Sunday, June 16, 2013

Two nights at Moishe

Last week, I went to the San Francisco Moishe House to attend a discussion hosted by the New Israel Fund. The discussion was about Israel's borders-what are they? what do they mean?

Call it infiltration, call it what you like. I'd been told by a young Jewish activist friend (who is also a kick-ass local musician) that the New Israel Fund, while being Zionist in nature, attracts a lot of people who want to hear different points of view and meet people with on-the-ground experience in Palestine. It made a lot of sense to me...the NIF crosses the green line more than any other Zionist organization I know of. They partner with Breaking the Silence, a very controversial group in Israel, to say the least.

It was a group of about twelve, all ages, very intimate, very respectful. Despite my initial anxiety that I would be dismissed for not being Jewish, I felt like I melted into the conversation like butter. At least I tried to mimic the facilitators by listening well and voicing peoples' thoughts back to them. It put my mind at ease that the facilitators were trying to push the boundaries--"you said the existence of the security Wall felt ironic--what made you say that?"

We looked at pictures of the Wall, and political cartoons from Arab and Israeli media.

There were some differing opinions in the room, there was an Israeli, an American or two with Israeli citizenship, and the rest American Jews, save for one guy my age who looked African-American and at one point described himself as Native American. It put my mind at ease to have him there, talking about his experiences with his Palestinian friends, and their obviously very different experiences with the Wall.

Even so, halfway through the discussion, I was bringing a glass of wine to my lips and I realized I couldn't keep my hands from shaking. I tried to put the glass down without wobbling it.

Really? I was that nervous?

I talked more than most. I had a lot to say about Area C, and demolitions, and traveling around the West Bank. A little later on one of the guys stopped mid-comment and looked at me and said, "Morgan, do you think it's Apartheid?"

"Umm, wow!" I stammered, instinctively trying to protect myself from I don't know what, and sheepishly laughing at everyone around the table. Maybe I was just shocked that someone had appointed me answerer of that question, in front of the group. Someone had just given me authority.

Then I got a hold of myself. "Umm, yes, I do. In the West Bank, I do think it's Apartheid."

I listen to people like Noura Erekat and Rebecca Vilkomerson. They're not just good public speakers, but they have their talking points stored away for all the questions and criticisms that follow. It takes a lot of memory to be outspoken on this issue, and to be respected. I got a small taste of that, and I still couldn't keep from shaking, because I'm not Jewish or Palestinian and I'm afraid of offending people.

At the end, we went around and talked about what we learned today. One of the guys, a house resident somehow brought up the MUNI bus ads that said "End U.S. aid to Israel" or "Boycott Apartheid Israel", and there was a lot of confusion in the group about where those ads came from, and there seemed to be a bit of dismay and a little scoffing too. I said the ads came from American Muslims for Palestine, with the support of Jewish Voice for Peace, and that at future meetings I'd be happy to have a discussion about different forms of activism, because I've been involved with campus divestment and church divestment, and it'd be great to sit down and debunk some of the myths associated with BDS. In any case, some of my friends would be engaging in the summer conversations and they'd be more than happy to talk about BDS.

That was it, I just threw it out there. Maybe BDS didn't sound as foreign, or scary when I said it. In any case, there was a handful of people who couldn't say they didn't know any BDS activists who cared enough, like they did, to show up at a group discussion. 

The take-away from the evening was that I felt like a valuable part of that conversation. One of the women said at the end that she heard from people, like me, who had experience on the ground. As I was about to leave, the young ladies who just seemed like awesome people and were facilitating the discussion thanked me for coming and asked me some more questions about my time in the West Bank. I got invited to a storytelling session with NIF. One of the Moishe House guys invited me back for Shabbat dinner the next night.

So I went back the next night. It was a full house, there was singing and breaking of bread, then we all ate, drank, mingled, and I had a lot of good conversations with a handful of people, who gave me their cards because want to see the website....again, I felt validated, like that was a place I could keep going back to.

This was my favorite interaction:
Me: Oh, you just got back from Birthright! Did you like it?
Guy: Hahaha, umm, yeah! Doesn't everyone love Israel?
Me: (same damn nervous laugh) Well, there are a lot of different opinions...

Then comes the "wait, you're not Jewish?" part. 

I imagined trying to explain this to my Jewish activist friends. Was this a refreshing experience for me because I'm an outsider? Was it something they considered to be much more stressful and exhausting?  Quite likely.  One of my friends told me it was painful for her that major parts of her Jewish life were severed-namely mainstream communal Jewish life, and her peace and justice work. That's why belonging to Jewish Voice for Peace was a point of healing and reconciliation.

Was it an unspoken rule that those kinds of Jews were unwelcome at institutions like Moishe House? One of my friends in Chicago had been disenchanted, he doubted that the conversation could broaden there. Best to continue activism from the outside. But many people do have the energy for working from the inside.

From what I've experienced after two nights, I have the energy, and growing confidence to do this a bit more....


In retrospect, I'm still glad I went, but I wished I had brought up in the discussion how problematic it was that there were no Palestinians present. The experience reminded me of this panel at the Cambridge Union that one of the Israelis backed out of for that reason. Honestly, it's icky to have a real discussion about the Wall when you're not the one being walled in.

The Wall was built by arrogance. That one people can build a wall on another peoples' land is so arrogant that it needs to be shamed. The Wall, the act of building it, and our own attempts to discuss it around a living room table over hummus. Again, again, I felt like I didn't do quite enough.