• Analysis

My lonely search for a Jewish community that lives its values

The voices against mass murder aren’t loud enough. We need a widespread Jewish community living out the belief that Palestinian liberation is fully tied to our own.
If Not Now members in Boston held a a Mourner’s Kaddish on Oct. 9 in JFK Memorial Park to grieve the Palestinians and Israelis killed in recent days. (Twitter/If Not Now)

In 2004, the fall of my sophomore year of college and after a childhood of being active in Jewish communities, I quietly renounced my Jewish identity and ceased activities in Jewish life on my campus. This was after a year of diving into a deeper understanding of the history of Israel, learning about the occupation and ultimately feeling unable to reconcile what I believed to be my Jewish values and what was being done to Palestinians in the name of Jews. I felt betrayed by my Jewish education, brainwashed and unable to hold the complexity. 

For 18 years, I had sat as a congregant, staring up at rabbis preaching in front of both an American flag and an Israeli flag, signaling the community’s unwavering support for an increasingly despotic government, singing prayers for Israel. I knew I could no longer do this. I thought it was I that needed to leave the community.

As the years went on, I slowly grew tired of pretending I wasn’t innately Jewish — of hiding that part of myself and of staying silent. My Judaism is one that has embraced tikkun olam (the Jewish concept of “repairing the world”). I have made that my life’s purpose. My Judaisim is deeply connected to Jewish history and our plight, and it is because of my Judaism that I am staunchly against Israeli violence and occupation. 

When the Gaza war broke out in 2014, 10 years after my renouncement, I was done saying nothing and feeling alone in my Judaism. I wrote an email “coming out” (for a second time) to my broader community, but this time as a Jew with politics that too many Jews would call self-hating, anti-Semitic and shameful, denouncing the war. One of the friends on that email was already busy organizing with a handful of other Jews who felt similarly. Just like that, I was no longer alone. 

The author, Erin Mazursky, at one of the first If Not Now actions in 2014 in Washington Square Park. (WNV/Erin Mazursky)

I worked for months with this group of organizers, hosting strategy sessions in my home, organizing events, joining actions. This work led to the founding of If Not Now, a movement for young American Jews working to end U.S. support for the occupation. I was considered an elder in the group at the ripe age of 29. So while it was a political home, I have not continued to actively participate in it.

A few years later, my wife and I joined an incredible synagogue not far from our apartment in Brooklyn, looking for a Jewish home to find community in which to raise our family. My hope has been that, at this synagogue, my son wouldn’t have to feel torn between his Jewish identity and Israeli politics. We love the queer rabbinate, the progressive values, the people we have met, especially the other queer parents. We love that the clergy are outspoken about all of the issues we too feel passionately about and help bring the community to action. But I am struggling with whether I can truly make it my home. 

On Sunday, Oct. 8, the day after Hamas’ vicious, unthinkable, inhumane attacks on thousands of Israeli civilians, our synagogue’s head rabbi addressed the conflict in an email to the community. As a faith leader should, she expressed deep mourning, panic, shock and sadness about the horrific, indefensible killings and kidnappings of Israelis. As she should, she renounced Hamas. But in that email, she also called for unquestioning support of Israel. The very unquestioning that led me to lose a central part of myself 20 years ago. 

I have family and friends in Israel. I know no one has been untouched by Hamas’ violent acts. There is never an excuse for terrorism. 

And, what about the terror, systematic dehumanization that the IDF and Israeli government has imposed on Palestinians for decades? 

I do not, cannot stand with the right-wing, authoritarian government of Israel just as I could not, would not stand with the U.S. government in 2003 during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. My activism did not make me any less American. Why does my activism against the inhumane policies of Israel continue to call my Judaism into question? 

We are a generous, thoughtful, values-rich people. But I am now questioning this community’s ability to hold nuance and act on our values. I am questioning its ability to hold people like me, desperately in search of solace and a community where we can say no to Israeli death but we can also question and even object to the actions of the Israeli government, which commits acts of violence in the name of the Jewish people. Hamas is a terrorist organization. I expect the killing from them. They do not represent all Palestinians. I expect more from my people. 

I don’t want our people’s collective trauma to continue to be an excuse for inflicting horrors and trauma on others.

We are staring down the barrel of an ethnic cleansing in Gaza as vengeful Israeli tanks get into position. Where are our voices now? Do our Jewish values not tell us that violence should not beget violence, that flattening Gaza won’t bring back the dead nor defeat Hamas nor bring peace? The only thing that will bring peace is centering each other’s humanity, and while the conflict is complicated, at the end of the day, it’s actually quite simple. We would be in a different place today if we had built systems that recognized rather than denigrated Palestinian humanity. 

Israel’s impending actions will be a stain on our people for centuries to come. 

So far, it seems that much of the Jewish community condones this mass murder. And if they don’t, their voices certainly aren’t loud enough. Most of us have been silenced by a majoritarian Jewish community that seems to believe that we can set our values aside when it comes to Palestinians. Those of us in the dissent can have one-on-one conversations, as I’ve been having this week. But where can I find a community that lives out the belief that Palestinian liberation is fully tied to our own? 

I am grateful for the work If Not Now continues to do to stand up against Israeli violence, and I join them in their political actions as I can. But those leaders keep getting younger, and I am lucky to get older. Yet, I am still searching. I don’t want our people’s collective trauma to continue to be an excuse for inflicting horrors and trauma on others. That was not the original point of the Zionist experiment. 

I want to mourn collectively. I want to build healing spaces together. I want to activate through our sadness and loss. I want my disagreement with the Israeli government to not be seen as an existential threat to all Jews. Can we talk about how an unquestioned complicity feels existential to me? Can we see the evil of Hamas and still see the humanity of Palestinians? Can we disagree with the “defense” systems Israel has put in place — occupation, blockades, apartheid, land grabbing — and still agree that Israelis have a right to be safe? 

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I wrote a similar version of this article in email form to my clergy, asking if there was a home for me at their synagogue given that I cannot answer the rabbi’s call to “stand with Israel” (though I can stand with Israelis, as I do with Palestinians). Is there space for me to claim my Judaism there? Perhaps my more mature self realizes that the responsible thing to do is to make my community stronger rather than slinking off into the sunset of insignificance. As I did nine years ago, perhaps this space just needs to be created, evolved, expanded for people of all ages. 

A main tenet of Reform Judaism is to hold complexities and to question. We do not have narrow definitions of good and evil, heaven or hell. Rabbis and oracles have been debating the nuances of the human condition for millenia. It is a painful hypocrisy that the very thing that keeps me grounded in my faith — permission to ask questions, a commandment to seek justice, a value to recognize humanity in the nuance — are the very things that alienate me in this moment. 

Amidst the chaos of this week for the Jewish community and the escalation of anti-Semitic (and anti-Palestinian) hate crimes across the country, my rabbi quickly responded to my questioning of my place in the community she leads. “Thank you for writing this incredibly heartfelt, beautiful, and plaintive letter,” she wrote. “I don’t know that we 100 percent agree, but we are a lot closer than it has seemed this week… I do know there is a place for you here.” I believe her.

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