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At our 50th year Israel reunion, I had three minutes to tell my story

Middle East

Fifty-one years ago this week, I was scheduled to go to Israel with about 100 kids from Camp Ramah locations all over the US. Instead, the 6 Day War took place. Known to Palestinians since then as the Naksa—”day of the setback”—it represents the further displacement of Palestinians that resulted from Israel’s victory in the 1967 War. When the war was over, the Jewish Theological Seminary, sponsor of Ramah’s Hebrew-speaking sleep away summer camps throughout the U.S. and the Ramah seminar to Israel, contacted our parents and rescheduled the trip for a few weeks later.

Fifty years later, in November 2017, about 30 of us gathered for a reunion in a Manhattan apartment. Another thirty or so had reunited in Israel a few weeks earlier. I tried to write about it six months ago. Now, finally, inspired by the steadfastness of  the Great Return March in Gaza, I am moved to reflect publicly about my experience.

In 1967, we were about 100 fifteen- to seventeen year-olds between our junior and senior years of high school, ready for the adventure of visiting Israel, most of us for the first time. Some of us, like me, came from observant, Shomer Shabbes families. Some were not religiously observant at all; some were something in between. I guess we were all Zionists. I don’t remember calling myself a Zionist, it was just assumed to be true; there was no other way of looking at Israel.

Many of the folks I went to Israel with—likely most—have maintained a strong Zionist perspective for the last fifty-one years, support for Israel remaining an important focus of their lives. They may see some problems that should be fixed, but they don’t recognize Israel as a settler colony. They refuse to see the inhumanity (and illegality) of collective punishment of entire families, even entire neighborhoods, in response to Palestinian attacks on Israel, which were themselves in response to the day-to-day demolition of their lives.

In my own life, I’ve gone off in a different direction, one that has lost me friends and family relations but gained me new friends and opened new vistas. As I met people whose homes had been demolished, and studied the history since Zionism’s founding in the 1890’s, I saw that the Israeli dream had always been destined to become a nightmare to those conquered by it.

In the emails leading up to our get-together, there was no mention of the developments in Israel since 1967. Perhaps no one dared open that can of worms. But it did get opened, as each of us took three minutes to talk about then and now.

At the reunion, we looked at pictures taken during our trip. When I first saw the photos of the empty hilltops in the West Bank—“liberated” by the IDF in 1967—I felt sick to my stomach. Those hilltops and many more are now occupied by Jewish citizens of Israel, with tax benefits from their government—whether Labor or Likud—for moving to those settlements, all illegal under international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 prohibits countries from moving their population into territories occupied in a war; fifty-one years after the ’67 war, there are more than 600,000 Jews living in the occupied West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.

When it was my turn to speak, I talked about my anger at these moral and ethical violations, and then mentioned the email I had received that morning. If Not Now members had protested outside the Jewish Theological Seminary. As they return to Ramah this summer as camp counselors, they are committed to teaching about the occupation and Palestinian narratives to other staff and to their campers. (Their hashtag: #YouNeverToldMe.)  Perhaps for the first time, this will be an opportunity for many to listen to the other side. “The Occupation,” they write, “is a daily nightmare for Palestinian people and a moral disaster for the Jewish people. Our generation cannot sit by while the institutions we care for absolve themselves of their responsibility to ensure a just future for Israelis and Palestinians by depicting a one-sided narrative or explaining the situation to students as ‘complicated.’”

What if, when we went to Israel in the summer of 1967, we had met the Palestinians  who were thrown out of their homes a few weeks earlier? What if we had met Palestinians living in the West Bank since 1948, when they were first driven out—victims of Israel’s triumph—into the West Bank and Gaza, with no recourse? What if we had seen them as human beings—disempowered human beings, as we ourselves have been in the past—and learned their stories?

What if we had been taught to recognize the influence of both the Holocaust, which the Palestinians bear no responsibility for, and the Nakba, which Israel is responsible for? For the Palestinians, it was the displacement of 750,000 people that preceded and followed the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948. How would we be different now? And considering how each of us is connected to hundreds of others, how would the situation in the Jewish community be different? Could a group of 16-year-olds returning from Israel and denouncing injustice have affected the Jewish community’s denial of the ethnic cleansing being perpetrated in their name?

While I’m not sure, it felt safe to assume that few, if any, of the folks at the reunion voted for Trump or agree with his regime’s policies with regard to immigration, a Muslim ban, the environment, systemic racism, Nazis and white supremacists, guns, women’s reproductive rights, sexual assault, homophobia, or transphobia.

I believe my fellow Ramah-niks oppose racism and injustice in our country. If they do, why won’t they see the racism of Israeli society? Why don’t they see the theft of land, uprooting of olive trees, detention of children, and the alliance with despots throughout the world? Why do they continue to conflate Judaism with Zionism? Don’t they see that Zionism redefines Jews as oppressors?

Why aren’t they speaking out against the murder of 120 Palestinians in Gaza since March 30, including children and journalists and medical workers? How can they possibly defend such violence against people standing up for their rights?  I hope they will soon come to see the Israelis’ refusal to recognize the humanity of the Palestinians—struggling, in their despair, to get the world to see the horror of the situation they face every day.

How do we pursue tikkun olam (fixing the world)? How can we begin to do that if we murder people who are living on the land we wish to claim, ethnically cleansing them so that we may have it for ourselves?  We can only fix the world if we stand for justice for all people, even and especially when it requires us to question our own history, upbringing, traditions, and decisions.

About Menucha Sara, bat Eliyahu v' Lea

Menucha Sara, bat Eliyahu v' Lea is the Hebrew name of a NY activist. She does not use her American name so as to preserve her privacy.

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21 Responses

  1. annie
    annie
    June 16, 2018, 12:54 pm

    Thank you for your story Menucha Sara. i really want to know how they reacted after your 3 minute speech and wonder if there was any discussion afterwards or if the conversation just moved right on to the next person. and how very interesting you had a camp reunion after all these years. i seriously doubt if i could ever find a list of the people i went to camp with when i was a teen.

    yes, for the most part, your generation of jewish americans are extremely attached to israel. it could very well be the last generation of it’s kind with such an attachment.

    • CigarGod
      CigarGod
      June 17, 2018, 11:19 am

      I did a similar program, tho a year or two later. Then, I extended my stay to about a year and visited surrounding countries.
      Still finding links of the Zionist chain that used to bind my brain.

    • Citizen
      Citizen
      June 17, 2018, 7:58 pm

      When and where I was growing up only rich kids went to camp; to the rest of us, it was a mystery that happened every summer like a “sailboat rope burn.”

      • annie
        annie
        June 17, 2018, 8:47 pm

        citizen, i went to camp twice. once for a week when i was 9, i was a camp fire girl. the other time was for 3 weeks for a dance camp in steamboat springs when i was 14 ($750!!!!!). i worked all year babysitting and ironing to pay for it, plus i was the only kid from from the high school kids (it was primarily a college summer program back then) who worked in the camp kitchen while i was there as part of the “scholarship program”. but i’ll remember it my whole life. plus, i still have the worksheet list i saved after all these years from that year before. it reads like “babysitting $1.50”, ironing 75 cents. etc etc. line by line by line! my parents matched my funds.

        just googled it, it’s still there: http://perry-mansfield.org/about-us/campus.aspx

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        June 18, 2018, 10:34 am

        “When and where I was growing up only rich kids went to camp…”

        I know how you feel. When I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot of money, and couldn’t afford Zionism.

      • Maghlawatan
        Maghlawatan
        June 18, 2018, 10:44 am

        Camp Granada was free of Zionihilists

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        June 18, 2018, 10:45 am

        ” the other time was for 3 weeks for a dance camp in steamboat springs when i was 14 ($750!!!!!).”

        Giving this an especial relevance, no doubt

        I’ll never forget the summer I ended up in YWCA camp in upstate NY. Somebody goofed. The bus drove right past the YMHA summer camp sign, and before you could say, well, never mind what you could say, there I was, in a carbohydrate daze, singing “There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole” after dinner in the dining room. It was the camp director’s favorite hymn, he said, before leading us in song.

      • annie
        annie
        June 19, 2018, 3:55 pm

        no mooser, it wasn’t like that kind of dance camp! we fashioned ourselves as … avant garde!

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        June 19, 2018, 4:07 pm

        ” we fashioned ourselves as … avant garde!”

        That means ‘no dirty dancing’, doesn’t it?

      • annie
        annie
        June 19, 2018, 4:20 pm

        exactly. my 14 year old self admired and strived to be exotic (not dirty for heaven’s sake no).

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        June 19, 2018, 4:30 pm

        “(not dirty for heaven’s sake no).”

        Of course not, that kind of stuff went out with the Bacchantes!
        Modern Dance has come a long way since then.

  2. June 17, 2018, 9:46 am

    Great article – thank you for so precisely asking the questions that Zionists dare not answer.

  3. CigarGod
    CigarGod
    June 17, 2018, 11:19 am

    Btw, I have been standing up ever since.
    I’m sure others have and do.
    These programs took thousands of kids to Israel.

  4. Keith
    Keith
    June 17, 2018, 5:51 pm

    MENUCHA SARA….- “Why do they continue to conflate Judaism with Zionism?”

    Perhaps it is because American Judaism and American Zionism have merged to become a new phase of Judaism? A couple of quotes from Zionist theologian Jacob Neusner, followed by a concluding comment.

    “Just as the Judaic tradition had formerly told Jews what it meant to be Jewish – had supplied them with a considerable definition of their identity – so does Zionism in the modern age. Jews who lost hold of the mythic structure of the past were given a grasp on a new myth, one composed of the structural remnants of the old one.” (p176, “Stranger at Home: “The Holocaust”, Zionism, and American Judaism,” Jacob Neusner)

    “Zionism provides a reconstruction of Jewish identity, for it reaffirms the nationhood of Israel in the face of the disintegration of the religious bases of Jewish peoplehood.” (p196, Neusner)

    “…in fact the redemptive valence imputed to the State of Israel in American Judaism constitutes a judgment of Zionism. American Judaism must be deemed a wholly Zionist Judaism.” (p8, Neusner)

    All of this confirms my contention that the success of Zionism in becoming an integral expression of American Judaic thought and action indicates that American Judaism (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) can now be described as Judeo-Zionism, non-Zionist Judaism outside the mainstream.

  5. Liz
    Liz
    June 17, 2018, 6:19 pm

    Beautiful–thank you for writing this.

  6. wondering jew
    wondering jew
    June 17, 2018, 10:01 pm

    When I watch Christopher Hitchens (zikhrono livracha) on youtube videos, i also watch his condemnation of zionism in terms of the non sequitir: the european cataclysm done unto the jews somehow leads to the harm done by the jews to the palestinians. because history is not static, time in fact plays a large role in how our perspective changes. 1967 was but 22 years after world war 2 and we are 51 years further along. we must judge the entire enterprise, but we must not blind ourselves to the dynamics that were at play in 67. (the inability or unwillingness to do so casts doubt on one’s ability to be a moderating voice if ever the chance arises in your time to play a role. and advocacy might be your thing instead. but my curiosity is piqued not by advocacy, but by the potential for bridging gaps.)

    • Donald
      Donald
      June 18, 2018, 9:42 am

      You are right in the long run, but what has happened in the US is that the Israelis get endless amounts of understanding and context and Palestinians get none. A Palestinian who actually does use terrorism is killed and this is deemed just. Israeli snipers shoot down unarmed Palestinians and the NYT prints four opinion pieces justifying it. Bari Weiss supports it as well, though not on the pages of the NYT.

      This country is so biased in favor of the Zionist “ narrative” that liberal Zionists in the US could have safely ignored the nonZionists and pushed hard for a two state solution during the past few decades. But with a few exceptions, most self proclaimed 2ss supporters were just paying lip service to it and had no interest in putting serious pressure on Israel. It was all about a meaningless peace process and making sure nobody blamed Israel for the lack of results. Liberal Zionism has been represented by hypocrites and I don’t mean the conflict between liberalism and Zionism, but that on their own terms liberal Zionists are largely a bunch of hypocrites, again with a few exceptions like Peter Beinart.

    • eljay
      eljay
      June 18, 2018, 9:52 am

      || Yonah Fredman: … because history is not static, time in fact plays a large role in how our perspective changes. … ||

      The problem with Zionism is that the perspective never changes: Jewish supremacism in/and a religion-supremacist “Jewish State” in as much as possible of Palestine was acceptable before WWII; it was more acceptable after WWII; it continued to be acceptable in 1967; and it remains acceptable in 2018.

    • Mooser
      Mooser
      June 18, 2018, 10:40 am

      “When I watch Christopher Hitchens (zikhrono livracha) on youtube videos”

      “Youtube videos”, already? It’s not bad enough you’re constantly in contact with who-knows-what kind of people at that Mondoweiss you’re addicted to, now you are filling your mind with trefe from “youtube videos”

      Pretty much preparing yourself for apostasy, ain’t ya?

  7. Misterioso
    Misterioso
    June 18, 2018, 11:16 am

    @eljay

    “…and it remains acceptable in 2018.” But considerably less so.

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