Sunday, November 7, 2010

thank you, fred phelps?

It's been a long time, but a few experiences I've had recently are starting to synthesize in my head, and I think writing about them might be useful.

I had a difficult time living in Israel. I don't think anyone finds that surprising. I felt challenged every day, by a multitude of things - the fact that I couldn't buy the cheese I wanted in the grocery store, the frustration of being unable to explain what I wanted to the bank, and things far more serious, like my inability to pray at the Kotel with a tallit and the way the Israeli government treats minorities. I felt angry, all of the time. I wanted to scream at people in the street - how can you live like this? Why don't you do something about it? Can't you see how absurd this all is?

For the past four weeks, I've been reading A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. I read part of it my first year at Brandeis, and though it was recommended that I read the whole thing I never did (for those of you reading this who paid for my college education, don't worry - it was an extra assignment, not actual homework). It's fascinating, and I think I appreciate it much more now then I would have then, given the life experiences I've had, and the greater intellectual understanding I have of issues surrounding poverty and the treatment of minorities in the States. As I read about the treatment of Native Americans in the Revolutionary period, and the treatment of African Americans in the post-Civil War period, and the government's treatment of unions and minorities and women and preferential treatment to the rich and to industry, I started to feel a familiar anger. How does something like this happen? How do we let it get so bad?

It all came to a head on Saturday afternoon, outside the Sheraton in downtown New Orleans, also known as the current home of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. I had a short break from programming for the day, and so I had gone on a walk to Cafe Du Monde for beignets and coffee (never having been to New Orleans before, I felt I had to go straight to the source). The walk was beautiful - the French Quarter is lovely, and the sun was shining. I was feeling incredibly relaxed and happy as I strolled back to the hotel, and then I saw them - the protesters.

A small group - maybe 5-10 people. Men and women, old and young. They all carried signs - "God hates fags," "Jews killed Jesus," "God hates you," "You're going to Hell" - it seemed the Westboro Baptist Church had decided to grace us with their presence.

It was a shock to my system. Thankfully, other than one incident of verbal harassment from an ass on the streets of Manhattan and one unfortunate soul on the El in Chicago, I have had an incredibly easy transition back to life in the States. Everything was exactly as I remembered it when I was feeling so homesick in Jerusalem. But this - this was personal in a way that nothing else has been since I came back. This was very clearly a protest of a positive thing - a gathering of the Jewish community - and it hurt to witness.

When I was living in Israel, I didn't know how to love Israel and criticize it at the same time. I wasn't mentally comfortable with living that dichotomy. But standing outside of the Sheraton, witnessing the Westboro Baptist Church protest and feeling totally blindsided, I remembered the last time I felt that hatred - it was at the Kotel, on Rosh Chodesh, trying to pray while being verbally harassed by Haredim. Yet I do, and have always, loved America - despite our history, despite our faults and missteps and years of uncorrectable wrongs. I am an American, through and through - I love American culture and history and food. And I am completely capable of holding that duality in my head - of hating American manipulation of foreign governments, and our system of capitalism that values workers over families, and our history of oppression of both our own and other peoples - while also loving the Grand Canyon and bluegrass and college basketball. It's okay to do the same thing with Israel.

It's okay.

I can love Israel and criticize it at the same time. I know how. I do it every single day I walk down the street in New York and see homeless men and women sitting on the streets begging for spare change because society has abandoned them.

No one is asking me to accept every action of the Israeli government. I hope that my criticism can be welcomed and used in a constructive way. But I don't have to be 100% unhappy with Israel to do that. I am allowed to think fondly of eating hummus and pita at Hummus talpiot, and of enjoying the beauty of the Mediterranean beaches, and of hiking through the Golan and swimming in waterfalls. It doesn't mean I don't also see the negative. It just means I know how to balance the two.

I don't anticipate an immediate future where I want to pick up everything and move to Jerusalem. There would need to be some major changes on all sides of the equation. But I also know that the self-righteousness I was feeling (and that's clearly what it was, in retrospect) is almost as dangerous as the blind hatred of people like the Haredim who regularly throw chairs at my friends while they're davening and that of the Westboro Baptist Church protesters. Nobody's right and nobody's wrong. We're all just trying to figure it out, one day at a time.

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