Sunday, January 18, 2009

How to Talk about Gaza

I have been avoiding writing about Gaza. For the most part, I have avoided talking about it, except with people whose minds on the topic I already know.

One of the reasons for my avoidance is that I keep feeling I ought to have something significant to say. The longer I put it off, the more significant I feel obligated to be. Otherwise, I’m just prattling.

But the situation is overwhelming. I am not going to think of some brilliant insight. I will never have something to say that is equal to the enormity of the topic.

So for now, I’ll write about what I can write about. Even if it’s just about how hard it is to do so, and why. Maybe eventually that will evolve into something significant. Maybe it will be significant enough in itself.

And, to paraphrase a saying we used in grad school, it’s better that the writing be done than that it be significant.

So, here is s story about why it is hard for me to write about Gaza:

Last week I went to a Shabbat dinner hosted by a chavurah of a progressive synagogue of which I am now almost officially a member (which is bizarre in itself, but that’s another story). A wonderful and thoughtful woman led a discussion about Gaza based on the Torah portion for that week (Joseph forgiving his brothers for selling him into slavery).

For the first time since the ceasefire was broken, I was invited to talk about Gaza. I choked up realizing that I had been agonizing about the situation all week, and hardly talked about it. This is, I guess, a common thing for many Jews, but it is new for me.

Unlike most Jews I know, I was not raised to be a Zionist. Neither was I raised to be anti-Zionist, exactly. I was taught to identify with the national liberation struggles of indigenous and oppressed peoples, and also to be skeptical about all governments, particularly ours in the U.S. Jewishly, I have mostly assumed that being in Diaspora builds character. I have never felt connected to Israel as a homeland. For the most part, I have spent my adult life surrounded by people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who sympathize with Palestinians.

I have a few friends who grew up in more mainstream Jewish communities, and their attitude toward Israel and Palestine has confused and angered me. In some cases it seems they are staying deliberately ignorant. In other cases, we see things quite similarly, but where I have spoken openly about being non-Zionist or even anti-Zionist, they seem unable to even say the words without quaking. One friend was struck dumb for several minutes the first time I said to her, “Actually, I’m not a Zionist.”

It took me quite a while to start sympathizing with their predicament. Some of these folks come from families and communities where they would be disowned for being anti-Zionist. They felt held and supported in their Jewish communities, and to risk losing them was almost too much to imagine.

I, on the other hand, felt I had nothing to lose. As an adult, I have rarely felt held by a Jewish community, and never by one that was overwhelmingly Zionist like most mainstream congregations. I have always been on the outside of these communities.

It was not only our difference in convictions about Israel and Palestine that put me on the outside. I didn’t grow up in those communities. There is some cultural capital common in those communities that I don’t share, and I have never encountered a congregation that grasped that and went out of their way to include me. On top of that I am queer, and transgender, and have been “out” as both for practically my entire adult life. That doesn't always go over well, even in nominally gay-friendly congregations. And I don’t plan to have children, whereas most synagogue communities are structured around raising Jewish children and other heteronormative life cycle tasks.

In sum, those communities that would have kicked me out for being other than Zionist were already closed to me for unrelated reasons. For that reason it has not usually been hard for me to speak out against thoughtless or destructive manifestations of Zionism.

Now, some things have changed for me. I live in a place where the affiliated Jewish community (those connected with synagogues) is small and well-connected, and includes many out queer people. There are entire congregations structured around the needs of GLB (sometimes including T) Jews. I am employed by a Jewish agency, and sit on committees at a Jewish foundation.

These organizations and communities are not exactly what I want them to be, but they are not irrelevant either, nor are they actively excluding me. For the first time in my adult life, the organized religious community of which I am nominally a part actually has something to offer me. The synagogue offers adult education programming about transgender issues (and not because I offered to teach it!). Elders in my Jewish community take a positive interest in my life. Several folks who fancy themselves shadkhonim (matchmakers) have tried to set me up on dates – with the kind of people I actually like to date. At least one Jewish agency and at least one Jewish foundation want to know what they can do to include people like me. All of a sudden, I feel I have something to lose by expressing a belief system that puts me at odds with a significant proportion of this community.

And so it’s hard to write, or even talk, about Gaza. My feelings and my analysis about the situation have not changed. But the mental/emotional gymnastics I have to perform to figure out how to voice that analysis has changed a lot. I find myself mentally rehearsing statements like, “It doesn’t matter whether I’m Zionist or non-Zionist or anti-Zionist, a one-stater or a two-stater; no matter what one’s goal for the ultimate disposition of the lands and population of the area, the current actions of the Israel government are counter-productive.”

It’s very diplomatic. It has some elements of truth. I am not sure if it’s true enough, or diplomatic enough, for me to want to share it.

But silence is not working for me. I have had conversations with colleagues about how stressed out we are about Gaza, in which we both studiously avoid saying which “side” we’re on. It disgusts me that I was able to get comfort from those conversations. I don’t want to use diplomacy to avoid honesty. And so, even if the degree of honesty and diplomacy are uncertain, I have to try.

This is my first try.