The Jewish political map is far from a monolith. Anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian lefty Jews have gained prominence and attention due to public relation successes on the international arena as well as the Netanyahu government’s escalation of anti-Democratic legislation, targeting of human rights’ groups, persecution and expulsion of African refugees, and its endorsement and collaboration with neo-fascist, anti-Semitic forces worldwide.
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb is a congregational rabbi for 45 years and an advocate for Palestinian human rights since 1966. She serves on several boards dedicated to human rights and is a visual and performing artist. Rabbi Gottlieb recently returned from The Sumud Winter Tour sponsored by the Holy Land Trust. In this interview, Gottlieb shares her impressions as a Rabbi, woman and activist.
Yoav Litvin: You have been traveling to Palestinian towns and villages as an organizer and non-violent activist since 1966 and have just returned from a trip to Palestine/Israel. What were some of the changes you witnessed?
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb: The most profound change I encountered was that many Palestinians confidently declared that the word ‘occupation’ no longer describes the reality on the ground, and instead referred to it as ‘annexation’.
An occupation implies a limited time frame. Annexation describes the true motivation for use of military force, home demolitions, administrative detentions and denial of resources, which collectively lead to the removal of Palestinians from their homes and into ghettos or reservations. In other words, ethnic cleansing and the judaization of the land of ‘Greater Israel’, which has always been the goal, is almost complete. This translates as the end of the fantasy of the two-state solution that has been used as cover to carry out this objective. While this is not a new insight, it is clearer than ever.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) is viewed almost universally as a corrupt agency whose individuals line their pockets with foreign money. Since the PA has been unable to translate any potential diplomatic achievements into political gain, many people believe the PA should step down and allow the true dismal reality of life for Palestinians to be revealed to the whole world.
What were one or two particularly touching or impressive experiences you had during your trip?
Gottlieb: The trip I helped design with Holy Land Trust was unique in that several Palestinian Bedouins traveled with us throughout the trip. One moment of joy: four of our friends were able to pray at Al Aqsa for the first time, as well as go to the beach in Haifa.
However, while we were in Jerusalem one of the men was stopped because he was wearing a hoodie: it was raining and cold, and yet he was stopped by several soldiers who questioned him. “You look suspicious,” they said. “Why are you wearing a hoodie?” At that moment several of us saw what was going on, and we came to support our friend. While this seems inconsequential, it represents the daily assault on Palestinian human dignity for reasons that some Americans can recognize: wearing a hoodie or walking while Palestinian is dangerous.
After decades of oppression, Palestinians have adopted and created new means of coping. Please provide an example that inspired you.
Gottlieb: We visited the Tamimi household while Ahed and her parents were at court. Janna Jihad, Ahed’s closest friend, has been making videos of her experience since the age of 7 in order to record what life under Israeli military rule is like for children. We were all inspired by her passionate articulation of her own life and the life of those around her. Many young Palestinians have become fearless in the face of Israeli brutality and refuse to be silenced. Their use of social media is inspiring and should remind all of us to make space for their voices.
What is your impression of the reaction to Ahed Tamimi’s slapping of an Israeli soldier?
Gottlieb: The response to Ahed Tamimi’s slap by many Jewish people reveals the sexist and racist attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that impact a large portion of the Jewish community. The vile accusations against this child are stunning. Their purpose is to flip the script on Palestinian suffering and blame the victim instead of assuming responsibility.
I wonder: who would not slap a soldier after years of trauma as a result of recurring night invasions, administrative detentions with no possibility for justice or a fair hearing, daily destruction of village houses, and direct assaults, one of which targets your cousin in the head?
Israeli soldiers invade and scream in a strange language, push and shove with an assault rifle, destroy personal objects in homes, and kidnap and hurt friends and loved ones. And some people complain about Ahed’s slap?!
No one in her family had to teach her about Israeli behavior. But they did teach her how to resist with steadfastness for her own dignity. I recognize the reason for that steadfastness. It is the only way to resist victimhood, the only way to counter the assault and demand change.
The militarism that has become deeply embedded in Israeli society does not serve the future health of either Israelis or Palestinians. Human rights must supersede militarism. There is no other way forward.
What is your perspective on human rights as a Jewish activist and leader? Does sexism play a role in the oppressive narrative you confront?
Gottlieb: My witness is forged from values I absorbed as a young Jewish woman in relationship to what I saw with my eyes and heard with my ears while living and traveling in the land with two names: Palestine-Israel. As one of the first female-bodied people to inhabit a role exclusively held by men, the role of rabbi, I never felt comfortable with conventional attitudes about anything. I knew I had to question the contentions of those enjoying top dog privilege in the world’s racial, religious and gender hierarchies because their description of reality did not match my experience of sexism or racism.
I grew up mentored by rabbis who in the sixties actively resisted American apartheid. They often linked African American civil rights as a Jewish ethical responsibility in light of the world’s silence during the Holocaust. I absorbed a clear message: ‘Never again’ is intersectional. ‘Never again’ covers all people across all boundaries who suffer state sanctioned and community collaboration with violations of human rights.
Being a feminist witness has always been a challenge, given the entrenched sexism and racism within many Jewish and US institutions. After over four decades of on the ground experience, I am still surprised and appalled by sexist stereotypes that are used to discredit the obvious state of brutal oppression in Palestine.
Many Jews do not want to confront a reality that challenges them in the ways that the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter campaigns challenge male and white America, respectively. People in privileged positions don’t want to surrender their status, even if it means allowing horrible abuses of human rights to continue with impunity.
The reality of Jewish pro-active ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Greater Israel exists. As we approach the 70th year of active annexation of Palestinian lands and the accompanying assault on Palestinian people, how many Jewish congregations will sponsor a Nakba memorial ceremony, much less pursue an active agenda for Palestinian human rights?
How do you view Israeli society and its link to Jewishness? Does Israel represent you?
Gottlieb: The idea that the value of Jewishness depends upon an exclusive association with a specific geographical space is for me, a troubling outcome of the establishment of the State of Israel. This notion has resulted in the forced expulsion and continuing disenfranchisement and ghettoization of Palestinians.
Traditionally, various expressions of rabbinic Judaism were based on ethical ideas and ritual practices, not geography. Love your neighbor as yourself and the value of human dignity are the greatest principles of Torah.
In the contemporary period, all nation states, including Israel, must be held accountable to an adherence to human rights. This is the outcome of the tragedy of the Holocaust: states must observe human rights as defined by The Universal Declaration of Human Rights along with the treaties that have arisen from the Declaration. If states violate human rights, they should be made to pay a price by their citizens and by the International Court of Law.
Indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is also a measure for Jewish tradition itself. In this regard, Israel as a nation state is failing miserably. A state that claims to be a democracy, but offers rights and privileges to one group of people living under its rule on the basis of religious/ethnic identity, while denying those same rights and privileges to another group of people living under its rule practices a form of apartheid as defined by the UN ESCWA report (2017). This is exactly the situation for Palestinians living under Israeli rule.
The majority of Jewish Israelis are perfectly happy with this arrangement. They agree to send their children to the military to enforce this arrangement. This is not a reality I can identify with as a human being or as someone who identifies as a Jewish person. Rather, this is a reality I must resist.
How is Zionism perceived today in your community in the United States and what has changed in recent years?
Gottlieb: Zionism is a failing ideology for many younger Jewish people. They see the oppressive conditions facing most Palestinians under the banner of Zionism and are frustrated by the mainstream community, which is in denial of the oppression of Palestinians by Israel. I believe this trend will continue as the gap between what Zionism claims and what it practices widens.
Expelling African refugees, bellicose actions toward Iran, and awareness of brutal occupation policies will further erode the legitimacy of Zionism for young people. The close identification of Netanyahu with Trump does not help. With the end of the two-state solution, the next generation will have to reimagine the geography of the holy land as a space that can support two peoples in their love of the land.
Where do you find hope? What is the method of resistance to Israeli oppression and apartheid that you choose to engage in?
Gottlieb: The majority of Palestinians support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as the most effective nonviolent tactic to exert international economic pressure on Israeli policies. BDS should not be criminalized and neither should activists who support similar campaigns. There is no better way for activists to non-violently struggle for policy and institutional changes that result in an end to illegal annexation of Palestinian homes and land.
Palestinians who struggle every day to remain on their land and in their homes deserve our passionate and unrelenting support. Everyone who cares about Palestinian survival needs to find a way to support specific villages and projects. The best way is to join an organization already engaged in solidarity work. These days I support Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian-led organization based in Bethlehem, which is committed to forging a future grounded in equity and justice, as well as coexistence. I am inspired by the generations of Palestinians who have never given up on their dream to remain in the land as a free people. Freedom, equality and justice for Palestinians are the only paths to peace for both peoples.