Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering Up for a Hidden Wrong

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.

 Jesse Lieberfeld, 17, is an 11th grader  at Winchester Thurston. His essay just won the 2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Award. Also see our dear friend Phil Weiss’s piece on the award. 

11 thoughts on “Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering Up for a Hidden Wrong”

  1. Jessie Lieberfeld is 11 grade student at Winchester Thurston School, a private coeducational school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylania. The school has been named a national leader among college preparatory independent schools for innovative teaching, gifted and talented education and distinctive campus setting.

    Two WT juniors, Jessie Lieberfeld and Erika Drain, tied for the first place at Carnegie Mellon University’s Martin Luther King Day Writing Awards on January 16, 2012.

    The title of Jessie Lieberfeld’s essay was Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering Up for a Hidden Wrong.

  2. Jessie Lieberfeld is a brave person. Brave because he did not stop short from criticizing even very basic aspects of his identity. And brave because he did not step back from the reactions of his relatives and friends.

    And the reactions of those we love are indeed very difficult to overcome. We may easily fight any enemy, but why should we have to fight even with those we love? And how on earth are we to do that? We love them, but do they also love us? If they love us, do they consider our stand and modify what they do and say because we are also around?

    A comment on a secondary point of the article: Growing and acquiring an identity is not something that one manages or fails to avoid. This is so because we are not humans in general. We are always humans in a very specific historical period, in a very specific society and country, with given cultural traditions. We are not generally humans, outside history and outside society. Indeed, we are becoming humans by adopting a culture, and by becoming humans we are faced with the historical situation of our own times.

    Adopting an identity, both personal and collective, is not a bad thing. Indeed, it is the necessary condition for communication, not only with other humans, but most especially with other cultures and times past.

  3. While I appreciate that Jessie Lieberfeld is a curious soul who wants to find truth and meaning in his life and not just to chew and swallow every bit of information he is given, there is a seriously frightening problem with this article.First of all, it is clear that Jessie’s family, teachers, and Rabbi never took the time to listen to Jessie’s concerns or to clarify and explain what is REALLY going on in Israel. It is very easy to fall prey to the anti-Israel media out there and especially him being curious and searching, he must have come across dozens of articles, news clips, blog posts, etc all slandering the Israeli Military and painting a very negative picture of Israel. It is up to the teachers, the parents, and the Rabbis of the young Jessie Lieberfelds out there to take the time to answer their questions fully and take time to explain to them who we are as Jews, what we believe, and why we believe what we do! It saddens me to think that any young Jewish teen would be so let down by his Jewish community as to submit such an article. Jessie, if you are reading this please don’t fall back into the trap that you are so wisely fighting to free yourself from. Contact a Rabbi at and ask them your questions! They have real answers, not cop-outs, they won’t just babble ancient scripture, and they will explain it to you until you are satisfied. The point is, please try to learn the truth about your people, we owe that to you as a member of our tribe! Go learn the truth about the conflict in the Middle East. Learn the whole story, not just the one the media wants you to know. You are better than that! With your guts, your willingness to search for truth, and your “chutzpah”, I am sure you will bring us all alot of nachas!

  4. @Chaya E.:

    In your effort to ‘redeem’ this courageous and thoughtful young author, your motives are laid bare when you say “[t]he point is, please try to learn the truth about your people, we owe that to you as a member of our tribe!”

    Jesse’s essay demonstrated the problems created by tribalism as well as anything can. Read it again.

    1. I had no intention to hide my motives when commenting, quite the opposite actually. To clarify for you what I meant by “tribe” here is Webster’s definition of the word – Tribe; a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest.

      I saw no mention of any problems with this in the article.

  5. The process the author and the individual person he is went through and in his essay shares (reveals) with us, is reassuring. Why? I have been there and I surmise most people have; at least at some point. His last paragraph is sublime in its words; witness ‘contriving illusions of superiority’. Thank you Jesse Lieberfeld!

  6. Jesse, you are indeed a brave young man. I had many questions about who I was, why I was, what it all meant. Many years ago something kept telling me to pick up the Bible and start reading, as I am sure you know, when we are born into this world, we are raised, or you could say programmed to believe certain things. Jesse if you want you questions answered about who you are or anything else, it lies in the word of the Scriptures of Truth. Not just the Torah. You must search, ask, and knock. If you do this with all diligence, then you will get what you are seeking. I have a lot of peace in my life now, and the world makes a lot more since because I know The Truth and it will set you free.! Do not believe everything you are told, find The Truth for yourself, and look for it in the OLD and the New Testaments, I realize this is something you are probably not supposed to do, but The Truth is there if you search for it.

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