Opinion

It's Only About Them: U.S. Jews' Outrage on the Wall, Silence on the Occupation Is Obscene

When Gaza was left to choke, when the occupation hit 50, when Bibi and Trump were having a lovefest, the only issue American Jewish leaders made a scene about was egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall

Israeli Border Policeman at the Western Wall. 25 February 2017
Absurd and obscene: Silent on the occupation, US Jews howl about their own victimhood: Israeli Border Policeman at the Western Wall. 25 February 2017 Olivier Fitoussi

In the first week of November last year, when my newsfeed was flooded with images of Reform and Conservative leaders being confronted by the Israeli policemen at the Western Wall plaza, I felt angry and confused.

For years, I had been an avid cheerleader of Women of the Wall. Learning about the ways that non-Orthodox forms of Judaism are disenfranchised by the Jewish state was one of many moments where I began to understand that Israel is not actually a state for all of its citizens.

But it seemed to me both that it was more important those leaders be at home, one week before such a fateful U.S. election, and that their continued refusal to link the Western Wall struggle to other inequalities in Israel was deeply misguided.

Six months later, this controversy has escalated, leading those Reform and Conservative leaders to cancel a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in protest of his abandonment of a deal that promised space for egalitarian worship at the Wall.

Commentators have already made compelling points about the absurdity of U.S. Jews’ surprise at the turn of events. Noam Sheizaf pointed out (U.S. Jews can’t expect Israel to be liberal only where they want it to) the community’s prime mistake: to assume that their interests can be separated from Israeli politics "and therefore shielded from the nativist and xenophobic ideological trends" now dominating Israel. Chemi Shalev wrote (Netanyahu to American Jews: Drop Dead) that U.S. Jews "know all too well that Netanyahu is the greatest enemy of their cherished ideals of pluralism and equality and liberal values...[which they betray] when they support a government they would find abhorrent under any other circumstances."

From the Israeli perspective, this protest is absurd. It reinforces the image that American Jews come to Israel to experience it as our personal playground but not to be in genuine solidarity with the real-life issues facing most of the people who actually live here.

As an American Jew, and a constituent of these leaders, I find it obscene that that Rabbis Rick Jacobs and Julie Schoenfeld are continuing to put this fight at the forefront of their agenda. Today our world is different than it was six months ago, and our movements’ inability to respond to those changes is a grave moral failure.

Reform and Conservative rabbis protest at the Western Wall, November, 2016.
Emil Salman

It is obscene that on the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation, as a quarter of a million West Bank Palestinians were denied entry to Jerusalem to pray and to celebrate during Ramadan, and as Palestinians in Gaza observed their fast and celebrations in the dark, with barely enough clean drinking water or electricity to survive, American Jewish leaders are upset that they can't just drop in for a visit and close a backroom deal with the prime minister.

Yes, some might roll their eyes at this. Why does everything have to be about the occupation? What about the challenge that this is, at its core, about fighting for a legitimate voice for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, for pluralism and liberal values?

For me, every day that diaspora Jews come to Israel to paint ourselves as victims of the Jewish state while actively aiding and supporting that same state’s denial of millions of Palestinians’ rights, our cause is hypocritical. Every day that we demand a voice for ourselves as non-citizens, while remaining silent as Israel controls the lives of millions of non-citizens against their will, we are participating in a nationalist project that presupposes we Jews deserve more privileges than anyone else who lives here.

Every time that a broken promise at the Western Wall is a cause for diaspora escalation, while another round of settlement expansion, or another humanitarian cut from the people of Gaza is a cause for diaspora silence, we are actively supporting the occupation and the daily violence against Palestinians that it causes.

Even away from the the occupation, aren’t there enough burning causes back at home where this level of righteous anger would be more fittingly applied? White supremacists in the White House, a national rise in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, the spiteful health care bill Trump is trying to roll out?

Why are we non-Orthodox Jews only fighting for ourselves, at precisely the point where our energy and passion are so obviously, so desperately needed elsewhere?

Rick Jacobs recently tweeted: "we feel that at this moment after over 4 years of negotiations it is not clear that the current Israeli government honors its agreements." As if this is the one agreement this government has chosen not to honor in the last four years. The detachment from reality is embarrassing.

I cannot count the number of times over the years that I have been told by Jewish establishment leaders that if anti-occupation activists would just use more polite tones and tactics we could finally change things. Now those same American Jewish leaders have found out for themselves how far "behaving nicely"’ gets them with Israel’s government. We already knew that only if we disrupt business as usual can we create real, sustained, public pressure to end the crisis of ongoing American Jewish support for the occupation.

And when I see my community leaders boycotting a meeting with Netanyahu threatening the future stability of their relationship, I understand that it is not about our tactics. Their problem is with our issue. Our issue: the  millions of Palestinians dispossessed by the state, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, our Israeli peers who are fighting to resist the spreading fascism in their country, who are persecuted as traitors.

But our communal leaders couldn't be bothered to confront Israel’s security forces or cancel a dinner with Netanyahu over any of that. The only dirty laundry they are willing to air is the one that smells like their own victimhood.

Women of the Wall pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. 4 November 2013
Tali Mayer

For a long time, I held my breath, hoping, praying that maybe the Western Wall escalation would be an opening for liberal American Jews to join the fight for freedom and dignity for all the people in Israel and Palestine. That expectation has been crudely exposed as magical thinking

So the next time an American Jewish establishment leader criticizes anti-occupation groups for refusing to meet them behind closed doors, we will remind them of this moment. This summer, when Gaza was left to choke on 2.5 hours of daily electricity, when the occupation hit 50 years, when 22 million Americans were facing the loss of their healthcare, when Bibi and Trump were having a love fest, when the one thing American Jewish leaders made a scene about was egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall.

We will remind them that just like they did, we are bringing the crisis to the American Jewish public, hoping it will force a change. And we will tell them, if and when they decide to open their eyes and their hearts to the vibrant and diverse communities, Palestinian, refugee, worker, women, queer, all fighting for their full and equal place at home in the U.S., and in Israel, that there is still room for them to join us. We have a long fight ahead of us all.

Simone Zimmerman is an organizer and activist from Los Angeles and a founding leader of IfNotNow, a movement to end the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation. Twitter: @simonerzim