Jewish voices speak for a just peace

July 2, 2012
Sydney launch of Beyond Tribal Loyalties.

Beyond Tribal Loyalties ― Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists
Edited by Avigail Abarbanel
Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2012.

Jews who come out on the side of Palestinians generally do not face terrible physical punishment, nor are they usually thrown in jail. But they often face ostracism, and this is what makes this community-creating book ― a collection of “Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists” ― so valuable.

These personal accounts are from Australia, Canada, Israel, Britain and the US. They are stories of how 25 people realised they were unable to square “Jewish values” with oppression of Palestinians.

The editor, Avigail Abarbanel, was Israeli but renounced her citizenship, unable to stomach her country’s policies. She now lives and works as a psychotherapist in Scotland.

She finds the common denominator of the writers to be “emotional resilience” as they come to reject the position of “Progressive Except on Palestine” (PEP) to become full-on activists supporting Palestine.

The largest contingent of the writers are Australian (seven essays). I am guessing that this is because the editor has lived and worked here. I am honoured to know two contributors; Vivienne Porszolt and Peter Slezak.

A leading light of Jews against the Occupation, Porszolt writes about growing up in New Zealand and packs a punch with her words: “The emotions surrounding Israel are immensely complex for so many Jews. The tragic experience of the Holocaust has been disgracefully misused by the Zionist movement.

“It has been keeping the wounds open and suppurating, feeding constant fear of ever-threatening antisemitism to provide emotional fuel for their project.

“There has been no chance to heal, a healing that is necessary for Jews to feel as strong in the world as in fact they are. Instead they shield themselves with the illusion of an all-powerful Israel, which cannot long survive its current course.

“This spurious shield carries a great emotional, social, political and moral cost.”

Slezak, co-founder of Australian Independent Jewish Voices, traces his secular evolution through Bertrand Russell to Noam Chomsky. He quotes his excellent speech he gave in Melbourne in January 2009, during Israel’s ‘Cast Lead’ bombing of Gaza: “So I’m here because the State of Israel does not represent all Jews.

“If we have learned the real meaning of the slogan 'never again', we can’t remain silent when the crimes are being committed in our name. We must universalise the lessons of our own tragedy to include others in our moral universe ...

“The Nazis made Jews wear a yellow Star of David to stigmatise them. I grew up with the immensely moving image of others, non-Jews, like the King of Denmark, who showed their humanity by wearing the yellow star to symbolise their solidarity with the Jewish victims of persecution.”

The Canadian contributors are from Montreal and are part of dialogue groups that involve Jews and Palestinians meeting regularly to discuss the Middle East.

One participant, Lesley Levy, offered this insight: “The desperate need for a Jewish homeland seems to allow for endless human rights violations, but it is not making us safer, far from it. It has become idol worship and an unquestioning mindset that Israel can do no wrong.”

From a relative in Montreal, I learned that at least one dialogue group stopped meeting over the Cast Lead attack on Gaza. It seems to me that without a strong solidarity agenda, such groups will not draw together when the next Israeli atrocity takes place, but will fall apart.

The first contributor in the Israel section is Jeff Halper. Originally from the US, he is the founder of Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolition (ICAHD).

With the Zionist aim of dispossessing Palestinians, those remaining inside Israel as wwll as those in the Occupied Territories, this is a matter of putting bodies in front of bulldozers, and rebuilding homes. His article brings this to life.

In the British section, Abarbanel attributes her conversion to reading Avi Shlaim’s The Iron Wall. One of her memories of Israel is of being taken on a patrol as a thirteen-year-old. With armed men, she tours the building sites in a van looking for Palestinian labourers illegally staying overnight.

When they find one, he is beaten. The sight of him never leaves her.

Susan Nathan is another British contributor. She has written The Other Side Of Israel, where she details her life in the Palestinian town of Tamra, in Israel. In it she draws on her childhood in apartheid South Africa.

Nathan finds especially noxious the erasing of Palestinian villages, where people were living until terrorised from their lands in 1948: “Knowing the truth about the founding of Israel has taken me to hell and back. I have experienced moments in which I did not think I would recover my equilibrium.

“I have seen my health nosedive, yet out of all this I have found a new way of being and relating to our fellow humans that I have never experienced before.”

It was many years ago I watched a film put on by a Palestinian showing hardship under occupation. Afterwards he said that as Australians, we should understand it, as Australia, like Israel, is a settler society. That woke me up.

I hope this book wakes up many people in Australia, not just Jews. It is worth noting that when many of the essayists “went over” to declare solidarity with the Palestinian cause, they were welcomed. Far from becoming isolated, they found new communion with people who were active in the struggle for peace and justice.

I congratulate Abarbanal on this compelling, community-creating book.

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