We can choose to be brave

It's time for Jews to imagine a way forward without violence.

Last week, I visited a new exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan. It was about the remarkable effort by Danish people to evacuate Jews in Denmark as the Nazis planned to round them up and send them to concentration camps. When I finished walking through, one of the people instrumental in creating the exhibit asked if it made me feel hopeful. I thought for a moment, then told her, “I’m not sure if I feel hopeful; but I feel brave.”

Right now, Jews and our allies face an enormous test of bravery, but probably not the one you’re thinking: We have the opportunity to be brave enough to imagine an option other than violence. We can look at the prospect of mass murdering innocent Palestinians as a means to bring us the peace we’ve spent our entire history chasing and say No. Not in my name. Not ever.

I’ve seen many people ask why Israel doesn’t have a right to defend itself or why it’s held to a different standard of warfare than other countries. And I say it’s because we created that standard—we were given a nation to escape the cruelest manifestations of antisemitism where Jewish values could flourish unfettered. It was meant to be a safe place for us. Sure, a democratic government was installed, but the people of Israel answered to a higher power.

The problem is that it isn’t, and has never been, a safe place for everyone. In modern tellings of the story, the Palestinians displaced as part of building Israel were effectively erased. Their suffering sublimated, seen as an inconvenient footnote in Jewish history. This set the stage for powerful cognitive dissonance that says Israel is a free democracy, as long as you don’t look east or west. To me, that is not a demonstration of Jewish values.

Hundreds of Jewish protesters gathered at the U.S. capitol building Wednesday to show that this bravery of imagination is possible. To show their government that they won’t be used to justify the escalation of an already sickeningly-deadly campaign, which seeks to eradicate Hamas but sees Palestinian lives as dispensable. The protesters demanded an immediate ceasefire in the region.

But this peaceful protest was panned by some Jewish people in power. Rep. Jerry Nadler, an influential New York congressman who is Jewish, attempted to discredit one of the organizers of the protest. “Many have asked me ‘who is Jewish Voice for Peace?’,” he tweeted Wednesday. “Their website says they are ‘proud to be a part of the global, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement,’ which, by its founder’s admission & tenets, seeks to end Israel as a Jewish & democratic state.”

And the Anti-Defamation League—whose CEO Jonathan Greenblatt has gone to great pains not to call Elon Musk antisemitic despite the antisemitic campaign Musk fomented against his organization—had no problem dismissing the protesters. 

"Although they claim to do so, these far-left radical organizations do not represent the overwhelming majority Jewish community,” a regional director for the ADL wrote in a statement that was unironically posted on Twitter. “Rather, these groups are anti-Zionists that challenge Israel's very right to exist. Let's be very clear - anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”

That last bit is something that people like me have so fiercely fought against. Opposing Israel is not the same as hating Jews. And while they certainly can come together, there’s a growing movement of young Americans who understand that they can still be “good” Jews while opposing the Israeli occupation of Gaza. The choice to blindly support it was made for so many of us at birth, and as we come into adulthood, we realize the choice is ours. We can choose to be brave.

Even writing and publishing this is a small test of bravery for me. During the last major conflict in Israel/Palestine, I published a piece expressing my many conflicted feelings as an American Jew with orthodox Jewish family living in Israel and a grandfather who is Holocaust survivor. Though my immediate circle was infinitely supportive, much of my extended family was furious—at me, for having the temerity to write my truth, and at my parents, for raising such a disloyal daughter.

And a few weeks after publishing, a family member emailed my mom something that I will never forget. She wrote, “I am not judging Marisa as she is a very special young woman, but was never raised to have pride in her Judaism, or with any meaningful Jewish education. It makes sense that she would want to be respected by the American liberal community and be an apologetic Jew, not unlike the German Jews who "fit in" to the German society prior to WWII.”

I haven’t read the email in a long time, but this felt like an appropriate time to pull it back up. “If she loved herself, and the Jewish people,” the relative wrote, “she would be looking to spread the word through her talented pen, about how the Israeli army, unlike any other army in the world, does whatever it can to minimize civilian casualties.”

But as I look back on this email and this period of time, painful as they were, I feel no regret. In fact, having that experience prior to this historic war unfolding has helped me digest it better. As I mourned the 1,300 Israelis who were murdered on October 7th and worried about the nearly 200 hostages taken by Hamas, I was able to see through the grief that the next step would be total destruction of Gaza. But there was no bloodlust in me. No desire to exact revenge. Only certainty that I could not live with even more death being perpetrated in my name. And that killing more people could never bring back the Jews slaughtered by Hamas.

That’s why it’s been heartening to see more and more American Jews grapple with the role we play in this conflict. I see so many awakening to the fact that the destruction of Gaza does nothing to further our own peace: The fact that nearly half of Gazans are under 18 is dawning on them as they hold their Jewish children tight and pray for their safety; The murder of six-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume, a Palestinian American, outside Chicago, demonstrated that this war is putting a target on all sorts of innocent people—even those thousands of miles from the cascade of bombs. 

In a piece last week, Jewish Currents Editor-in-Chief Arielle Angel wrote of the importance of solidarity. “Even if our dreams for better have failed, they must accompany us through this moment to the other side. We need to imagine a movement for liberation better even than the Exodus—an exodus where neither people has to leave. Where people stay to pick up the pieces, rearranging themselves not just as Jews or Palestinians but as antifascists and workers and artists.”

The most remarkable part of the Danish resistance movement, whose courageous rescue of some 7,000 Jews took place exactly 80 years ago, is that it was carried out by their friends and neighbors. Not the government. Not some carefully crafted military operation. No, it was driven by force of will, and a wholesale rejection of the status quo. While it certainly required careful planning, above all, it was extraordinarily brave.

And it’s time for us to be brave. 

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