There’s a story from last week I can’t get out of my head: A Palestinian family takes a taxi to their daughter’s home in Gaza City, five minutes away, on the last day of Ramadan, because they thought they’d be safer from the ongoing Israeli airstrikes. They’re unpacking the car when suddenly a military drone strikes, killing the taxi driver, the father, and mother, and wounding the son, 28. For many American Jews who were raised to see Palestinians as the enemy, it might come as a shock to recognize the Israeli military as the aggressor in this situation, or to mourn the victims of that strike. But this week, I mourn.
I was raised to unequivocally support Israel. As a second-generation American Jew and granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, I never questioned Israel’s existence, actions, and connection to the United States — not because debate wasn’t encouraged in my house, but because I never even thought to ask.
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Four days after Israeli police invaded Al-Aqsa mosque, a Muslim holy site in East Jerusalem, the questions and the words finally came to me and I took to Twitter to share my newly-crystallized feelings to see if they would resonate. “Being an American Jew is a mindfuck,” the now-viral thread began; It goes on to describe how American Jews are raised to believe in the infallibility of Israel, how the intergenerational trauma of the Holocaust shapes our view of the region, and how our history of oppression should make us even more empathetic to the displacement and killing of Palestinians.
Sharing even the most benign opinions online is terrifying, so I was particularly worried about how something so personal would be received. That’s why I was surprised and humbled by the overwhelmingly affirmative response, with fellow American Jews publicly and privately agreeing they’re no longer able to accept the party line on Israel-U.S. relations. They’ve been grappling with the version of Israel presented on organized trips like Birthright vs. what they’ve seen unfold on the ground, how to square their love for their people and history with their commitment to racial and social justice, and how Israel’s actions in Palestine seem to fly in the face of “tikkun olam” — the Jewish principle of improving the world through action.
Jeremy Slevin also saw his Twitter thread on the intrinsic tie between Jewish American identity and Israel touted widely, with more than 18,000 retweets and counting. The 33-year-old senior communications director for Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) wrote, “In truth, Israel is a state, like many others, founded on the displacement of others. Its Jewish exclusivity is predicated on the exclusion of millions who continue to live on that land. Political exclusion based on religion, by definition, leads to hatred, repression, and eventually ethnic cleansing. Jews should know this more than anyone.”
He described to me his ability to separate his Jewish American identity from Israel as a gradual process, bolstered by his work for Congresswoman Omar. “Seeing the demonization, threats, and hate speech she has faced for criticizing the occupation has clarified my commitment to decoupling blanket support for the Israeli government from my Judaism.”
Slevin recognizes that engaging on such an emotional topic publicly on social media may not be for everyone, but added “I do think it’s important to have these difficult conversations with people who might disagree with you, to get their perspectives and share yours. Continuing to shy away from this issue and avoid healthy debate serves no one.”
Samantha Cyrulnik-Dercher, a 32-year-old civil rights advocate in Washington, D.C., recently had one of these difficult conversations with her Jewish family, which she called “really scary and also really liberating.” The granddaughter of three Holocaust survivors said, “Two weeks ago if you’d asked me if you could interview me for this piece I would have said no, I don’t really know enough to talk about something so complicated. So just the fact that I feel empowered to speak about this at all is a very big change in a very short time.”
While many of us have felt isolated in our views, by speaking out, we’re finding solidarity. Over the past 15 years, the an anti-occupation Jewish left in America has been growing, with organizations like IfNotNow and JStreet leading the charge. But because the conflict has so often been boiled down to a binary — you either support Israel, or you support its destruction — for many of us it felt like a betrayal to even consider the other side. Even now with strength in numbers, there is still a genuine fear of using words and phrases like apartheid and ethnic cleansing, even if they’re applicable. There is an instinct to retreat.
Libby Lenkinski, a Brooklyn-based veteran in the progressive American/Israeli activism space and vice president for public engagement at the New Israel Fund, sees the emergence of a new perspective on Israel as young American Jews reinterpreting what it means to live a Jewish life, and cautions older Jews not to mischaracterize changing opinions on Israel as a rejection of our values: “This may not be the engagement you dreamed of, but they haven’t turned away, they just turned in a different direction.”
Lenkinski, 42, sees a noticeable shift in American perception since the last major conflict in Gaza in 2014. “A theme that’s relatively new is that it’s simple. It’s been described for decades as ‘too complicated,’ but now people are realizing it’s actually not that complicated,” Lenkinski told me. “It’s a moral issue. It’s right or wrong. There’s something positive about it, but I hope it doesn’t end there,” stressing that American Jews need to go beyond tweets and Instagram memes to understand the intertwined systems of oppression at play.
Of the at least 60 children killed by airstrikes in Gaza this week, 11 were participating in a program focused on trauma run by the Norwegian Refugee Council. As their organization’s Secretary General wrote, “They are now gone, killed with their families, buried with their dreams and the nightmares that haunted them.” Though a ceasefire is now in effect, violence continues at the Al-Aqsa mosque, where the fighting of the last two weeks arguably began.
Growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust and the intergenerational trauma of descending from survivors of genocide, I can’t help but see my family in their faces, as Cyrulnik-Dercher put it. The near annihilation of the Jewish people four decades before I was born still courses through my veins, and it is this visceral feeling of violence and oppression that has made me feel certain that speaking out now is the right thing to do — and already too little too late.
The truth is that causing trauma to another group will never ease our own. Killing more that 200 Palestinians in two weeks won’t bring back our ancestors who perished in the Holocaust, and it certainly won’t bring us closer to a lasting peace. Until we recognize that no one is safe until we’re all safe, the cycle of oppression will play on.
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