An Adult Jewish Identity – Reflections on Raising a Palestinian flag in a Jewish Summer Youth Camp

In a conversation I had with an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi, he said sadly: “The Ultra-Orthodox community is perfect for raising children, but at the same time it is a bad place to raise adults.” He later explained: The Ultra-Orthodox world has answers to all of life’s questions, everything in it is clear and painted in black and white. Children need clear boundaries so they can feel safe. But to raise adults we need to create a space where questions can be asked without immediate answers, where people can explore their questions. We need space to experiment with new experiences. Sometimes they will turn out to be mistakes, but these risks will also create new spaces and possibilities.

In recent years, the American-Jewish society has moved from a childish space to an adult space in its relationship to the State of Israel and especially to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In one of my articles, I described a conversation between one of the directors of an American-Jewish youth movement and myself, when she shared: “Last night, one of the rabbis told us that the difference between us and the Arabs is this: if the Israelis laid down their weapons, the Arabs would kill them. But if the Arabs laid down their weapons, there would be peace. Is this true?” I ask her why she doesn’t trust the words of the rabbi, whose message is so timeworn and familiar by now. Hesitantly, falteringly, she confesses that it feels “too facile to her.”

The fact that she, as a Zionist youth leader, understands that the conflict is complex is a blessing for the American-Jewish world. The Jewish assumptions must change. We must mature out of our childish framework. I understand that for some Zionist-Americans, Neturei Karta, “Guardians of the Walls”, the desire to ask questions is scary, and rightly so! For some of Israel’s Zionist supporters, the questions will lead to change and interrupt their support of the current narrative. Israel, however, is a country that wants to be both Jewish and democratic, within the Middle East, and, at least today, controls the Palestinian people without finding solutions to the occupation. Asking challenging questions is the only way to move from a childish perspective to one of mature, nuanced support of the Jewish State.

Placing the questions within the existing Jewish discourse will foster the deep love of honest dialogue. It will open a platform for adults who wish to grow together, to become better humans and better Jewish people. Sincere dialogue will understand that growing together will sometimes lead to disagreement, but mature disagreement is always preferable to sweeping, naive, unquestioning support.

Historically, Jewish law has understood this principle deeply. It determined that family members cannot be witnesses or judges to each other. Testimony requires objectivity, and family members, by definition, cannot be objective. Even Moses was not permitted to be a witness or judge for his brother Aaron. Yes, even the greatest leader of the Jewish people, who brought us the words of God, cannot be objective with regard to his family. Why? Because family members are not supposed to be objective. They should love in an innocent and complete manner.

The American-Jewish society is in a sensitive place. On the one hand, without a doubt, it is a family member of the Israeli-Jewish society. It wants to love Israel unconditionally. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, it has provided economic, social and political support. At the same time, the American-Jewish society is unsatisfied with being a “family member,” since this position does not allow moral support for the State of Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. A family member, as the Jewish tradition maintains, cannot take sides because it is not objective. In contrast, the mainstream American-Jewish society supports the policy of the State of Israel. It unconditionally lobbies for Israel and is fighting against any criticism of the State of Israel.

In order to be both a member of the family and an objective judge, and certainly to be perceived as such by others, American-Jewish society must move from a space of childlike love to an adult space of a family member who can assess reality with a certain distance of objectivity and can live with complex questions.

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I do not want to go into the question of whether it was right for the Jewish summer camp to raise the flag of Palestine alongside the flags of the State of Israel, Canada and the United States during the visit of the youth of Kids4Peace. I completely understand the side that asserts Palestinian society and its leaders should not be identified as peace-seekers. I also understand the other side, which claims that this is the way of hospitality. Since Arab society in East Jerusalem experiences their identity as Palestinians, and since East Jerusalem Palestinians are in limbo, citizens of nowhere, it is only natural to host their flag. Given that the Israeli flag is perceived as a dangerous, unsafe symbol in the eyes of Palestinians,   inviting Palestinians into a Jewish summer camp, with the Israeli flag flying, erodes any comfort they may have felt. Therefore, the choice of waving the Palestinian flag, as well, is an act of support and participation during their emotional upheaval, by showing: we are all challenging ourselves.

For me, what is important is the choice of the leaders of the summer camp, in deciding to raise the flag, to move from a child-like Jewish space to an adult space. They decided to undermine the status quo. They chose to challenge the familiar space in which the Israeli flag symbolizes the good and the Palestinian flag the evil. They did not raise the flag of Palestine instead of the Israeli flag. They posed a question for the youth. Can the Palestinian nation and culture be raised alongside the Israeli nation and culture? Is it possible that two narratives could live side by side even though they contradict each other on the surface? Can you continue to be Jewish and Zionist youth while inviting Palestinians to the summer camp? It is important to note that the Palestinians of Kids4Peace, like the Israelis in the organization, choose to live as adults – grapplers with complex narratives – in their youth. Kids4Peace is an interfaith youth movement of teenagers who suffer regularly from abuse by their classmates and community members for choosing to live daily as peace activists. Many of them come from religious backgrounds, far from any spirit of Kumbaya.

These are just some of the questions raised by the flag. However, unlike the camp youth, the Jewish “Guardians of the Walls” were alarmed that the children wanted mature relationships with Israel. They were outraged and angry at the action, and so they tried to repress it, judging the act as a mistake instead of encouraging the youth to remain with the sensitive questions.

It is fascinating that it is precisely a youth camp that chooses to live in a mature Judaism, while many adults of American-Jewish society continue to choose to live in a dichotomous, childish way, still refusing to ask difficult questions or recognize the complex nature of this conflict; the adults generally choose a life of innocent certainty, instead. The Talmud states that the real reason for the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was not the Romans, but sinat hinam — baseless hatred of Jews by Jews. But the Talmud tells us another reason, too: “Rabbi Yochanan said: ‘Jerusalem was destroyed only because the judges ruled in accordance with the Law of the Torah’” This statement is distressing – how could the Talmud claim that the Torah and its laws would lead to Jewish destruction? In my opinion, the Talmud, which is perhaps the most sophisticated text in Jewish history, teaches us that it is true that the Torah is the basis of Jewish life. But if we live only according to the narrow “Jewish truth,” we do not deserve sovereignty in Jerusalem. Jerusalem should be managed only by those who understand the danger that Jewish law, as the word of God, can lead people to a piety that, rather than encouraging the consideration of existential questions, fosters blind obedience; this path can lead to the destruction of a complex life.

A life of peace is made up of everyday acts of kindness, love and acceptance of the Other, even when peace work is sometimes considered to be in conflict with Jewish-Zionist symbols. An adult Jewish society must embrace the people of peace, even if at times they are perceived as undermining our narratives, or even perceived as harming Jewish security. The Israeli and Palestinian children in Kids4Peace dedicate their lives to Rabbi Yochanan’s theology; it is time that American Jewish society weigh the consequences, and consider following their example.

About the Author
Dr. Yakir Englander is working to create Jewish and Israeli leadership in the US. 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.
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