Opinion

Why Is the Anti-occupation Jewish Left So White?

It’s comfortable for white, secular, economically comfortable American Jewish leftists to only talk to white, secular, economically comfortable Israeli Jewish leftists. But it won’t bring peace one minute sooner

An Israeli peace activist holds a sign in front of the Israel-Gaza border, as Palestinians protest on the Gaza side of the border near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, Israel. April 5, 2018
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Dear liberal Jewish America: When you attend your pro-peace conferences, when you come to Israel/Palestine on delegations and listen to people on the ground, have you ever wondered why the voices you hear are mostly of men from a certain color, a certain class and religious affiliation?

Have you wondered why you’re not hearing from the ultra-Orthodox, religious, Ethiopian, Mizrahi, or Russian-speaking communities  - who also include those who are also fighting the good fight against the occupation?

Let me ask you this: If you were signing up for a liberal conference or a program in the U.S. and you were confronted by a schedule that was not inclusive, not diverse and didn't have any people of color or minority voices, would you attend this program? Would you accept it, or question it? Why do you let your own camp get away with this?

I was brought up in the heart of the Israeli peace camp; I was raised by a Mizrahi mother, an Ashkenazi father in a mixed Jewish-Arab community where I was exposed daily to Palestinian life, history and identity.

The Israeli narrative (on the right as well as on the left), as it's taught both in Israel and the diaspora, was and still is a West- focused, a perspective that has systematically ignored, wiped and abused non-European Jewish identity. My own family's complex, beautiful, rich and challenging life in Iran was never reflected in what I learnt at school. I had to squeeze it out from my mother, from my grandma and from mentors that I and my friends collected around us.

In the same way, the seemingly universalist, mainstream-recognized narrative of "coexistence" touted by the peace camp reflects the concerns and framing of a male Ashkenazi perspective. It’s time to demand more voices.

Palestinian demonstrators run to take cover from tear gas during clashes with Israeli security forces near the eastern border of the Gaza Strip. April 27, 2018
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

When I was at the recent J Street conference, I spoke about how worried and disappointed I was that it was 2018 and there was not a single panel dealing with marginalized voices, Mizrahi/Haredi/religious/Russian-speaking/Ethiopian perspectives. I wasn’t brought over especially to talk about these issues, but I wondered - if I was not already invited would there be have been any Mizrahi women's voices at all? (And I'm only "half.")

How is it possible that I meet again and again with people who have been active on the Jewish left for decades, and when I ask: "Do you know about the Israeli Black Panthers?" they turn red, and shamefully admit, "I had no idea there was such a thing." Instead of having a significant debate between two educated sides, I become your Google, having to fill up those huge gaps in your knowledge.

Ignorance is no excuse. You have all the resources, connections and abilities to know better. Not only that, the absence of coalition building, the deliberate ignoring of 95% of Israeli society, is arrogant, and damages the anti-occupation cause you’re shouting about. Who should be building bridges with those majority groups - the Palestinians? It is your responsibility!

And are you blind to the direct connection between our camp’s internal hierarchies and the structures of oppression against the Palestinians? The white Jewish men headlining your conferences - they think they hold the trophy of "fighting the occupation," they’re the moral face of Israeli society, they’re the progressives who can comfortably connect with you.

Israeli and Palestinian women march organized by the "Women Wage Peace" organization, near the Dead Sea. Oct. 8, 2017
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

But you have been kept away from the complexities, the rainbows, the margins, the strategic voices inside Israel's society who are fighting tremendous battles for basic rights and recognition.

These activists don't get to come to your conferences and delegations and share their voices because you don’t bother to find out about them, and because they are busy fighting in their neighborhoods - for their culture, their existence, their voice in the midst of a hierarchical society, a society whose own system of oppressions and exclusions directly parallels the battle you want to fight so hard - the occupation.

I'm only one woman, who happens to be half-Mizrahi and who grew up in your pro-peace circles. I can provide you an endless list of incredible people off the top of my head you should have been making connections with and investing in a long time ago.

By your ignorance, by your exclusions, by listening only to a shrinking, narrow, secular and white Israeli anti-occupation movement – the voices that are so familiar, so comfortable – you’re not being progressive. You are perpetuating the inequality you're trying so hard to fight.

You may have done peace work for many years, but you still haven't done your homework. 

Noam Shuster Eliassi is a peace activist, public speaker and comedian and has managed a range of peace-building initiatives. She is a Brandeis University graduate and was awarded the Davis Peace Prize for developing peacebuilding programs for HIV positive youth in Kigali, Rwanda.