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Israel - Palestine, A Conversation (Part II)

We continue our conversation with Rev. Sari Ateek and Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky as we delve into the issues of Israel-Palestine. The conversation is drawn from our Interwoven Congregations Quarterly issue first published on March 4th. We are posting this conversation in our blog in 5 parts, one each day this week. If you wish, you can read the whole issue here. Note: Part II is the longest section of the conversation which will challenge us and perhaps open up new lines of consideration. So get a cup of coffee or tea, pull up a chair, and join us. Thank you for  reading with an open heart.

Peace, salaam, shalom,      -  Rev. Pat Jackson

Part II: What did you THINK?

Pat:    Stepping back from our feelings, how do you think we got here? How do you understand the  reality that is Israel-Palestine today?  I'm mindful that we could spend a week on this question.

Sari:  Years.

Abbi: There are college courses on it.

Pat:  Yes.  But in this finite space, how are you thinking about this?

Abbi:   I really appreciate how you put the compartmentalization out there Sari.  Going through the world as a Jewish person, there's always a certain amount of intergenerational trauma that's  carried.  Any people that's been part of something, persecuted or exiled, experiences trauma.  We're all carrying it.  You carry it,  I carry it. There's definitely been this, “Well, how vulnerable can I be? How vulnerable should I be?  Who is safe to talk to?”  I found that going to synagogue was even more work than usual because my job is to be in these conversations. 

Sari: Yes. To show up.

Abbi:  My job is to be with all the interfaith people, to do all the inter-group work, and be the Jew in the room.  It was hard.  And that first month, I was very guarded. I remember the first event I went to where I realized that the room was not predominantly Jewish. I remember sitting there thinking, “How many Jews are here right now?  Am I okay?  What's going to be said?  How on guard do I need to be?” And it was terrifying.  In the following weeks, when I was around  big groups of Jewish people, there was this deep feeling of we're all standing together with  Israel. It was beautiful to feel that connection, which had been so strained over the last year or so

because of everything that was going on with the Israeli government.  A real distrust and fracturing in Israeli society and in Jewish communities had set in.  To be pulled together again was nice — and yet  so sad that this is what it took.  November was the hard month for me.  Those first weeks it was all vigils, rallies, vigils, rallies.  It was just going nonstop, 12-hour days.  But when a prayer service for peace that I was planning with a Presbyterian pastor and a Muslim Imam fell apart, shortly before Thanksgiving,  I sat in my office and thought, “Why am I doing this? Why am I here?   How is this ever going to work?  What is the point of my job?”  The only slightly hopeful thing, as we talk about  the future, is that in all of it, none of us hung up on each other.  We didn't yell at each other.  It was more of “Can you see why this hurt me?  Can you see why I spoke my truth?  I need you to see my pain in this” -- and actually hearing what the other      person was saying.  It was still terrible.  I felt like this work that we were trying to do – how is this ever going to   happen?

Pat:  Sari, how do you think about the situation    today that is Israel-Palestine?

Sari:  My daughter’s school is doing a field trip to the Holocaust Museum. And the question came up this morning, “Should she participate in that?”  First of all, it's up to her.  But my feeling is, “Absolutely!”  We have to understand human suffering.  The suffering of the Jewish people has seemed to conflict with the suffering of my own people.  This kind of zero sum way of thinking is awful.  So my view is that it is so important for my daughter to go and learn about the Holocaust.  Because, as Abbi said, we're dealing with trauma.  Israel's disproportionate response to what happened on October 7th is a trauma response.  If security for one group of people

depends on killing innocent men, women, and children - if that's what security means, then you’ve lost your soul.  As faith leaders, we have to be radically committed to nonviolence.  We must be.  There can't be a time where we say, “Okay, we're going to suspend our beliefs because we think that the only way to achieve what we need is to go in and kill people.”  The cycle of violence is perpetuated by the lie that the only way to stop others from hurting you is to hurt them more.  And so for me, I see major injustice from the very beginning with what's happened in Israel - Palestine.  I do see very clearly that there's one plot of land and two groups of people that claim a right to that land.  There's no scenario where that's going to be a simple solution.  I don't think that Palestinians are better than Jews.  I don't think that we're more evolved.  I think that if Palestinians and Israelis  were to switch places, it would be just as much of a catastrophe in my point of view. And so, again, this is not about one group being a victim and the other group being an oppressor.  This is about all of us. We're stuck in this terrible cycle where we think that our people group deserves something that the other people group doesn't. 

I'll say this, Abbi:  My personal belief is that the world doesn't seem to take it seriously when people speak on their own behalf, when it comes to their own oppression.  But when others speak on their behalf, for some reason, it's taken more seriously. I don't know why.  So my hope is not in America.  I know America could change the realities on the ground in Israel-Palestine very quickly if it changed its policies.  But my hope is not in America.  My hope is actually in Israelis themselves who decide that there has to be a better way, and who decide to humanize Palestinians.  And I hope that Israelis can learn to trust that there are so many Palestinians who are done with this cycle of violence, and who want peace and coexistence.  They want to live in a way where there's reconciliation.  I think this is why this setback is so awful.  Situations like this only serve to radicalize people even further.  Jews have really suffered. I understand the desperate need to have a homeland where there’s security and peace.  I desperately understand that.  And, I hope that one day, it will be understood that Palestinians also are humans and they deserve a homeland as well in which they can live with peace and security.

Abbi:  Around  30 days after October 7, there was a program at Congregation Beth El (Montgomery County, MD) to mark Shloshim, the end of the first month of mourning.  I stood on the bima and I said, “I pray  for the hostages. I pray for the families that are still finding out about their loved ones who were lost because they will be identifying people for a long time.” I said, “And I pray for Palestinians. I pray for people who are being killed in Gaza.  I pray for civilians and children. We can grieve their death as well.  They are human.  We can hold both and there’s room in who we are as humans to grieve both of those losses.”  People came up to me afterwards and said “Thank you for saying that.”  A board member emailed me and said, “I feel like you gave me permission to actually feel something that I didn't know I was allowed to feel.”

Sari:  That’s so powerful, so prophetic.

Abbi:  I grew up in a generation in the 80s and 90s where we didn't learn about Palestinians in Hebrew school.  We learned about Israel and how great    Israel was, and that was it.  I had to, over time, learn the bigger picture  of history;  to shape my own thinking and what it means for me as a progressive Zionist.  I had to learn what it means to love this land and to feel this connection to Israel; to believe in the self-determination of Jews there; and to realize that

there's a place for the self-determination of Palestinians also in this land.  What does that mean to hold those two?   I try to bring that view of my Zionism in many places to reclaim a word that's been used so negatively for a long time, and for people to know that I don't, as a Zionist, hate Palestinians. 

Pat:  Abbi, could you say a bit more about what it means to be a “progressive Zionist”?  

Abbi:  Progressive Zionism/Zionist is a broad term used to describe a person or group who believes that Jewish people have a right to self-determination in the land of Israel, that Israel is an important part of Jewish faith, history, and current identity AND that Jews can have that self-determination alongside other faith and ethnic groups, including Palestinians.  It’s also a person who may feel a strong connection to Israel and have strong critiques of the Israeli government, and want the country to do a better job of being religiously pluralistic, improve conditions for     Palestinians, address issues of racism and classism – ideas that are often considered more politically progressive.

Now I don't know what a solution looks like and thank God I'm not a politician in those spaces. Like you said Sari, there's one piece of land and continuing to fight over it doesn't make sense.  None of that's healthy;  none of that's good.  Just as you think about the Israelis, I think about this generation of Palestinians.  The people in Gaza who    survive are going to hate us and that's not going to help anything.  It just keeps the cycle going.  I am also hearing from some Israeli colleagues and friends right now that the trauma is just so great that they can't re-engage right now, which I also respect.  Sitting here from my very safe American spot, I feel very helpless.  I also don't want to push my American perspective onto a place where I'm not living.  So I just sit here not knowing where to go next.

Sari:  I love that humility, Abbi. We’re sitting here, not there.  And so there is a limitation there for us.  You and I have a luxury of being able to sit and speak in a safe place here. The deception would be that we're more evolved because we're able to have this conversation, but we're not.  We're just not in Gaza right now.  I would feel less safe if I knew there was someone out there who hated me.  I would feel much more safe if I knew that my neighbors loved me and looked out for me.  I hope that Israel and Palestine wake up someday and realize that the only way for safety and peace is actually connection and love.

Pat:  The public discourse around Israel-Palestine raises challenging questions as to whether  it is appropriate to speak about Israel as an apartheid state or going even further to raise the question of genocide concerning the treatment of the Palestinians.  How do you think about those?

Abbi:   Last night, we had a JCRC program on allyship,  “Antisemitism for Allies.”  The presenter talked about was how these words are very      loaded and suggested that the courts should     determine what the different parameters are.  The point she made was, “What happens when those of us who don't fully understand those words use them and demonize people with them?”  So saying Israel is committing genocide then becomes “Jews are a genocidal people,” because that leap is what happens, that’s how antisemitism flows.  That's what scares me. To say “Jews  operate an apartheid state,” that’s what scares me. 

Sari:  As a Palestinian, there's no question for me. There's apartheid going on in Israel-Palestine.  That term was coined in South Africa, and South African leaders like (Archbishop) Desmond Tutu, who      personally experienced South African apartheid, was naming it in Israel-Palestine way before the most recent identifications  were made by Amnesty International and others.  I just look at the facts.  Israel is a democratic state, right?  But if you're in the West Bank, there's actually a different set of rules for you.  Palestinians in the West Bank are not under the same law that Israelis in Israel are under.  They're under a military law and so they get tried in military courts. The whole legal   system is different.  You can say you have democracy, but the only way to do that is by creating another set of rules for the people you're occupying.  If Palestinians in the West Bank whose homes are being demolished, and whose children are being taken in night raids by the Israeli military —if their cases were brought before an Israeli court instead of a military court, like every other Israeli— those actions would never be tolerated. They would be seen as a violation of human rights.  And so that, for me, demonstrates the unjust double standard that has been labeled apartheid.  The facts on the grounds are the same.

The reason language is powerful is because it might wake the world up to what’s happening over there.  So I think that labeling things like this,  if done in a healthy way - and not in a way that demonizes a group of people - is important.  These labels play an important role.  Genocide?  Are there innocents being killed by the thousands in Gaza?  Yes.  I can tell you that.  You want to call that genocide?  Okay.  You don’t want to call that genocide?  Okay.  It doesn't change the fact that people are dying by the thousands, and the world is just letting it happen.  It's being done in the name of security.  There have been so many atrocities done in the name of   security.  So if you ask me as a Palestinian, the answer is “yes” to both the question of apartheid and genocide.  But I do understand the nuance.  At some point in time, forget the labels.  We just need to work together to end the violence, the oppression, and the occupation.  We need to secure peace and  security for Israel, and we need to secure peace and security for Palestinians. 

Abbi:  Persecution of Jews has happened.  How did Jews get to so many  places around the world?     We were forced out of many  countries.

Sari:  Exactly. No one here is virtuous.

Abbi:  I appreciate what you’re saying about labels. I know that when I go talk about antisemitism or any kind of hate or bias, if I start with the words that are going to trigger (and I don't like that term), but if I start there, no one is going to hear it, right?

Sari: Exactly.

Abbi:  Our culture loves to give labels and create slogans that fit on a poster. And none of those  actually get the job done.  I note that because there are a bunch of ways Pat that you're trying to get these terms to be discussed [in this interview]. And I think that in a lot of ways, that is part of the problem.  We want to delve into these terms so much and give things labels and boxes, that we forget about the humanity on the different sides that are truly impacted. Thousands of people have died over the last — I don't  know how many hours — in Gaza. There are Israeli      soldiers who are coming home in body bags, and their parents are burying their 19 and 20 year olds. All of those things are happening. They're all true.  I don't want to be that mother on either side.  That’s what I come down to.

Pat:  I appreciate that. I guess I think of these terms as a way to identify, describe and              understand a reality with which we’re confronted.  Language is a tool, imperfect and sometimes blunt, and it can clearly be abused.  But the reason I want to surface these issues is that our readers hear commentary about these ideas, and I want to give them an opportunity to hear from you about how else perhaps they ought to consider them.  So one other term or concept I want to engage with you is whether in discussing the issue of justice in Israel-Palestine, is it appropriate to frame that as a matter of just justice, or racial justice? 

Abbi:  I won't use a racial justice lens [on Israel-Palestine]  because I think that has become a very American construct to use on a place that is dealing with   issues that are way bigger than anti-racism.  Sari, I imagine you've encountered Israelis who have the exact same skin tone as you, or darker or lighter.  As an Ashkenazi, Eastern European Jew, who would visit Israel, yes, there would be a sense in some ways, of some dominance. But there are those in Israel who would respond to me with, “Well, you're an American, and you’re a woman, and you’re a rabbi.  You have zero standing here.”  It's an issue of peoplehood justice.  Who are the people that are here, and their stories and their legacies  going back?  It’s far more complex than which race was there.  I do think there are justice issues, definitely, both within Israel itself -- how refugees are treated, how the Mizrahi community (Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries) is treated versus the Ashkenazim versus the Ethiopians.  There are many issues of social strata and socioeconomic factors.  I've been to the bus station in South Tel Aviv and you can't tell me that there aren't issues within Israel.  100%.  And what's happening between Israelis and Palestinians is even more complex than that.

Sari:  I wouldn't say it's only one thing, as Abbi said.  Even within Israeli society, within Israeli Jews, people do see color in a way that's not necessarily healthy.   There are people who feel left out and marginalized because of the color of their skin.  But I would say, yes, you do have two races that are pitted against each other and they're fighting.   Arabs and Jews tend to consider themselves racially different.  I'm with you Abbi, it’s a construct, this whole racial thing.  99.9% of our DNA is exactly the same.

Abbi: I wouldn't see you as a different race than me -- but a different ethnicity or religion?  Yes.

Sari:   I think the racial piece factors in from outside.  I think about how the news talks about the 1,200 Israelis who were killed on October 7th and the alarm around that versus how many thousands of Palestinians have had to die in order for there to be a similar amount of concern.  I think about how if you use the word “Palestinian” in America, many people first think of turbans and terrorists.  It used to be the communists and now it's this war on   Islam.  And so I feel that it would be immature for any of us to say that race is not playing some role in all of this.  I have

racism in my own heart, I know I do.  For me to say “I am not racist,” is not to be truthful.  I am a part of the problem. All of us are.  The sooner we all admit that, “Yes, there are vestiges of racism still lingering within me,” the sooner we can become a part of the solution, and humbly work toward becoming anti-racist.   Is racism the only factor in Israel-Palestine?  Absolutely not.  There are so many levels to this thing.  And if you remember, Pat, for the majority of history in Israel-Palestine, Jews and Arabs were living side by side.  We are now losing the generation that remembers those days.  And the generations that are here now don't think it is  possible, which is so sad because it was totally  possible.  And it will be again.


Tomorrow, Part III: What is your HOPE for Israel - Palestine?


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