by Jesse Lieberfeld
I once belonged to a wonderful religion. I belonged to a religion that allows those of us who believe in it to feel that we are the greatest people in the world—and feel sorry for ourselves at the same time. Once, I thought that I truly belonged in this world of security, self-pity, self-proclaimed intelligence, and perfect moral aesthetic. I thought myself to be somewhat privileged early on. It was soon revealed to me, however, that my fellow believers and I were not part of anything so flattering.
Although I was fortunate enough to have parents who did not try to force me into any one set of beliefs, being Jewish was in no way possible to escape growing up. It was constantly reinforced at every holiday, every service, and every encounter with the rest of my relatives. I was forever reminded how intelligent my family was, how important it was to remember where we had come from, and to be proud of all the suffering our people had overcome in order to finally achieve their dream in the perfect society of Israel.
This last mandatory belief was one which I never fully understood, but I always kept the doubts I had about Israel’s spotless reputation to the back of my mind. “Our people” were fighting a war, one I did not fully comprehend, but I naturally assumed that it must be justified. We would never be so amoral as to fight an unjust war. Yet as I came to learn more about our so-called “conflict” with the Palestinians, I grew more concerned. I routinely heard about unexplained mass killings, attacks on medical bases, and other alarmingly violent actions for which I could see no possible reason. “Genocide” almost seemed the more appropriate term, yet no one I knew would have ever dreamed of portraying the war in that manner; they always described the situation in shockingly neutral terms. Whenever I brought up the subject, I was always given the answer that there were faults on both sides, that no one was really to blame, or simply that it was a “difficult situation.” It was not until eighth grade that I fully understood what I was on the side of. One afternoon, after a fresh round of killings was announced on our bus ride home, I asked two of my friends who actively supported Israel what they thought. “We need to defend our race,” they told me. “It’s our right.”
“We need to defend our race.”
Where had I heard that before? Wasn’t it the same excuse our own country had used to justify its abuses of African-Americans sixty years ago? In that moment, I realized how similar the two struggles were—like the white radicals of that era, we controlled the lives of another people whom we abused daily, and no one could speak out against us. It was too politically incorrect to do so. We had suffered too much, endured too many hardships, and overcome too many losses to be criticized. I realized then that I was in no way part of a “conflict”—the term “Israeli/Palestinian Conflict” was no more accurate than calling the Civil Rights Movement the “Caucasian/ African-American Conflict.” In both cases, the expression was a blatant euphemism: it gave the impression that this was a dispute among equals and that both held an equal share of the blame. However, in both, there was clearly an oppressor and an oppressed, and I felt horrified at the realization that I was by nature on the side of the oppressors. I was grouped with the racial supremacists. I was part of a group that killed while praising its own intelligence and reason. I was part of a delusion.
I thought of the leader of the other oppressed side of years ago, Martin Luther King. He too had been part of a struggle that had been hidden and glossed over for the convenience of those against whom he fought. What would his reaction have been? As it turned out, it was precisely the same as mine. As he wrote in his letter from Birmingham Jail, he believed the greatest enemy of his cause to be “Not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who…lives by a mythical concept of time…. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” When I first read those words, I felt as if I were staring at myself in a mirror. All my life I had been conditioned to simply treat the so-called conflict with the same apathy which King had so forcefully condemned. I, too, held the role of an accepting moderate. I, too, “lived by a mythical concept of time,” shrouded in my own surreal world and the set of beliefs that had been assigned to me. I had never before felt so trapped.
I decided to make one last appeal to my religion. If it could not answer my misgivings, no one could. The next time I attended a service, there was an open question-and-answer session about any point of our religion. I wanted to place my dilemma in as clear and simple terms as I knew how. I thought out my exact question over the course of the seventeen-minute cello solo that was routinely played during service. Previously, I had always accepted this solo as just another part of the program, yet now it seemed to capture the whole essence of our religion: intelligent and well-crafted on paper, yet completely oblivious to the outside world (the soloist did not have the faintest idea of how masterfully he was putting us all to sleep). When I was finally given the chance to ask a question, I asked, “I want to support Israel. But how can I when it lets its army commit so many killings?” I was met with a few angry glares from some of the older men, but the rabbi answered me. “It is a terrible thing, isn’t it?” he said. “But there’s nothing we can do. It’s just a fact of life.” I knew, of course, that the war was no simple matter and that we did not by any means commit murder for its own sake, but to portray our thousands of killings as a “fact of life” was simply too much for me to accept. I thanked him and walked out shortly afterward. I never went back. I thought about what I could do. If nothing else, I could at least try to free myself from the burden of being saddled with a belief I could not hold with a clear conscience. I could not live the rest of my life as one of the pathetic moderates whom King had rightfully portrayed as the worst part of the problem. I did not intend to go on being one of the Self-Chosen People, identifying myself as part of a group to which I did not belong.
It was different not being the ideal nice Jewish boy. The difference was subtle, yet by no means unaffecting. Whenever it came to the attention of any of our more religious family friends that I did not share their beliefs, I was met with either a disapproving stare and a quick change of the subject or an alarmed cry of, “What? Doesn’t Israel matter to you?” Relatives talked down to me more afterward, but eventually I stopped noticing the way adults around me perceived me. It was worth it to no longer feel as though I were just another apathetic part of the machine.
I can obviously never know what it must have been like to be an African-American in the 1950s. I do feel, however, as though I know exactly what it must have been like to be white during that time, to live under an aura of moral invincibility, to hold unchallengeable beliefs, and to contrive illusions of superiority to avoid having to face simple everyday truths. That illusion was nice while it lasted, but I decided to pass it up. I have never been happier.