Our Nightmares

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Last summer, during the war in Gaza, the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem produced a radio clip which mentioned the names of children killed in Gaza. The Israeli Broadcasting Association banned this clip from the airwaves, claiming it was “politically controversial.”[1] When B’tselem appealed this decision, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in favor of the IBA’s ban. Meanwhile, in the streets, those who protested the war were attacked with shouts of “death to leftists!” Remembering the dead in Gaza became subversive, to the point that names of Gazan victims of the war began showing up in Tel Aviv graffiti.

At this same time, halfway across the world, increasing numbers of mostly-young American Jews were appalled by the rising death tolls in Gaza. They were also deeply offended by their religious communities’ insistence on supporting the war.  

Some of these individuals, as part of a newly-formed group called “If Not Now, When?” expressed these grievances as part of a counter-protest to a pro-Israel rally immediately outside the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.[2] The dressed in black, chanted the Mourners’ Kaddish, and recited the names of all those, Palestinian and Israeli, who had been killed in Gaza. Members of If Not Now, When? were soon arrested, while members of the simultaneous pro-Israel rally looked upon them with disgust. Even those who joined the pro-Israel rally from a more conflicted perspective—a few rabbis brought signs with slogans such as “No More Dead,” or “Stand with Israel, Mourn with Gaza, Cease the Fire, Seize the Peace”—were verbally attacked. One of these rabbis, Amichai Lau-Lavie (a native Israeli and the son of a Holocaust survivor,) was told “to go die in Gaza, to go die in the gas chambers.”

Why does it feel so painful, so threatening, to admit that we—a larger, communal we—are not entirely innocent?

In trying to answer this question, I keep remembering the layout of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. At the entrance to the museum, black-and-white video recordings of prewar European Jewish life is projected onto one wall. From then on, visitors are physically required to retrace the genocide, from early expressions of anti-Semitism, to Hitler’s rise to power, to ghettoization, to death camps. There’s no way out—one must walk through every brutally detailed exhibition. All the while, the video projections are still visible.  Visitors look back, and are constantly reminded of what—of who—was destroyed. Finally, at the museum’s end, visitors exit onto an outdoor plaza, overlooking Jerusalem.

The museum’s narrative couldn’t be clearer. On that plaza, we, as Jews, stand between two options: our shaky, black and white past, remembered, destroyed, and barely standing, or the sunny, tree-covered, vibrant hills of Jerusalem.

It is this dichotomy that so terrifies people when Jews oppose the Occupation. If we question and criticize the state, many fear, we are welcoming our stateless past; i.e., genocide.  Although the human cost of Israeli military strength may be regrettable, some believe, it is worth it to keep ourselves safe. It is worth it if we will, one day, no longer have to fear for our lives.

If only it were that simple of a tradeoff.
Statehood and military might will not save us from our past.
Even if we wanted to deny our collective fear, we could not.
Even if we wanted to deny our collective trauma, we could not.

One could argue that the Israeli state and its military power exist so that Jews need never again be afraid. And it’s true that my Jewishness, and others’ hatred of it, has never made me unsafe. I can count the times I’ve dealt with anti-Semitism on one hand, and those instances were clueless remarks, rather than actual danger. Yet, for as long as I can remember—in elementary school, when Israel seemed to be a Jewish Disneyland, and now, when I write for an anti-occupation blog—I occasionally wake up in the early hours of the morning in a cold sweat. I rarely remember all the details of my nightmares, but I remember enough: hearing jackboots stomping, trying, desperately to find some abandoned room for my family to hide in, seeing the door open and knowing that our time is up.

Statehood and military might will not save us from our past.
Even if we wanted to escape our collective fear, we could not.
Even if we wanted to escape our collective trauma, we could not.

Those people who screamed “death to leftists!” in Tel Aviv and “go die in the gas chambers!” in New York did so because they believed that the Israeli army must do whatever it needs to do to keep Jews safe, the cost of Gazan lives be damned. There was no IDF to crush the Nazis, but perhaps, (against all evidence that shows a military solution to the conflict is both unjust and impossible,) the IDF could crush Hamas. Perhaps the attendees of these pro-Israel rallies hope, against all odds, that if the IDF is strong enough, that if these leftists just let the army do it’s job and stop bothering them with concerns about illegal occupations and Palestinian children, perhaps their children and grandchildren will not have to dream the same nightmares that wake them up and leave them with a pit in their stomachs for the rest of the day.

But the Palestinian death tolls continued to rise all summer, and the anti-war protesters were despised and insulted, and Netanyahu was reelected, and the Occupation is nearly fifty years old, and I had that same nightmare again, just last week.

[1] “Israeli Agency Bans Radio Clip Naming Children Killed in Gaza.” Ha’aretz, 24 July 2014. http://www.haaretz.com/beta/1.606908

[2] “American Jews Rally Mostly to Israel’s Side as Gaza Conflict Rages—Minority Objects.” The Jewish Daily Forward, 30 July 2014. http://forward.com/news/israel/203080/american-jews-rally-mostly-to-israels-side-as-gaza/

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