Walking down a street in Hebron that was once a bustling market, one sees shut up stores, and sometimes spray painted slogans in Hebrew on them.
Turn up the road near the Ma’arat Ha’Machpela (Tomb of the Patriarchs), which is also the Ibrahimi Mosque, and one can stroll down the deserted Shehadeh Street, and see the same slogans and symbols: rough Stars of David; stylized ones with a fist representing the movement of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane; the words “Kahane tzadak” (Kahane was
right); and another common slogan—“Am Yisrael Chai.”
The literal translation is “the nation of Israel lives.” But the resonance for many Jews is much deeper. It represents pride in the Jews’ history of overcoming persecution and adversity and determination and confidence that we will be able to meet any challenges the future might bring.
Now, that slogan has been warped and distorted. It is no longer chanted by idealistic Jews who see their people’s survival as a human story of overcoming adversity. It is not an example to show to other oppressed people or groups facing discrimination.
No, now it is a club being used to bludgeon not only Palestinians, but also anyone who might oppose Israeli policy. It is now a chant of a mindless mass of people, consumed with nationalistic zeal. It is now the slogan bullies paint on terrorized innocents forced out of their homes and businesses in Hebron. And it is now the chant used to ridicule young activists who will no longer tolerate lies, political manipulation and human rights abuses being committed in their name.
Of course, I do not expect the crowd at the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly to be happy about the heckling of Netanyahu, or to be cordial to the protesters. One expects to confront the hostility of the crowd when one plans such an action.
But what was seen in response to each heckler grew worse and worse. The anger, hostility and zealous rage we can see displayed by Jews against other Jews in the crowd is frightening. And the use of a Jewish expression of pride as a tool to promote lock-step unity and the stifling of dissent is appalling.
The action by JVP in New Orleans was of particular importance. Opening up this discussion isn’t just good for the Jews (and it’s more than good for us, it’s absolutely crucial for our future). It is crucial to the entire goal of peace in the region and freedom for the Palestinians.
Showing Jewish opposition to the siege on Gaza, the settlements, the Israeli loyalty oath lays bare the reality that these actions are not done in the name or with the support of most Jews. They are done by the will of Israeli leaders backed by a wealthy and politically influential, but distinctly minority fraction of the Jewish community.
This minority teams with neocons, hi-tech arms corporations, certain (albeit numerically large) Christian sects and right-wing ideologues. These are political forces whose agenda does not include peace, human rights or the view that all people are equal. They are a conglomeration of ideologies: those that believe Israel must settle all the land that God, whilst moonlighting as a real estate broker, promised to Abraham; those that see the West in a cataclysmic war against Islam and Israel as being the front line in that war; and those who are making enormous amounts of money from the status quo. We should note here that the $3 billion per year Israel gets in US aid is but a small drop in the ocean of the money that arms manufacturers make from selling weapons to Israel and the Arab world as well as from the general state of ongoing warfare in the region and their cooperation with Israeli and other hi-tech business ventures.
But much of this is lost in the rhetoric around this conflict. That leads to good people, who really do want what is right and just, being confused about this conflict. They may throw their hands up in despair or may believe Israeli hasbara. But the result is that liberals in Congress are among the worst liars and political weasels on this issue.
That is the state of affairs JVP struck a blow at in New Orleans. And it’s not just a shout in an echo chamber. The action will resonate not only among those who will immediately support it. It will touch a nerve in the majority of Jews who may be uncomfortable with the action itself but are also sick and tired of their community being painted as supporters of occupation, human rights violations and overwhelming violence like we saw in Operation Cast Lead.
My only regret about this action is that I wasn’t a part of it. Because a big hall full of Jews who would chant “Am Yisrael Chai” to defend an Israeli leader who has not even bothered to hide his refusal to end the occupation; who has severely harmed Israel’s relations with Europe, Turkey and even the United States; who has vigorously worked to destroy Israeli democracy; who has maintained a stranglehold on the Palestinians; and who has worked to ensure the end of any possibility of a two-state solution by greatly escalating construction in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank is a room full of Jews who are careening insanely toward the destruction of the Jewish people.
If “Am Yisrael Chai” is to be a relevant chant in the future, it will be the young Jews who stood up and protested in New Orleans who will make it so. 100 years of nationalist conflict and 43 years of occupation have corrupted the Jewish community and are poisoning Israel. Let’s hope my generation, and the generation of my parents, haven’t made it impossible for them to save us.