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May 14, 2001
Repairing the (Jewish Activist) World

By Jesse Bacon


I don't know when I first noticed the prevalence of Jews in movemnents for social change. Certianly I received a steady stream of messages on the proud tradition of Jewish activism throughout history. Indeed, I had to look no farther than my philosemitic anti-racist father (who later converted to Judaism) and my Jewish mother for role models in principled, natural anti-racism. And finally in college, I read the seemingly unbelievable statistic that codified it all, 60% of the whites in the civil rights movement were Jewish.All this gave me a proud Jewish identity where synagogue and flag-waving, snobbish summer camp had failed. And I was not alone, A recent survey showed a plurality of Jews find social activism most important to their Jewish identity. In my case, it was the chance to be more than just another privileged white male rulling class oppressor! I was merely following tradition, I could forget what a freak I truly was out in there in the sticks.

Like light from an already-defunct star, I received these messages after the source of them, Jewish liberalism, was dying. And already I was receiving other, less celebratory channels. I was born in the year Menachem Begin came to power, setting the stage for the invasion of Lebanon. And the occupation that created alliances between American Jews and fundamentalist Christians was about to enter a newer, more brutal stage. Even as a 10 year old, I could wonder how "liberal" Jews could beat up and kill children my own age during the first Intifada.

But the final blow to my faith in Jewish liberalism came when Idiscovered the unhappy ending of the 60% story. When nationalism became the rising ideolgoy of the civil rights movement, the mostly Jewish white workers were sent back to "organize their own communities." At first glance, the expulsion of white civil rights workers from the movement could be seen asproof of the alleged subconscious anti-Semitism of Blacks, proof that they would never be our "partners for peace." (Although most of the Jews were did not openly identify as such.)

But with further reflection, I realized that we had abandoned them. As soon as they began to speak for themselves, for their right to their own movement, their own self-defintion, we lost interest. They were no longer the Negroes we longed for, the quiet noble sufferers. These Blacks were loud, confrontational, angry, pushy. And if we would not be allowed to prove how liberal we were in their movement, we certainly weren't going to offer any further assistance to these ingrates.

This abandonment happened years before I was born. But unfortunately it is happening again. The collapse of Oslo has left our Palestinain allies justifiably mistrustful. Never perfect victims, insufficiently Gandhian, now Palestinians are as angry as the African Americans. They don't negotiate. They aren't patient. They inflexibly continue to insist on such niceties as "human rights" and "international law." And all this after we were big enough to "let them" have elections! And offer them 95% of their little bantustan to call their own! So we arewithdrawing our support, lukewarm as it may have been. Just when we could be most helpful, We the few remaining descendants of Schwerner and Goodman are about to make the same mistake as our late 60's forebears. We are washing our hands with our backs turned. We are convinced it is they who are abandoning us as we walk away.

And it is a short step from bemoaning the Palestinians lack of moral purity to our own failings. If they are insufficiently to deserve human rights, surely we too are insufficiently pure to be able to insist upon those rights? After all, look at the mess in our own country! Our insistence upon purity leads to moral paralysis. We are afraid we are "telling the Israelis what to do," when the situation is so "complicated."

Well, I say to my fellow Jewish activists, "Never Again!" Though Palestinians are not some higher race of being, there humanity is beautiful . They are gracious allies, and I am amazed and honored at how quickly the Palestinian community has extended me their trust. As a people stereotyped as pushy, we should have no problem supporting others in their "pushy" demands for justice and dignity. I can think of no better cure for both the paralyzing moral contradictions foisted upon us by 53 years of oppression and our own fear of Palestinian self-determination than to go attend a Palestinian demonstration. You will find no slogans there that any Jew of conscience should have trouble supporting. "End the Occupation," "Stop US Aid," No More Housing Demolitions." Try it, you won't be sorry.
Our ancestors would be proud.