- Choosing to Ask the Hard Questions:Thoughts on approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
The author relates her own movement from Orthodox Zionist to secular humanist, finding in it a lesson regarding the need to engage in a variety of strategies for meaningful peace work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She draws a distinction between «engagement» (usually dialogue or negotiation) and «resistance» (active protest not requiring the consent of the other party). The author argues that both strategies are useful, but that American Jewish activists need to consciously move from one to the other based on strategic necessity and ethical rightness, rather than allowing fears and biases to predispose us to certain forms of action.
It is 1982; a group of Israelis from Peace Now rides a bus from Kibbutz Gezer to protest the groundbreaking of the new yeshiva1 in Neve Dekalim. Neve Dekalim is still only sand near the Mediterranean Sea, but it is meant to become the commercial center of Jewish settlement in the southern Gaza Strip. The cornerstone of the new Yeshivat Yamit has been [End Page 91] salvaged from the settlement of Yamit, returned to Egypt months earlier as part of the Camp David agreement. The guest speaker at the groundbreaking is Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, hero to the settlers.
One young protester, Michael from Rochester, NY, USA, looks across the barricade to the settlers celebrating in sandals, kippot or headscarves. One of the settler women, holding her baby, is wearing a jeans skirt, glasses, blonde hair peeking out from her scarf—she looks familiar…
Actually it's me Michael recognizes. We are a long way from Rochester, from Brighton High School, from Zionist youth groups. He crosses the barricade. It is a surprise and also a delight to see a face from home.
"But Rebecca, how can you be part of what these people are doing to the Arabs??!" "Oh, Michael. Our rabbis visit with the Sheikhs, it's not like on the West Bank. I could never treat the Arabs as unequal; I would not be morally capable of hurting them."
A thousand times since, I have pictured Michael putting down his sign, crossing that barricade, offering me a critical jostling, which was probably one-third of the fuel I needed to spin on my heel in a radical shift away from the life I was born into. The steps I took from a loving Orthodox home in Rochester to young married life in Greater Israel were an un-shocking sequence. But my response to a set of dissonant currents—Michael's admonishment in Neve Dekalim, a troubled marriage, lifelong skepticism about the necessity of religious practice—was one jarring, giant step into a personal diaspora.
By 1984, we had left Gaza and Jerusalem for Los Angeles, trying to steady the pieces of a listing marriage. After a few months reflecting on my attraction to women and other puzzle pieces that couldn't be pushed into place, I put my two babies in the car and drove away on shabbes.2 Soon the scarf came off, the jeans skirt became jeans, and everything became subject to question.
My father's grandfather came to Michigan from Lazdei, Lithuania around 1900, and soon joined the rest of his family in Jerusalem. In 1939, my great-grandfather built a 3-story stone house at 20 Malachi Street. My Yerusha-almi3 cousins are known for their humility and for hazzanut—their lovely singing voices. (I got the voice.)
My parents were married in Rochester in 1948, and saved for twenty years until they were sure that I, the youngest, at age eight, was ready to appreciate a trip to Israel. We slept at Aunt Betty's in Yerushalayim, and we brought her a remarkable gift: my father had arranged to have a record made of her husband's zemiros.4 Before Uncle Morris died, my father had sat him down with a microphone and recorded an hour's worth of 7 inch reel-to-reel tape of Uncle Morris singing his original shabbes songs.
As I write this article, my 82-year-old father calls with news: he and my...