Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

August 12, 2014 by

My Political Evolution

Elana Sztokman-E (1)I remember when I fell in love with Zionism. It was 9th grade at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, the course on Zionism with the legendary Yotav Eliach. Yotav was a great teacher – clear, impassioned, relevant, and totally unconcerned with things like attendance and grades. He would just sit there, sometimes eating his pizza, and talk. He made everything seem so easy, neat and uncomplicated, and he gave us purpose and identity. He taught us that Zionism Is Jewish Nationalism, that Jordan is really Palestine, that there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation, that self-determination is a smokescreen, that anti-Zionism is just a reincarnation of anti-Semitism, that Jews have always lived in the land that we now call Israel, that there are Jewish responses to claims about Deir Yassin, and more. It was like preparing for an AIPAC convention, or for being Israel advocates on campus – in fact both AIPAC and Israel advocacy were important parts of my life so many years ago.

For me, Yotav’s class was a big part of the reason why I decided to live in Israel. By the time I was 16 I was telling people that I planned on making Aliyah, and in fact I was here by the time I was 23, married with a baby. Everything seemed right.

So in some ways, I’m still that Zionist and part of me still loves what Yotav did for me. I’m still living in Israel where I pay mortgage and taxes, conduct my life in Hebrew, argue with taxi drivers, and watch my kids serve in the army. And parts of the narrative about why Jews need and deserve a state of our own in this space still stick with me. I get emotional at Zionist events, I feel a thrill seeing my children in uniform, and I get excited by things like Israeli doctors saving victims of a tsunami. Still, with all that Israel pride, many aspects of Yotav’s Zionism have been replaced in my consciousness by a different kind of Zionism, as I started asking questions about truth and illusion, about polemics versus reality, and about the difference between having justice on your side versus having compassion on your side. Something was missing from the Brooklyn Zionism I was brought up on – even if that is, in some ways, the same Zionism that Prime Minister Netanyahu practices, along with a majority of Israelis today. I found cracks in the narrative that wore down the pretty montage. Perspectives seemed muted. The story was too effortful, as if we were taught to answer the questions before we had a chance to ask them.

A turning point for me came a few years ago, when I got a job as a writer for an Israeli media- monitoring organization.  My job was to write organizational copy that rebuts what was perceived as anti-Israel bias in all kinds of articles, op-eds and television stories. Whenever we came across statements by Palestinians that talk about “occupation”, my job was to write the copy that explains why the “Palestinian narrative” is patently false. I could do it, but at a certain point, it started to feel very wrong. “What’s wrong with the Palestinians having a narrative?” I once asked the director. “They are entitled to have their own experiences.” I really thought that we were working too hard to delegitimize Palestinian lives and identities. Did our Zionist mission require such an active presence on the debating team in order to survive? Couldn’t we tell our story without having to prove that everything the Palestinians say is a lie? Needless to say, I didn’t last very long there.

I was particularly bothered by the sense that by insisting on telling our own story, we were closing off the possibility of listening to the other person’s story. This was a painful lesson that I learned as a feminist in the Orthodox world. So often I felt like women were in the same position as the Palestinians – talked about, talked over, discussed by men with power generalized about, and still never really heard. That feeling of having the answers before we really ask the question resonated in Orthodoxy. You know, we are given the incessant answers about the rabbinic view on women before women are ever really heard.  It has been a very hard journey for me, discovering that so many of the narratives I was brought up with about my people and my heritage are the same ones that create so many painful experiences for women.

And so this process of feminist awareness, of looking beyond the rhetoric at people’s real lives, began to inform my entire experience with Israel. It made me wonder what Palestinians – especially Palestinian women – were experiencing. I knew that we were taught to believe that Arabs all hate us and make up stories and lie about Jews. But I started to question whether that was really true. Yes, we’ve all seen the faked photographs, we know that Arab leaders are masters of media spin and propaganda, we’ve seen the videos of children dressed as suicide bombers. There are some chilling things out there in the world. But do all the 2 million Gazans really feel that way? Why do we look at awful things and say things like “They all are….”, or use these images to prove our narrative that all Arabs lie and hate Jews? Our insistence on proving our rightness obscures the very real questions about whether Israel has really done right by our neighbors. 

I had not really given much thought to how much my views had shifted until this awful war, when I found myself in too many really hard social media exchanges being cast as the one who “doesn’t get it” and needs to receive a proper Zionist education.

On the first day that Israel entered Gaza last month, we all woke up to the news that 72 people had been killed by the IDF in Gaza, and I was really shocked. I quickly wrote a Facebook status update: “72 people were killed in Gaza. That’s a lot of ruined lives. There has to be another way.” I wasn’t advocating for a particular political view. I wasn’t trying to express an opinion about whether Israel has a right to exist or whether the Palestinians should be able to establish a state in the West Bank. I wasn’t delegitimizing Israel or waving a Palestinian flag or equating Zionism with racism. I wasn’t addressing any large political questions of the future of the region. I was talking about right here, right now, about what the IDF is doing today in terms of the real lives of people living in Gaza who may have nothing to do with rockets or kidnappings or building tunnels but just want to live their lives – just like we do. I was questioning an approach which views the accidental killing of Gaza civilians as par for the course, as necessary for the protection of Israel, or as really Hamas’ fault because they put the civilians there. I was just putting myself in the minds of the Palestinians in Gaza who were not the ones trying to hurt Israelis. That’s what feminism has taught me – to look beyond the official story and ask about how large political decisions affect people’s real lives. It’s the basic idea that the personal is political. I was feeling for Gazans’ pain, and questioning whether so much killing was the right path.

The Facebook reactions were somewhat confounding for me – although they were tame compared to what was to follow. There was a very clear split: some friends thanked me profusely for writing what they were feeling, and others accused me of caring about the wrong issues, of being unsympathetic to the people in the South suffering from rockets, and of being pro-Palestinian, etc. I’m not pro-anything or anti-anything, I thought to myself. I was just putting into words the feelings that I had at the time, and still do. I just don’t want us to be killing so many people, so easily. I hate the thought that we are destroying houses where terrorists dwell – I am horrified by the thought of an entire family losing their home because one of their members is wanted by the enemy. It feels so wrong on so many levels. I just want us to seek out other solutions.

I can’t remember how I managed social media during the previous Israeli conflicts: Was there such a thing as social media? Was I on FB? Was I blogging about it? I honestly can’t remember how I managed all this in past wars. But right now, Facebook feels like the place where I am articulating how I really feel about events, and at the same time confronting the ways in which certain views are greeted with such knee-jerk reactions that it seems like we’ve stopped thinking for ourselves. And it’s a reminder to me that not only have I changed since previous wars, but also that our entire national discourse has become dangerously stale.

I suppose on some level, my change might be qualified as having gone from “right” to “left”, although I am loath to view it in such linear terms. I think it may have something to do with getting older, where things that seemed so simple and straightforward when we were younger take on human nuance and complexity as we experience life. Or, as Billy Joel says, “I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage/ I found that just surviving was a noble fight.” Still, I don’t easily call myself as a “leftist”, even though if elections were held today I would probably vote for Meretz so maybe I am a leftist after all.  Or maybe my aversion to the word is because the world in which I’ve dwelled for most of my life, “leftist” is a slur, kind of the way rabbis in Israel who want to insult women call us “Reform” or, “lesbian.” So many status updates that I’ve seen are aimed at “those leftists” as much as “those Arabs”.  I really don’t want to go anywhere near that entire dialectic.

Or maybe, I’m reluctant to label myself because it feels dishonest. I know that in my own history, I have had many moments of right-wing inspired diatribes. Yes, in my past, I’ve been that annoying one who goes onto discussions of the Arab-Israeli conflict accusing critics of Israel of not understanding Israel’s position and of promoting anti-Semitism and probably some other things. In this internet age where nothing disappears, one day someone will come across something I wrote about Israel ten or fifteen years ago and say, perhaps rightly, that I’m a hypocrite. Or a fake. Or just incoherent. And they might be right about all of it.

Mostly I think that I wouldn’t put the label “leftist” on myself is because it feels so inadequate, a product of a cold, linear construction created by the men who have been running the world for so long. And the more my own ideas and identity evolve, the more I realize that the perspective that I most identify with is not really represented in the way Israeli politics is so often presented.

This current conflict has reinforced with me the extent to which there is a rhetorical war being conducted alongside a military war, and for many Jews, it is no less important. Anywhere you go on the internet, or especially on Facebook, there are these battles between people who are like soldiers in PR – like I once was – ready to pounce on any suggestion of sympathy for the Palestinians, ready to accuse you of being anti-Israel, anti-Jewish. And that feels so wrong.

It’s not an either-or proposition for me. I am deeply concerned about the people of the south and others living with rocket fire – some of whom are my friends whom I love deeply. But I am also concerned about the real people in Gaza who are having their homes and families destroyed, many of whom are not Hamas supporters and are not terrorists and would like to simply live a normal life.

That kind of complex stance, where I am both anti-rockets and anti-destroying homes and killing civilians, does not have a place in the current framework of understanding the conflict. It’s like you’re either one or the other.

This finds expression in some deeply painful exchanges. In one on my status updates, when I suggested that we are painting all Palestinians with the same brush, a friend of mine told me I would never say that if I lived in the south.  Really, I asked? So everyone living in the south automatically hates all Palestinians? It’s a terrible condemnation of humanity, actually. And unfair and untrue. And by the way, I told her, my son, a Givati soldier still in training, is down south. Not that I need to use my kids as proof of anything within myself. I hate doing that, and it makes me cringe when others use their children’s lives to explain themselves. But let me say something anyway. My son is often out there in those “open fields” where Iron Dome doesn’t bother shooting down rockets and he has had rockets fall within meters of him. And Givati has been in the news plenty for their bravery as well as their casualties. My experience as a mother of soldiers does not make me revert to seeing all Palestinians as one and the same. On the contrary, now I feel even more strongly that we have to hang on to our humanity, to think about the real lives of Palestinians as human beings, too.  But I should not have to say this. I should not have to talk about my son or find other ways to “prove” that I adequately experience the rockets in order to be able to have an opinion about whether we are overly bombarding the civilians in Gaza. But that is how bifurcated the entire discussion has become.

Even worse was what came afterwards in that particular thread.

Another woman whom I’ve known for years, and who also believes that I don’t “get it”, wrote to me to tell me that she has decided to block me on Facebook, but first she needs to educate me, and sent me some links to a film on an Israeli propaganda site that “You must watch”, as if I need to see this in order to truly understand. And then she said, “Think about your son.” What I said to her was that she should definitely block me, and that my conversations with my son are none of her business. Her little chat with me was infuriating, using my son as a tool to win me over in the rhetorical war. The revolting implication was that if I dare express sympathy with Palestinians then that means that I haven’t thought enough about my son, that I need someone else to educate me, because clearly anyone who is a parent of a soldier must understand that all Palestinians are evil. Even just thinking about this makes me livid.

There has been worse, too. I have been defriending people on both sides of the divide for being completely obnoxious and abusive. One man, a non-Jewish colleague, kept insulting anyone who suggested that Israelis are acting in self-defense. I asked him a few times to try and express his view without being attacking, to stop implying that Israelis are murderous animals, to which he replied that anyone defending Israel deserves to be insulted. I eventually private messaged him that I’m unfriending him not for his political views but for being a jerk.

Another man, who lives on a settlement in the West Bank, whom I’ve known since we were in third grade and whom I kept as a friend even though he regularly leaves anti-feminist, hateful comments on my page, used my status updates to mock me. “My radical feminist friend” he wrote on his page (meaning me, even though I’ve never called myself a radical feminist; I think he doesn’t know what a radical feminist is but just thinks that my feminist ideas are radical, and hence I’m a radical feminist), “my radical feminist friend actually posted something today about sexism in Turkey. The world must be coming to an end.” Haha, isn’t that funny. Well, I blocked him, too. My outrage at having my entire person be used as someone else’s “material” is assuaged by the knowledge that I’m doing the exact same thing to him right now. Or maybe there is some karma at work after all.  

These conversations can be very destabilizing, as you wonder who your friends are, and to whom you can talk freely. On one particularly bad day when many people were struggling with the death of soldiers, a friend of mine saw one of my pained updates about how one of the casualties was my son’s commander, and she came over so we could cry together. As we sat there with damp tissues piling up between us, she said, “You’ve changed.”

I thought she was going to say that I’ve become more left-wing this war. Instead she said, “You used to post much more sympathetically for the Palestinians, but you’ve stopped. You realize you can’t, because they want to kill us. What can you do, they won’t stop shooting rockets.” I stopped crying and stared at her. I wanted to say, “No, it’s not true.” I wanted to say that I don’t believe that 2 million people of Gaza wanted to be throwing rockets. I wanted to say that most Gazans are also victims here, used by the uncontrollable Hamas military wing as targets, losing their homes and their families, dragged into war that most of them do not want. I wanted to say, who is the “they” who want to kill us? Who is the “all of them”? And I really wanted to say that the change she thought occurred in me had not in fact happened. But I didn’t – because she is my friend and because I was emotionally exhausted, and I just didn’t want to get into a debate. So maybe she is right after all; maybe I’m posting less. Maybe all the talking is almost as hard as all the death and destruction.

The rhetorical war accompanying the military war – which has drastically increased interpersonal hostilities and decreased my number of friends – is so very unsettling. I feel like we’re doing this all wrong. That nobody is experiencing real events as they are happening but are simply running off into the rhetorical battle. Like we’re all on the debate team and determined to win. Nobody is trying to really understand the other’s experience but is just determined to prove that they themselves are right about everything. It’s as if we have been conditioned in an unyielding binary and overly competitive system for framing this war in a way that leaves little room for complexity or nuance, not to mention empathy, compassion, and real human connection.

I think that there are probably a lot of people like me out there who do not have a home in the current rhetorical construct of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The truth is, despite all these difficult experiences, I have also had many very reinforcing exchanges with people who are also looking for another way, for a way to be both pro-Zionist and pro-Palestinian, or perhaps pro-Jewish and pro-human.  My prayer is that when all this is over, that we will all learn how to step out of our respective inherited narratives and start our conversations from the basic premise that we are all human beings. 


  • Gabrielle Girau Pieck

    Thanks so much for giving me a home for my discourse!

  • Shirley Moore

    I don’t believe I came to your blog by chance, even though that was how it occurred. You have given me a lot to think about, and I pray that you will find a way to walk through all the conflicting comments and discussions. I think there is no easy, cut and dried answer, especially when people enter into the equation. I believe that Israel has a God given right that no man will conquer. But I also agree that there are plenty of people on both sides of the equation that just want to live their lives, and are not a part of the political situation at all, except for the fact of where they live.

  • Nida

    Even though I disagree with your zionist views/passion, I am happy that you’re able to seek the humanness in the foreign.