Thursday, July 19, 2018
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An open letter to young Canadian Jews

I was born in Canada. My parents and grandparents were too.

But since I was a child, I have been told that Israel is my home.

My siblings and I attended cheder – similar to Christian Sunday school – at our local synagogue. We had bar and bat mitzvahs as teenagers. We learned about Jewish holidays, Jewish law, and the Hebrew language.

And, we learned about Israel. After centuries of struggle, we were told, Jews had come back to the Holy Land and were thriving despite “enemies” surrounding us on all sides.

This land was rightfully mine, I was told. I could visit or move there whenever I pleased.

Much of the story was left out – namely, the stories of the non-Jews living on or near the same land.

My parents, and especially my grandparents, were traumatized by centuries of European and American anti-Semitism. Here in Canada they faced religious quotas when applying to schools; changed their names to get jobs; watched the world ignore the Holocaust.

But over a few decades – relatively quickly – much has changed.

Thankfully, neither I, nor my siblings, as Jews growing up in the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s in North America have ever faced systemic discrimination the way our grandparents did.

Yes, we encounter ignorance and some prejudice about our religious and cultural practices. We may feel some discomfort or exclusion during Christmas and Easter. Occasionally, an incident of vandalism of a synagogue hits the news.

These things can make us feel uncomfortable, and they should be confronted. But racism and discrimination, which are alive and well in North America, are not about feelings. They’re about real, concrete negative effects on people’s lives.

Such concrete effects include things such as: living concentrated in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood with a high crime rate, being disproportionately represented in the prison system, being discriminated against when seeking jobs or housing or at school, or being racially profiled by the police or at airport security checkpoints.

In an honest assessment of my life thus far, I do not believe my Jewishness has caused me to suffer any of these forms of discrimination, or any others.

Of course, history shows we must always be vigilant of the threat of genuine anti-Semitism. But in the current political context, we must also acknowledge our relative peace and security.

For, we have been told, and are still told, that Israel is the safe place for Jews. It is our sanctuary in the event of persecution, the one place where we should feel truly at home; and thus we must support it at all costs.

But our supposed need for sanctuary cannot justify the brutal repression and dehumanization of another people.

Even if North American Jews did today face rampant systemic oppression, we still could not justify the slaughter of hundreds of Gazan civilians (more than 400 at the time of writing, versus 2 Israelis) by the 4th-most powerful army in the world.

Even if we accept the absurd notion that the current siege is predicated on “self-defense” from unprovoked rocket attacks – ignoring the decades of military occupation, the years of blocking borders of people and goods causing a humanitarian crisis, and the daily humiliations; and framing any Palestinian aggression as driven by blind, irrational hatred – there is no justification for dropping bombs on hospitals and seniors’ rehabilitation centres.

Even if we accept, as we are told, that this is “Hamas’s fault,” it would not justify an army supported by the world’s strongest military and political superpower killing children playing on a beach, bombing a densely populated neighbourhood, or shooting a man searching among rubble for his loved ones during a ceasefire.

These atrocities are committed in our name. We are complicit in them.

When we speak against them we are met with vitriol from our communities, our families, our friends. We are treated as traitors and self-hating anti-Semites. As though self-criticism were not a virtue, and as though dehumanizing Palestinians – a necessary step toward condoning their deaths in such high numbers – were any less of a crime than what was done to Jews over so many centuries.

But we must speak. This conflict is ours to stop. It will only end if we can convince our own peers and elders that the life of the Palestinian child whose body is blown to bits by Israeli missiles is just as valuable as that of their grandchild in Ottawa; that the woman in Gaza whose leg is blown off has as much a right to a fruitful life as their nieces in Vancouver. (Thankfully, some of our elders are already on side.)

We must speak so the people of Gaza can live. And to save our own souls.

The author has not signed this essay for fear of negative consequences from their employer. 

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