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‘How is it I represent to others what I am so afraid of?’ — an anti-Zionist’s Pittsburgh elegy

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Two days after the horrific murder of 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, I was sitting in my classroom where I teach, listening to several Jewish students grapple with understanding their suffering in response to the murders.  They were scared, worried, confused.  As a high school teacher in a large urban public school, I’ve become a resource for many Jewish students who long for a Jewish connection throughout the busy school day.  Most of them are Zionists.  I’m not out as an anti-Zionist at my school–it’s not safe for me to be–but I also wouldn’t say that I walk around pretending to be a Zionist.  When I listen to my Zionist students trying to make sense of what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in American history, I understand their suffering.

Even when they talk about their love for Israel, I can understand this, too, because I used to think like they do.  My path to anti-Zionism is always through Zionism first–the new neural pathways in the brain aren’t as deep yet as the old ones I constantly fight against.  And I think some of my students can continue to grow their capacity, too, and to have empathy for all those who suffer.

Later that day, when I was walking with some of these Jewish students, we saw a sign for an Israeli club meeting that afternoon in a colleague’s classroom.  The sign said it would be a space to honor the victims.  But this is also the club that provides pro-Israel propaganda to teens with outside support from private pro-Zionist organizations.  I didn’t say anything to my students, of course–that I hoped the sponsors of this meeting wouldn’t use the anti-Semitic murders as a way to build teenagers’ love for Israel.  I know these students needed a place to mourn and to process their discomfort, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of Palestinian suffering.

“At least we can always go to Israel if there’s more anti-Semitism,” was the first thing that came to my mind when I first learned about the murders.  Strangely, this sentence was in my mother’s voice–though it was in my head–for she has said this to me over the years when antisemitic incidents have happened to Jews in the U.S.

It was unusual that this phrase materialized in my mind after the murders, but not much makes sense when people are suffering. It was also odd that the sentence arose in my mind, given that I no longer believe in Israel as a nation-state for the Jews.  But I was an ardent Zionist for decades, and so my brain is still wired, it seems, to revert to old ways of thinking.  Growing up, I shared my mother’s fears of anti-Semitism, for we had both experienced it first-hand at the school at which she taught and which I attended, as well as in our neighborhood, so I had learned at an early age to be wary of how people could treat the Jews.  “At least we can always go to Israel if there’s more anti-Semitism,” she’d say, and I believed–because my mother believed–that Israel would save us from anti-Semitism.

It’s peculiar, really, all these labels.  I’m an anti-Zionist who is perceived as a Zionist by people who need to see me this way, namely my coworkers and students.  If I reveal who I really am, I risk being labeled an antisemite, which is the very thing I’m afraid of: more anti-Semitism.

During the last few days, I’ve been rereading sections of Viktor Frankl’s 1959 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote after surviving four camps, including Auschwitz.  I return to this book often when I’m suffering.  It felt somehow appropriate to read it again this week.

In his chapter on the psychology of the liberated prisoner, Frankl writes of one man in particular who made it out of the camps.  This man thought that since he had survived the horror of the camps and had come back to his home town in Vienna, his time of extreme suffering would be over.  Upon returning, however, he experienced a bitterness when people told him that they didn’t know what was happening in the camps, and that, they, too, had suffered.  As a result, he also experienced extreme disillusionment; returning to his hometown might not actually mean the end of his suffering:

A man who for years had thought he had reached the absolute limit of all possible suffering now found that suffering has no limits, and that he could suffer still more, and still more intensely.

Some other men made it back to their hometown only to find that no one awaited them.  The person they had dreamed of seeing at home was not there, and would never be there. “Woe to him who, when the day of his dreams finally came,” Frankl writes, “found it so different from all that he had longed for.”   The people realized that there simply was no end to their suffering.  The only thing left for anyone to do when this happens, Frankl writes, is to try to find meaning from one’s suffering.

I’m trying to do this, too, to find meaning while mourning the loss of life; as I write this, there has been yet another shooting in the U.S.  There have now been 307 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2018.  Anti-Semitism is on the rise, and I’m scared to be labeled an anti-Semite for being an anti-Zionist–and disturbed by the idea that we live in a world where I could represent to others something I’m afraid of!

But ultimately, these labels are meaningless, too.  I wasn’t in the Tree of Life synagogue.  I didn’t know any of those who were killed.  All I know is they died before reaching their full potential as sentient beings roaming this earth–as countless others have before them, and have since.

And so many of us are left suffering for so many reasons, really, wondering, dreaming, that if only things were different, better, we might come to know what Frankl says towards the end of his book: “How beautiful the world could be!”

Liz Rose

Liz Rose is a Chicago teacher.

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15 Responses

  1. JLewisDickerson on November 11, 2018, 1:21 pm

    RE: “If I reveal who I really am, I risk being labeled an antisemite, which is the very thing I’m afraid of: more anti-Semitism.” ~ Liz Rose

    MY COMMENT: Touché!

    • Misterioso on November 12, 2018, 10:54 am

      @JLewisDickerson, et al

      Just received from Canada:

      “Holocaust survivor responds to Prime Minister Trudeau’s belated apology”

      “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau,”

      “Thank you for issuing a belated apology from Canada to the Jews from Germany who sought refuge here in 1939 while desperately fleeing from the Nazi murder machine.

      “Unfortunately, your apology rings hollow when, in the name of Canadians and the whole Jewish people, you denounce the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which the Palestinians and their supporters around the world are using to pressure their Israeli persecutors and colonizers to respect Palestinian human rights and abide by international law.

      “The BDS campaign embodies the humanitarian values we hold so dear by defending Palestinian victims of the illegal Israeli occupation of their lands, protesting their unequal equal treatment within Israel, and supporting their quest to be liberated from the world’s largest open-air prison, where they are confined in Gaza. Your expression of regret for the ‘callousness of Canada’s response’ in 1939 would resonate more convincingly if you would speak with equal empathy for unarmed Palestinians being shot down by Israeli snipers as they engage in non-violent protest marches.

      “As someone who is a Holocaust survivor, I am alive today because I was hidden in France within Nazi territory by farming people inspired by love for all of humanity. We must all demonstrate the spirit of human solidarity that Canada failed to show in 1939 to counter the persecution and suffering of all afflicted peoples, including the Palestinians.”

      Suzanne Berliner Weiss
      Member, Independent Jewish Voices (Canada)

      • Elizabeth Block on November 12, 2018, 8:17 pm

        I know Suzanne! I too am a member of Independent Jewish Voices. And I also wrote to the Prime Minister:

        Thank you for the apology for Canada turning away the St. Louis. It’s been a long time coming.

        But no thanks for this:
        “Jewish students still feel unwelcome and uncomfortable on some of our college and university campuses because of BDS-related intimidation.”

        BDS is an entirely non-violent movement, aimed at putting pressure on Israel to stop treating Palestinians the way Jews used to be treated. (Imagine Canada if it were a Christian state in the same way that Israel is a Jewish state.) If it causes some Jewish students to feel uncomfortable, because of their unconditional support for Israel, I’m glad. They should feel uncomfortable. Anyone who supports oppression should feel uncomfortable. As for intimidation, it is in their minds (and consciences), not in the actions of BDS advocates.

        You seem to have swallowed the line of the Zionists, that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism. It is not. I am Jewish, and I support BDS. Do I want to see Israel disappear? No – but I do want to see regime change.

        I can understand why you are afraid to go against the Zionists. But public opinion is changing, here in Canada as elsewhere, and that includes Jewish public opinion. The number of Jews who criticize Israel is growing, and some will even say so in public.

        Someday you, or a future liberal prime minister, will see your way to change as well. When that day comes, remember that you have Jewish allies.

      • Keith on November 13, 2018, 12:33 am

        ELIZABETH BLOCK- “Thank you for the apology for Canada turning away the St. Louis. It’s been a long time coming.”

        And how many non-Jews in dire straights were turned away? I quote Tree in regards to the immigration situation in the US which, I suspect, is similar to Canada.

        “It should also be noted that during the time of the US immigration quotas, Ukrainians, who were dying in the millions from the forced starvation of the Holodomor, were almost completely cut off from any immigration to the US. Poles, who were as a nation suffering from the Soviet Union’s Great Terror were also nearly completely cut off from US immigration, as were other Eastern and Southern Europeans. The majority of the Europeans who were victimized by the massive curtailment of US immigration opportunities that occurred in the 1920’s and onward were religiously Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

        It should also be noted that during this time any immigration to the US from Asian countries was COMPLETELY prohibited, and those Asians who had immigrated earlier were prohibited from becoming naturalized US citizens.

        I’m sick and tired of the lie that Jews were singled out for prohibition, and the lie that others were not as negatively impacted by the country restrictions as Eastern European Jews. The US restrictions doomed Ukrainian kulaks, Polish nationalists and others well before they doomed Eastern European Jews.” (Tree)

        In case you missed the relevant part, ” The majority of the Europeans who were victimized by the massive curtailment of US immigration opportunities that occurred in the 1920’s and onward were religiously Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.” Not exactly the Judeo-Zionist meme, is it?

      • JustJessetr on November 13, 2018, 10:25 am

        @ Elizabeth Block.

        BDS is not non-violent when they support violent resistance.

      • RoHa on November 13, 2018, 5:38 pm

        “Dire straits”, Keith.

        Of course, we old lags know that the US immigration restrictions were not specific to Jews, and you should keep on pointing it out, but don’t expect change the Zionist tune. You can’t stop the whining. Nobody can stop the whining.

      • Maghlawatan on November 13, 2018, 7:48 pm

        In Israel, whininess is next to neediness and neediness is next to godlessness.

    • Abern on November 12, 2018, 12:18 pm

      There is only one viable solution to Ms Rose’s dilemma, and it is mostly out of her hands. Jewish leaders and organizations must stand up and say anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. They must vociferously call out Zionists as liars and propagandists who say or insinuate it is. And they must do this over and over an over. Doing so would take a lot of courage.

      • Citizen on November 12, 2018, 6:48 pm

        Not to mention mental integrity

      • Stephen Shenfield on November 13, 2018, 6:36 am

        The trouble is that “Jewish leaders and organizations” (assuming that this refers to “mainstream” organizations) are extremely unlikely to say any such thing until Ms. Rose and the many others like her come out of the closet and succeed in influencing those around them.

    • Stephen Shenfield on November 12, 2018, 7:39 pm

      Ms. Rose. You are the best judge of what you should do in your particular situation, but perhaps you could consider adopting an intermediate position, one that might broaden the outlook of students and colleagues a little without triggering the consequences you fear. For example, in suitable contexts you could talk about the plight of Palestinians under occupation and express sympathy with them but avoid topics like BDS or the philosophy of Zionism. Or do you think even that would expose you to the risk of dismissal or assault?

      • Mooser on November 13, 2018, 6:31 pm

        ” I’m not out as an anti-Zionist at my school–it’s not safe for me to be”

        “It’s not safe”? You are in fear of Zionists?

  2. Mooser on November 11, 2018, 5:44 pm

    “It’s peculiar, really, all these labels. I’m an anti-Zionist who is perceived as a Zionist by people who need to see me this way, namely my coworkers and students. If I reveal who I really am, I risk being labeled an antisemite, which is the very thing I’m afraid of: more anti-Semitism.”

    And don’t forget, if you do say you are anti-Zionist, remember to have sure-fire solutions for all post-exile Jewish problems at hand.

  3. gamal on November 11, 2018, 10:37 pm

    “How beautiful the world could be!”

    “What do sad people have in common? It seems they have built a shrine to the past and often go there and do a strange wail and worship. What is the beginning of happiness? It is to stop being so religious like that”


    (The Khwaja from Shiraz)

    • Marnie on November 12, 2018, 1:40 am

      @ gamal – I googled your quote from Hafez and found this –

      ‘Recovery and redemption are hard, don’t get me wrong, because we are operating on the assumption that you (or I) were wounded (skin sliced open, bones broken, muscle tissue torn). But keeping our attention on the knife or fist that did the deed, which, as Hafiz rightly points out, is in fact a moment in time, now in the past – not getting past this moment in time, is really not the best way to say you care. And it makes sacred what hurt you.

      It may be an act of love to commiserate with the pain and injustice, but love can do better. Love can do the really hard thing of getting past the moment, of letting something actually heal, so that we might have a shot in hell of making something more of our beloved’s legacy than brutality, pain and injustice.’

      Wounds. – Catherine Collautt, Ph.D.

      Thanks –

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