The fragility of Zionism is undermining us. Our membership institutions and representation are narrowing the NZ Jewish community, precisely when engagement and collective action are needed. It’s time for us to do community differently.
Let me say (as we have repeated for years) that this is not about being agreed with. It is about learning to exist and let others exist who disagree. Zionism must cease to be our litmus test.
A few years back, a fellow Jew told me, “You are a walking indictment of everything I believe.” That’s an honest statement of a belief so fragile that the very existence of others threatens it. Problem is, I do live and I will walk.
While I could not walk safely in my own shul, I would wake up at 2:30 am to join Tzedek Chicago’s Torah study group. All I wanted was to belong in some Jewish space. They welcomed me while I was torn in half – but Aotearoa is still my community and its needs are my needs.
For advocating Palestinians’ full measure of rights, I have been targeted in some ugly ways. I have also been the object of astonishing hatred from a few (non-Palestinian) supposed fellow advocates. Happily, there are plenty of people doing the real mahi of building coalitions and relationships for change.
I wrote a book about my work and my colleagues in Gaza. My Radio NZ interview was cancelled on the day it was to air. I filed an Official Information Act request to learn the reason. RNZ disclosed the internal email that had warned, “Given the huge flood of formal complaints we get any time we do a Palestine story without Israeli balance…”
They cut the interview because no one had on hand a story from Israel to “mention before and after.” Without those defensive bookends in place, our national radio station self-censored.
In these and other ways, I have learned something that Palestinians already know: this has become an identity campaign of erasure. Erasure makes others – not the substance of any issue – the object of its attack. A campaign of erasure is fought through restatements of history, exclusion and lies and harmful forms of license.
To be targeted in those ways, Palestinians know and I have learned, strikes at a deep, essential place. Emotionally expensive as it is to withstand this form of attack, one cannot concede except by losing one’s very self.
We formed Alternative Jewish Voices partly to do the work of withstanding.
Along the way, we’ve heard from numerous fellow Jews who keep their mouths shut because they know the punishment that would follow if they spoke. We’ve met others who turned away from the community because they cannot keep their mouths shut. The result is the suppression, alienation and exclusion of Jews by Jewish institutions, for reasons unrelated to their Jewishness.
The NZ Jewish Council calls itself “the representative body of Jewish communities in New Zealand.” However, its members are indirectly and not transparently selected by other institutions, further excluding the excluded. Thus they represent much less than they claim.
We must pry open our institutions or make more institutions. We, and the media and government, need to listen more widely. We are a religious community, not a single-issue interest group. Judaism has been plural for 2000 years, and no one has a monopoly on it today.
Ours is a devastating moment to be a community in pieces. Have we no common interest in discussing city planning, housing, Covid response, climate, racism, inequality? The finite planet, our interdependent health and distributional justice all depend on our collective action. Fragile communities wither and fail because they deny any need to be challenged by people who don’t fully agree. We need every challenging conversation now. We confront issues which will not be solved only by people who fully agree with us.
Compare our fragility with the unfolding of mana whenua institutions in Auckland. They are responding to Covid and related needs by casting their net inclusively, recognising an interdependent crisis and stepping straight in to do the mahi. It should not have fallen so heavily on their shoulders, but their action and their community-building will not be undone. Maori Health Authority – what a proof of concept.
If we are to live up to the demands upon us as a Jewish community, we too need to do community differently. We need to formulate aspirational solutions that can anchor a much wider group of us. We disagree and yet we are in this together.
For Alternative Jewish Voices