I remember when I fell in love with Zionism. It was 9th grade at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, the course on Zionism with the legendary Yotav Eliach. Yotav was a great teacher – clear, impassioned, relevant, and totally unconcerned with things like attendance and grades. He would just sit there, sometimes eating his pizza, and talk. He made everything seem so easy, neat and uncomplicated, and he gave us purpose and identity. He taught us that Zionism Is Jewish Nationalism, that Jordan is really Palestine, that there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation, that self-determination is a smokescreen, that anti-Zionism is just a reincarnation of anti-Semitism, that Jews have always lived in the land that we now call Israel, that there are Jewish responses to claims about Deir Yassin, and more. It was like preparing for an AIPAC convention, or for being Israel advocates on campus – in fact both AIPAC and Israel advocacy were important parts of my life so many years ago. For me, Yotav’s class was a big part of the reason why I decided to live in Israel. By the time I was 16 I was telling people that I planned on making Aliyah, and in fact I was here by the time I was 23, married with a baby. Everything seemed right.
So in some ways, I’m still that Zionist and part of me still loves what Yotav did for me. I’m still living in Israel where I pay mortgage and taxes, conduct my life in Hebrew, argue with taxi drivers, and watch my kids serve in the army. And parts of the narrative about why Jews need and deserve a state of our own in this space still stick with me. I get emotional at Zionist events, I feel a thrill seeing my children in uniform, and I get excited by things like Israeli doctors saving victims of a tsunami. Still, with all that Israel pride, many aspects of Yotav’s Zionism have been replaced in my consciousness by a different kind of Zionism, as I started asking questions about truth and illusion, about polemics versus reality, and about the difference between having justice on your side versus having compassion on your side. Something was missing from the Brooklyn Zionism I was brought up on – even if that is, in some ways, the same Zionism that Prime Minister Netanyahu practices, along with a majority of Israelis today. I found cracks in the narrative that wore down the pretty montage. Perspectives seemed muted. The story was too effortful, as if we were taught to answer the questions before we had a chance to ask them.
A turning point for me came a few years ago, when I got a job as a writer for an Israeli media- monitoring organization. My job was to write organizational copy that rebuts what was perceived as anti-Israel bias in all kinds of articles, op-eds and television stories. Whenever we came across statements by Palestinians that talk about “occupation”, my job was to write the copy that explains why the “Palestinian narrative” is patently false. I could do it, but at a certain point, it started to feel very wrong. “What’s wrong with the Palestinians having a narrative?” I once asked the director. “They are entitled to have their own experiences.” I really thought that we were working too hard to delegitimize Palestinian lives and identities. Did our Zionist mission require such an active presence on the debating team in order to survive? Couldn’t we tell our story without having to prove that everything the Palestinians say is a lie? Needless to say, I didn’t last very long there.
I was particularly bothered by the sense that by insisting on telling our own story, we were closing off the possibility of listening to the other person’s story. This was a painful lesson that I learned as a feminist in the Orthodox world. So often I felt like women were in the same position as the Palestinians – talked about, talked over, discussed by men with power generalized about, and still never really heard. That feeling of having the answers before we really ask the question resonated in Orthodoxy. You know, we are given the incessant answers about the rabbinic view on women before women are ever really heard. It has been a very hard journey for me, discovering that so many of the narratives I was brought up with about my people and my heritage are the same ones that create so many painful experiences for women. And so this process of feminist awareness, of looking beyond the rhetoric at people’s real lives, began to inform my entire experience with Israel. It made me wonder what Palestinians – especially Palestinian women – were experiencing. I knew that we were taught to believe that Arabs all hate us and make up stories and lie about Jews. But I started to question whether that was really true. Yes, we’ve all seen the faked photographs, we know that Arab leaders are masters of media spin and propaganda, we’ve seen the videos of children dressed as suicide bombers. There are some chilling things out there in the world. But do all the 2 million Gazans really feel that way? Why do we look at awful things and say things like “They all are….”, or use these images to prove our narrative that all Arabs lie and hate Jews? Our insistence on proving our rightness obscures the very real questions about whether Israel has really done right by our neighbors.
I had not really given much thought to how much my views had shifted until this awful war, when I found myself in too many really hard social media exchanges being cast as the one who “doesn’t get it” and needs to receive a proper Zionist education. On the first day that Israel entered Gaza last month, we all woke up to the news that 72 people had been killed by the IDF in Gaza, and I was really shocked. I quickly wrote a Facebook status update: “72 people were killed in Gaza. That’s a lot of ruined lives. There has to be another way.” I wasn’t advocating for a particular political view. I wasn’t trying to express an opinion about whether Israel has a right to exist or whether the Palestinians should be able to establish a state in the West Bank. I wasn’t delegitimizing Israel or waving a Palestinian flag or equating Zionism with racism. I wasn’t addressing any large political questions of the future of the region. I was talking about right here, right now, about what the IDF is doing today in terms of the real lives of people living in Gaza who may have nothing to do with rockets or kidnappings or building tunnels but just want to live their lives – just like we do. I was questioning an approach which views the accidental killing of Gaza civilians as par for the course, as necessary for the protection of Israel, or as really Hamas’ fault because they put the civilians there. I was just putting myself in the minds of the Palestinians in Gaza who were not the ones trying to hurt Israelis. That’s what feminism has taught me – to look beyond the official story and ask about how large political decisions affect people’s real lives. It’s the basic idea that the personal is political. I was feeling for Gazans’ pain, and questioning whether so much killing was the right path. -
See more at: http://lilith.org/blog/2014/08/my-political-evolution/#sthash.QPzIy1Rj.dpuf
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Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning author, and leading Jewish feminist thinker, educator and activist. The former the Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Elana writes and speaks all around the world about gender issues in Jewish life, in education and in Israel.