A narrow bridge: on Israel, Palestine, and fear

Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od, v’ha’ikar lo lefahed klal.
All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to fear at all.
– Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

(Note: I know I haven’t written anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until Israel’s recent attack on Gaza, and some of you might not be very familiar with it. I recommend this video as a good, brief 101, and the articles I’ve posted in my past four Sunday Links posts. I also recommend +972 Magazine, an independent source of reporting and commentary from the region. In general, I suggest reading widely and coming to your own conclusions.)

It’s well-known that oppressors often irrationally fear the oppressed. For example, in her recent piece “In defense of black rage: Michael Brown, police, and the American dream” (which, by the way, is a stunning and powerful must-read), Brittney Cooper teases out this dynamic between white people and black people in the US:

I believe that racism exists in the inexplicable sense of fear, unsafety and gnawing anxiety that white people, be they officers with guns or just general folks moving about their lives, have when they encounter black people. I believe racism exists in that sense of mistrust, the extra precautions white people take when they encounter black people. I believe all these emotions have emerged from a lifetime of media consumption subtly communicating that black people are criminal, a lifetime of seeing most people in power look just like you, a lifetime of being the majority population. And I believe this subconscious sense of having lost control (of the universe) exists for white people, at a heightened level since the election of Barack Obama and the continued explosion of the non-white population.

The irony is that black people understand this heightened anxiety. We feel it, too. We study white people. We are taught this as a tool of survival. We know when there is unrest in the souls of white folks. We know that unrest, if not assuaged quickly, will lead to black death. Our suspicions, unlike those of white people, are proven right time and time again.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is somewhat unique in that Israeli Jews, unlike most oppressors, have good reason to be afraid. Jews around the world have survived millennia of anti-Semitic discrimination, expulsion, and genocide–and we’ve often been hit when we least expected it, when we were the most successful and assimilated in our adopted countries. Fear and trauma live deep in our historical memory; and it’s not just history. Anti-Semitism is frighteningly alive and well in much of Europe and the Middle East.

But this fear, while real, is misplaced. The Palestinians aren’t fighting to destroy Israel or kill Jews–they’re fighting for their freedom, as anyone in their circumstances would do.

And oppressing other people will never keep us safe.

In fact, it’s leading to a worldwide backlash that makes us less safe. Israel’s occupation of Palestine isn’t the root cause of anti-Semitism, which has existed for much longer than the state of Israel. But it does provide anti-Semites with a convenient excuse to stir up hatred.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is particularly tricky because it’s a battle between two groups of people who each genuinely fear, for good reason, being wiped off the face of the earth. But that doesn’t change the fact that one of those groups has disproportionate military and economic power–and the multimillion dollar backing of the United States–and is using that power to make life a living hell for the other.

For the violence to end, I believe that Israeli Jews, their leaders, and Jews around the world who unquestioningly support them need to face their fears head on: to acknowledge that the world is a scary place and there are no guarantees, and then do the right thing anyway.

And those who cynically stir up fear to justify harming others need to stop. I know people who genuinely believe that Hamas was planning to send hundreds of terrorists through tunnels to commit terrorist attacks on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year–but this was actually a rumor with no basis in fact whatsoever. Playing on Jews’ too-real fear of annihilation with false rumors is a special kind of evil that must be exposed and condemned.

All of the world is a narrow bridge, and all of us–Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Christian–have no choice but to cross it together.

Not in my name.

people standing with large sign that says

Today, on the sixteenth anniversary of my bat mitzvah, I feel both painfully alienated from the mainstream American Jewish community that supports Israel’s massacre in Gaza, and grateful for the smaller but committed group of my fellow Jews who are standing up for peace, justice, and an end to the killing.

Last night, I stood in silent protest outside of a pro-Israel/pro-war rally, saying with my presence: Not in my name. You who use Jewish safety as an excuse for war-mongering don’t speak for all Jews.

It was hard to watch a crowd of “my people,” the kind of people I grew up with and feel comfortable with, cheering on a military campaign that is essentially a genocide in the name of “self-defense.” As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who wants no one else to go through what my grandparents and their families did, it was painful to hear the memory of the Holocaust invoked as an excuse for war. It was hard to listen to a group of my people raising their voices together in song, singing the songs I grew up with, while I stood on the other side of the plaza and an enormous psychic divide.

It was hard, but necessary.

Tonight/tomorrow is Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort. I am praying (or whatever the secular equivalent of prayer is) for comfort for the people of Palestine who are suffering under Israeli occupation. I pray that my fellow American Jews will come to their senses and demand an end to the occupation, the blockade, the violence. I pray for a truly sustainable peace, one that respects the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians.

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”