Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism is a powerful collection of 40 essays by Jews from diverse backgrounds. Each describes a personal journey from a Zionist worldview to activism in solidarity with Palestinians and Israelis striving to build a society founded on justice, equality, and peaceful coexistence. In this excerpt from the essay “Palestine and my Journey of Self-Discovery,” Ned Rosch describes the deep impact of a visit to Gaza in 2014, shortly after the intensive bombings of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge.”
The great Indian writer Arundhati Roy wrote, “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.” There were numerous times in my life when I “saw” it and felt the strongly reinforced foundations of my Zionist upbringing eventually crack wide open and ultimately turn to dust, but perhaps nothing more deeply touched me and cemented my perspective than a trip to Gaza in November 2014.
For a brief but remarkable week and a half, I had the amazing privilege of being part of a health delegation to this small strip of historic Palestine that is one of the most crowded places on earth because its population is literally sealed in by the Israelis—with the assistance of the Egyptians. To be there just two months after Israel’s murderous 2014 war on the people of Gaza was to catch a glimpse—through the painful stories I heard and the overwhelming destruction I witnessed—of the grotesque horror of that 51-day war. The bombed-out structures were everywhere, the grief universal, the trauma intense.
Rawya, who translated for a training that I did in Gaza with 15 school counselors, shared with me over a hot cup of tea, “Scared our turn might be next, my husband and I sat our four children, ages 9 through 15, down, and we and our kids each talked about what we would do if a bomb hit and we were the only survivor of our family. I felt I needed to have that conversation because the possibility seemed so real, and as a mother, I needed to know that our children had a plan.” She, the counselors, the children they see, and—according to the counselors, it’s safe to say—everyone in Gaza is traumatized. When Israeli jets were heard overhead one evening while we were in Gaza City, the restimulated fear was palpable.
On the way into Gaza City, we saw haunting skeletons of homes, people living in bombed-out buildings, and mosques, hospitals, and factories reduced to rubble. Etched in my mind probably forever will be what we witnessed in heavily bombed civilian neighborhoods. It’s hard to find words that even begin to describe the utter devastation.
Palestinian people were living in makeshift structures of cardboard and blankets, surrounded by rubble. Even though I’d seen these images online, somehow the impact of witnessing families squatting next to what was everything they had owned and what in a matter of seconds had been absolutely wiped out took my breath away, as did a large busted-up slab of concrete with names spray-painted on it of family members buried under the mounds of debris, a woman sitting on the rubble staring vacantly off into the distance, and a wedding party celebrating amid ravaged buildings.
In a refugee camp, a vivacious Palestinian woman named Reem told me she just couldn’t think about the future any more. “All I have,” she said, “is today and that’s OK as it’s filled with opportunities to help people.” Reem was opening centers in some of Gaza’s most destroyed areas, centers where children play, read, sing, learn French, plant seeds in paper cups—to maybe get a taste of what a “normal” childhood might be like. Nothing is normal in Gaza. A decade of siege and three wars has ravaged the economy, snuffed out the lives of thousands of people, wrecked the environment, and ripped apart people’s hopes that things will someday get better, that maybe there is a future.
Yasser, a gentle soul and the executive director of Gaza’s Community Mental Health Program, lost 28 members of his extended family in the 2014 war. No one in Gaza was spared from knowing someone who was killed or injured in the brutal and relentless Israeli assault. Yasser said his family speaks of 28 empty chairs.
Mohammed’s family is now 10 people fewer. One of the deceased was a young girl who was rescued after somehow surviving for 10 days under a massive pile of concrete and rebar, only to die in the hospital two days later. Her name was Yasmin. “I can’t get Yasmin and the thought of what her last days were like out of my mind,” Mohammed said, tears wetting his shirt.
Everyone yearns for the borders to open so they might be able to breathe, work, travel, study abroad, or get medical care not available in Gaza due to the shortage of everything caused by the Israeli siege. Still, most assert they would return. “Just like a fish can’t survive out of water, we can’t live out of Gaza for too long. At some point, we need to return,” said Walaa, a young woman with two graduate degrees who was unemployed in Gaza’s shattered economy.
Imad, a nurse who works full-time and had not been paid for over a year, invited me to meet his wife and eight children in their extremely modest but comfortable apartment. When asked how they survive with no income and so many mouths to feed, Imad explained that everyone in Gaza does what they can to help others out, since they are all pretty much in the same boat. He then shrugged his shoulders and pensively posed the question we heard so often: “What can we do?” It’s striking that 2 million Palestinians in Gaza are imprisoned in an area that is only 25 miles long and 5 to 8 miles wide—smaller than the Portland metro area.
A marvelous facilitator, who does support groups for children in Gaza, invited me to a group she runs for 5-year-olds who lost their homes, family members, their innocence—and so much more—in the bombings. I sat in the circle with the children as they chose happy or sad faces to represent how they felt. One girl said she took a sad face because her grandfather was killed by a bomb. Others took sad faces because they had bad dreams. The facilitator told me that her own 10-year-old daughter pleaded with her during the war, “Don’t leave me alone. I want to die together.”
So, there’s more than enough stress, grief, pain, and sadness to go around, but there is also a remarkable amount of love, generosity, and determination. Ramadan, who translated for one of my workshops and who is working on a Ph.D. in psychology, pointed out that just as lots of folks may only appreciate their health when they become sick, Palestinians may feel the lack of a homeland more intensely, having so brutally lost it. “Others have a physical homeland, a place they live in or visit. Our homeland lives in our hearts,” Ramadan told me over coffee to the sound of the waves beating on the shore.
While walking through an area of Gaza that was heavily bombed by the Israelis, witnessing homes, apartment buildings, and a school totally leveled, I was approached by a middle-aged man who politely offered me a large manuscript covered with the dust of a blown-up neighborhood. When I asked him what it was and why he wanted to give it to me, he motioned for me to follow him across the street to a huge mound of debris. As we climbed up the pile, avoiding broken glass, twisted rebar, and busted up concrete, he pulled out his phone and showed me a picture of quite an attractive and well-maintained home—his home. He explained that we were standing on that home and that absolutely everything had been destroyed except for the manuscript, his doctoral dissertation, which was a literary critique of the works of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
This professor, who had lost it all, was insisting that I take what remained of a life. I will never know for sure why. Maybe it was Palestinian hospitality that required him to give this guest something, and that was all he had to give. Perhaps he wanted me to take it to a safe place, as he well knew that nothing was safe in Gaza. Possibly this professor was saying that in spite of all the destruction the Israelis could unleash at will, there is one thing they can never destroy: ideas—not only about Pound and Eliot, but also about the restoration of justice to a people who have suffered unimaginable brutality and dispossession.
I continue to struggle with many things now, not the least of which is finding words to adequately express the intensity of the experience of getting to know, in some small but profoundly meaningful way, a number of unforgettable and beautiful people in Gaza, and catching a glimpse into the unbelievably harsh reality of their lives. It’s difficult to make sense of how the occupation and siege of Gaza, which is slowly but very steadily crushing the life of 2 million people, can be happening, and how the world is doing so little to stop it. Imad’s question, “What can we do?” echoes in my head. Some of what I can do is clear: a stronger commitment to, as Arundhati Roy says, speaking out, asserting the Palestinian struggle more broadly and more often, as we Americans are so deeply complicit in the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. More of what I can do will surely emerge with time as I continue to think about the people I met who want nothing more than to live. In Gaza, I left behind friends and a piece of my heart—a heart that was broken many years earlier by the conflict between what I had been raised to believe about Israel and what I had learned was the darker reality of Israel.
Years ago, I sincerely believed I was being more than open-minded when I tried to hold to the conviction that there were two legitimate and distinctly different narratives—one Jewish and one Palestinian, two fundamentally irreconcilable claims to the same piece of land, and that was why the conflict was so unresolvable. But what was really unresolvable was the battle that thunderously raged in my head and even more vigorously in my heart. You see, I had become a progressive on every issue, except one. I marched for civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, everyone’s rights, and an end to war. But when it came to Israel-Palestine, I was extraordinarily torn up. Even if what my Palestinian friends were telling me were true, how could I turn my back on my own people and my own upbringing, especially after the thousands of years of suffering that Jews had endured? Wasn’t the Jewish history of pogroms, anti-Semitism, and the horrors of the Holocaust at least as compelling, if not more so? After all, as someone named after a Holocaust victim, I was a link in a long chain. How could I contribute to undermining the Jewish struggle to reconstruct a post-Holocaust decimated people and the state of Israel that had so recently come into existence?
With time and introspection, my dual narrative world began to fray at the edges, and eventually completely unravel. Probably the crushing blow came when a Palestinian friend asked me why Jews have such a hard time incorporating the Palestinian experience into the Jewish understanding of history. I didn’t quite grasp his question and, with trepidation, asked him to explain. He challenged me to see not two separate conflicting narratives, but one history—one history of what actually happened. That question and challenge—and exploring and reexploring their answers—took me on one of the deepest and most rewarding journeys of my life. It was the struggle of fundamentally wrestling to reconcile my politics around Israel-Palestine with my bottom-of-my-heart core values, and ultimately understanding, in the very essence of my being, that my true liberation as a Jewish person is now intrinsically bound up with the authentic liberation of the Palestinian people. My sense of freedom and wholeness will only be achieved when every Jew—and every Palestinian—is free. Zionism imprisons not only Palestinian bodies but Jewish minds as well.
I came to comprehend that the wonderful Jewish tradition of “Justice, justice thou shalt pursue” required me to take a stand with others of goodwill, including many Jews, to support my Palestinian sisters and brothers in their pain, struggle, and resistance. The breakthrough for me was the ultimate realization that standing up for the Palestinian people was not turning my back on my own people. Rather, in supporting the Palestinian struggle for freedom, I was upholding Judaism’s highest values and reclaiming them for myself, in—for me—a profoundly new and personally meaningful way. Nelson Mandela said, “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
Excerpted from “Palestine and my Journey of Self-Discovery,” an essay by Ned Rosch in Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation, edited by Carolyn L. Karcher. Published 2019 by Olive Branch Press, an imprint of Interlink Publishing Group. Copyright Carolyn L. Karcher and contributors.