I love the synagogue where I grew up, went to preschool, went to Hebrew school, became a bar mitzvah, and was confirmed, and I love every teacher who facilitated my Jewish upbringing. The community was always kind to me, even when I wasn’t kind to it. In Hebrew school, we were almost always given the chance to discuss and seriously think about Torah and ethics and morals. Learning and truth were highly valued. Science was never dogmatically devalued. In Shabbat morning services, we said a prayer that said the word emet (truth) eighteen times. We prayed for peace (oseh shalom, sim shalom). We were taught to value life and justice. We were taught to care for other people, and this was embodied in various community service projects we undertook over the years. We were taught these values as Jewish values. I came to think of Judaism as a continuous conversation about what it meant to be a good person.
When educating us on Israel, my synagogue wholly failed at these Jewish values. I look fondly on my memories with the synagogue, and when I think seriously about the inappropriate dogma I was immersed in, I am also furious. We were given incomplete narratives that erased or obscured the plight of Palestinians, failed to acknowledge their humanity, and would not entertain the fallibility of a Jewish state or of any element of its culture. I did not hear the word “occupation” once in Hebrew school; the first time I got wind of such a notion of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories was in ninth grade when reading my social studies textbook. I’d come to have insensitive notions that Palestine was not a nation, and neither teachers nor fellow students challenged or in any way questioned that notion.
I remember distinctly how limited my understanding was when in 2006, my class discussed the possibility of giving up the West Bank only as a bad thing. I remember in class at the beginning of 2009 when I questioned the prima facie problems with civilian casualties in Israeli airstrikes and how my objections were shot down with the reminder of Hamas launching rockets into Israel from Gaza. Palestinians were only portrayed as terrorists, nothing more. They were faceless anti-Semites whose concerns were easy to discard if they were brought up at all.
We were supposed to believe that standing with Israel no matter what was the Jewish thing to do. In instilling blind political advocacy for Israel, it was smart. In instilling truth and compassion, it was irresponsible.
Of course, my childhood synagogue was not unique in this failure. But many Jews — in Israel/Palestine and in the Diaspora; Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Ethiopian, et cetera; Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox; old and young, including some from my childhood synagogue — have begun questioning the status quo, noticing that the narratives we were presented about Israel were one-sided and that they ignored and dehumanized Palestinians. The injustice is evident to us, from the continuing discrimination, violence, and displacement that Palestinians face to the words that have (or have not) come from our Hebrew school teachers’ mouths. We have been galvanized to uplift the downtrodden. As a result, we may be seen as a thorn in the sides of Jewish institutions, but our alternative would be to not engage with Israel at all.
For God’s sake (yes, really), we must give at least the same consideration and love to Palestinians as we do to Israelis, and we have to not be afraid to rock the boat as we do so. The horrors of the occupation are apparent by virtue of their existence. Therefore, accepting our community’s pro-Israel dogma is not sustainable for Israelis or Palestinians. The choice is not between Palestine-hating Zionism and self-hating anti-Semitism. It is one between recognizing the humanity of Palestinians and acting like it or not.