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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Being a Jewish Woman in Palestine- Answers to 3 FAQs

jews say no

(by Katya)

I’ve been back from Palestine for two weeks, and I’ve gotten a lot of questions and comments about my experiences there. I really appreciate people asking questions and wanting to learn about what reality looks like, but some of the questions conveyed a lot of persisting stereotypes, racism, Islamaphobia and misconceptions. For that reason, I’d like to answer those questions here. They are:

1. “What was it like being a woman in Palestine? Did you get a feel for the oppression of women in that society?”

  2. “Did you face a lot of anti-Semitism or hostility as a Jew in Palestine?”

and, not to be outdone:

3.  “What was it like being surrounded by Islamic extremism?”

On being a woman in Palestine:

-I was treated with respect- noticeably more respect than I experience as a woman in America. I didn’t get creeped on or leered at or hit on like I do in America on a daily basis. I was taken seriously as a professional in my career path, which is a huge struggle for me every day in America. There was one incident where a juice bar owner made some comment about my eyes and then got a little weird, but that was it. As I went all over the West Bank, traveling from Jerusalem to Ramallah to Hebron to Bil’in to Bethlehem- even at bus stations at night and walking down city streets- I never felt disrespected or oppressed.

-I made friends with and was treated like a real human being by Palestinians of all genders. People asked me about my job and what I studied in school; no one was surprised that I was educated or had a career.  No one said anything to the tune of “you should get married and have kids and stay at home!”

-I met women who chose to stay home and raise their children, women who chose to work from home, and women who chose to have careers outside the home; all seemed happy with their decisions. I met men who celebrated and supported their wives’ and fiancées’ choices regarding hijab, employment, education, reproduction, etc. I’m sure it wasn’t all like that because there is misogynistic oppression in every society, but from an outsiders’ perspective it felt like a significant step up from how women are treated in America.

-People have asked me “Did you have to wear a hijab or cover your head in public?”

Sometimes I covered my head

headcovering

and sometimes I didn’t,

no headcovering

and whether I covered my head or not was 100% my choice. That choice was based on what made me feel comfortable and what was most respectful each given situation. When I did choose to cover my head, it felt empowering, but I was treated with the exact same amount or respect regardless of whether or not my head was covered. Whether I was with strangers in the cities or with friends in the little village of Bil’in, I wasn’t treated differently based on whether or not my head was covered.

Likewise, many Palestinian women chose to wear hijab, but some chose not to. I can’t speak for Palestinian women, but the women I passed on the street every day wore their hijabs with a confidence and individuality that made it seem like they fully owned and cherished their decision. Those who chose not to wear hijabs also walked confidently.

-People didn’t expect me to fulfill certain gender roles. When I tried to help out around the house, the older boys (specifically 14-year-old Abdul Khaleik) would stop me and insist on doing the housework themselves. There seemed to be no expectation of subservience to men.

I do not want to claim that there is no misogyny in Palestine. There is misogyny everywhere to different extents and in different manifestations, and all of it is a problem. Palestinian society, just like every society I know of, has areas in which active work needs to be done in order for people of all genders to have equal rights and opportunities. I don’t know the nuances of how patriarchy intersects with being a people under occupation. But considering I hear Zionist propaganda claim every day that Palestinian society is incredibly misogynistic, people need to know what gender relations in Palestine actually look like.

I’d also like to point out- since Zionists keep trying to take the moral higher ground on gender issues- that I’ve experienced a significant amount of cultural misogyny in Israel. From getting catcalled to dealing with incredibly aggressive Israeli men who felt entitled to my body to being told things like “you’re practical; that’s a trait you don’t find in most women” to getting sexually assaulted when I went out in Tel Aviv (there, I said it)…I experienced none of this bullshit in Palestine. So Israel, please at least fix these toxic, pervasive and dangerous issues before claiming to be the “enlightened side.”

On being a Jew in Palestine

I experienced zero hostility toward my being Jewish; the fact that we were Jewish didn’t have any effect on how we were treated. Whether people knew we were Jewish or not, we were treated with the same amazing warmth, hospitality and generosity. If our Jewishness came up in conversation, sometimes people would make a point to say things like “I respect people of all religions and backgrounds as long as they believe in peace and justice” or “Jews and Muslims are like cousins! We come from the same roots!” or “I think the Jews should be able to live and practice their religion in peace here, and so should the Christians and so should we. We just want to live with equal rights.” The bottom line was “as long as you support human rights for everyone and you don’t support the ethnic cleansing of our people, you are absolutely welcome in my home for tea and falafel.”

From these conversations, I gathered that most Palestinians seem to understand a concept that I fight to explain to Americans every day: Judaism and Zionism are not the same thing. They are related, yes. But #notallZionists are Jews (just ask the conservative Evangelical Christian movement in America) and not all Jews are Zionists and contrary to hasbara propaganda, non-Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism. Every Palestinian we talked to understood that already; they understood that we were ethnically, culturally and religiously Jewish but that we opposed the mass oppression and injustice that is Zionism. Our good friend Hamde, a prominent Palestinian photojournalist, constantly reiterates that Judaism is not the problem for the Palestinian people; Zionism is. The Occupation is.

“…but extremist Islam”

No. Nope. Fanaticism was not something I saw even once in the ways people practiced Islam in Palestine.

A quick note: Palestinians are predominantly Muslim, with a significant Christian population. The attitude towards Palestinian Christians seemed warm and accepting. When Palestinian Christians came to a protest during Christmastime, they were unified with the Muslims and everyone else there.

While the vast majority of Palestinians we met identified as Muslim, there was a broad spectrum of diversity in terms of religious practice. There were devout Muslims whose religious practice was close to their hearts and a big part of their daily lives, there were people who weren’t religious but identified as Muslims because they were born to Muslim families, and everything in between.  Everyone seemed to practice their religion (or lack thereof) in whatever way/to whatever degree was meaningful to them, and let other people do the same. What we didn’t come across was anyone who would resemble an “Islamic extremist”: the devout Muslims we met all expressed respect for different religions and ways of life, and didn’t seem to use their religion as a tool to oppress others in any way. They wanted the Jews to be able to pray in their holy spaces like the Kotel and have that be respected, and they wanted to be able to pray in their holy spaces like al-Aqsa and have that be respected. The Orthodox Jews who forced Palestinian families out of their homes and violently attacked Palestinians and shouted “death to Arabs”, however, were extremists. (Though not all Orthodox Jews are Zionist extremists either. Some are openly non-Zionist.)

Since we were in a place that is holy for Christians, Jews, Muslims and Baha’i, religion was woven into the landscape and cultures all around us. But in Palestine, there seemed to be an intrinsic understanding that spirituality is personal and not to be homogenized or forced on people. That was a really nice contrast from the US, where I feel like Christianity has been shoved down my throat for my entire life.

I know that in my different posts, I keep bringing up the fact that Palestinians are so vastly different from the caricatures and stereotypes that are ascribed to them. This is crucial for everyone to know because our attitudes and even foreign policy procedures are highly influenced by these false perceptions. It shouldn’t take an American white person to get people to actually re-consider the racist myths they’ve internalized about Arab people and spaces. But the world needs to know about the whole-hearted warmth, kindness and generosity that is built into every facet of Palestinian culture. So please take my experience for whatever it’s worth and, if need be, re-consider everything that American media tells you about Palestine.

The Dangers of Traveling to Palestine

tsahal-a-zone-panneau

(by Katya)

When I told people I was going to Palestine, almost everyone responded “But that’s so dangerous!” People constantly tried to persuade me not to go or check in with me a la “Are you suuuuuure you still want to go to Palestine?” If that was you, I truly appreciate your concern for my safety.

But.

It soon became clear that many people’s fears about me going were based on a general, uninformed fear of the Middle East.

For example:

One co-worker of mine tried especially hard to convince me not to go. Initially he asked me why I was going; and I told him why and how important it was to me. He replied “but it’s so dangerous over there” and asked if there was any chance I might change my mind and not go. I replied “No, I’m definitely going and have already bought the plane tickets, but thank you for your concern.”

He then asked “Your parents are letting you go?! What if they threaten to stop supporting you financially? That’s what I would do if it was my kid” and I explained as nicely as I could that I am a grown-ass woman who has been independent from her parents since high school and while I love my parents, I make my own decisions.

He then he continued to go on and on about Palestine and Israel- even though he admittedly didn’t know much about it at all- while I was trying to get my work done. I called him out on the fact that he was uninformed and that I have been deeply involved in this subject matter for years, but he continued mansplaining to me about why I should be afraid to take this trip. After about 10 minutes I told him that if he had a problem with my decision, he was welcome to go fuck himself. Oops.

With most people, it didn’t go that far- they really just were concerned for my well-being and didn’t get obnoxious about it. But it seemed that at the base of their fear was a blurry, generalized wash of images from CNN broadcasts and headlines about ISIL and terrorism and overall chaos.

People’s fear actually made me a little nervous. I never considered backing out of the trip (I didn’t have the money to back out of the plane tickets anyway), but people’s fear made me a little more scared. I thought of all the internationals- including many Jews and including Ariel- who’d gone to Palestine before me and been absolutely fine. I thought to myself “Well Ariel’s been there before and now she’s bringing her kids, so that’s a good sign.” But I didn’t know what to expect.

When we arrived in Bil’in, any anxiety I had was immediately eased. I was blown away by the way the whole community welcomed us, looked out for us and treated us with such genuine warmth and generosity. I felt incredibly safe, and so did Ariel and the kids (we even kept our door unlocked at night.) When we went to Eizeriyya and stayed with the Awawda family, the same was the case. Likewise when we visited Hebron, Ramallah and Bethlahem- the care with which the Palestinian people treated us gave us every reason to feel safe. I am not a naïve person and I don’t trust easily, but I knew on every level that I didn’t have to feel nervous about being in Palestine.

The times that I didn’t feel safe were when there were Israeli soldiers involved. For example, at the demonstrations, there was real danger of being hit by teargas canisters (which kill people because they’re heavy metal objects shot out of big IDF guns) or rubber bullets. That being said, Iyad directed us in a way that we were able to participate safely. The soldiers and their guns and their willingness to enact barbaric, needless cruelty made me feel ill at ease, but we were fine.

When Ariel, Elijah, Isabella and I first went through Qualandiya Checkpoint, the Israeli soldier checking passports looked confused. He couldn’t comprehend why four Jews would be choosing to stay in the West Bank. “You know that’s really dangerous, right?” Once we got through the checkpoint, 12-year-old Isabella asked “Can we go back to Bil’in? I’m scared of the Israeli soldiers but I feel safe with the Palestinians.”

From the mouths of babes.

It is very, very important to understand that my ability to feel safe in Palestine was a privilege. Palestinians do not have the privilege of feeling safe because there is very real, legitimate danger of them facing violence at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers. Soldiers come and arrest Palestinians in their homes in the middle of the night for no reason (children included), settlers attack Palestinians by running them over with their cars, kidnapping them and burning them alive, etc. When little Muhamad Burnat was 5 years old, he was woken up in the middle of the night by Israeli soldiers screaming and pointing their guns at him. Palestinians do not get to feel safe in their own homes. But I am Jewish and American, which means that if Israeli soldiers or settlers harmed me, it could easily turn into a public international debacle. That would be the last thing Israel wants for its PR, and knowing that made me less afraid of the soldiers.

It’s also important to examine the role of cultural attitudes in our fears. Whether consciously or sunconsciously, a significant chunk of people’s generalized fear of the Middle East comes from their perceptions of Arab people and cultures. Yes, this is where stereotypes, racism and Islamaphobia come in. Palestinians (and all Muslims and Arabs) are constantly characterized as violent, extremist, anti-Semitic terrorists. The only Palestinian stereotype that I found to be true was the one about liking to smoke hookah- all the others proved to be blatantly, egregiously false.

This fear of Palestinian people and spaces is very much encouraged by the Israeli government. With further segregation efforts come further efforts to keep Israeli Jews from interacting with Palestinians. This lack of interaction enables people to be fearful, because they do not get to form human connections to refute the stereotypes and dispel the unnecessary fears. On every road that leads to Palestinian areas, there are signs reminding Israelis that it’s illegal for them to enter these spaces. Israel does not let its own people enter Palestine because they want Israelis to believe that Palestine and its people are dangerous and hostile toward them. The signs read “The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against Israeli law.” Let me reiterate: that’s not Palestinian law keeping them out, that’s Israeli law working to keep its own citizens from seeing the realities on the ground in Palestine. When Israeli Jews manage to break the law and enter Palestine to stand in solidarity with its people, they are wholeheartedly welcomed. They are pleasantly surprised by the fact that they are much, much safer than they thought they would be.

Ignorance is not always bliss; sometimes ignorance is scary. Sometimes learning can actually illuminate issues in a way that distinguishes what warrants fear and to what degree, and what does not. With this level of understanding, we don’t have to react to everything with knee-jerk anxiety. We should examine what we are afraid of and why, and whether or not the cause of fear calls for further investigation and understanding.

My First World Problems in Leaving Palestine

(by Katya)

Because I had to go back to work, I had to leave Palestine a week before Ariel and the kids. I had what felt like a very rough time getting from  Israel back home to the US. I was going to write a blog post complaining about it or at least talking about it in detail, until my jetlagged brain realized that A) it’s not about me and B) I’m coming back from a place where the problems are much, much bigger than everything I was going to complain about. So in the spirit of making fun of myself, here are my first world problems from traveling home from Palestine and corresponding problems that Palestinians face every day.

1.

First-World Problem: I got interrogated twice at Ben Gurion Airport and it took me 6 hours to get my exit permit

Palestinian Problem: I will never be allowed to fly into or out of Israel’s Airport because I’m Palestinian

Palestinian Problem: I get interrogated on a regular basis, and those interrogations involve physical violence because I’m Palestinian

   2.

FWP: It took me 39 hours, 12 steps and 4 flights to get home from Israel

PP: I have little to no freedom of movement because I’m Palestinian

PP: It took me 12 hours just to get to the Jordanian Airport (which is the only airport I can fly out of) because I’m Palestinian

PP: Israel strangles our economy so much and the Wall cut me off from my job so I don’t have the money to travel anyway because I’m Palestinian

3.

FWP: Some of my belongings were confiscated at Ben Gurion Airport, though they were not illegal and posed no security threats

PP: My land was confiscated, my home was demolished, and my child was kidnapped in the middle of the night because I’m Palestinian.

4.

FWP:I had to go through 9 security screenings

PP:I have to go through Qualandiya Checkpoint every day- which is dehumanizing as hell and can be dangerous- because I’m Palestinian

5.

FWP: I went 48 hours without hummus and thought the world was going to end

PP: I’ve gone 66 years and counting without the ability to return to my home…which is still standing…which I still have the key to…because I’m Palestinian

6.

FWP: I miss Palestine like crazy

PP: While I love my homeland, I have nowhere else to go and can’t leave the Occupation to give my family and myself a better life.

In the name of keeping things in perspective, I have nothing to complain about.