Tuesday, November 20, 2012

An open letter to the New Orleans Zionist Community, UPDATED! with their response

Today I received an email invitation to a "community gathering of support" for Israel, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. Accompanied by photos of sad-looking Jewish children - coded by their yarmelukes - and decontextualized rocket explosions, the invitation quoted the assertion by Benjamin Netanyahu that "Israel wants peace," and asked recipients to donate to something called the "Israel Terror Relief Fund."

I have long struggled with the conflation of Judaism and Zionism, a dynamic validated by the mainstream North American Jewish community that sees Israel as the deserved homeland of the Jews. I am Jewish, but I do not believe I have any more of a right as a US citizen to live in Israel than a Palestinian person whose family has been living there for generations. I especially do not believe that Israeli society has the right to lay that Palestinian person under daily siege of economic deprivation, racial hostility, or military aggression.

Though I remain resolute in my damnation of such injustice, I am often made to feel by other Jews that I am wrong or traitorous for these views. This is a very disheartening experience, and I take it as a rejection from my people.

I was angry when I received the Jewish Federation email today. I felt like its originators were trying to speak for me, as though the Jewish community of New Orleans is a monolithic Zionist entity with all the same political inclinations and perspectives. This is entirely antithetical to my understanding of  Jewish tradition, which values discourse, debate, nuance, and the questioning of the status quo.

I responded with the following. I hope they don't excommunicate me.

Dear Mr. Franco,

I am unsubscribing from this listserve in part due to this email, which I believe is demonstrative of a larger coercive tone from the group asserting its identity as "Jewish NOLA," or the New Orleans Jewish community. I am a part of this group in the abstract sense that I am a Jew living in New Orleans, yet the email bothers me because it does not represent my interests or views as a Jew.

I do not support Israel in its military action against the Palestinian people, now or ever. I do not equate Judaism with Zionism, not do I believe I should have to in order to be considered a full Jew or a member of the Jewish community here in New Orleans or anywhere. I believe that this politicization of Jewish identity is damaging, restrictive, exclusionary, and, to put it bluntly, a turnoff for a civically engaged, justice-minded young Jew such as myself.

There are many reasons why I do not support the Zionist cause, most of which stem from my lifelong pursuit of Jewish education. Through this journey, I have learned to abhor the powers of oppression and marginalization that have victimized Jews for so many centuries. I see no consistency between the rejection of anti-Semitism and the embrace of Palestinian oppression. That is to ask, how can we as Jews be offended by injustice perpetrated against us, and then turn around and act unjustly towards others? Such a hypocrisy is unconscionable and, I would argue, un-Jewish.

I will not be joining you in your upcoming action to support Israel. I will not ever support your organization's - or anyone's - efforts to promote exploitation, racism, intolerance, injustice, or institutionalized poverty, such as it exists in Israel and elsewhere. In fact, I will stand against such efforts.

The comfort I take in this position is the knowledge that I am on the righteous side of justice and tikkun olam, and that I am not alone in this view. If you wish to ostracize me and likeminded Jews from your Jewish community, so be it. It is truly your loss.

Arielle Schecter

UPDATE! Here is the response I received from them.

Dear Arielle,
Thank you for responding to our invitation to Sundays event.

The letter of invitation was signed by Alan Franco, President of Jewish Federation.

Allow me to respond.

The event is themed very simply to express our support for and solidarity with Israel. The vast majority of the Jewish community in New Orleans supports Israel and wishes to feel close to her. That does not mean that we support everything that Israel does. Nor does it mean that we are promoting Zionism or calling for action about Israel’s specific polices.

There are many voices in the Jewish community. We recognize that. And some people take a more critical view and that is legitimate.

We do not “promote exploitation, racism, intolerance, injustice, or institutionalized poverty” as you suggest, in any place and in any way.

Indeed, we like to believe that we care for social justice as an expression of Tikkun Olam whether in New Orleans, the rest of America and Israel.

Some of our local activities are directly focused on that. And I hope that you will join us on our Mitzvah Day here in New Orleans on December 25.

The event on Sunday will not focus on settlements, the IDF, Israel’s role in the West Bank, or even the stalled peace process.

Our concern is about the right of the citizens of a sovereign state to live in peace and not to face daily rocket barrages from Gaza aimed at civilians.

And we will express our hope for a peaceful outcome in the Middle East that can bring peace to both the Palestinian and the Israeli peoples.

I hope that you see the event in that light.

I also hope that you will continue to see yourself as a part of this wonderful and diverse Jewish community even if you don’t agree with all that we as Federation do.

And continue to receive our communications.

Thank you for sharing.

Michael J. Weil
Executive Director

Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans

UPDATE! Here is my message back to them.

Dear Michael, et al:

Thank you for responding to my message and extending an invitation to further engage with the Jewish community of New Orleans.

I would like to articulate a bit further my feelings of distance and rejection that I have been experiencing from the Jewish community here, in the context of "support for and solidarity with Israel."

I understand that my views are not commonplace among Jews in North America and, by extension, the Greater New Orleans Area. However, rather than feeling recognized or legitimized (variations on your words) for or despite my views, I continue to feel as though I have no place in this community.

Indeed, I am a very engaged Jew here. I regularly attended services at local synagogues, I have dined at Shir Chadash's rabbi's house, I joined the Newcomers Program when I moved here, I go to Moishe House and Ayla events, I celebrate all the major holidays (and some of the minor ones), I co-chaired last year's Mitzvah Day on Christmas, and I briefly taught Religious School at Temple Sinai. Yet sadly I have felt pushed away from Judaism and have largely ceased being involved in these activities and community events.

Let me give you an example. The main reason why I stopped teaching at Temple Sinai is because the curriculum they push on the children is one that insists that Israel is the deserved homeland of the Jews: Israel is our home. Eretz Yisrael. Someday we will all live free in Jerusalem.

We sing Zionist songs in the music class. We make Zionist art. We read Zionist books. I do not think that any of this is appropriate unless a political context is provided, which of course it is not. This leaves the students confused and uninformed.

To illustrate this, one of my nine-year-old students asked me why "the Arabs always try to kill us." I told him that the Arabs do not always try to kill us. He then sought to clarify, asking why "the Arabs try to kill the Jews in Israel." I was at a loss in this moment, and did not feel like I had the institutional support to open a conversation on ethnic relations in the Middle East.

In an uneasy response, I told the student a parable of a family in which one of the children is locked in his room all the time. He feels like things are unfair because the other siblings are not locked in their rooms all the time. This child acts out because he feels like nobody is listening to him.

My students gave me the blank stares that every teacher dreads. I'm assuming nobody in their homes or in their larger Jewish communities has ever filled in the details of my simple metaphor, and they remain confused. Many of them probably continue to harbor negative views of Arab people, for no reason they can explain.

Why is this so? Why do we teach Jewish children that we are entitled to live in a land where the Jewish presence is fraught with political, social, and economic contradictions, without exploring those contradictions? Why do we focus on Israeli/Jewish victims of terror, and not examine the daily psychological and oftentimes physical terror inflicted by those same Israelis/Jews on the Palestinian people?

This approach constitutes a blindness that I believe is very dangerous for Jewish communities to perpetrate.

However, as you said, "there are many voices in the Jewish community." I believe it is your responsibility as a leader in this community to honor all of those voices. I do not believe this responsibility ends with responding to emails from your detractors, although that was a nice gesture. I believe it BEGINS with engaging Jews of all political stripes in dialogue that seeks a place of mutual understanding and respect. I have never felt understood or respected as a Palestinian sympathizer in the Jewish community of New Orleans. I have felt marginalized by rabbis' sermons that profess undying support for Israel; I have felt excluded from the Federation due to activities such as the one in question; and I have quit my job as a Religious School instructor because I felt like the curriculum was misguided and I had no one to consult, as my superiors were all of the opposite mind.

Where in all this is the rich Jewish history of questioning, arguing, and justice-seeking? I have never found my views reflected in any official Jewish channel here in New Orleans. I often am forced to discuss and develop my worldviews with non-Jews here, because my Jewish associates will not even stand to hear what they deem anti-Israel, and so anti-Jewish sentiment. Why are we afraid to even talk about this? Why do we assume - as your organization indeed does - that every worthwhile Jew here supports Israel?

It is not enough to say, well, you don't have to come to this event. Of course I don't, and I've made it clear that I will not. But what Jewish Federation event will I ever go to where I feel comfortable? The Federation represents a large swath of the tiny Jewish population here in the Greater New Orleans Area. Any Federation action is likely to be taken as a representation of the Jewish community here, despite what constituent members believe is the righteous path. That is, the Federation is claiming to speak for me when it is not. Non-Jews will believe that "the Jews" as a monolithic entity supports Israel, when it is simply not so. This serves to silence voices such as mine, and promote other, louder, Zionist (and yes they are Zionist) voices in the community. It also does little to curry favor for Jews among people who do not agree with this stance. Are we repairing the world in this way? I think not.

Again, thank you for your response. I do hope you take my thoughts into consideration when you plan ahead for the Federation.


UPDATE: Michael again responded to me, this time with an article detailing an example of Israel's commitment to human rights: a hospital that treats Gazan children. Michael also invited me to continue participating in Jewish community events in New Orleans, saying that he believes "the best way to support Israel is to take a critical view based on learning and understanding." I would agree, except that my process of learning and understanding has led me to support those who suffer from oppression. Agree to disagree, Michael.

1 comment:

  1. Sehr gut! Gut geschrieben und gut ausgedrückt.