Kayla Schneider-Smith

My favorite queer Jewish poet just wrote ‘Long live the people of Palestine!’

It's exhausting to have to keep defending Israel's right to exist to those who won't even acknowledge the October 7th atrocities
'Israel Go Home!' West Bank Wall Graffiti Art, Bethlehem
'Israel Go Home!' West Bank Wall Graffiti Art, Bethlehem

Should I click another unsubscribe button?

Am I just perpetuating the online “echo chamber” by blocking and unsubscribing from those I don’t agree with? 

I spent the first half of the day spiraling. I’ve been a subscriber of “Poem-a-Day,” the free email subscription from The Academy of American Poets, since undergrad.

A loyal reader for the past decade or so, I used to study every poem, word for word. 

Now, in the era of doom scrolling, I mostly skim through the poems, screen-fatigued, but sometimes I read them. Especially when I recognize the poet whose work is being shared.

Recently in my inbox was a poem from Marilyn Hacker, savant of the contemporary sonnet. I’ve spent heartbroken nights reading from cover to cover her poetry collection Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. I’ve shared her work with the college classes I teach. I admire her playfulness with language, her rawness, her queerness.

Her Jewishness.

This particular poem was written in August 2023 and vaguely mentions the Russian invasion of Ukraine: “There’s war close by,” Hacker writes, “though nobody I know is in it—yet.” In the ‘About This Poem’ section, a space where Poem-a-Day quotes from the author, Hacker explains: “The war in Ukraine, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was going on, but seemed distant—as the ongoing near-genocide in Gaza, less than a year later, does not. Long live the people of Palestine!”

My heart sank. Why did Marilyn Hacker feel the need to include this commentary on a poem that was written before October 7th and had nothing to do with the Israel-Hamas war? And why did Poem-a-Day feel the need to publish it? Did the Academy of American Poets feel entitled to capitalize on a Jewish poet’s words to perpetuate a one-sided political agenda?

What felt like an even greater slap in the face was that just a few months before, I’d written the Academy of American Poets, kindly requesting more poems from Jewish and Israeli perspectives, as the ‘Poem-a-Days’ I’d read since October 7th had been heavily skewed toward the Palestinian narrative.

And though I never heard back, I can’t help but imagine this was the Academy’s response: to post a self-hating Jewish poet perpetuating a one-sided narrative, arbitrarily, an offhand comment after a poem totally disconnected from the Israel-Hamas war. The ultimate virtue-signaling, without a single nod toward the unfathomable atrocities of the October 7th massacre: the murder, the rape, the sexual assault, the mutilation, the beheading, the setting aflame of families, the torture, the taking of hundreds of hostages – the more than “near” and very real agenda of genocide, the destruction of Israel, the destruction of the Jewish people.

If I’m being honest, I used to be somewhat of a self-hating Jew myself. 

After graduating college, I lived in an intentional Quaker community in Portland, Oregon. I went to church every Sunday and listened to songs from Godspell. I watched as my social-justice-conscious Quaker roommates posted a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) list of businesses to avoid on our communal fridge. 

These were 20-somethings, all from exceedingly privileged backgrounds, who, mind you, knew that two other Jews were sharing the house with them. They had never stepped foot in Israel in their lives. At the time, neither had I, though I had many ultra-Orthodox family members living there. I remember reading the numerous tiny print names on the BDS list and feeling a slight tug in my gut that something was terribly wrong. I remember gaslighting myself into unlearning everything I’d learned in Hebrew school, disliking Israel before I’d ever been there or knew anything about the history – just because, well, everyone else did. Just because maybe it’d make me safe, or even a better – a good – person. 

I now recognize it for what it was: sheer antisemitism. 

A few years before the Quakers, in undergrad, I had a crush on the president of the Voices for Palestine club on campus. I wasn’t in the club, myself, but we lived in the same dorm, and some nights she’d come into my room before bed, tuck me in, assure me she wasn’t gay, and then cuddle with me for a while. She was from Pakistan. Once, I asked her why she felt so strongly about Voices for Palestine. Kaylee, she said, her eyes focused on some distant point beyond us, It’s because I know what it’s like to be wronged

More recently, there was another friend, a Muslim-American guy, originally from India, who I met at grad school. I taught him how to swim. He recorded my interview video when I applied to staff a Birthright trip. I broke the fast of Ramadan with him. We rode bikes around San Francisco at dawn. We were going to write a book about Interfaith Dialogue together. And then, after October 7th, silence. And then, a link sent to me on WhatsApp on why terrorism is a “misleading” term. And then a text asking me to personally request the Israeli government stop the genocide in Gaza. Yeah, because I’m close friends with Bibi, right? Still reeling from the traumas of October 7th, I felt so shocked, so angry, so unsafe. I called him out on his utter lack of support for me, his Jewish friend. And then I blocked him.

The morning in the Quaker kitchen in Portland, with the BDS list pasted to the fridge, the rare Pacific Northwest sunlight pouring through the window, I knew in my heart that something wasn’t right. It was that very moment that led me to look online for programs in Israel and apply for a 9-month service-learning fellowship. I wanted to go to Israel and experience it for myself so I could make my own informed decision.

This is what I encourage everyone who has the privilege and the passport to do so. Curious about what’s actually going on? Then go to Israel and form your own opinion. But don’t post and repost uninformed, tired tropes solely because you personally know what it’s like to be wronged.

My months volunteering in Israel were some of the most meaningful of my life. Contrary to the white oppressor narrative that the liberal elite thrusts onto Israel, the country is extremely diverse. There are secular, traditional, and Haredi Jews from nearly every continent and color: Mizrachi, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Indian, Ethiopian. There are Arab Druze and Bedouins, Palestinian-Israelis, both Muslim and Christian. Migrant workers from Thailand and the Philippines. Asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, refugees from Russia and Ukraine, and the list goes on. 

Our program took us to visit the Gaza border community and the city of Sderot, where, most notably, a caterpillar-painted tunnel on one of the playgrounds served double as a bomb shelter. We also visited a border kibbutz, one that was brutally attacked on October 7th, and Skyped with two young adult Palestinians working towards peace, away, of course, from the leering eyes of Hamas, lest the terrorist organization get ahold of their heads. 

I don’t know if the Palestinians we Skyped with are alive anymore. 

I know that over a dozen residents of the kibbutz we visited are not.

Thanks to Hamas.

And, as a note to my Quaker friends, I also learned about the SodaStream factory in the West Bank that suffered tragically from the BDS movement. Hundreds of Palestinian employees lost their jobs. The lives and livelihoods of Israelis and Palestinians are more closely woven together than anybody who hasn’t been to the land can possibly imagine. 

I also learned a lot about Israelis during my time in Israel, where I most recently returned to study in Jerusalem for a semester. Their deep affection for life and the simultaneous trauma they hold from a lifetime of enduring terrorism – yes, terrorism, from hostile neighbors that surround them. I’ll never forget my first Yom Hazikaron memorial day for fallen soldiers walking through a crowd of hundreds of people watching a ceremony on a projector in the park, everyone crying for lost friends and loved ones, everyone with a story to tell. 

Some of my Israeli friends tell me they avoid revealing that they’re Israeli when they travel. This breaks me – I’m never afraid to say I’m from New Jersey, from the United States, though in every liberal college ceremony I attend, I’m unfailingly reminded that I am standing on stolen, indigenous land. 

The Israelis I met were so deeply complex and warm and loving, but also guarded, the world having dehumanized them. The world having wronged them, having wronged the Jewish people, from every country and enclave from which they’ve been discriminated against, genocided, and ultimately, expelled.

Not even in a desert, a rabbi I knew growing up used to say. They won’t even let us live in a desert.

Often, I find myself caught off guard by tears, imagining the barbarism of October 7th, the hostages hidden beneath tunnels, the death of every soldier so courageously and selflessly fighting to protect Israel, how every loss destroys a family, a home, a friend circle, a community. I cry for the conjured trauma of my own relatives murdered in the Shoah, and I also weep for entire Palestinian families wiped out in blasts, from both Israeli airstrikes and Hamas misfires. I grieve for the Palestinian mothers and children, for the peace activists trapped within a hotheaded, patriarchal, homophobic, bloodthirsty regime, one in which, let’s face it, liberal apologists would not stand to endure.

I think what disappointed me most about poet Marilyn Hacker’s words was their glaring lack of nuance. The lack of acknowledgment that in a war, there are never simply two sides: there are an infinite number of stories and narratives and deep loss and people feeling wronged.

Shouting “Long live the people of Palestine!” might seem hip and even the right thing to do, as a Jew, but in this particular war, it gives radicals and extremists the green light to use the words to justify, at the very least, their distaste for Jews, and at worst, the genocide of the Jewish people from Israel, their ancestral homeland. 

If you think you’ll be safer and less noticeable remaining silent about the October 7th atrocities, think again.

Then again, if Marilyn Hacker ever happens to need a place of refuge for being Jewish, I’m sure Israel will still open its arms to her, as I’ve seen it open its arms, time and time again, to many anti-Zionist residents. And no, I’m not just talking about the Haredim – some, including my own relatives, happen to be very Zionist; I’m talking about the “woke” Gen-Z’ers and millennials and anarchists of all ages who somehow have the audacity to live on the land, take from the government, and still scream, “from the river to the sea!” 

Sadly, I ended up unsubscribing from Poem-a-Day, my beloved daily dose of poetry, not because I want to create my own echo chamber, but because I don’t want to be constantly put down by one. I don’t want to deal with the exhaustion of explaining until I’m blue in the face that Israel has a right to exist. I don’t want to deal with a faux community of poets who don’t want to represent or even acknowledge my voice, my pain, the pain of my people. 

The beauty of poetry is that it tells human stories from across the gamut of nationality, race, religion, and worldview. Everybody’s pain has a place. And, as a teacher, it is always my priority that students feel somehow reflected in the range of poems, stories, and essays I share. It’s a fundamental part of my teaching philosophy.

I hope the Academy of American Poets will consider representing more varied viewpoints in the future, not for extremism – but for nuance, for peace, for telling stories.

About the Author
Originally from New Jersey, Kayla Schneider-Smith received her MFA from the University of San Francisco, where she served as the first Jewish Resident Minister on campus and taught Intro to Creative Writing. Her poems and articles have appeared in Minyan Magazine, The Jewish Writing Project, Invisible City, and Friends Journal. Kayla currently works as an Adjunct Professor at Rider University and a Chaplain for Penn Medicine Princeton Hospital.
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