Last Tuesday night, I went out for dinner and drinks with my friend/music teacher Bob. Although he’s a few years younger than I am, our ages are within hailing distance. After talking about the state of the Red Sox we began to reminisce about Brooklyn. He grew up there and it’s where I went to a Hasidic yeshiva during my high-school years. Surprisingly, we both had experiences with the Jewish Defense League (JDL) and the transformations of what had been primarily Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.
It was those transformations (in plain speak, Blacks moving into those neighborhoods) that sparked the creation of the JDL. For reasons I honestly can’t explain, one of the rabbis at my yeshiva took me to a couple of the early meetings led by Meir Kahane, the rabbi who formed the JDL. This sense of encroachment into what they considered “their” space enraged the Hasidic and Orthodox communities. So Kahane was organizing neighborhood “watch” groups to communicate with each other and follow every Black male who rode a bike and wore sneakers. It was made clear that violence was not off the table.
I lasted two meetings before I told my rabbi I had no interest in Kahane’s mission (which included applying for gun licenses) and suggested that he shouldn’t have anything to do with the group either. I can’t remember what he said, but I quickly lost his support at the yeshiva where he had often protected me from beatings by other rabbis.
So be it. I hadn’t learned much growing up in my nuclear family, but I’d been taught in no uncertain terms that racism was evil, pure and simple, and not to be tolerated. Kahane represented everything I detested even at that early age. I believed Jews were supposed to be on the side of the oppressed. Never Again was never meant to be an expression of hostility, but rather one of defense.
That’s why Passover has become, for me, a major league conundrum. The holiday expresses the belief in freedom, the sin of slavery, at the same time it praises the lord for slaughtering anyone who stood in the way of the Jewish exodus—and anyone included innocent firstborn babies to boot. The older I’ve become, the more deeply I believe in non-violence. And believe it to be the only real salvation for our species. Yet here we have a story where, without remorse, god used horrific violence to set my people free. How is it possible to embrace my history when the beginning of our own freedom was born from the blood and death of people who our own bible calls half-brothers?
That Old Testament god really knew how to wield a sword and didn’t stop after the parting of the seas. Nor has his “Chosen.” Why does the Israeli government use the honorable idea of Never Again to rationalize keeping Palestinians under their thumb, using incomprehensible, reprehensible violence to do so? I’ve written about Israeli atrocities and US support of them before so there’s no reason to rehash the same ugly facts. But knowing those facts and watching Israel become an apartheid country without any interest in a fair two-state solution just makes it harder to celebrate my own peoples’ liberation.
Despite all those years in yeshivas, I’m not at all religious, but I do think of myself as Jewish. And I continue to tell myself that being Jewish still means taking the side of the oppressed, fighting for those in need. I grasp at the straw hoping somehow Jews will actually see what’s in front of their eyes and reject the violence against the Palestinians and even reject the violence of that Old Testament god who vengefully set us free.
I look for other ways, nonviolent organizations like Jewish Voice For Peace that back boycotts, disinvestments, and sanctions as major tools for Israeli political change. I tell myself that this was the way apartheid in South Africa was finally (and relatively peacefully) abolished. But although I support the JVP, I’m not particularly hopeful. Given the amount of money our politicians receive from American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Since 1998, AIPAC has spent $20,269,436 lobbying on the Hill, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to tracking money in politics.) and the blind willingness of our government to dump more and more aid to Israel (After World War II the United States has provided Israel at least $121 billion [current, or non-inflation-adjusted, dollars] in bilateral assistance.) with most going to their military. So what is there to hope for?
Now, I’m not a historian but I imagine most, if not all, nations have been created from blood and violence of one type or another. And I assume this has been true from the start of our species. But I am also growing to accept the disheartening reality that any people born from bloodletting will eventually use violence against others. Sad to say, I guess that’s what it means to be human.
I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.
Martin Luther King Jr.