Still, although I had an aversion to Jewish orthodoxy and was completely secular in my approach to Judaism, I was always proud to be a Jew. I loved Jewish comics growing up, Woody Allen films, lox and bagels, and always felt comfortable with Jews. They were, after all, “my people.” Indeed, several of my wives were Jewish. I even spent a couple of years in my late sixties reading a great deal of Jewish history. That deep immersion into Jewish history, which of course included many accounts of the Holocaust, just served to reinforce my sense of Jewish identity.
Nevertheless, some years ago, when I was in my early seventies, quite by chance, I became aware of how badly Israeli Jews were treating Palestinians. Actually, I had been aware of this, but had never felt drawn to learn more. Once I did, I determined to travel to Israel and the West Bank to see things for myself. Doing so changed my life and my feelings about being Jewish, as I will recount in what follows.
In 2008, I traveled with then girlfriend, Anna, with a peace delegation to Israel and the West Bank. We were there for two weeks. For a good part of our time there, Anna and I traveled throughout the West Bank and were able to stay with or otherwise talk to many Palestinians.
Although we had seen any number of documentaries about life in Palestine and read several books on the occupation before leaving on our trip, nothing could have prepared us for what we were able to witness with our own eyes and learn from talking to Palestinians.
We saw mounds of rubble and destruction everywhere. We saw many signs saying, in both English and Arabic (as we were told), “Death to the Arabs.” We saw how they were treated roughly and humiliated by young Israeli solders manning the innumerable checkpoints, as we walked through the tunnels and turnstiles with them. We saw the conditions under which they were living, their lack of water and other necessities, the roads they were forced to take, the roads they were forbidden to use.
Anna and I were shocked, dismayed, disheartened and appalled. We kept asking ourselves, “How could Jews, of all people, act like this?”
In Israel and the West Bank, we met any number of “good” Israelis – peace activists who were also strongly opposed to the horrors or the occupation, and who were doing their best to curb the worst of its egregious abuses.
We learned so much from them. But Anna and I were also struck by the kindness and generosity of the Palestinians we met who opened their houses and hearts to us, who treated us with such courtesy and warmth, when they had so little to spare (including their precious water). Yet, they could not have made us feel more welcomed. We learned a lot from hearing their stories, too.
We visited them in some of the main towns in the West Bank to see how they processed their olive oils, we visited their theaters and cafes, we saw how they lived and also the deprivations under which they suffered. Here’s a photo of me talking to a couple of Palestinian kids (that’s Anna to my right) in Jenin.
We were not allowed into Gaza while we were there, though I came to know many Gazans through the email messages they were able to send to me in connection with the book I co-edited with Ghassan. Most of these Gazans, mainly young people, were soon to suffer grievously when Israel launched one of its periodic assaults on Gaza. The school of one very bright Gazan engineering student was destroyed, preventing him from completing his education. Others suffered the destruction of their homes. Some, I’m afraid, were killed since I never heard from them again. Many of their stories, written while they were being attacked, are featured in the last portion of our book.
Which brings me, finally, to the unconscionable obscenity of what Israel is now doing to the long-suffering inhabitants of Gaza, who continue to be penned into their tiny enclave where they live, if they manage to survive this heinous onslaught, like prisoners in an open-air prison, with nowhere to go and no sense of what kind of future they will have. The lucky ones will be killed. Those who survive, whether wounded or not, will be traumatized for life.
As terrible as what Hamas did to the citizens of Israel (and I hate Hamas, too), who have also suffered horribly and who still wait, with fear in their hearts, for the release of their hostages, hoping they are somehow still alive, nothing can justify the continuing barbaric assault on Gaza, effectively making the innocent Gazans, most of whom do NOT support Hamas, the victims of collective punishment, which is itself a war crime.
As a result of Israel’s actions, there has been a steep rise in anti-Semitism throughout much of the Western world. And in the United States, as of the other day, there had been close to a 400% increase in anti-Semitism since Oct 7th. It is the action of Israel that is making the lives of Jews throughout the world at risk now. It has never been safe to be a Jew, the perennial, often despised, outsider. Now, they are less safe and secure than they have been for many years. Who knows how much worse their situation will become in the years to come.
I personally am not afraid, but given all that I’ve written and all that I have witnessed, I am now – because of Israel – ashamed to be a Jew.
Do you remember when, a few years ago, the great scandal of the modern Catholic Church erupted with the disclosure that so many Catholic priests had actually been pedophiles, and that the Church hierarchy had done all it could to conceal this terrible, devastating discovery? At that time, many Catholics, appalled by what they had learned, left the Church in disgust.
The same thing has been true for me because of Israel’s reprehensible and heartless slaughter of so many innocents in Gaza. So I feel compelled, as an act of protest, to renounce my heritage and identity as a Jew. There are many Jews I still love, of course, and always will. But I no longer wish to be one.