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A Letter by an Israeli Peace Activist for American Jewish Students Interested in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

To those interested in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, first, figure out why you care
Illustrated. Students walk on the UC Berkeley campus, August 15, 2017, in Berkeley, California. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Illustrated. Students walk on the UC Berkeley campus, August 15, 2017, in Berkeley, California. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

At universities and colleges across the US, the Fall semester is beginning. Thousands of Jewish students will choose to start or continue their activism around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Israelis, it is clear to all of us that American Jewish students are deeply engaged in the conflict, with varying political views. The deep political and social engagement of the Jewish community with the State of Israel leads to your involvement, too, sometimes even against your wishes. For many of you, your activism is part or even the primary aspect of your Jewish identity. This is natural, since Israel is the only Jewish state and the only place in the world where the public sphere is definitively Jewish. Many American Jews see the State of Israel not only as an Israeli Jewish State, but also as a (general) Jewish State. They expect American Judaism to be part of the identity and culture of Israel. This article is written to American Jewish students – and I want to make sure that it is clear to each one of you that my words are written with deep love and appreciation for my beloved American Jewish family. Here are my ideas. I invite you to listen, to consider and to disagree.

Psychological Journey: If the conflict is important to you, and you feel a call deep inside to engage, this reflects, more than anything else, something about your own life. So, to begin, you should embark on your own personal, psychological journey to understand why you want to be involved in the conflict. Answers such as “I feel that Israel is my home” or “I have family in Israel” are all honest answers, but they probably hide deeper questions of identity worth exploring. If you live in Israel-Palestine, you have no choice but to be involved in the conflict, since our daily lives here affect the lives of all Israelis and Palestinians – but as American Jews, you have a choice. Participating in a serious conflict will lead you to address existential feelings of anger, pain, hate, frustration, love and desire. The more intimately you know yourself, the more your ability to engage and contribute will mature.

Humility: For every fact that someone shows you, on either side of the map, there are ten other things that they do not show you, intentionally or unintentionally. This is true for the political groups you may join, as well as the academic courses you will take. And it is certainly true if you choose to visit the Jewish parts of Israel through Birthright. So, have humility: learn, listen and always go to the other side to learn from them as well. I am aware that some of the political groups in your campus do not feel safe or “kosher” enough to learn from, and since I am not American, I feel that I cannot judge your view. Even still, there are other groups you disagree with and can choose to learn from. Remember, in the Jewish tradition there were two Houses of Torah: Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. Jewish law was determined according to the House of Hillel because they learned first the “Torah” of Beit Shammai, and only afterwards their own opinion. So, if you join Hasbara, do not forget to listen to J-Street. If you join J-Street, do not forget to listen with an open heart to AIPAC. If you think it is ridiculous or impossible to be asked to listen with an open heart to another side or perspective, please don’t become involved in the conflict at all.

Last, all of you must join interfaith dialogues on campus and observe the holy prayers from other religions/spiritual groups. You must learn to feel comfortable with and respect other ways of touching humanity and the divine. Remember that part of the conflict here is religious and in the Middle East, religion (culturally or institutionally) is part of who we are. Even the historical European division between the secular and the religious in Israel is slowly disappearing, and in Palestine (and most of the Middle East) such a separation has never existed.

Love: Without love for the people on all sides, even if you disagree with their ideology, there is no way you can create positive change. Without love for all sides, all you can do is use some “weapon” against the other side – and we have enough weapons. The conflict is already violent and we do not need additional soldiers to “solve” it. We need people coming from love, with the ability to listen to the collective trauma behind the words and actions of all of us in Israel-Palestine. We need you to carry us, and to allow us to observe and heal the trauma we have carried all our lives. There are Jewish sources for love, but after years of work, I have learned that, as Jews, we are missing some tools and aspects of love that other cultures and religions have created. So learn the art of love also from priests, from Black Lives Matter, from teachers of mindfulness, from Imams. Since you live in a multicultural country, where most spiritual rituals are in English and open to everyone to attend – use these teachings. Then, come and teach us these tools and join our process of healing.

Blame: If someone says that only one side is to be blamed, do not believe them. You need two to fight. In general, the language of blame should be replaced with mature language of my needs, my fears and my wish to be loved. Yes, it is true that for each subject there is one side that is stronger, one side that suffers more, and one side that is more violent. But even if this may be true at the national level, on a personal level, we all suffer and no one but God can judge who suffers more or who deserves greater blame. As Rabbi Heschel said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Cultural Gaps: Both Israelis and Palestinians think in the unique mindset of the Middle East (yes, Israelis too). Even if you have family in Israel, you think and perceive the world as an American. There are significant cultural gaps between our way of thinking and yours (not better or worse, simply different). In order to be involved, you must first be aware of this cultural disconnect. From there, you will find ways to be sensitive to these cultural differences, to avoid frustration and instead appreciate what our perspectives can offer. Then, come and offer – don’t force – your values and beauty.

Birthright: There are many opinions about Birthright. Since I am not American, I choose to suspend my judgement about whether you should take this trip or not. This is your decision as American Jews. What is clear for me is that this trip is a first date: both Israelis and Jewish Americans try to show their best parts and hide their more painful and difficult parts. But, like any first date, remember it is only part of a larger picture of life. If you want to have a relationship with us, take your time to search all of our personalities. Like any other country, Israel has many colors, tastes, beauties and complications. If you want to be involved with our conflict, if you decide to speak in our name, you must know all of our sides. For example, remember that every fifth person in the State of Israel is an Arab/Palestinian and every fifth Jewish person is Ultra-Orthodox. Do you really know these populations? Can you speak on their behalf, as Israelis, on your campus and in your activism?

Positive Action First: Whether you are pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, or want to engage with the American involvement in Israel-Palestine, please focus the beginning of your activism on humanitarian work. Volunteer to help Israeli-Palestinian society to build itself. Do not speak out against anyone, only offer to help. Only then, after you gain credibility as someone who can spread love and create positive change – slowly start to critique. Beginning with critique, on any side, especially as an outsider, is childish (see more in the next statement). I can promise you that after volunteering to create change on the community level, with any side, you will feel how hard it is to blame the “other”.

Do No Harm: If you come to volunteer in Israel-Palestine and enact change, make sure that you do not leave scorched earth after you. Too many times I have met volunteers who come to make peace and instead have left wounded Palestinians and Israelis behind. Remember, you have an American passport, with all of its privileges, and most of you return to the US after months or years. We, on the other hand, will stay here, left with promises that have never been fulfilled.

Responsibility and Credibility: Even if you have family in Israel, and you care about Israel as a Zionist or are angry about Israel as an anti-Zionist, your primary responsibility is to what is happening in the US. In order to be involved in a conflict in the Middle East, you must gain credibility – and being a family member or visitor does not give it to you. It’s true, the virtual world has connected all of us. Today, I can open Facebook, and see videos and read articles on problems in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Europe and Tibet. I see the suffering of refugees and women all over the world; even the natural world is in danger. To be honest, though, too often I feel afraid and paralyzed, and I must find courage each day to continue my (modest) peace work in Jerusalem. That you wish to be involved already says so much about your empathy, care and beauty. It is also only natural that some people feel an existential need to be involved in a particular subject and less in others.

With all of that being said, as an Israeli, it is clear to me that my path to social change with the most understanding and least harm is in Jerusalem. Life in Jerusalem affects me and my daily life, and this is the city that I know best. Even if I make mistakes (and I make them too often), my responsibility is here and it is here where I gain my credibility.

In Kids4Peace US, we decided that each chapter will dedicate their activism and dialogue to their own city and its needs. Only in the summer, kids and youth from all over Kids4Peace chapters meet together (including Israelis and Palestinians) to focus more on the conflict abroad. They share stories of the peace and healing work they do in their city and teach each other new tools to create change. Please remember the Jewish saying: Aniyei Ircha Kodmim, your first responsibility is to the poor in your city – however you understand “poor” in this context and wherever you feel most at home and connected to the cultural DNA. Why? It is here that your daily actions influence your own life and, since it is the poor of your own city, there is the greatest chance that you will not do harm.

Finally, when I asked my Israeli-Jewish friends what they wanted to share with you, to my surprise, most of them, from both the right and the left, asked that you not be involved in the conflict at all. This does not mean that they don’t love you. Many have American Jewish families and some work in education with American Jews. To love people, and to include them in your life, does not mean that you want them to engage in your conflict. I disagree with their statement, since you are already so involved in the conflict, in both the American and international political landscapes. Also, I deeply believe that in our world as it is today, we are connected to each other as humans, as Jews, and that the State of Israel is a Jewish State, not only an Israeli Jewish State. But the clear perspectives I gathered from many of my friends (and again, I speak only about my Israeli friends, not any Palestinians) taught me that something must change in the current reality. The feeling of some Israelis is that American-Jewish involvement (not love, but involvement), as it is today, ultimately causes more harm than good. As you start your new academic year (and please, remember to love yourselves and be gentle with your personal struggles) and the month of Elul, the Jewish month dedicated to self-reflection and love for each other, the world and the divine – read my words and reflect on your involvement in the conflict.

In an interview with Jean Vanier by Krista Tippett, she asked him how one can create social change. His answer is so relevant to all of us: “What we can do is what Gandhi says, we can’t change the world, but I can change. And if I change, and I seek to be more open to people and less frightened of relationship, if I begin to see what is beautiful within them, if I recognize also that there’s brokenness because I’m also broken, and that’s OK, then there’s something that begins to happen.” – Amen.

Special thanks for my editor Jonathan Schild and for the readers for your notes. 

About the Author
Dr. Yakir Englander is working to create Jewish and Israeli leadership in the US at the IAC. Originally from the ultra-Orthodox community of Israel, the Viznitz Hasidic dynasty, Englander earned a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in Jewish philosophy and gender studies. He is a Fulbright scholar and was a visiting professor of Religion at Northwestern and Rutgers universities and Harvard Divinity School. In addition, he was a Shalom Hartman scholar in Jerusalem. Englander served as the Jerusalem director of Kids4Peace and later as the vice president of the organization. All of my blogs were translated by Dr. Henry R. Carse
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