I just got off the phone with a dear old friend. She thanked me for keeping her updated with what is happening in Gaza, and for sharing my views, because, as she rightly pointed out, the news in the U.S. is impossibly tangled. The pictures accompanying headlines about rocket fire into Israel have several times now been pictures of flattened Gazan homes (thank you, Diane Sawyer and Fox News).
But this friend didn’t just thank me because I was able to sort out some of the facts. She also thanked me because it was important to hear this from a Jew. This is a smart, caring person, a lawyer, human rights activist, and religious Christian. She has known me for years, known my views on this for years, and yet she still feels like she needs my permission to get involved.
And thus, we get to Jewish privilege on the issue of Israel/Palestine. The kneejerk cry of “Anti-Semitism!” is still so common a reflex that people shy away from making their unease with Israel known, or even learning more. Information from organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace becomes more trustworthy than that from “neutral” sources, and certainly more than that from Palestinian/Arab/Muslim sources. Signs like the one my dad held this weekend, “Occupation: Not in My Name” alert passersby that a Jew has weighed in, criticized Israel, and therefore said passersby can now engage in conversation, take literature, think about the issue.
This is deeply problematic. It is problematic because it means we need permission from people within the oppressor group to criticize oppression. It is problematic because it negates the voices of others, but especially and most importantly because it negates the voices of the victims themselves. It deems the Palestinian narrative less trustworthy, in this weird belief that bias exists only on the side of the oppressed.
And yet. And yet. As deeply uncomfortable as it makes me to write on my demo sign that “I am Jewish AND. . . ,” my friend reminded me that this is what gets those people who are disquieted by the news but not engaged to stop and read the rest of my sign. It should not matter that I am Jewish; it should only matter that Gaza is constantly under siege and is now undergoing a massacre. But if I refuse to use my privilege in this case, I may have lost a group of nice nervous people who really do feel they need my permission to get involved. It’s not really their fault; Holocaust guilt runs deep, as it well should, and it is cleverly and constantly exploited by defenders of Israel.
Jews involved in Palestine solidarity work get invitations to radio programs, to churches, to civic organizations. Jews involved in Palestine solidarity work get pats on the back for being so courageous. It can be flattering, and we can let it go to our heads and forget that Palestinians are being ignored in their own struggle. We must use our privilege in a constructive way, one that alerts concerned people to listen to Palestinian voices. My mother once refused to speak on a panel unless the hosts invited Palestinian speakers, and then provided a list of local qualified speakers. Jews are the bouncers at this event: we get the crowd to listen up by shouting our Jewishness into the loud-speaker, then we hand the mike over to the Palestinians. I would like this not to be the case, I would like us not to have to grant permission to criticize Israel, but even more I would like the Occupation and war crimes to stop. If that means I have to write “I am Jewish AND . . .” on my sign next time, I guess I will.