A Letter to My Rabbi about Palestine

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.

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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.

Sincerely,

Katya Weiss*

(*Full names omitted for privacy)

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12 thoughts on “A Letter to My Rabbi about Palestine

  1. Good morning, I wanted to thank you for writing a to your Rabbi, your letter was so touching!!! I’m so proud that you are educating your community. I’m trying to teach my 3 children to do the same, thank you from the bottom of my heart!!!! The only difference between you and me is that I’m Palestinian. My mom and Dad were both born in Palestine and moved to California in the 60’s. I’m also married to a Palestinian who was born in Jerusalem and moved to the States when he was 2 years old. Our children are 100% Palestinian. I’m trying to teach them to love ALL people and to be proud to be Palestinian. They are proud, but they want to fit in. The community we live in is very Jewish and my kids are a part of the barmiztvah’s/batmizvah’s. They don’t want to speak out or be different. I’m guilty too, I have lots of Jewish friends, I tell them what Israel does to Palestinians and what the occupation is like. Then I move on to a different subject…not wanting to hurt my good friends feelings…it’s so hard. So thank YOU!!! You are a true inspiration. Tammi

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. I salute you for standing up to injustice and the systematic slaughtering of the Palestinians. It is a shame that the Zionist Jews are doing to the Palestinians what Hitler have done to them. Jews like yourself need to speak up even louder to be heard, because the Zionist majority in America are much louder since they control most financial and media institutions in America and they OWN THE U.S GOVERNMENT, and will always shut you up. Keep up the good work and never be afraid to tell the truth.

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    • Mike, your attempt at comparison is very poor and inappropriate. Disagreements with policies or actions are always open for discussion. However, to compare any current policies to a systematic mass murderer who rounded up innocent people based on their religion (would he have stopped if what? If a neighboring terrorist group stopped firing rockets on his people?) and sent them by cattle cars to certain, systematic death by gas chamber and shooting into mass graves shows nothing but ignorance and extremely poor awareness of either current conditions or those perpetrated “by Hitler.”

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  3. Hello Katya.
    Peace be with you.
    I am Polish (now in UK) where Jewish history is written in a cruel camp set up by racist German people during World War.
    I am also muslim revert form Catholicism and I wanted to say thank you for your support for my fellow musim brothers and sisters in Palestine. You and other Jewish activists have big hearts that Zionists seem to have lost and turned into cold stones when it comes to their muslim neighbours.
    Katya you are a true hero! Thank you for spreading peace instead of hatred ❤

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  4. Another beautiful post! I look forward to reading more! Thank you for valuing all human life. I hope you find your right synagogue “fit” soon!

    Allah yirda3 3alakee (May God Bless You – in Arabic),
    Jenan

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  5. Thank you Katya for your incredibly heart moving letter. Your moving through this with your heart so open. Thank you! Thank you for being so open and risking by going and seeing with your own eyes. Thank you for breaking the silence.

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  6. First, have you explored the Humanistic Judaism congregation in Chapel Hill? That shouldn’t be too far from you in Durham.

    http://kolhaskalah.org/

    Second, thank you for your writings. A friend shared them on Facebook. I’m a Unitarian Univeralist who is married to a Humanist Jew. (My wife is Jewish but without all the religious ritual and belief in a deity.) What I struggle most with raising our daughter is how do I criticize actions by the state of Israel when i see them directly contradict the Jewish values I’m supposed to be teaching her. (I don’t know if I’m supposed to end that sentence with a question mark, especially when I feel it needs an exclamation point.)

    The stuff you write in this letter addresses that issue. Thank you! I’m going off to read your other posts.

    P.S. I live in outside of Greensboro, NC about 70-80 minute from. Feel free to email me if you’d ever like to have our families get together. I’m originally from New York, and my wife lived there 15 years.

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  7. Thank you for writing this much-needed letter! As a young Jewish activist (I protested the Iraq Invasion by the US when I was in high school), I struggled with what to feel about Israel. I didn’t know as much about the history as I do now, and I only heard the Israel-supporting US news. I did not speak out, because I didn’t know what to say, or even that the situation was as bad as it was/is.

    As I have grown older, learned more, and solidified my own politics and morals, I have moved to speaking out. As a Black-white biracial Jew, the idea of a homeland that is always open to me is such a tempting one, but I know that the modern Israeli state can never be that homeland to me. I have considered Birthright trips in the past, but I cannot–even tacitly–condone the Israeli state, nor support it with my money (beyond, unfortunately, the aid that my tax dollars go to).

    This stance is not a popular one in Jewish communities. We have been taught to conflate our Judaism with Zionism, as you stated, and the anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence that is on the rise globally leaves us fearful of another Shoah. That violence is real, and the fear may be justified, but that is no excuse for abandoning our morals and our duty to humanity. A Palestinian life is precious, worth as much as any other life! (Destroy a life, and you destroy the world.)

    Thank you for writing this letter, and sharing it. We must be willing to hold ourselves and each other to this high standard, to acknowledge the wrongs of Zionism, and move towards peace, and a better way.

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