Yom Kippur, a Day of Reflection

Commentary by KAY MATTHEWS

Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for Jewish people. It ends the high holy days that began with the new year, Rosh Hashanah, and is usually observed with a fast and thoughts or prayers of repentance and reflection upon one’s wrongs against God, if you so believe, or other human beings. I want to observe this year’s Yom Kippur with a reflection on Israel.

I grew up in an assimilated Jewish household. I married into a secular Jewish family, and my kids were raised without religion. I am a staunch anti-Zionist. With this revelation I would no doubt be labeled a self-hating Jew by members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, Israel’s head cheerleader in this country.

How did this lobby become so powerful? Why do otherwise liberal and progressive Jews hold their tongue when it comes to critiquing Israeli policies or Zionism? Why do they continue to let a Holocaust culture excuse Israeli and American imperialism that helps create real anti-Semitism?

I don’t really have the answers to these questions, but oddly enough they remind me of the norteño battles we had in the environmental community, most of whose members considered themselves progressives, between the so-called deep ecology enviros who spoke in terms of “nature” with an almost spiritual reverence that somehow kept it apart from the messier world of human beings, and those of us who tied environmental degradation to a hierarchical and exploitative system that perpetrates economic, environmental, and social injustice upon us all. Because of our advocacy for land-based community access to forest resources, the enviros labeled us “Wise Use” dupes, equated with the industry groups that lobbied for their own unfettered access to natural resources.

Wise Use and self-hating Jew? It’s this kind of reductive thinking that morphs into moralism and fundamentalism and keeps getting us into trouble. If environmentalists see humans as a “scourge” upon the planet it’s not so much of a stretch for Zionists and their supporters to see Palestinians as a “scourge” upon Jewish society. And I’m making the distinction here between Zionists and Israelis, and in particular, their government. Just as many in the United States felt like leaving this country after the election of George W. Bush in 2000 to demonstrate to the rest of the world that he wasn’t their president, Israeli refusniks, those who refuse to participate in the military actions against the Palestinians, travel around this country speaking out about the peace movement in Israel and Palestine. That both the U.S. and Israeli governments, along with the mainstream media, keep this quiet serves their Middle East goals of neoliberalism and western control. (See NYT interview with the President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi.)

Lately, the moral judgments in both countries seem to have reached their zenith. The rise of the Christian right in the U.S. and the ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel go hand in hand, of course. The “Moral Majority” and other fundamentalist Christian groups are big supporters of the ideological settlers who, with the blessing of the Jewish government, refuse to move from, and continue to build on, Palestinian lands on the West Bank as a colonial statement. Haredi, members of an ultra-Orthodox sect, have long served in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, but have recently been trying to pass legislation that would codify some religious rules. Sound familiar? Paul Ryan, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachman and others of our political right would love to see their “Christian values” codified in the USA.

Yousef Manasra, 87, raises his cane in frustration as he looks at the Beitar Illit settlement on the hill above the Palestinian village of Wadi Fukin on December 30, 2009. “As much as life squeezes us … we are still holding on tightly to our land, still holding on to our homeland,” he said. Photo by Jakob Schiller

Meanwhile, imperialist policies in the Middle East and the Messianic rise of the religious right all over the world—including the Islamists—only exacerbate the Palestinian/Israeli impasse. Before he died, Columbia University professor, author, and activist Edward Said had come to the conclusion that a two-state solution to the problem would never work. The only hope was for a one-state homeland to both Arabs and Jews, where an elected government could actually represent the interests of the Palestinian population. That will probably never happen in my lifetime. Palestinian political disorganization and lack of leadership are no match for the Zionist and Israeli guiding principle, aided and abetted by the U.S.

I don’t mean to end this essay on a cynical note, so on this day of reflection I dismiss the reductive Wise Use and self-hating Jew labels and the assaults on secular, civil society, which ultimately are ways of avoiding political discussion. Instead, I affirm, in the words of that wild and crazy guy, Terry Eagleton: “You may want to stage your own signifying practices to enrich, combat, modify or transform the effects which others’ practices produce.” In other words, keep on truckin’.

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One comment

  1. Well said, Kay. The hardest part of any political movement is keeping it from moving to the extreme. Requires sensitivity, humility, and willingness to compromise – qualities that seem in short supply on today’s political scene. But maybe they always were scarce.

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