Justice and Community: A Response to Jewish Fracturedness

Written by Zachary Brenner

Illustrated by Tamar Weir

few weeks ago, I was asked to participate in an interfaith panel on campus, where representatives from multiple religions were invited to speak upon their personal experiences. I sat beside a Buddhist nun, two Sikhs, a Christian, a Muslim, and a Pagan. No, this is not the beginning of a joke. Before the panel began, the moderator pulled me aside to prepare me for the types of questions I would be asked as I had only decided to participate a couple hours earlier. The other panelists had been prepared for at least 30 minutes each. I was told that the first question would be this: “You’re on a bus and someone approaches you and asks why you are Jewish” and that I only had 3 minutes to answer. I thought hard. I wasn’t meant to discuss what made me Jewish — being born into it, in my case — but why. I thought about what I cared about most in life, and trusted that I cared about these things in large part because of my Jewish upbringing and grounding in Jewish thought and morals. After all, I had attended Jewish schools and summer camps for my entire childhood. After much deliberation and consideration of an entire life devoted to Jewish morals, I decided on my answer. The why as to why I am Jewish was because of a commitment to justice and community.

     Unfortunately, justice and community are not as easy to obtain as I would like. Throughout my college career, I have been exposed to a fractured and hateful reality within my immediate Jewish community. The political ideologies that drive different Jews at UC Santa Cruz and across the United States diaspora result in constant clashing, opposition, and blind eyes turned. The source of this divisiveness, from my view, stems from fundamentally different understandings of Zionism and anti-Zionism. Seemingly, the line is drawn down the middle. When Zionists and anti-Zionists are faced with one another: neither seems willing to see the merit of the other side.

   As a student exploring my own political ideas through college, I have studied radical and conventional modes of thinking through classes and conversations with other Jews and left-leaning activists. I have seen the importance of both ends of the spectrum. I identify with both ends of the spectrum. I have resonated deeply with the importance of a Jewish state, having been raised to understand the precariousness of Jewish privilege and the desperation that has ensued throughout the centuries with anti-Semitism and violence. I have also resonated deeply with anti-Zionists who fundamentally oppose nation-states and their socially constructed borders which often exclude groups considered to be “outsiders.” I have also sympathized with anti-Zionist, Palestinian nationalists who, after being affected by decades of a cruel Israeli occupation on Palestinian territory, have resorted to opposing Israel and its government through a  desire for Palestinian self-determination. I have connected personally to the idea that the Israeli government, as it currently exists, is a problematic entity which perpetuates an occupation of Palestine that has persisted for over 50 years.

     But where do I fall on the spectrum? I fall somewhere between Zionist and anti-Zionist, depending on the context.  I am not committed to either. I am not committed to the Jewish state. I am committed to Jews and justice. And that is my point. The Zionist mentality, from my perspective, stems from a deep connection to a preservation of the Jewish faith. Certain Jewish, anti-Zionist mentalities stem also from a commitment to upholding Jewish morals that Israel seems to contradict regularly, or a commitment to calling attention to the atrocities enacted upon a people different from one’s own. Centering conversation on Israel, as it exists today, detracts from the community and justice that I crave; it seems to only promote divisiveness, separation, exclusion, and forcing one to take sides.

    Yet Israel is not going anywhere, and it is because of this that we have to stop this divisiveness which only perpetuates the conflict and avoids the necessary consensus and compromise required before any other solutions can be put forward. There are Zionists who are deeply problematic. Zionists who will do anything… anything to preserve Israel, and this is wrong in my view. A blind support of a government which frequently encourages Israeli settlers and an occupation which results in the murder and displacement of another community cannot be tolerated in my book — ever. There are anti-Zionists as well who are deeply problematic — who use anti-Zionism as a shield for anti-Semitism by claiming that Israel and Jews are separate issues, yet continuously make assumptions about Jews and point their fingers at the entire Jewish community. Or, people who advocate for violence against innocent civilians to send greater messages.

        I want to reiterate the point of this piece. The issue I see is in the divisiveness in the American Jewish community. At Shabbat dinners, I am told to attend Birthright, an organization that I will never support for claiming to be purely cultural yet frequently perpetuates implicit and explicit propaganda to harness blind support of Israel by avoiding any critical views that are completely valid and necessary. This alienates all who oppose Israeli policies and feel the necessity to speak out. Every year, on Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust is co-opted to perpetuate Zionist agendas rather than shifting the focus toward the importance of Jewish perseverance, whether through the existence of the state of Israel or not. The Holocaust is used as a tactic to sell the state of Israel, rather than as a tactic to maintain Judaism. In response to this, members of the Left will speak out against the state of Israel, which redirects the focus of the Holocaust on Israeli politics rather than on what I see as the true message of the Holocaust — that Jews did not die out and should be allowed to continue to survive.

 The divisiveness cannot and will not simply stop. We are far beyond that point. People possess fundamentally different interpretations of the world and we will have to work to mend these divides — to allow people to work through ideas that they may hold onto for authentic reasons, or possibly hold onto as a response to the divisiveness. To mend, we must extend an invitation, at our Shabbat and holiday tables, to those whose opinions are different from our own. Why do they believe what they believe? What underlies their mentalities? I would optimistically argue that these mentalities are perpetuated by a commitment to justice, in some form or another. A commitment to doing what they feel is right. If we take issue with what is said, we should hold one another accountable and discuss, rather than argue, for tangible solutions or middle grounds. Yelling and shunning may make us feel better, but at the end of the day it will make us all feel worse and will have us clinging to our opinions more strongly than ever, not willing to see the world in different ways and abolishing our empathy and compassion (if it hasn’t been destroyed already).

       We do not all have to be friends. But I am disheartened, demoralized, sick, and tired of conversations where it seems that those beginning the conversations do so with a goal of perpetuating divisive and hateful rhetoric — with the goal of tearing people down to shreds and then being proud of it. People seem to want to justify their own actions. I argue that the greatest justification one can have of their own actions is through thoroughly understanding divergent viewpoints, considering those viewpoints, and then making an informed decision that they can truly and fully believe. Many might say that they obviously do this already. For those who do, I commend you and encourage you to continue doing so. For many, however, informed decisions seem to be a thing of the past. I’ve been guilty of this myself: clinging to sources and facts that conform to my preconceived notions about a particular topic. But no more. Facts are facts even if they will be interpreted in different ways — and it is in those different interpretations that we must engage meaningfully with one another, to understand our various viewpoints and priorities. If we do so, we have committed ourselves to establishing a healthier community. It is our job to locate the facts and refrain from immediate assumptions and judgement.

       I crave a community where we don’t have to silence ourselves or resort to angry and hateful rhetoric to prove a point. I crave a community in which the person sitting to the left of me has a different opinion from the person to the right of me — and that the three of us can discuss those viewpoints in a conducive manner, with an honest commitment to justice rather than a commitment toward self-justification. Only then, can we progress toward accomplishing our true goals and reach for tangible solutions to the issues we care about.

Contrary to what I’ve heard, I’d dare to say that anti-Zionists do not all have bad intentions and Zionists don’t either. If you don’t believe me, go talk to some.

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