These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Guest Post] I’m scared. I’m terrified. I’ve been taught to keep quiet.

Posted on August 4, 2014 by Alanna Kleinman

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lonkleI cried during services last Shabbat. I cried out of frustration and fear. I cried because the Rabbi told the sanctuary that liberal voices speaking out against Israel were anti-Semitic and hateful. I cried because I was told to shut up, that there’s only one way to support a land I had come to call home for the past 9 months.

Where is the fruitful Jewish tradition of debate, of Machloket LeShem Shamayim?

I was spoiled last year, I think to myself. At Pardes, I knew that I could openly discuss any issue with students and staff, that my opinion would be respected even if it wasn’t agreed with. I learned that I could be critical of Israel, and still love the country with all my heart and soul.

I was warned this would happen, I should probably be used to it.

As I write this, the words of a Jewish activist I heard speak two months ago stick in my mind: “We each have a choice, as individuals and a group. Just because it’s scary doesn’t mean you do nothing.” Larry Rubin, a civil rights activist and labor organizer spoke these words at the beginning of the summer.

I’m scared. I’m terrified. All my life, I’ve been taught not to talk about it with the outside world. I’ve been taught to keep quiet because my views are too controversial.

I look to Larry, along with several other Jewish veterans of the civil rights movement for strength. I met these brave men and women at the conference that marked the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. I attended, excited to learn about a monumental time in American history, from the change-makers themselves. 50 years ago, young men and women traveled to the South, to Mississippi, to register African Americans to vote, to run Freedom Schools, and to work to start the Freedom Democratic Party. They fought state-enforced terrorism and racism.

I’ve learned about Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement. In school, we were proudly taught how these men and women were living out Jewish values of tikkun olam, of loving the stranger, of fighting for justice. Yet I’ve never heard from the heroes themselves. Max Socol discusses similar issues in a recent piece here on Jewschool.

I got something I wasn’t expecting at that conference. Over and over again, I heard Jewish Freedom Summer vets speak out against the treatment of Palestinians in the territories. They made connections between pre-civil rights South and Israel. I was stunned. Part of me felt validated. This is a side I’ve been hiding from my community. I’ve been afraid to speak out, afraid to question the actions of my country in public.

I walked away from the conference infuriated. Where is their voice? How can we elevate them as moral guides of the past but turn a blind eye when they are screaming at the top of their lungs about current moral issues?

“Don’t you think I deserve a voice in the Jewish community?” Ira Grupper, a civil rights activist, union organizer, and former co-chair of the New Jewish Agenda asked me.

All I can do is say I’m sorry, that he absolutely does.

“They blackball me.”

I feel ashamed.

Ira told me a story I hoped would have a happy ending, but knew better. A non-Jewish friend of his wanted to set him up with the Rabbi of a local congregation and head of the local AIPAC chapter, to give Ira a voice. The two made an agreement: The Rabbi would come as a guest speaker to Ira’s college class on Israel/Palestine, and teach whatever he wanted. In return, Ira would address the congregation from the bima about Israel, and address the Jewish Community Relations Council. The Rabbi came and spoke to the class. Two years passed and Ira has never been invited.

What happened to our rich tradition of dissent, I ask myself. Why are we so afraid to speak to one another, to discuss and struggle and fight like the Rabbis in the Talmud?

To be Jewish means to struggle.

Although these voices aren’t regularly taught or heard, veterans continue to fight.

Dottie Zellner, an active member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), stands on 96th street in New York City and holds a sign that says “Jews Say No to the Occupation.” Dottie explains this is cognitive dissonance in the flesh, “we are Jews and we are criticizing Israel. This is not supposed to happen, this does not happen. We are the human cognitive dissonance.”

Usually, people simply want to attack her in response, “they just want to get in your face and say how horrible you are. The problem is that sincere people who want to engage you usually don’t.”

In a dream world, how do you wish the American Jewish community talked about Israel?

Ira tells me, “I would like the Jewish community to say, ‘this is a point of contention, let’s talk it out, let’s discuss things.”

Dottie Zellner adds, “I hope that people would be able to freely discuss what they have learned without being called a traitor or anti-semite or so forth.”

I simply wish we respected one another.

50 years ago, many of these men and women looked for support in the Jewish communities of the South. Many of them were turned away. Things were complicated. And violent. The Jewish community would be risking their lives and business if they embraced these activists. The activists would be leaving at the end of the summer, but the Jewish communities would always be there. They faced a dilemma.

50 years later, we’re turning these men and women away again.

I walked out of synagogue last week. I would rather pray alone at home.

What happened to our rich tradition of dissent, I wonder to myself. When the great moral guides of our time call upon us to act, how can we idly stand by?

I’m afraid, but that doesn’t mean I do nothing.

Alanna Kleinman (Year ’14) is working and living in Jackson, Mississippi for the next two years, learning about the history of Jews in the south and working with current Jewish communities on social action projects and learning.