“The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”
Historically driven by Western holocaust guilt we handed Israel a get-out-of-jail-free card. It intimidates and silences mainstream media and particularly US politicians civil society leaders, and many activists – by making the issue of Israel so toxic that none dare touch it. It has been the modern day third rail. Nobody wanted to be called an anti-Semite which you were deemed if you criticised the longest running occupation in history. A Dutch holocaust survivor Hajo Meyer had a witty repose in this regard: In the past anybody who hated Jews was an anti-Semite, now it’s anybody who Jews hate.
When I was 11 playing on a Jewish ball team I was called a fucking kike. From then on I was never neutral. My faith like Bishop Tutu’s demanded a bias—on the side of those without voice, without power. The great Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama reminded me in his Waterbuffalo Theology (1974) if Jesus was the spat-upon Christ, expect a little saliva on you if you try to follow him.
In 2003 after retirement from teaching I was editing the Catholic New Times and i picked up the phone to hear me called an “Effing Nazi” because I dared criticize Israel. i knew the gentleman well, a Jewish friend of long standing who knew nothing about the Middle East or had read anything I wrote on this issue. I brushed it off as a sad tribal rant with no serious analysis of Israel/Palestine. He had been on the phone to another tribalist Jew whom had long ago substituted the state of Israel for authentic Judaic values.
I kind of laugh about it now. The ranter did not realize that I had my own “Get out of Jail card” a mitzvah from the B’Nai Brith attesting to my support of the Jewish people. They appreciated my groundbreaking teaching on the Nazi holocaust when nobody else was touching it in Canadian schools in a serious way.
A decade ago I was called an anti-Semite by an old friend and then by high school classmate, then 5 years later the latter issued a needless apology. His wife was Jewish and now they both agreed with me! My crime—-defending Palestinian rights. Another from high school asked me if I didn’t realise the number of Jewish Nobelists. A non-sequitur. Ho hum.
A year ago on an elevator the door opened and a man outside spying my lapel pin which simply stated End the Occupation, his face contorted in fury, screamed, “You should be killed.” Then as the door closed, “You should go there.” i had probably been there more than he had.
When I got off at the 14th floor to see my doctor he asked me what floor this warm reception occurred. The same floor as the National Post and the Toronto Sun but it could have been Rosie Dimanno’s floor at the Star.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
I was invited to lead workshops for the Holocaust Remembrance Committee as early as 1979. Schmidt was kosher then in the Jewish community especially when my memoir Shabbes Goy was released in 2001. I spoke in many synagogues, B’Nai Brith, Hadassah and other Jewish groups, in private homes. My favourite venue was Baycrest, the wonderful Jewish geriatric centre. They invited me twice. I think they liked my tossing around a lot of Yiddish expressions. I think they sensed that i was a downtown Toronto Jew lover.
One day after my talk a steely eyed 86 year old bubbe approached me with her walker.
“Can I tell you von thing” she asked in her lovely Polish yiddish accent which she had never lost and was music to my ears.
“Sure,” i said.This will be rich I said to myself.
“There should be more goyim like you!”
I couldn’t stop laughing and later wondering what experience she had had to say this.
I assured her that there were a lot of goyim (non-Jews) like me.
Since those experiences in the early 2000s the justice of the Palestinian cause gained traction, especially after the mass slaughter of innocents in Gaza in 2014. Jews of conscience cried enough.The internet and social media proclaimed another truth : Little Israel had become Goliath, a brutal state which treated Palestinians like Jews under Pharaoh.Their Judaism and fundamental decency kicked in and their Zionism, a palette of lies which denied the Nakba the ethnic cleansing of indigenous Palestinians ebbed.They began to realize that they had been heavily propagandised by tribal elders who had linked Zionism with Judaism.
The resurgence of another narrative, a more truthful one of Palestinian displacement increasingly drove tribal Jews angrier. They responded with brutal attacks , employing trolls to vilify anybody who proclaimed justice for Palestine. Rabbis who should have known better remained silent. Catholic bishops remained silent. Our Catholic teachers’ union openly proclaimed justice as a cardinal value—-but never for Palestinians.The third rail was still warm and it read: Do not approach.
Print media presently dying dares not risk any boycott so the range of acceptable opinion narrows and courage contracts but people of conscience should not be neutral in situations of injustice.
Israel’s get out of jail card finally has elapsed. and I have mine.What remains is the self-enclosed jail of the denial of its original sin, the dispossession of an indigenous people.The way forward, the way to redemption, the way out of jail is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission a la South Africa where the pariah state admits its original sin. Here they will find a willing partner in Palestine.