Exploring our Fears, Finding our Courage

At this year’s National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) conference held in Towson, Maryland from June 14-18, the Jewish Women’s Caucus ran nearly a dozen workshops on a wide range of issues, sponsored fiction and poetry readings and provided a Shabbat service.

Following are excerpts from a panel called “Exploring Our Fears, Finding Our Courage: Jewish Feminists Speak About The Israeli and Palestinian Future!’ In the first excerpt, Mindy Shapiro, who is a director for the Jewish Campus Activities Board in Philadelphia, addresses the impact, over the last two years, of the intifada and Israeli politics on Jewish college students.

In the second, Irena Klepfisz, one of the founders of The Jewish Women’s Committee To End the Occupation, talks about what it feels like to take a public stand in the Jewish community protesting the acts of other Jews, in this case, the Israeli government.

Mindy: An informal study was done by someone at the University of Pennsylvania. She talked to 100 students in the dorms, asking them how they felt about Israel. Now we must realize that the entire undergraduate population was born on or after the 1967 war. They were five-years old during the ’73 war, and were under the age of ten during the raid on Entebbe. They totally missed the positiveness of the years between ’67 and ’73 when, for older generations, emotional attachment to Israel was built up. They missed the rallies and the Israel parades. In their lives, Israel has always been the aggressor. Their first memory is ‘ 82: Israel as the occupier. For those of us who are older, we always saw Israelis and Jews as underdogs. Now the Palestinians are the underdogs and the Israelis are the oppressors. Many students don’t feel much responsibility for her, Israel.

Israel has been a source of embarrassment for many of these students who are just now forming their identities. People ask them, “Why are Israeli soldiers beating innocent Palestinian women?” They don’t have any response. They feel inadequate, as Jews, to respond. It confuses them.

These students have a basic lack of knowledge about Israel. They read the newspaper, they know facts about the P.L.O. and Arafat, but they don’t know what Israelis do for a living, or what falafel tastes like, or that Arabs and Jews are also neighbors and friends. Some of the questions that unaffiliated Jewish students ask are: “Why should I have any connection to Israel at all?” and “Am I a bad Jew if I don’t have a burning desire to visit Israel like my friend down the hall does?” “Why should I care?” “Where do I belong on these issues?” Students don’t know what to do with their feelings about the whole Israel affair. Often there isn’t a space on campus to talk about these feelings. There hasn’t been literature coming out of the Jewish community to help them answer their questions.

On the other hand, some Jewish student leaders say that the political situation has given them an opportunity to talk with Palestinian students on campus, to “hear” them and create friendships. Otherwise, they probably would never have connected.

The campus world is almost like a mini-Middle East. You have Palestinian and Jewish students in dorms together, in classrooms together, eating together. It’s much different from our post-college world. For students, there’s this whole other element of pain.

Irena: In April of 1988, I helped found The Jewish Women’s Committee To End the Occupation. It was certainly a political act I would never have foreseen from myself. I never thought I would take a public stand openly, on the street, in front of a Jewish organization, protesting the acts of another group of Jews; in this case, the actions of the Israeli government.

I was raised in a survivors’ Holocaust community. I’m a child survivor myself. I think I was imbued with fears of public criticism, of keeping the ranks tight, and I think I really absorbed that to a great degree. But by the time the intifada was in its fifth month, I felt I could no longer allow the official organized Jewish community to speak for me and to speak for many other Jews who I knew were also dissenting.

It was a very exhilarating moment when three of us decided to do this. But I have to say that when we finally stood in front of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Park Avenue, the reality of what I was doing hit me.

A lot of us who are activists appear very confident and unconflicted and courageous when we appear on panels like this one today, but my knees were jelly standing on Park Avenue with all the doubts of what I was doing as a Jew. Was I betraying the Jewish people? Was I jeopardizing Israel’s existence—because my position was for a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine?

I was afraid. I was ashamed to some degree. I thought, “Maybe I really am doing something wrong”

What was interesting was that I became more afraid of other Jews. I was appalled at what other Jews said to me. I can’t tell you how often I was told that I should have died in the ovens. I’ve been called a Nazi. (Nazis, apparently, are the equivalent of being called Arab.) I could see the kind of rage and violence behind this sort of name-calling. It was an interesting switch for me in terms of this community that I had always thought of as being safe and mine. Suddenly I felt, “Some of these people are really dangerous.”

… The news is terrible, the West Bank, the continual deaths, the killings, it fills you with despair. But when I think of our Jewish Women’s Peace Bulletin, I’m filled with hope. When I think of what is happening between Palestinian women and Israeli women, of the activism… it must give you hope.