It was an enormously heavy responsibility you raised me with. You taught me that the Jews have been oppressed for centuries. You taught me that the holocaust could only happen because the Germans were silent. You taught me that Jews must never, never, never be silent when injustice occurs, because our silence makes us complicit.
You taught me about history, and you taught me by your actions. As a rabbi, you preached against racism in the south, and had to leave a pulpit in Louisiana when they threatened to kill our family. You worked for open housing laws, insisting that there should be no ghettos in America like the ones your parents had lived in in Europe. You counseled Jewish kids who were conscientious objectors, eliciting the hostility of many who believed that the Vietnam war was a valiant struggle for justice in our time.
It is a heavy responsibility I carry now. Because now I am complicit. I have not stood in front of the tanks that are killing other mothers' children in refugee camps. I have not ridden in ambulances to help them get past checkpoints so that the injured could be cured. I have not laid in front of the bulldozers to prevent their destroying a family's shelter.
What can I do about this injustice?
Palestinians are losing their property, their lives, and their children every day. The Israeli army shoots at unarmed civilians, imposing collective punishments that make it impossible for Palestinians to get food, water, or power. For decades, Israel has paid settlers to move into occupied territory.
International law reflects the consensus of the world’s sense of right. International law seeks to protect the powerless. And international law is clear. Occupying countries have to protect the lives and property of the local population. It is not legal to establish settlements at all. Why do Israel and the US pay Israelis to move into them?
There are Palestinian terrorists. They have been raised under occupation. Know what? Israeli soldiers treat occupied people the same way other armies have treated occupied people. The stories are horrendous. Arbitrary beatings. Tauntings. Killings. Arrests without charge. Torture. Threatening parents in front of children. Stepping on “prisoners” trying to move between check points. Strip searches. The use of power to humiliate.
When people are humiliated, and have no homes to return to because the homes have been destroyed by the occupying army, When people are humiliated, and have no family to hold them in their arms because they have been shot and unable to get medical care, When people are humiliated, and have no hope for the future, They see no alternative to violence.
You taught me Judaism’s universal message. “I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering the Jew weeps.” I believed Edmond Fleg’s words, “I am a Jew because Israel places man and his unity above nations and above Israel itself.”
Dad, we have become the oppressors. One rabbinic student told me years ago when I lived in Israel that this was the meaning behind the warning to remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt. We were warned to remember, because sometimes slaves want to become masters.
We are the oppressors, and we are also the victims. Jews are being killed, and at the same time, the moral imperative that you taught me was part of being Jewish seems to be vanishing. I believe that Jews are being used by an American administration to accomplish its own ends, ends that have nothing to do with the ideals of Jews. We need to shout aloud that 80% of the billions that the US gives Israel in aid must be spent on weapons, and that more than half of those weapons are built in Texas. And Jews are being used by an Israeli government that has no interest except territorial expansion. Sharon is the ideological heir to Jabotinsky. Land for peace was never in that ideology. War makes conquest possible, and all the people of Israel and Palestine are being drawn, tragically and together, into that war.
We must act, and we must act immediately. Jews are being used to legitimize the slaughter of Palestinians.
Please, Dad, tell me how to be like you taught me to be. How do I stop being complicit?
I love you.
Sarah Shields is an associate professor of Middle East history at UNC Chapel Hill.