In my first five months living in Jerusalem I was bombarded with facts: casualty reports, who walked away from what negotiating table, how many people supported Hamas or Likud, and so on. I was of course humbled to be in the presence of so many knowledgeable educators coming from a variety of perspectives and identities, but with each new nuance or statistic I picked up it became harder to feel like there was any “right” way to speak up about the injustices happening less than a ten-minute walk from my classrooms at Hebrew University. The strongest activism however, must be informed by both reason and emotion.
The best way for me to ground myself in my ethics and convictions was to spend much of my time outside of class demonstrating with Palestinian communities where I saw firsthand the damages wreaked by occupation. I began to understand that the primary struggle of anyone who involves themselves in bringing justice to Israel/Palestine is to maintain our moral convictions while remaining open to the deep levels of nuance and history of oppression that exists on both sides. No fact or statistic justifies forcing people to live a life of checkpoints, harassment, and violence, and to suggest otherwise is impossible without making blanket derogatory statements about the Palestinian people. Fighting against the dehumanizing aspects of occupation must be a non-negotiable point no matter what you think the political future of the region should be.
Similarly, I found myself building a list of non-negotiable points for the future of the Israeli people. Many of the Israelis I built close connections to, particularly those with family originating from the Middle East and North Africa, had had their families expelled from the lands that they had called home for generations and had little choice to go anywhere but Israel. Furthermore, anyone paying attention to the recent rightward swing of politics in Europe and the US would not be able to in good faith deny that any diaspora community has reasons to doubt whether many of these places will remain safe and welcoming places for anyone who isn’t White and Christian. At the end of the day many of those who support Israel do so, not out of racist or imperialist motivations, but due to a justified fear of whether Jews in the diaspora can ever be truly safe and secure.
Understanding that both realities are non-negotiable if we are to achieve peace is not always easy. Many good people, including myself at times, fall for the temptation of using one’s people’s suffering and grievances to nullify that of others. My desire to avoid this trap as much as possible made it hard for me to connect to Israel/Palestine activism upon my return to the US. It would be almost five years later that I would find myself at an IfNotNow training at the recommendation of a close friend, and began to feel the fire that I had felt living in Jerusalem reignited. There are many, no doubt on both sides, who feel concerned by IfNotNow’s refusal to support specific positions that have been held up as potential roads to peace. To me what this represents is not a lack of conviction or a form of centrism, but a commitment to certain non-negotiable ideals. We are here to remind American Jewish institutions that there will never be an excuse for dehumanization and occupation. We are here to remind everyone that we can acknowledge the necessity of ending occupation as a strong Jewish community that also seeks to improve conditions for diaspora Jewry. Our incomparable position is that fighting for a future where we discuss peace without sacrificing the freedom and dignity of all people is the first step towards an actual solution.