home Middle East, North America, Politics On Gaza: speaking as a leftist, American Jew

On Gaza: speaking as a leftist, American Jew

I have let this go for far too long. I’m not conceited enough to think that what I have to say will make much difference either way, but as a United States citizen, a Jew, and a person who considers herself progressive and opposed to war and violence wherever and however they happen, I have to say my piece about the situation in Gaza.

Situation sounds like a euphemism. Yet I can’t really call something so one-sided a war, can I? I don’t know the proper words, I’ve been searching for the them for days and days, but I still don’t have them. I fear lapsing into cool, analytic terms as much as I fear getting emotional and crying all over my laptop keyboard.

I’m an American Jew, and when I state that fact, I invite a wealth of assumptions, not all of them anti-Semitic in nature. Renee Martin recently addressed the conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, so I don’t have to (though I would like to note that Modern Mitzvot has a very good point too).

Daniele Archibugi pointed out that upcoming elections in Israel and Palestine most likely have something to do with the timing and force of the Israeli attack. But being in the U.S., I have to see it through the lens of the election we just had, here, and one of the Republican party’s favorite anti-Obama attacks.

Somehow, my name has gotten onto every Jewish organization in America’s mailing list. I get junk mail from AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, and a few others that go straight to the recycle bin. But my favorite, during the weeks before the election, was from the “Republican Jewish Committee.”

They sent lurid, full-color, oversize cards with pictures of Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, proclaiming that Obama would allow Iran to destroy Israel. Sarah Palin invoked the name of Rashid Khalidi on the campaign trail to crowds who had no idea who he was, but were expected to react, salivating, Pavlov-style, to the Middle Eastern name.

Yet most Jewish Americans, like me, voted for Barack Obama. We voted for Obama in higher numbers than 2004–77%, according to Haaretz.

The smears, then, served not so much to stoke Jewish fears about the destruction of Israel, but to reassert the connection with Israel in the minds of non-Jews in the U.S. A connection that to me seems as much about race as it is about religion. The Jews in Israel are the “white” people in that equation, while the Palestinians are Other.

I grew up Jewish, and went to Hebrew school. Mine was a politically neutral Hebrew school, a sort of slacker-Jew’s religious education that happened only on Sundays. Still, I grew up hearing about Israel as the place people went on trips to see their heritage and roots.

My family certainly wasn’t the kind of Jewish family that went to Israel. My mother was raised Catholic, and recently started attending church again. Yet she’s the one who cheers at the TV when Israel invades, and uses terms like “kicking ass.”

It’s not a connection with her husband’s Jewish heritage that makes her react that way. It’s this American identification with Israel that’s gone far beyond Jewish Americans. Many Americans see Israel more as a colony than a separate state (and we fund it like one too).

So Obama had to assert, over and over again, his support for Israel. Still, we might think that an Obama administration will be less supportive of overwhelming force used against Gaza than the Bush administration. Yet another reason to attack now.

This is a complex situation. I am disgusted by the way Israel treats the Palestinian people, yet I had to bite my tongue while campaigning for Obama and reassure Jewish families in New Jersey that Obama supported Israel. This makes it hard for me to speak in these times.

I’m no longer speaking for Obama–the campaign is over, we won–and so I feel more guilt that this is the first piece I have written about the Gaza bombings and invasion. Yet I cannot help freezing up whenever tensions flare and boil over between Israel and Palestine.

I wrote a piece this past summer for Racialicious on my conflicted Jewish identity, and I am even more conflicted now. I feel that I must speak out because, like many others, I am Jewish and want an end to the violence. I want peace. I want a real, vibrant, living Palestinian state.

Yet as I said at Racialicious, criticisms of Israel do feel personal sometimes. I have a harder time speaking out against the actions of the Israeli government than I do my own, perhaps because I feel responsible but yet can do nothing, while here I can vote and campaign and work to change the government that I live under.

It’s true that I have nothing in common with the Israeli government but a religious background. Nothing in common with the Republican Jewish Committee, with AIPAC, with cheering crowds at Sarah Palin rallies.

So I am adding my voice to those calling for a ceasefire, for peace, for a two-state solution, for an end to the violence. And I’m hoping that I’m right about Obama, and that his team will not be so willing to support Israel’s actions. That he will work for peace, and that this last attack under Bush will in fact be the last attack that happens with the tacit approval of my government.

And not just so I don’t have to feel responsible anymore.


Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She's interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.

4 thoughts on “On Gaza: speaking as a leftist, American Jew

  1. Thanks for posting this. I think you speak for a lot of people who feel similarly but are afraid to speak up and potentially be seen as “incorrect” on all sides. I’m not a zionist and have never felt like I have a “birthright” to Israel (or even half of one, since I’m just half Jewish!)…I recognize the fact that Jewish people who chose to move there after lethal oppression have a very PTSD mindset and need a place to live, but I have never felt comfortable with the idea of evicting everyone else who had lived there for thousands of years! Now what remains is the legacy of oppression: one group of oppressed, traumatized people turning around and doing it to another group of people. There’s a lot more I could say but then I might as well take the time to write my own essay (and not monopolize your page!).

  2. Oh fuck yes. Well, my way of dealing with it has been to resolutely remain largely uninformed of the details, as best I can, anyway. Sort of the equivalent of sticking fingers in my ears and going LALALALALALA. And I mean, I don’t feel I need lots of details to hold onto my general feeling that um yeah, well basically what E. Bernstein just said, and that there’s a gross imbalance of firepower here, and it is hard for me to hold onto the idea of the bigger guns being the more “oppressed” in THIS context, even if they’re a) historically oppressed (otoh who -isn’t- at some point?) b) oh, the fun part, as you say: all the hectoring from relatives and mailing lists and friends of friends of and well people just -assume-, don’t they: that they’re supposed to be -my team-.

    plus, 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 eleventy+infinitude, and yeah, I was in New York, too. Islam is bad mkay; Israel is the one beacon of sanity and democracy in the ME, without it holding down the fort THERE GOES THE WORLD. That’s the narrative, right? And then of course, well -yeah- there are a lot of really really irate fundamentalist types who’d like us wiped off the map for reals, yes, -too-. But. My head.

    and Palestine wasn’t exactly one of the more fundamentalist places -before-, I don’t think…

  3. “Many Americans see Israel more as a colony than a separate state”

    Yes, thank you. This. I don’t know what to do with that either. Especially when people-Jewish or otherwise-assume I must have this strong affinity with the place, on discovering that I’m not only American, I’m -gasp- *Jewish.* I’ve never been there, you know? No one in my immediate family lives there or has much affinity either afaik. Well–parents, anyway, I’m sure more distant relatives do, but well we don’t talk about it much…

  4. Hi, Not sure exactly how I clicked through to here, but I like this post, and I thought you’d be interested in what I’m writing about on my blog, It’s All Connected: What We Talk About (And Don’t Talk About) When We Talk About (And Don’t Talk About) antisemitism.


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