The American poet Alice Walker had quote attributed to her, one that I've always found meaningful: "No one is your friend who demands your silence."
Alice Walker also recently took a trip to Gaza along with Code Pink, and had some interesting things to say about Israel:
There are differing opinions about this, of course, but my belief is that when a country primarily instills fear in the minds and hearts of the people of the world, it is no longer useful in joining the dialogue we need for saving the planet.
Ms. Walker's post is about many things (many not relating to Israel at all), but the discussion about Israel and Jews is intriguing to me. Not, primarily, because of the tension between the quote I knew from Ms. Walker, and her demand that Israeli Jews be silenced in the debate over the future of their country (and those who, it must be said, would comprise roughly 50% of the combined population of Israel and Palestine). It is the sad truth that commitment to the liberation of some people is often paired with belief in the suppression of others; it no longer surprises me to find that people with unimpeachable anti-racism credentials in one field succumb to horrific bigotry in another.
Rather, it is her discourse on Jews that interested me. Ms. Walker's ex-husband was Jewish, and she relates how, "like so many Jews in America, my former husband could not tolerate criticism of Israel's behavior toward the Palestinians."
I gave her [an old Palestinian woman] a gift I had brought, and she thanked me. Looking into my eyes she said: May God protect you from the Jews. When the young Palestinian interpreter told me what she’d said, I responded: It’s too late, I already married one. I said this partly because, like so many Jews in America, my former husband could not tolerate criticism of Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians. Our very different positions on what is happening now in Palestine/Israel and what has been happening for over fifty years, has been perhaps our most severe disagreement. It is a subject we have never been able to rationally discuss. He does not see the racist treatment of Palestinians as the same racist treatment of blacks and some Jews that he fought against so nobly in Mississippi.
This is one reason I understand the courage it takes for some Jews to speak out against Israeli brutality and against what they know are crimes against humanity. Most Jews who know their own history see how relentlessly the Israeli government is attempting to turn Palestinians into the “new Jews,” patterned on Jews of the holocaust era, as if someone must hold that place, in order for Jews to avoid it.
I hardly contest that many Jews have a blind-spot towards the sufferings of the Palestinian people -- it is a subject I have wrestled with deeply myself. But what strikes me here is the extraordinarily pronounced erasure of Jewish perspective and experience that Ms. Walker engages in. First, that she cannot even conceptualize the possibility that ingrained prejudice that Jews face worldwide, on a daily basis, is a relevant prism for viewing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Rebecca Lesses did a good job parsing all of this; I'd merely add that a woman who puts quotation marks around "holocaust" (lower-case as well) is unfortunately not an unlikely candidate for displaying this lack of empathy.
This, of course, goes back to her conviction that Israeli Jews (and, it seems, most Jews period) are not viable candidates to be discussants in questions of justice. It is a sentiment that makes sense only when one believes they have nothing to contribute. And that sentiment, in turn, relies on the larger claim that Jewish history and experience is effectively a null entity. Ultimately, that Jews themselves are unworthy of political equality. Perhaps this explains the "unholy glee", to quote Professor Lessee, Ms. Walker evinces "in the thought that Jews will once again be a minority in Palestine, as if this is really the correct state of affairs. Jews should know their place, which is not to be able to wield power by controlling their own independent state." The goal is the reinscription of domination over Jews. Equality is for equals. Jews are not equal. Jews must always exist, if they must at all, at the sufferance of others.
Second, one gets the clear feeling that Ms. Walker views the Jewish community in the same way that, well, Jews have most often been viewed throughout history: as diseased, as needing salvation by enlightened outsiders who come only to save us from ourselves. Ms. Walker laments that she was never able to "rationally discuss" the Israel/Palestine issue with her husband (who here is representative of the Jewish community). And why would she be expected to? In the context of Jewish rights, Jews are always taken to be irrational sociopaths, incapable of political communication, and worthy of social expulsion while our betters discuss our fate. Perhaps there is no tension after all between the views expressed here and her aforementioned quote -- one could hardly expect to be friends with such a creature. "Most Jews" don't take Ms. Walker's views on the conflict, but, she asserts, "Most Jews who know their own history" do. The beleaguered Jewish minority, those rare, special few who can transcend their provincial nature and see themselves for who they really are -- those are the saved, and the rest of us are the fallen. Ms. Walker wants to choose Jewish leaders for the Jews, because -- I can't stress this enough -- ultimately, Ms. Walker rejects the notion that Jews are deserving of autonomy and independent development. Jews don't have rights, Jews acceptable to Alice Walker have rights.
But let's talk about this claim about who knows what about Jewish history. I would have presumed I, being Jewish, would know my history quite well. I had forgotten the key clause -- being Jewish. Jews never have possessed the right to define the contours of what Judaism means. That right has always been appropriated by non-Jews like Ms. Walker. It goes without saying that her account of the history here is nearly unspeakably shallow. Jewish migration to what is now Israel predates the Holocaust, most Israeli Jews aren't of European descent (let alone resettled refugees from WWII -- the flatly racist erasure of the existence and history of Arab Jews continues apace here), the British opposed the partition plan, there are, in fact, quite few catastrophes post-dating WWII which would bear much resemblance to the Holocaust (although given the weak grasp Ms. Walker has on what the Holocaust -- excuse me, "holocaust" -- actually entailed, perhaps this is symptomatic of the greater flaw). None of this matters, though, because Ms. Walker possesses the trump card: She's not Jewish. You want to know the story of our "own history"? That's it in a nutshell.
"No one is your friend who demands your silence." The great thing about quotes such as this is that they transcend the author -- they become clarion calls for justice even when their progenitors stray from the path. I do not believe that mutual communication -- open ears and open hearts -- is a luxury in the quest for justice; I believe it is indispensable. As Iris Marion Young wrote, "Normative judgment is best understood as the product of dialogue under conditions of equality and mutual respect. Ideally, the outcome of such dialogue and judgment is just and legitimate only if all the affected perspectives have a voice." It is incumbent upon Jews and Israelis to listen and hear the claims and assertions of Arabs and Palestinians, and Christians and atheists and Europeans and non-Jewish people of color, because that is what political equality and mutual co-existence demand. But it is likewise incumbent upon non-Jews and non-Israelis to hear the narratives and stories of the Jewish people -- to accept that our narratives and stories and experiences and history have meaning and value and worth, and cannot be dismissed as they so often have simply because you're not Jewish and so you can. That way lies the route to oppression. That way is, indeed, the embodiment of the oppression that I as a Jew must struggle against on a daily basis. Ms. Walker, intentionally or not, is part of that oppressive structure which chokes off my life and contributes to the (frankly not unreasonable, given our history) belief amongst Jews that we will never be safe unless we are in a situation where outsiders aren't in a position to dominate us. By her own standards she is not my friend; she is not an ally I can rely upon in times of trouble, or injustice, or hate or violence or need. I don't think it is an expression of shrill Jewish craziness to believe that a discussion between Alice Walker and Ismail Haniyeh (but from which Jews (excepting, of course, the permissible "good Jews") are proactively excluded) is one unlikely to result in a just outcome vis-a-vis the Jews. And I do not see it as being either in my personal interests, or the interests of international justice, to buy into a framework in which I am pre-emptively labeled the enemy.
I noted once before my affinity for Christine Littleton's claim that the feminist method starts "with the very radical act of taking women seriously, believing that what we say about ourselves and our experience is important and valid, even when (or perhaps especially when) it has little or no relationship to what has been or is being said about us." I firmly believe that the route to all egalitarian treatment lies in the same prescription. I refuse to be a "good Jew", because I refuse to accept, as Ms. Walker would have me do, the notion that my experience as a Jew is worthless, that I must defer to the non-Jewish world in determining what it means to be Jewish and what constitutes Jewish authenticity, that it is the natural order of things that I be subject to the will and dominance of others, or that I be, in short, a second class citizen of the world. Such a refusal bears little relation to what is said about Jews -- by Ms. Walker or others. But that makes it even more important that we be the ones to start saying them. And that means we can't be "good Jews".