Not in Our Name: Jewish Women Speak out on Israel

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August 13, 2010

Those who would silence doubt are filled with fear
The house of their spirit is built on shifting sands.
But they that fear not doubt, and know its use, are founded on a rock.

Thus reads the epigraph of Shifting Sands: Jewish Women Confront the Israeli Occupation. The contributors to the anthology know the use of doubt. Each author began her journey by doubting the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories. And now, each author’s voice rests on the rock of informed conviction: the Israeli occupation is legally, morally, and ethically wrong.

In her article “Do Not Stand Idly By,” Hedy Epstein, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, writes of her stay with a family in Ramallah. “A year earlier, their then 11-year-old son had been playing in his front yard when he was attacked and beaten by several Israeli soldiers,” she writes. “He was so traumatized that he could not yet sleep in his own bed a year later.” On her way out of the country, she is strip-searched by a security guard: “I demanded she change her gloves, which she’d been wearing since she began the process, but she replied: ‘They are clean.’ ‘No, they are not clean,’ I told her. ‘You patted me down with them on, and my clothes are not clean.’ After a few more minutes of argument, she finally took off her gloves, threw them in a corner, and put on new ones. She then performed a cavity search, both vaginally and rectally.”

In “My Feet Were Praying,” Sandra Butler writes, “I heard an Israeli…when asked to move his car from the center of a narrow street in a Palestinian neighborhood in the Old City, reply contemptuously, ‘Why should I move my car? It’s my street.’”

In her article “January 2008: The Tightening Noose,” Jen Marlowe tells of her visit to the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. She quotes a Palestinian doctor, Dr. Ahmad Abu Tawahina: “Peace is crucial for mental health services….When the source of someone’s mental symptoms comes from physical needs not being met, then there is very little that therapeutic techniques can do.”

Why anthologize only female authors? I wasn’t sure, so I asked Osie Adelfang, the editor. She told me that it had not been her original intention to include only women’s articles – but then the submissions began to roll in and none of them were from men. So she decided to run with it. “We hear men talk about Israel / Palestine all the time,” Osie wrote in an email to me. “Obama, Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman. Benny Morris, Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky. The vigils of the Women in Black take place in silence. It is time to hear a woman’s call to peace and justice. And the personal essay form, which reads like an invitation to friendship rather than an expression of arrogant certainty, is a perfect way to get those voices out there. This is the beginning of a conversation.”

And conversation is essential, since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so often fought on the battlefield of narrative. If the prevailing pro-Zionist narrative is that Israeli aggression is the only hope for Jews, then one of the most important counter-narratives is “Not in our name,” which is to say that we, as Jews, refuse to be party to the claim that our safety is in any way enhanced by the occupation of Palestine. Hedy Epstein describes her flight home after her first visit to the occupied territories. “I took all the magazines out of the seat pocket in front of me…. On each page of each magazine, I wrote, sometimes pressing so hard I tore the pages: ‘I am a Holocaust survivor. I will never, ever return to Israel.’”

Like any counter-narrative, “not in our name” is subject to various attempts to discredit it. Particularly when talking to Jews from the diaspora, Israelis are fond of saying “You’re not here all the time so you don’t really know,” or “Easy for you to say, since you don’t have to live under constant threat of annihilation.” But by far the most popular epithet used against Jews who disagree with Israeli government policies toward Palestinians is “Self-Hating Jew” (which appears in its most vitriolic, outrageous form as MASADA 2000’s online “S.H.I.T. List of Self-Hating Israel-Threatening Jews”).

Unfortunately for the naysayers, several of the authors in Shifting Sands hold the trump card: they are either Holocaust survivors or the children of survivors. It is difficult to tell a survivor that she doesn’t understand the threat of annihilation, or the urgency of ensuring Jewish survival. It’s worth noting, too, that several of the authors either grew up in Israel or have close relatives who are Israeli. The other authors, those who are neither survivors nor Israelis, speak from their long-term investment in the region, including, in almost every case, significant travel and activist experience. (Hannah Mermelstein cofounded the alternative-tour organization Birthright Unplugged. Alice Rothchild, a gynecologist and Harvard Medical School professor, traveled to Israel/Palestine several times with medical delegations, and has written a book entitled Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience.)

Starhawk’s article “Heresies in Pursuit of Peace” stands out as a particularly useful intervention in the binary narratives that tend to overwhelm discourse about Israel / Palestine. “To simply condemn Zionism as racism without acknowledging the context of centuries of racial hate against Jews from which it arose is to absolve those who have blood on their hands as well,” writes Starhawk. “Israel has indeed served the interests of the Western powers in subjugating the Arab world. But Israel also arose out of an oppressed people’s dream of liberation. To discount the oppression, to deny the strength and the beauty of the dream of a homeland, is to miss the full tragedy of what is happening now. Unless we understand the dream, we cannot truly comprehend the nightmare.”

The book comes with a set of historical appendices that are somewhat less authoritative. Many of the sources cited are websites – fatality statistics from the Amnesty International site are one thing, but a timeline of the conflict that is based at least partly on “” is quite another. Similarly, it is essential for the public to know that David Ben-Gurion once wrote “I support compulsory transfer. I do not see in it anything immoral… The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war.” However, I can’t help asking why that quote is cited out of Ilan Pappé’s* Ethnic Cleansing in Palestine*, rather than directly from Ben Gurion’s writings or speeches.

Finding more conventional sources might have required a bit of extra sleuthing, it’s true. But it would have also secured immeasurably greater credibility, at least among some crowds. I know with certainty that most Zionists, even the fence-sitters, would take one look at the citation section of the appendices and discard the book completely. On the other hand, it’s about time to find a new set of arbiters, since Zionists are not the sole guardians of historiography. Indeed, this unabashed citation of Palestinian media sources and controversial anti-Zionist scholars is a daring statement, perhaps the most daring statement in the entire book. The citation section invites readers to listen directly to Palestinian voices, as well as other voices that have prominently and unapologetically declared themselves to be in solidarity with Palestinians. If this proves to be an uncomfortable experience, then we should think about why.

When all is said and done, Shifting Sands was written by American Jews, for American Jews. Many Israelis would see this as a problem. I see it as an important strategy. As long as the Israeli government continues to import thousands of Americans on Birthright trips, meddling in Israeli affairs seems like the right thing for American Jews to do.

Shifting Sands: Jewish Women Confront the Israeli Occupation Osie Gabriel Adelfang, ed. Whole World Press, 2010

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