ashland.news
July 24, 2024

Viewpoint: Jewish values, antisemitism and the Middle East

Israel Palestinian peace
If Not Now photo
December 5, 2023

Peace and justice for Jews in Israel requires peace and justice for Palestinians

By Matt Witt

As a Jewish member of this community, I have been asked by non-Jewish friends what I think about the devastating escalation of violence in the Middle East, the recent rallies in Ashland Plaza and new antisemitic threats to local residents.

My starting point as we approach Hanukkah is that being Jewish — or being part of any other religious or ethnic group — is not just about rituals and ceremonies. It’s about values that you espouse and try to live by.

My ancestors on both sides of my family came to the U.S. in the 1800s, leaving countries where antisemitic persecution and violence went back thousands of years.

In America, our family changed its name from Witkovsky to Witt because there were so many jobs and other opportunities that were denied to Jews.

When Hitler rose to power, my father volunteered for the U.S. infantry, was wounded in the snowy trenches in Belgium and came home with gruesome memories of liberating concentration camps in Germany.

In the Jewish neighborhood where I grew up in California, I remember walking our family’s dog day after day past a house where someone had burned a swastika into the lawn.

As I was coming of age, my parents, who were co-chairs of the local Jewish community center’s junior activities committee, taught me that being Jewish meant caring about justice and equality for our own community — but also for everyone else.

I often heard the ancient quote from Rabbi Hillel that said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Religious identity was not about dividing ourselves from others but about recognizing what was universal about humanity. Our Jewish values meant that we went to rallies to be allies to the civil rights movement. We supported farm workers and other union members organizing for fair treatment and respect. We were against apartheid in South Africa and the way Indigenous people were treated in the U.S.

But looking back, there was a gaping hole in my education.

While we had friends who would tell us about trips to Israel to visit relatives, we never talked about the more than 700,000 Palestinians who were driven from their homes in 1948, when Israel was created. Periodic crises made the headlines as Israelis occupied more and more Palestinian land, but I can’t remember that we ever paid much attention.

Over the years, however, I and many other American Jews have learned the history, and we recognize that what is being done in our name and with our tax dollars is not consistent with the Jewish values we were taught.

It is clear after 75 years that there will never be peace and justice for Jews in Israel until there is peace and justice for Palestinians.

Hundreds of billions of dollars of U.S. military aid to Israel has led only to more resistance, more deaths, more young people brought up in despair, more antisemitism and more Islamophobia around the world, and no end in sight.

If the parties were able to negotiate a ceasefire for a few days, then surely our elected leaders can push for a true ceasefire, release of all hostages as well as the thousands of political prisoners held by Israel, and negotiations on a long-term resolution that ensures peace and justice for all.

After World War II, Jewish families like ours made a pledge: “Never Again.” But in keeping with Rabbi Hillel’s teaching, Jewish values require that that pledge not be only about ourselves. It must mean that “never again” shall anyone be subjected to what Jews suffered in the Holocaust.

If the heart-rending events of the past few months are not enough to move us, no matter our background, to call for a just resolution for all, then when?

Matt Witt is a writer and photographer in Talent.

Picture of Jim

Jim

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