Destroyed mosque in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, January 2009 (Photo/ISM Palestine CC BY-SA 2.0)
Destroyed mosque in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, January 2009 (Photo/ISM Palestine CC BY-SA 2.0)

Why are Jewish leaders silent on treatment of Palestinians?

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

In December 1948, the New York Times published a letter by 27 American Jewish leaders condemning far-right Israeli political party Herut and its leader Menachem Begin (who later served as Israeli prime minister from 1977 to 1983). Describing Herut, the successor of the paramilitary group Irgun, as the “latest manifestation of fascism,” the letter cites the Irgun’s open and boastful involvement in the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre of over 100 Arab men, women and children as exemplary of the party’s dangerous and reactionary character. The letter called for Americans to unequivocally denounce Begin and his party, which also terrorized left-wing Jews in addition to Arabs. Among the letter’s signatories were Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein — and my great-grandfather, Louis P. Rocker, former president of Young Judaea, treasurer of the Zionist Organization of America and a primary backer of the Exodus refugee ship.

Less than four years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Jewish leaders recognized that Israeli violence against Palestinians was morally abhorrent, dangerous and absolutely unrepresentative of Jews or Judaism. Even before the end of the Arab-Israeli war, American Jews were clear that the oppression of Arabs and Muslims by the Jewish state could not continue to happen in our name, and posed a threat to the future of the Jewish people.

Where are we now?

When I was 14, I bought a shirt with the logo of the Israel Defense Forces. It was at the NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) convention, and I had been admiring the shirts of other youth group participants all weekend. The drab-olive and yellow logo evoked toughness. Power. Bravery. I had learned that the IDF was an army of, by and for Jews, ready to defend us from the inevitable onslaughts of a hostile world.

How is it that wearing a symbol of a foreign military has come to symbolize pride in Jewish religious and cultural identity?

This, however, was a military that had enforced the seizure of Palestinian land and destruction of Palestinian homes and orchards for decades; that had stood by during Sabra and Shatila massacres of hundreds of civilians in Lebanon in 1982; and that had killed over 2,000 Palestinian civilians during the Second Intifada. This is a military that claims to know “where every bullet landed” when snipers shot live ammunition into crowds of protesters in Gaza last month, killing at least 17 people and wounding hundreds more.

It is still common at mainstream Jewish gatherings for participants to wear IDF T-shirts. At the Moishe House national convention last summer, attended by Jewish community leaders in their 20s from around the country and around the world, I counted at least five.

How is it that wearing a symbol of a foreign military has come to symbolize pride in Jewish religious and cultural identity?

The ideological descendants of Herut and the Irgun govern Israel today, in the form of Likud. And while the Israeli government continues to seize Palestinian land, restrict Palestinian access to water and electricity, and imprison children, Jewish leaders seem unable to speak their conscience and declare that these policies have no place in a thriving Jewish future. After decades of being told that Israel’s military is the sole bulwark against our annihilation as a people, American Jewish leaders and institutions have let their fear cloud their moral clarity.

Meanwhile, where are the political descendants of Einstein, Arendt and my great-grandfather — as well as the socialist and non-Zionist Jews who had a strong voice in Jewish communities throughout Europe, North America and the Arab world? Those who oppose endless occupation and violence, and envision peaceful Jewish flourishing in Israel and the diaspora, are shut out of mainstream Jewish institutions, slandered as anti-Semites and, now, barred from entering the Jewish state.

As American Jews, we have let a brutal and violent nationalism hijack our collective identity. It’s time to reclaim our heritage and stand for the peace, justice and liberation that is our true birthright.

David Granberg

David Granberg grew up in the East Bay and is a graduate of Brown University. He is actively involved with IfNotNow, which works to end American Jewish support for the occupation, and facilitates community for young Jews at Moishe House Oakland.