Hey y’all, this is Katya. Thank you to all those who have read and shared my last article and said such kind words. To the Palestinian readers who were kind enough to say that the article gave them hope, I am humbled beyond words- please let me know what I can do to keep that hope going.
Below is a letter I am sending to Rabbi Greyber of Beth El Synagogue of Durham, NC., but it applies to so many Jewish communities I have been part of throughout my life.
Dear Rabbi Greyber,
My name is Katya and I am a Jewish young professional and newcomer to Durham. I came to Beth El for the High Holidays thanks to the synagogue’s compassionate choice to keep these services free and open to all. You personally talked with me and made me feel welcome, as did so many of your congregants. Thank you so much for encouraging and perpetuating a warm, compassionate atmosphere throughout Beth El.
During your Rosh Hashanah morning service, you mentioned the state of Israel. In anticipation of people immediately getting up in arms about politics, you insisted that despite the opinions of many, we should absolutely be able to talk about Israel in synagogues. I agree that not only can we talk about Israel in synagogues, but we have a moral obligation to. Where I disagree with you is that we can, should and must talk about Palestine as well. People of all genders and ages are being killed, starved, beaten, illegally detained, and institutionally oppressed in the name of our people; I just returned from witnessing this firsthand. Furthermore, the vast majority of your congregants are American taxpayers, and these crimes are being committed with our tax dollars. Billions of dollars of aid are given to Israel by the US each year; any American Jewish community that ignores what happens with that money in the name of our people has no right to claim to be a social-justice-oriented community. Unfortunately, I’ve seen multiple congregations in this area claim to be rooted in social justice and boast of their tikkun olam efforts but remain silent on excruciatingly relevant human rights issues in Palestine and Israel.
During Rosh Hashanah services at Beth El, I got a bit teary-eyed during Mourner’s Kaddish in light of the death of a close friend. My friend’s name was Layan, and she was murdered in July. Layan, a 20-year-old Gazan university student and classical pianist, was among the hundreds and hundreds of innocent civilians murdered by Israel this summer. Her little siblings were among the 500 children murdered within those 50 days. Some people in my life have criticized me for mourning their deaths and have asserted that Layan’s family or home must have somehow been involved with Hamas. It has been confirmed that like with the majority of Gazan civilian deaths, Hamas weapons/operatives were in no way involved. There was no human shielding operation going on. Like in the case of the el-Wafa hospital, the IDF knew and confirmed that there were no Hamas affiliates or weapons inside that home. Like the el-Wafa hospital, the IDF targeted it anyway. The IDF bombed it anyway. The bodies of Layan, her two little siblings, her sweet grandparents and her quirky, peace-loving parents were all found dismembered under the rubble of their home. There were no warning leaflets or phone calls but even if there had been, there was nowhere safe to go in the first place- Israel controls the borders, airspace and sea around the small, crowded territory that is Gaza. This murder was not a rare, fluke situation in which one peaceful, innocent Palestinian family got killed; it happened thousands of times in just 50 days.
Layan was a brilliant student, a talented musician and a brave, compassionate human being. She was the most inspiring person I’ve ever met. She advocated for real peace in Palestine and Israel: coexistence with full equality and human rights for people of all ethnicities/religions. No occupation, no violence, no ethnic cleansing, yes justice. This was Layan’s dream, it is the dream of the vast majority of Palestinian civilians and those standing in solidarity with them, and it is my dream.
I went to Palestine in December to stand in physical solidarity with the Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement for human rights. I had been to Israel before, but never Palestine, so I didn’t know what to expect. I traveled all around the West Bank witnessing the realities on the ground, listening to Palestinians share their stories and opinions, staying with Palestinian families and taking part in nonviolent demonstrations. I also went back into Israel during this time, where the invisibility of the occupation was heartbreaking. I saw once again how white Jews like me had the opportunity to live every day in Israel without seeing almost any of the violence and systematic oppression enacted in their names. Since I have been so fully exposed to Zionism- all throughout my life- in America and in Israel, I wanted to experience Palestine firsthand.
For the rest of my life, I will never forget my time in Palestine. The genuine warmth and hospitality and kindness with which we (I went a friend and her two children, all of us Jewish) were greeted were beyond what I’ve seen anywhere else in the world. I saw stereotype after stereotype and myth after myth shatter to the ground and I saw layer after layer of multi-faceted Apartheid – yes, Apartheid– policies enacted against people who devoted their entire lives to nonviolent struggle for a just peace. I wept- straight-up wept- at the Western Wall because of the crimes against humanity I saw being committed by my own people. I don’t know where to begin in to tell you about what I saw in Palestine. I will tell you that every Palestinian I met already understood a concept that I struggle every day to explain to Americans: that Judaism and Zionism, while related, are neither the same nor inseparably intertwined.
I am part of Jewish Voice for Peace, which is made up of tens of thousands of Jews who also stand in solidarity for Palestinian equality. With proud Jewish identities and a sense of purpose fueled by Jewish values, our existence de-bunks the myth that criticism of Israel’s actions is inherently anti-Semtitic. While Zionist hasbara works hard to claim that we don’t have a place in Jewish communities, ever-growing numbers of us are proving otherwise. I have seen synagogues successfully acknowledge this and openly welcome non-Zionist Jews to the table. Rabbi Brian Walt, the rabbi of my synagogue back in New York, is one of many rabbis who demonstrate how to do this successfully. Of course, he gets criticism as well- especially when he talks openly about the sobering parallels between the South African Apartheid he grew up in and the Israeli occupation he witnessed firsthand for many years- but his community is thriving and engaged in constantly asking questions about Israel AND Palestine.
Beth El calls itself a pluralistic Jewish community. Indeed, when you speak to the congregation, you seem to encourage congregants to think about G-d and connect to their spiritual/religious practice in whatever ways are personally meaningful to them. You have congregants of many different backgrounds and significantly varying levels and methods of observance; this is wonderful, successful pluralism. It is another aspect of Beth El that makes people feel welcome, comfortable, and eager to engage in the community. But when it comes to politics and outlooks on Israel and Palestine, that pluralism seems to disappear. A community that says a prayer for the state of Israel while not even mentioning the word “Palestine” feels starkly unwelcome and non-pluralistic to Jews with different political stances. It continues the invisibility that I witnessed in Israel and in light of the atrocities that are being swept under the rug, that invisibility is unethical.
I know that even mentioning Palestine can be incendiary and polarizing in synagogues. I know what it’s like to make people angry and uncomfortable by talking about Palestine within Jewish communities. I used to be afraid to speak out about this because I didn’t want to make people angry or uncomfortable. Then I remembered that losing friends and angering people is nothing compared to having your family’s home demolished by an IDF bulldozer, having your child killed/beaten /illegally detained for months for no reason, watching a loved one die at a checkpoint as IDF soldiers deny them passage to the hospital, or having your home and family bombed for no ethical reason. This is the Palestinian experience, and I have seen it with my own eyes. I promise that fully examining it is worth the process of pain and guilt that follows, and it is worth facing the backlash of angry Zionists.
I’ve gotten a lot of criticism from other Jews about my non-Zionism. I often get called a disgrace and a self-hating Jew, or get comments like “You are an embarrassment to your people. You grew up a Jewish Zionist; what happened?” These comments and accusations of being a self-hating Jew don’t bother me because I know that it is my Jewish values that drive the work that I do. When reflecting on the mass injustices and oppression our people have suffered, I firmly believe in the idea of “never again for anyone” rather than just “never again for us.”
As you know, we Jews are a people who love to ask questions. I learned from Pesach seders at a young age that I should question and investigate everything I am told. So often, I witness Jewish communities emphasize the importance of questioning everything but Israel. I see children from these communities who grow up with the confidence to raise their hands in philosophy class but don’t bat an eye when their Birthright tour guides spout blatantly racist anti-Arab sentiments.
To preface the prayer for the state of Israel on Rosh Hashanah, you said that people don’t have to believe completely in the words of the prayer, but to say them anyway and let them be a vessel for sentiment. Given the heart-wrenching current relevance of the subject matter, I think it’s crucial that people be encouraged to think about the words and question them before simply repeating them along with the crowd. I will not say a prayer for the country that killed Layan and shot bullets and teargas at unarmed children before my eyes.
I am currently seeking to become a member of a synagogue. I would love to be part of a Jewish community and partake in the traditions and spirituality that mean so much to me. It is crucially important to me that the synagogue I join is every bit as engaged in social justice as it claims to be, even when that creates controversy and discomfort. It is critically important that the synagogue I join is, in theory and in practice, open to Jews of all different political stances. I hope that with your guidance, Beth El takes the challenge to become that kind of ethical community that acts upon its love of justice in all arenas.
(*Full names omitted for privacy)