oh shit, we can’t go to Israel on our trip. But then the war was over. So they rescheduled everything, and we went anyway, a few weeks after the war ended.
You’ve heard the song, Jerusalem of Gold? It was an older song, but the Israelis redid it and it became popular, there and in the US, a way of celebrating the results of the war. It’s very militaristic. We were singing that all the time on our bus going from here to there. I don’t know if I made this up, but I remember seeing people living in tents in East Jerusalem and thinking, Well, OK, it’s right after the war, but then they’ll come back to where they were living, right?
And there were Israeli soldiers– this was way before Birthright– who came around. But they were just looking for fast American girls. They didn’t give a shit about politics. And they found some girls. Not me.
Israel was just part of my guts. I had an older brother who died when I was really little. I remember going around to people and saying I want to build a forest in Israel to honor my brother. People put money in the pushke. A blue and white tin. That was a pretty intense form of indoctrination, because I was only four or five.
Back to my first trip to Israel. I’m a high school junior and this trip was focused on making social connections, which was another form of indoctrination. It’s what they try to do with Birthright now. They wanted us to think it had nothing to do with politics. I met kids who then became close friends of mine through my last year of high school. A few into college. My best friend now–that’s where I met her. We met in Israel together!
She’s a professor, and she gets it. I consider her anti-Zionist, non-Zionist, anyway. She’s never been an activist. I’ve schlepped her to a few demonstrations over the years.
After my first year of high school, my mother had me going to a Jewish day school and they were all rich kids. I couldn’t stand that vibe. I wasn’t rich. I said I’d go to public high school and go to the Jewish Theological Seminary for courses every week. So I used to go to the Seminary on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. And a lot of kids from the camp became my social circle and the boys I was interested in through my high school years.
Looking back, I had to have known when I finished with high school and went to college that there was going to be a change. I knew that wasn’t going to be my life. I didn’t follow up. I didn’t seek out that community. I went to a Shlomo Carlbach concert once, that was me seeking community. He made Jewish songs hip and lively. It was like a rock concert, I was pulled to the spirit of it– but I was tripping.
I knew Israel was a real important cause, and a lot of people I knew became indoctrinated to it. But it didn’t happen to me. Yeah sure, there are kids I knew who became rabbis. Kids who made aliyah. But that wasn’t me.
And when I was in college, and got involved in this radical stuff—interestingly, I didn’t realize it then—but it gave me a whole other structure: What you can and can’t do and believe. I became ultra-left. I graduated in ’72, I got a job in the phone company, and I wanted to be a proletarian organizer, though it took a while for me to “de-petit-bourgeoisify” myself enough for the organization to say, OK.
I worked the night shift, then I went to the garment center to sell newspapers, then I slept a few hours, then I mimeographed leaflets, then went to a meeting. It was a very disciplined structure. I was a peon. I had a low role in the hierarchy. I didn’t realize this about the hierarchy and the day-to-day structure, the similarity with the religious upbringing, until about 20 years ago.
I quit politics for a while. My then-husband had kids and I was involved in being a stepmom to them. Then I became a mom, too. I was on hiatus from political activity. I went to graduate school. I got a Masters degree, and I became an activist in my union. This is like 1985-2000.
I did a lot of reading for grad school, but the whole Israel thing, I didn’t read much about it. Read some journal articles critical of Israel and listened to reports on WBAI. Then all three kids were gone, and I thought, what do I want to do now? I was doing the union stuff but I wanted to do something else and, I don’t know what pushed the button, but I thought, maybe I’ll do something around Palestine. I swear I don’t know what it was.
I started looking around for what was going on in the city. I found the Women in Black vigil in 2000. So I started going every Thursday. While I was there, Gabriel Ash was doing a study group at the Brecht Forum on the history of the Israel Palestine conflict. I thought alright, as long as I’m doing this vigil, I should know more facts.
And that did it. Oh my goodness. Gabriel is a really good teacher. There were 8 or 10 people in the class. We read Norman Finkelstein’s the Holocaust Industry, and something by Benny Morris. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999, And something else. It wasn’t Ilan Pappe. I don’t think Pappe’s book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, was written yet.
I was still learning, and then 9/11 happened, then the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and then there was a big antiwar movement. I was able to get involved in my union, to get the union to take a stand, and give us buses to antiwar demonstrations in DC. The union leadership agreed to join US Labor Against the War, (USLAW) and I became the rep from the union. I went to United for Peace and Justice and USLAW conferences and I went to London for a World against War conference.
On three different occasions, Iraqi trade union folks came here, sponsored by US Labor against the War. And on each occasion I was one of the key people to take them around New York and to get people from my union and other unions to come to events. The second time they came, one of the trade union leaders was a woman, Hashmeya Muhsein. We connected. It was right before the Left Forum in Atlanta. They ended up coming to Atlanta and she and I shared a hotel room. She’s head of the Electrical Workers in Basra.
Then came Cast Lead [in December 2008-January 2009], and during Cast Lead, I was horrified. I remember being so distraught at work. Twice, my boss said, Tell us what’s going on over there. We had meetings every other Friday of my team, about 30 people, and he said, Take ten minutes and explain it to people. I did. My co-workers were overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic, almost all younger than me. They trusted me and they listened. Some of them might have been conflicted because their churches had been blindly supporting Israel, but no one ever came back to me and questioned what I said about the Palestinians or about Zionism.
I went to Palestine a few months before Cast Lead. One of my friends from Women in Black was born in Israel, and she said to me, You think you know it but you have got to see it, you have to come with me. Seeing the wall! Oh my. It’s one thing reading about it, but then seeing it—it’s just horrifying.
I had been there last in ’67 and Jerusalem was not all religious then. It was secular and then there were the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. But in 2008, we went out on Saturday, and I felt weird. I was wearing a tanktop, my head was uncovered, and it’s so, so religious. I went on the ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions) tour around East Jerusalem. I went to Tel Aviv, I met with a group that works with migrant workers, Filipinos and Thais. I met Women in Black folks in Tel Aviv and Haifa. I went to the Alternative Information Center, in Yerushalayim. And I took a tour of the northern part of the West Bank and spent a day in Ramallah.
It was a harrowing trip. I felt like it was two months. I wish I had stayed longer, spent more time in the West Bank, but I was only there for two weeks. Seeing the settlements is just so different from seeing a video. Driving by and seeing them, and then more and more and more of them — and down the hill a small Palestinian village, with almost nothing green there.
We went into Ma’ale Adumim. As you come in you see this big fountain. And then you see Palestinian villages with nothing green. Dry and arid, no grass, no trees.
I’d already been doing the vigil with Women in Black. But this kind of solidified that interest. I could have gotten more involved around Iraq. Maybe with Iraq Veterans against the War. Or some other issue. But it was definitely– this is it!
Of course it’s partly because of who I am. Because as a Jew and as somebody who had known the opposite, known the propaganda, I could speak from that. If there was no Israel/Palestine, I’d be doing work on the environment, refugees. That’s who I am. But this issue became the one I wanted to work on. And when Adalah-NY put out a call to different groups in New York to work on the Palestinian civil society boycott call, I went as the representative from Women in Black.
There was some internal resistance over the years. When I first bought Pappe’s book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, I put it on my bookshelf. Every once in a while, I’d look at it and go, This is going to be really hard to read. It was probably a year before I actually made a decision to read it and then I would read maybe 10 pages at a time, and then have to stop. It took me more than a year to get through it.
I’d known that Israel’s not this milk and honey and chosen people place, all that stuff was not part of me anymore. But actually getting the week to week history of 1947-48, the dispossession of more than 700,000 Palestinians, and forests being built on top of demolished villages—Yes, I had heard about Deir Yassin before, but that was the only one, I thought. And because it was so horrible, it was the exception that proved the rule. It was– Jews didn’t do that. Ok: they did it once! It couldn’t have happened more than once! But it did. It happened many, many times–and rapes.
By then I was calling myself anti-Zionist. I never called myself that until after the trip to Israel. Before that, I knew I wasn’t Zionist anymore, but after the trip I felt ok to call myself anti-Zionist. Because I’d seen the conditions, I’d seen the racism.
I began to say, I’m an anti-Zionist. To me it was just like being anti-imperialist or anti-racist. It’s that the system that country is based on is the problem. That it’s not just, like here, if they stopped killing Black people in the street, and the banks just were regulated, then it would be ok. No, the whole damn system is rotten to the core. So, I think Zionism is the root of the problem.
Which is what I was, growing up, Zionist. I’d say, Israel is the land of the Jewish people. Though why I’m entitled to two countries I don’t really know.
It wasn’t about the Holocaust in my family. That wasn’t a big deal. Or at least no one told me that we had family who were killed. Everybody that was talked about got to the US before that. It was more, for 2,000 years the Jews have been oppressed, and now we have our own country, and there was no one there before, there was a desert, we made the desert bloom. A land without a people for a people without a land. That whole thing. I heard it in yeshiva of course. We probably sang Hatikvah every day along with the Star Spangled Banner.
Of course, later, that made me angry. And today I don’t really interact with the Jewish community as such. It’s painful. I’ve recently been contacted about a fifty year reunion of the 100 “kids” I went to Israel with in 1967. That will be interesting!
When I got involved with Adalah-NY, I was glad to be getting involved not as a Jew, just as a human rights activist, as an ally in the Palestinian people’s struggle. This is what I want to speak out about. I could have joined the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP); but it didn’t feel right for me. I’m really glad that some people do that, organize as Jews–really glad. And I go to JVP events. I know the people, I like them.
But for me to do this work as a Jew, it’s just, to work with the mainstream Jewish community—so many of them are so racist, you know, I’d rather just talk to any old people on the street, and help them understand what it’s about. Because most people have no idea.
I don’t have any desire to engage with the mainstream Jewish community about this. My best friend has a lot of friends and relatives, they’re still very much Zionist. I say, “How do you do it?” She says, “They say something to me like, how about those three kids who were kidnapped? And I say, how about the 500 kids who were killed in Gaza? Then we talk about the weather.” They just switch gears. She can maintain that. I can’t.
Recently, I saw a cousin at a funeral. “How are you? How are your kids. Great, good.” Then he sent me a Rosh Hashanah card. So I wrote back. And rather than emailing I actually wrote and mailed it. I told him what’s going on, about my kids, and my new husband, and then I said, probably the reason we haven’t been in touch–we had been close– is because this is what I’m doing with myself, and it’s not just, I’m involved in community gardening and I happen to think like this. Rather, this is a big part of what I do with myself.
So he wrote back. He said “I don’t know if it will make any difference to you but I’m not an AIPAC guy, I’m more a J Street guy.” Yeah, to me, that’s a huge difference.
And he said, If continuing to connect and talk or write means we’re going to argue about this, I don’t think we should do that. If it means we just ignore it, I’m more open to that. I wrote back. Yes, Absolutely. If you told me you’re an AIPAC guy– But J Street, you know, that’s different. I did say it would be hard for me– it was the beginning of the stabbings and murders about a year and half ago —and I said that I would find it hard to not talk about it, but that I was willing to talk respectfully. And I felt I could do that, and he could do that too.
I was shocked when he said he was involved with J Street. Because the one time I talked to his wife at a family bat mitzvah about it and I said something about settlements being on occupied territory, she said, no it was disputed territory and really you should talk to my husband if you need to know more. I said, I know all I need to know, if that’s what he thinks we don’t have anything to talk about. So I was shocked when he said J Street. Because disputed territory is not what J Street says about the settlements. So we’ll see!
But that’s family. I’m not going to spend energy having these kinds of conversations with other Jews who are Zionists. If they’ve decided that Israel is now the way they were told it was forty, fifty years ago, nothing new has gotten in. Nothing about the racism, the African refugees, about the discriminatory laws, about the apartheid wall, about the Jewish only roads, the siege on Gaza, about imprisonment of Palestinian children. Nothing has gotten in. They still think it’s secular and kibbutzim, and socialist. It’s crazy.
I do think it’s lovely when I see Jews who are walking the road I took. Many of the new young JVP people for instance. But I’m not sure what it takes to get Jews on that road. I wish all it took was looking, opening your eyes, and seeing what’s going on, but it doesn’t seem to work.
What will it take? I gave the DVD, Roadmap to Apartheid to my sister a few years ago. I talked to her for years. And she was like, yeah I know, they’re always so arrogant. Because even growing up, Israelis that we’d meet were so full of themselves. That was separate from Israel, but then she spent a number of weeks over there with an uncle who moved to Jerusalem in the late sixties. She was the one relative who was willing to go and help, she moved him from apartment to senior place to nursing home to hospice, to cemetery. She went five or six times in the 90s. And she would come back and talk about it a little bit. She got how racist and difficult people were—and the entitlement thing.
Later when I got more involved, I would talk to her. Then I gave her the film and she was amazed, seeing the video of the wall and the settlements. She said, Now I get it. Ok, I understand.
But again, that’s family. If I’m talking to a Jewish person who is Zionist, I feel the resistance, and I know this is not likely to go anywhere. Many of them, they can’t think it through. Because if they think it through honestly, they’ll come to where we’re at.
The good part is that J Street can be a continuum. They know AIPAC is messed up. So they come to J Street. But once they’re in J Street, maybe they’ll start reading something super critical or see a UN shelter bombed. Then their kid goes to college and there’s an Open Hillel and he or she comes home and tells them why as a Jewish organization, Hillel should be open to all Jews, no matter their political point of view about Israel. So a lot of people have come through J Street to JVP. It’s a good continuum.
I understand where they are. They’re stuck in the narrative of, we were oppressed for 2,000 years and now we have something that’s ours. But then it stopped. The learning stopped and the awareness of other people in the world stopped. So, yes, I have compassion. I knew people growing up with the numbers burned into their arms. I knew people who had suffered in the camps.
But Palestinians didn’t put them in ovens, and they’ve just transferred the anxiety and the horror that the Nazis created to the Palestinians.
I came at it as a leftist. So, learning about the holocaust in Rwanda, and so many others, learning about the triangle slave trade, with how many Africans were killed coming over here becoming slaves. These are all holocausts. There’s not just one holocaust.
I love that JVP has a rabbinical counsel and cantorial council because they’re doing that. They are knocking on doors and saying No, you can’t keep us out. Let us talk with you. If I had to do that, I suppose I could and I would. But I don’t seek that sort of work.
And today I am hopeful. When the BDS campaign started in 2005 I don’t think anyone anticipated what’s happened since, and the tremendous progress in Europe, South America, cultural, sports, products. But as long as the United States continues to back Israel with money and weapons and political support, Israel keeps on.
The non-synagogue-related Jews– there’s been a shift. Synagogue related Jews, not so much. But non synagogue related Jews, if you’re a liberal Jewish person, and there’s a choice between your liberal values and having to support this racist ethnocratic regime, you think, why should I support that? What does it have to do with me?
I see it with my sister and brother-in-law’s kids, it’s just not a thing for them. They’re Jewish but– For the most part, it’s like, why should I care about that place?
But I’m more interested in the wider community. A video was done with liberal, non-activist African Americans about two years ago, Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine, that’s really important. It hopefully can move to something like we had with Vietnam, the Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. If we could do that for Palestine, that would be amazing; if we can actually break into the black churches with Palestine. A lot of them do get it, but it’s hard for them to actually take a stand. We’ve seen it with some of the more progressive churches, but we need to get the regular mainstream congregations.
I used to say to a friend, every time Israel would do something horrible, can it get worse? But it seems like every month they do something more horrendous. They keep doing it. It feels like they’re going to implode.
And that too is a big change from 10 years ago. Israel is more vicious. It’s more un-open to anything else. Where it used to be they would not attack leftist Jews, now they do. David Sheen recently put together an hour and a half of short videos about aspects of the racism there. One thing after another, the racism in housing and education, Lehava – the group that goes around telling Jewish women to not date non-Jewish men. And I only watched like two or three of them. But it’s– how can you keep doing this? This thing with the wedding: stabbing the pictures of the Dawabsha family. Not arresting people because you don’t have enough information for the murder of that family. You have all the information you need. Then they have to act the fool and say “this was not Jewish.”
It’s obviously such a lie, because Bibi and the rest of the government is pushing policies and practices that led to the burning of the Dawabsha family. They’re responsible for what has happened. It’s like Trump– they say, How could he say that? Well, Obama deported 2 million people to Central and South America. The racism’s there. Trump didn’t create the racism.
As for the religion part of it, I’m an atheist. I became one in college. I don’t blame Judaism for Israel but I see that the Zionists have used religion to maintain the conflict.
Some of the religious stuff is still stuck in me. During Hanukkah I was either waking up or going to sleep singing to myself the prayers in Hebrew for the lighting of the Hanukkah candles, and I was telling my mother, (who died in 1990), to get the hell out of my head. That was what it felt like, she was saying you should be doing this and that. There was no pleasure in the dream.
When I was in Israel, I was talking the language that had been a dead language except for prayer. It wasn’t dead any longer. The fact that stuff I learned 50 years ago, I can speak it, and songs I learned, prayers I learned, they’re still there, and all the words come out, and some of them are very pretty– I sort of like that part.
But now who I do talk Hebrew to? Palestinians. There are a couple of Palestinians I know who grew up there. And they speak some Hebrew. So we can goof around in it.
I look forward to the language being shared without being loaded. Hebrew, Arabic, English, and everybody speaks all three languages. Wouldn’t that be nice?
The institutions I admire in ’48 Israel are the human rights groups. Like Coalition of Women for Peace. They maintain a feminist perspective, and they always have. One of the things they do is when soldiers come back from serving in war–women are soldiers too, but the guys do the most brutal stuff—and they come home and, guess what, brutality against their girlfriends and wives goes up. So that’s something they talk about and put out there. They run shelters for Jewish, Muslim, and Christian women. And their perspective in doing that is from looking at the violence of the society. So that’s an organization I’ve always had a connection with. Whatever thousands of people there are over there who are speaking the truth, I support..
When I say human rights, my perspective is not Jews versus Muslims, it’s work as human rights activism. Anti imperialist, anti capitalist, anti Zionist, antiracist, feminist. But my overall perspective is, how do you maintain human rights?
It’s a different ethos from the one I had as a girl. Then it was, you were a Jewish person who was helping people. It was, who you were as a Jew is– you helped people. Now I would say, that’s liberalism. Of course it’s better that you help people than hurt people. But it’s not going to make fundamental change. It doesn’t look at the society and ask how can it be changed fundamentally. And it doesn’t see that the problem is systemic.
The human rights focus is more recent for me. When I was ultra-left it was the organization above all, that was the way you did things. What we did was correct and what other groups did was wrong. No one understood it the way we understood it. And there are still lots of people out there who live their lives and try to organize from that kind of insular perspective.
Now I’m supportive of any group dedicated to human rights. That became my guiding principle about 15 years ago with the Iraq War. Meeting the folks from Iraq was really powerful for me. It wasn’t just “Iraqis,” you know. It was meeting them and talking about their lives. And hearing what my country was doing to them, live, not in some article you read. It was: My mother, my cousin, my job, my dream for my children’s future. You know– real humans. What our policies had done to them.
So I went from believing my co-religionists were special and better than other people to believing my organization was special and smarter than anyone else’s group, and eventually to believing that everyone’s got to pitch in and fight for each other, for rights for all, because rights for some doesn’t cut it. The Palestinians and the Iraqis taught me, and Black Lives Matter and the Standing Rock Native American water protectors are teaching us, that you have to stand for the most oppressed. And that can change the people with privilege into people who care and pay attention and get involved. And that’s how we get somewhere.