For more than two decades, I have been engaged in conversations about the “conflict” in Israel and Palestine. It is a conflict so full of competing truths that even the use of those two words (Israel and Palestine) can be seen as signals for which “side” you are on. Throughout these years of conversation I have always held a nuanced view. I have always searched for a truth that has met the complexities of life.
As a Jew, born in New York to grandparents who escaped Nazi Germany, I am more than just a little bit aware of the dangers of Anti-Semitism. I know the pain and inherited trauma that comes from growing up in the shadow of a holocaust. I believe in and will fight for my people’s right to self-determination.
I think of the ancient Hillel’s first truth: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
I understand it to mean that I cannot expect anyone else to take responsibility for me if I am not taking responsibility for myself. We cannot expect anyone else to care about our people if we do not care about ourselves. And, regardless of how much we agree or disagree, I feel a very strong connection and responsibility towards my people.
As a Jew, born in New York to grandparents who escaped Nazi Germany, I am aware of the dangers of hate and dehumanization. I know all too well what happens when hate and fear are allowed to grow and embed themselves into the fabric of a society. I grew up with stories of freedom fighters and allies who put their lives on the line to save the lives that would eventually lead to mine. I believe in and will fight for all peoples’ right to self-determination.
I hear Hillel’s second truth: If I am for myself only, what am I?
I understand it to mean that I cannot go through life only believing my point of view, only giving validity to my lens, only taking my side. Regardless of how much or little we have in common – in language, in lens or in experience – I feel a strong connection and responsibility towards all people, especially marginalized peoples and communities that are the targets of oppression.
It is the combination of these two truths, of these two perspectives, that allows me to see the conflict in Israel and Palestine through a nuanced lens. I can understand the need for a Jewish homeland in a world full of and with a long history of Anti-Semitism. Just as I can understand the need for a Palestinian state in a land that has a long history and current reality of being ruled and occupied by military force.
I can understand the historical and visceral fear that makes every attack on Israel feel like it could be the beginning of a new existential threat to the Jewish people. And I can understand the existential need to resist against one’s oppressors as expressed in the Palestinian intifadas of the last thirty years.
I can understand how two historically oppressed and traumatized peoples, who were each told they could have the same piece of land for themselves to rule, would find themselves in conflict and unable or unwilling to trust each other. I can also understand that the reality of the conflict is that it is not between two equally equipped “sides”. And I can understand how that does not change things emotionally for the “side” with the army because the real feeling of existential threat is so strong.
And I can go back and forth all day long and even though I don’t agree with all of the points on either “side”, I can see them and I can see how complicated this situation is. I can see that it is not as simple as either “side’s” truth wants you to believe.
As a Jew, born in New York to grandparents who escaped Nazi Germany, I think about the bystanders. I think about the Germans who were “just following orders”, I think about the American Jews who thought “it couldn’t really be that bad”, I think about the U.S. government that turned away Jewish refugees.
I hear Hillel’s third truth: If not now, when?
I understand it to mean that as an American Jew who believes in justice for all people, it is my responsibility to stand up, to speak loudly and to act in defense of the values that my people have taught me. Especially when it is my people that need to hear it. Especially when the institutions that exist to speak for me are not speaking my truth, are not speaking the truth of my people, are not speaking the values that they raised me on.
And when I hear “If not now, when”, all of these complexities fade away and I am left with a very simple thought: The occupation of the West Bank and the de facto occupation and blockade of Gaza is wrong. It is a plague on both of our houses. It dehumanizes both of our peoples. The truth is that none of the complexities of the situation matter when placed next to the simple reality of a military occupation that forces millions of people to live as though in prison.
I believe in a nuanced resolution to the question of how these nations of people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea will coexist. I am sickened by and scared of the hatred and racism being expressed in Israel and by Jews around the world. I am sickened by and scared of the Anti-Semitism that so easily surfaces and becomes wrongly conflated with solidarity for Palestinians.
But this week, as we prepare for pesach, as we turn our minds towards a holiday that celebrates the liberation of our people, as we prepare to sing “we were slaves, now we are the children of free people” it occurs to me that now is not the time for the nuanced resolution. Now is not the time for “it’s complicated”. Now is not even the time for shared understanding. Now is the time to end the occupation. Now is the time for our people to put down the sword of the oppressor. Now is the time to say “Enough!”
Then we can talk about nuance. Then we can talk about hateful speech. Then we can start to do the work of finding resolution. But first we need to stand up for what is right. First we need to hold our own community accountable for what is absolutely and unequivocally wrong.
If I do not stand up for the values of my people…
If I do not hold my people accountable for the actions they are committing in my name…
If I do not make my voice heard now…
… then when?