For young Jewish people growing up around the world, the relationship between Judaism and Israel is becoming increasingly hard to navigate.

For young Jewish people growing up around the world, the relationship between Judaism and Israel is becoming increasingly hard to navigate.

Oriel Eisner is one of the organisers of the Centre for Jewish Nonviolence’s “Occupation is Not Our Judaism” summer campaign. Here he discusses how his relationship to Israel/Palestine has changed over the years and why he believes the “Occupation is Not Our Judaism” campaign is so important.

I grew up with a pretty positive relationship to Israel. I was born in Israel to an Israeli father and American mother. When I was two years old my family moved from Israel to Denver, Colorado. Growing up in Denver my education about Israel was fairly mainstream; I attended Jewish Day School, went to a Jewish summer camp, belonged to a synagogue, and was a member of a Jewish youth group.

I was taught that as the Jewish state Israel should be protected and supported. I was taught that when there were conflicts or difficult situations in its history Israel always made the moral decisions and took the right actions. My relationship with Israel was therefore totally innocent; I never had any reason to question what Israel did or its place in the region, and I enjoyed visiting and celebrating my connection without hesitation. It was a positive relationship.

In high school I had a couple of experiences which made me start to question this outlook. The most significant of these occurred during the 2006 Israeli war with Hezbollah. I attended a pro-Israel event at my synagogue. A group of protesters had gathered outside, holding signs, waving Palestinian flags, and shouting.

The author

The author

One protester pointed at me and a friend as we were walking by, shouting: “You are Nazis!” My friend shouted back and then we continued walking. I was thunderstruck. I couldn’t react, I had nothing to say, I couldn’t think. I was incredibly hurt by the words, but also by the total dissonance I felt hearing those words. I couldn’t even begin to understand where they had come from, what they meant, or why they were directed at me. What I knew and had learned about Israel and Jewish history made this utterance completely incomprehensible. The feeling of helplessness soon subsided as I was able to bury the comments beneath the Israel-support that surrounded me, but the seeds of confusion were planted.

Another pillar of my Jewish education was Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for repairing the world). In day school we learned about the tragedies of the Holocaust every year and how important it was to prevent such an event from ever happening again. As I got older I learned about the disproportionate Jewish presence in the Civil Rights Movement, and I drew connections between the lessons of ‘never again’, Tikkun Olam, and the actions of those Jewish activists who supported the Civil Rights movement. This equation very quickly became the core of what I valued in Jewishness and in my Jewish identity; an ethical responsibility to make the world a better place.

When I arrived at university this ethic guided many of my actions. I became concerned and involved with environmental justice and animal rights work, fording me to engage with social justice communities which introduced me to new issues and ways of looking at the world. As I moved deeper into these communities the confusion which was planted in high school began to move closer to the surface. Social justice circles often included at least a mention of Palestinian rights and/or Israeli occupation or apartheid. I began to see things I had never seen before, hear stories and histories that were different or in conflict with the ones I knew.

I didn’t know how to reconcile what I was encountering with what I had grown up knowing and experiencing. I felt that I had to forego the Jewishness that taught me to always support Israel for the sake of the Jewishness that taught me to value Tikkun Olam and social justice. There was no room for both and I found no spaces or communities which held onto each.

I was confused, ashamed, guilt-ridden, and full of self-doubt. At one point I remember speaking with a friend and thinking aloud that my love of hummus and falafel was actually a colonialist-orientalist-exoticised desire which I had appropriated at the expense of subjugated populations; how could a white Jew living in the US possibly have a connection to the food culture of the Middle East? This comment was made half-jokingly but it came from a real place of shame and confusion. I felt terrible about my positive connection to Israel and my time spent there now that I had been made aware of the oppression which had been committed in its name.

Photo by Sam Mellish

Photo by Sam Mellish

In order to work through these doubts and confusions I decided to spend some time in the region. I completed my Master’s degree and a week later boarded a plane to Israel/Palestine. While there I saw things that broke my heart, opened my eyes, and inspired me. I participated in a 5-month anti-Occupation leadership development program called Achvat Amim. I sat with Israelis and Palestinians in dialogue who wrestled with the Nakba, the Holocaust, and religious and historical connections to the land.

I saw the security measures taken by Israel in light of heightened tensions and the fears and racism which this environment stoked. I organised with an activist collective called All That’s Left that seeks to “build a diasporic angle of resistance to the Occupation”.

I spoke with Palestinians who have been imprisoned by the Israeli military and are now committed to building a nonviolent resistance movement in the West Bank. With an organisation called Rabbis for Human Rights I helped Palestinian farmers access their lands during the olive harvest.

I witnessed the destruction of ‘illegally built’ Palestinian homes in the occupied South Hebron Hills, and I went to those villages affected with a group of Israeli activists called Ta’ayush to help rebuild them

I participated in the 11th anniversary of the nonviolent protests against the wall in the Palestinian village of Bil’in, and sat with local residents and Israeli activists for hummus and olives afterward.

These experiences challenged and pushed me, but through that challenge I found a way to relate to Israel/Palestine. I found pathways forward and developing movements that inspired me and showed me ways I could act. While in Jerusalem I found radical activism, community, and education, and it was all framed by Jewishness. Fridays would start with direct-action or protests and end with the lighting of Sabbath candles and blessings over the Sabbath meal. I no longer felt the need to keep my ethical/political aspirations and my Jewish connections separate; in fact I found them deliberately intertwined and informing each other.

Toward the end of my time in Israel/Palestine I became aware of the Centre for Jewish Nonviolence and the campaign they are planning which will take place this summer.

All That’s Left is one of the main partners helping to organise the delegation. This campaign, and this community, is taking an invaluable stand and contributing to a movement that is too often ostracised and shuttered out by the mainstream Jewish community.

My confusions and doubts about my Jewishness and my relationship to Israel are singular and my own, but I don’t believe that they are unique. Jews all around the world are feeling more and more uncomfortable with, and critical of, Israel and the actions it takes against the Palestinians. Dominant Jewish institutional spaces reject this outright and accuse these individuals of anti-Semitism and self-hatred. But these individuals will not be silenced.

They are speaking out and calling for an end to the Occupation and justice for Palestinians. It is what Judaism demands and what Jews are demanding of the Jewish state. The Centre for Jewish Nonviolence is one campaign which is taking up this call, and with next year marking 50 years since the Israeli occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem the urgency of such a campaign cannot be overstated.

Find out more about the Centre for Jewish Nonviolence here, and donate to their campaign this summer here.

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