Letter: The importance of repairing the world
It wasn't until we were adults that we started to untangle what we'd been taught as Jewish kids. We remember learning so many things from our Hebrew school classes, our Rabbis speaking from the bimah, our families. We learned that Jewish people had been persecuted, subject to violence, and discriminated against for thousands of years. With deep sadness, we learned that many of our family members perished in pogroms or the Holocaust. At Pesach each year, we told the story of how our ancestors were enslaved in what is now Egypt. We knew in our bones the enduring trauma, fear, and worry that our surviving families still held.
Many of us also learned the Jewish concept of tikkun olam: repairing the world. We learned that the divine had been shattered into shards of light, scattered everywhere. And it followed as our obligation to bring those pieces back together. In other words, it was our Jewish duty to strive for justice and healing.
When we were kids, we also learned that Israel was a homeland for Jews and only Jews. We were taught it had been a "barren wasteland." We were encouraged to collect money and use it to purchase a tree in honor of a loved one, to be planted in Israel. We thought we were doing right. Repairing the world.
We didn't learn until we were adults that those trees we were planting in Israel weren't being planted into the "barren wasteland" we'd been told about.
Zeiad Shamrouch, who recently visited Brattleboro and spoke in local classrooms, helped some of us understand this. While we were not in the classrooms in which he recently spoke, we know what we heard from him over the years. What he spoke of was his truth, his experience, the lived reality of Palestinians, including children, unable to get clean water or an education. That what was happening wasn't merely a "conflict" but an "occupation." The land Palestinians had lived on was being taken and given to Jewish settlers: not a barren wasteland, but a land where Palestinians had nurtured olive trees for generations.
In the Reformer article, "Classroom Guests Stir Controversy," Marjorie Pivar asserts Zeiad was lying when he said, "Jewish colonizers stole Palestinian land and forced the Native Palestinians into refugee camps." But this is not a lie. Some of those words - like "colonizers" or "stole" or "forced" - might be uncomfortable to hear and bear. But we must listen to the essence of these words and we must listen soon. Shall we otherwise wait hundreds of years to look back and speak these uncomfortable truths the way so many of us now speak about what has happened to Native Americans on this land?
We have read that an issue with Zeiad's presentations was that the subject matter was not appropriate for young audiences. We only wish that, as young Jews, we had learned the perspectives of Palestinian people. If your child came home after Zeiad's presentation confused or upset, we hope you might have had a conversation with them about how someone disagreeing with Israel's hurtful actions does not mean that person thinks that Jews are bad people. Sort of like how if the Vermont government were to do something hurtful, it wouldn't mean Vermonters are bad people.
On one hand, this is an open letter to all in our community, including educators and school administrators who have grappled with whether or not it was right for Zeiad to speak with students.
At the same time, this is a sincere call to Jewish people in our community concerned with justice. Please listen. Listen to what Palestinian people are saying. Sit with the truths about the inhumane treatment the Israeli state wreaks upon Palestinian people in Gaza, the West Bank, and elsewhere. Please consider not taking criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism. If the words you hear bring up feelings of discomfort, try to understand where both the words of Palestinians and your feelings are coming from. Then try some more.
We are writing as Jewish people who love and honor ourselves and families. We name and sit with and mourn the oppression and trauma our ancestors and families have endured. Yet we also love and honor the Palestinian people who have been harmed. We write because we are deeply concerned with tikkun olam: repairing the world. For us, that means listening to experiences that might make us feel downright awful. Without this deep and vulnerable listening, there will be neither justice nor healing.
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