A few weeks ago, I was honored to participate in a conversation on "Engaging the Oppressor," along with freedom fighters from around the world. As they shared their pain, trauma, and steadfast determination, I felt deeply grateful to learn from their brilliance. If you have not yet read their reflections, please turn the page and read them first.
But as I sat down to share some reflections, it did not feel right for me to comment on how members of oppressed groups should engage the oppressor. In the context of Palestine, I am the oppressor: a white Jewish woman, raised in mainstream American Jewish and Zionist institutions, with a long history of travel to and support for Israel. Much of my privilege and power has come at the expense of Palestinian freedom. I decided that the best use of this space might be to share my process of engaging myself. The following text is my attempt to do that. My hope is that this text will serve liberation movements in some small way in the years to come.
When I was a sixth grader in my Jewish day school, we were assigned to read The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. The novel tells the story of a twelver-year-old Jewish girl named Hannah Stern who lives in an upscale New York suburb. At the beginning, Hannah is sitting through her family's Passover Seder, bored out of her mind. But when she goes to open the door for the Prophet Elijah, she is suddenly transported to Auschwitz. Hannah spends weeks experiencing the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp, watching as the Jews around her are shot, hanged, and thrown into mass graves. Finally, as she is about to enter the gas chamber, she is transported back to her family's Passover Seder. Hannah hugs her grandparents with relief and enthusiastically joins the family at the table. The message was clear: hold your community close, because the gas chambers are always around the corner.
We were also assigned to watch the film at home. I remember sitting on the couch next to my father--a rabbi--heart pounding out of my chest. After three Jewish men were hanged in the concentration camp, I fled the room and ran upstairs. That night, like many other nights of my childhood, I lie awake into the early hours of the morning, frozen in my bed, terrified that the Nazis might suddenly come marching down my street. Like Hannah, I lived in an upscale Jewish suburb of New York. If the Nazis came, where would we run? Sometimes I would get out of bed and slowly peer out the window, watching for signs of tanks.
By the time I was in high school, I had visited four Holocaust museums, read over ten Holocaust books, and watched over fifteen Holocaust movies. At our annual Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, we would listen to survivors tell first-person accounts of their experiences. An elderly man in our gymnasium once spoke of drinking urine and eating human flesh...