I was disappointed and confused recently reading the New York Times story, “Touring the Israeli Occupation: Young U.S, Jews Get an Unflinching View” along with other personal accounts of the J Street sponsored “Let Our People Know” Jewish college student tour of Israel and Palestinian territories. As recounted, how could a group of bright Jewish college students after a one day excursion to what was termed “occupied” territory so suddenly and dramatically feel that the Palestinian narrative provided to them is an uncontested truth where Palestinians are elevated to victimized sainthood and Israelis portrayed as fiendish oppressors? How could a few hours spent listening to the Palestinian narrative create such a crisis of conscience, identity, and faith as to have some of the students questioning their Judaism and “whether Zionism is worth pursuing anymore?”
But what was I to gain from sighing? More productive would be to imagine my having a conversation with one of the students and considering what I’d share as my own sense of a reasoned reaction. Reasoning, after all, is the joined process for assimilating knowledge to help understand people, actions, and interactions. Reasoning constrains operating solely on emotions. Yet, as I learned when I first became a parent, reasoning alone may not work unless empathically one understands and respects the other’s reality, especially a young person’s.
But how to get a sense of a J Street tour member’s reality? An op-ed by one of the travelers, Simone Pass Tucker, in the Washington Jewish Week titled “What I Saw After Israel’s Highlight Reel” provided needed insight. If I summarize Tucker’s piece correctly, she seems to be saying that opposed to an Israeli “highlight reel,” the J Street tour opened her eyes to her own “biases and privileges” thus “redefining” her Jewish identity and “fostering a healthy connection to not only … Israel, but also the Palestinian and Israeli people.”
I don’t know Tucker personally, but I’d wager she is a sensitive and caring person. I’d be surprised that she has been guilty of any biases harmful to others, that she has discriminated against any individual or groups so as to deny their civil rights, human dignity, or material success. I’m speculating that her perspective on the Israel-Palestinian conflict ties to the notion that because she is an American Jew and probably white, she automatically suffers from a built in bigotry against others deemed to be not as “privileged” as she and thus oppressed. As such, might she be saying that by just being Jewish, she carries certain biases that create various unhealthy connections impacting her views of her Jewish people, Israel, and the Israel-Palestinian conflict? Has she perhaps concluded that because she thought herself to be a proud Jew and Zionist, she intrinsically harbored prejudices against the Palestinians regardless of any historical or contemporary context for the conflict?
I would ask Tucker if we could discuss these loose associations now widely promulgated across college campuses and the media. Has the “privilege” of being Jewish in America been a curse or a blessing? Have Jewish Americans through their successes detracted from the well being of others or rather have they contributed immensely financially, intellectually, artistically, socially, and judiciously to create a more just and prosperous country for all? When Jews marched with Dr. King during the Civil Rights era, did we do so because we were ashamed of being Jewish or because our Jewish pride brought us to the cause?
I would check with Tucker if, by referring to Israel’s outlook on the conflict as a “highlight reel,” she is angry and contemptuous? Is Israel’s viewpoint sheer propaganda and the Palestinian narrative the only truth? Did she intend for her piece to portray Israelis as jackbooted occupiers of inculpable people who contributed nothing to the conflict? Both the New York Times and Tucker pieces center on the tour’s visit to Susiya, a poor Palestinian village suffering from lack of water due to Israel’s draconian “occupation” measures (each rendition contained a pooh-poohed Israeli explanation). According to Tucker, the visit to Susiya “broke my heart” describing how a little Palestinian girl refused her offer of a water bottle. I can resonate to Tucker’s heartbreak as she sensed deprivation, suspicion, and fear. But I would also inquire if on the tour Tucker may have visited Sderot, a small town near the Gaza border where she may have come across one of many Jewish children suffering catatonic episodes as a result of the endless rockets reigning down on them from Hamas. I would ask her to picture that child, in shock, who may also have shied away, breaking her heart.
I would further ask if, while in Susiya, did she engage its inhabitants in a discussion of the town’s history? Tucker may know that Susiya has a Jewish history that goes back 1500 years. What were the current inhabitants’ thoughts about the 10,000 Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria who were killed or driven from their land during the 1948 War of Independence? As Jews in Israel and throughout the world condemned the 1994 Goldstein killing of 29 Muslims in Hebron, just a few kilometers away, what regret did the people of Susiya express about the 1929 pogrom and massacre of 69 Jews in Hebron? I would ask these questions because all of us, as individuals, groups, nations, have our own “highlight reels,” and Tucker seems so decidedly to have accepted as compelling the Palestinian version and rejected dismissively the one of her own people.
I am fearful how, in Tucker’s own words and that of others students, the J Street tour has redefined their Jewish identities. I hope it doesn’t mean they are now less proud, less committed, or less involved in the Jewish world. If so, what a terrible loss we would suffer. I hope it doesn’t mean, in echoing Jeremiah, that with whatever faults they may find with Israel, its existence and security are not still precious to them. I hope it doesn’t mean that they are fully accepting of the Palestinian definition of “from the river to the sea, Palestine (read all of Israel) must be free” as the end goal to the “‘occupation.”
I do hope the J Street students still resonate to Heschel’s narrative of the inextricable tie between Jews and Israel: “The Jewish people have never ceased to assert its right, its title, to the land of Israel. This continuous, uninterrupted insistence … is at the core of Jewish history, a vital element of Jewish faith.” I do hope they continue to grow, question, challenge, write, and come back often to Israel taking Heschel’s words to heart as they examine the history and accuracy of each reel.