A Secular Jewish Point of View on Israel

by Guest Contributor Sarah Jaffe

As an American Jew, the Israel question has been a part of my life. “Birthright” tours of the holy land are encouraged in the Jewish community, and Israel policy dominates the questions I am asked by other Jews on the campaign trail.

I embraced the Irish liberation struggle in college when I was reading Yeats and Synge, and through that lens I recognized that Israel was wrong in so many ways, yet I struggle to reconcile what I feel about it.

I find myself recoiling at pro-Palestinian articles, and I understand that even in me, progressive anti-racist anti-colonialist that I am, the identification of Israel with all Jews and thus with me is internalized. It has been successfully done in this country, an identification with the country built onto our experience of Otherness. Israel is that mythic land where no one ever asks you “what it’s like” to be Jewish, or lets an anti-Jewish slur drop from their lips.

I always disliked the construction of Jews as a race but I never really understood it until I really thought about Israel. Because to be a people who have a homeland, Jews must be a race—they must be able to claim heritage back to a certain place.

Of course this has been more problematic than helpful—racism, not a hatred for their religion, sparked the Nazis’ hate, and anti-Semitism is framed not as anti-Judaism but as hatred for the Semitic race—even when all Jews are certainly not Semitic, and all Semitic people are not Jewish, and the hatred for each is a very different thing from the other.

And then, my identity as a Jew is in question. I do not practice, nor was my mother Jewish, so according to many Jews, I am not even Jewish. My grandparents, my father’s parents, were, but with their passing my father no longer practices. I went to Hebrew school to make them happy, but dropped out before I was Bat Mitzvahed, in part because my parents no longer had the money for the extravagant party that is somehow part of this rite of passage in America. I fast occasionally on Yom Kippur to remind myself of something larger than me.

But my Jewish identity cuts deep, deep enough to feel that the writers of these articles don’t like me, rather than Zionism.

And it makes me understand for a minute that feeling that some white people got when they heard Rev. Wright. That fear that people hold something against you that you’re not responsible for, that you know they should be angry about but you don’t want to be part of.

And it makes me think, because Israel of course is that rare thing, a colonial power that has based its existence on its own experienced oppression. People who have experienced genocide and thus feel justified in enacting colonialism on others. Some Jews in America joined the Civil Rights movement because they knew what racism felt like, and others sat back and were just happy that it wasn’t them the fire hoses were aimed at.

I hope that if I had been around back then, I would have been marching.

And so I know that because this makes me uncomfortable, I need to seek it out more and learn more. Realize, of course, that it’s not about me. It’s about justice, and trying to put a real end to racism, and alliances must be built across lines for the world to truly change.