"Everyone in this room is a Zionist.”
That is what my third grade teacher at Temple Kol Ami informed me on our first day of "Israel Today."
“So, I must be a Zionist" is what I thought. And thus began by a journey of Accidental Zionism. It's a familiar one. It's the same one you grew up on and you taught your kids. We are there for Israel, because Israel is there for us. A common refrain echoed through our young minds.
The summer after my first year of college, I went on a study abroad trip to Israel. My father talked me into going because the Jewish Federation in Detroit funded the entire trip. I was 19 and I had a blast on the trip. I made friends. I hung out with Israelis and took a course from a very progressive professor. The trip was in part funded because we were to be co-counselors at an English-language camp on a kibbutz in the northern part of the country.
It was here that I experienced some real culture shock. To my surprise, the Russian Israeli teachers I worked with had no qualms about using blatantly racial slurs toward the Israeli children of Ethiopian and Moroccan descent. For the first time, I started to question what I knew about Israel.
The trip highlighted that many Israelis are white people with European and privileged roots just like my own. It could have been my family, if we hadn’t come to America sooner, living in the north of Israel and making completely unfiltered racist comments. Through the modern history course I was taking, my conclusion was that, once again in history, white people — no matter where in the world they live — will have an advantage over people of color. This was true in America, this was true in Israel. This is how race-based oppression works.
When I returned to the states, I began getting very involved in activism on campus. I was in the Vagina Monologues and went to East Lansing to protest an Attorney General who refused to file rape charges against a famous basketball player.
At this point, the people I was organizing with were very “pro-Palestinian” and I understood why. When I was a 20-year-old Jewish person, I felt compelled — being so aligned with the wrong side — that my role in the entire argument would be to stay silent, as I didn't think coming from my background, I had a right to take up space in the discourse. I was also still loyal to the community that had raised me up and convinced me that Judaism was rooted in Tikkun Olam, repairing the word, so it felt impossible that we would become so disconnected from that tenet.
After graduation, I moved to the east coast and met friends who were further along in their journey than I was. I joined IfNotNow and learned that actually I needed to take an active role in the fight for Palestinian liberation. Since then, what I have witnessed has made me sick.
This past week, we watched an American journalist get assassinated by the IDF. We then watched the Israeli police attack the pallbearers in such an aggressive manner that the coffin was dropped. In every religion, including Judaism, the mourning process is sacred and respected.
This was not an isolated incident. These types of atrocities are committed every day. During the conflicts in the Gaza trip since 2008, over 2,000 civilians have been killed at the hands of the IDF. The Israeli government has displaced countless Palestinians from their homes — in 1948 and ongoing even today with settlements. And finally Palestinians experience increased and violent policing around their every movement. They are not just second-class citizens in their own homes; they are not considered citizens at all. They cannot vote and are not able to register for population counts. On Passover, while we celebrate our liberation, Palestinians movements are even more policed and monitored.
I would never claim the conflict in Israel and Palestine is a simple one — it’s not. It’s easy to get confused, to think that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are one and the same, when the truth is they are diametric opposites. When American Jews conflate the two, we make it much easier for others to do the same.
By affiliating with Zionism, we open the door for antisemitism. By becoming the oppressors we have repeatedly overcome in our religious history, we defy what we know to be true and what we teach. When people conflate my Judaism with the occupation, it is my job to correct them — just as it is my job to denounce racism as a white person in America.
Since the murder of George Floyd and even before, white Americans have been considering their roles in anti-Black racism and what they can do to support ongoing efforts for justice. This past weekend, along with the slain journalist, the world watched in horror as ten Black people were murdered as they were grocery shopping in Buffalo, New York. Around the world, we expressed our sadness and horror; we acknowledged complicity in the ongoing rise of white supremacy.
These incidents are connected. These systems are connected. This work is transferable, what we recognize to be true in America is true with our biggest ally in the Middle East. The writing is on the wall. These incidents of violence are symptoms of ongoing inequity and oppression taking place all over the world. These incidents are two sides of the same coin. And as Jews, we are on the wrong side.
Our roles as American Jews are here to stay. Israel can't fund the occupation without the support of American Jews. I am not saying we have to have the answer to the conflict in the region. I have no idea what the solution is. All I know my role as an American Jew is to speak out.
To do this, we all have to take a good hard look at what we really learned as kids at Hebrew school — not about being Zionists but about changing the world. We have the opportunity to do a mitzvah here. We have an opportunity to speak out and say, this version of Judaism is not my version of Judaism. We have an opportunity to live our values of tikkun olam and end American support for the occupation and atrocities that are ongoing in Palestine.
I have come along way since being told I was a Zionist in the third grade. I know that my Judaism is real and it is rooted. It is rooted in social justice, liberation and tikkun olam — truly repairing the world. Until Palestine is free, none of us is free.