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PORTSIDE  January 2012, Week 3

PORTSIDE January 2012, Week 3

Subject:

Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering Up for a Hidden Wrong

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Date:

Thu, 19 Jan 2012 21:09:55 -0500

Content-Type:

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Parts/Attachments

text/plain (173 lines)

Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering Up for a
Hidden Wrong

by Jesse Lieberfeld

PulseMedia.org
January 17, 2012

http://pulsemedia.org/2012/01/17/fighting-a-forbidden-battle-how-i-stopped-covering-up-for-a-hidden-wrong/

I once belonged to a wonderful religion. I belonged to a
religion that allows those of us who believe in it to feel
that we are the greatest people in the world - and feel
sorry for ourselves at the same time. Once, I thought that I
truly belonged in this world of security, self-pity, self-
proclaimed intelligence, and perfect moral aesthetic. I
thought myself to be somewhat privileged early on. It was
soon revealed to me, however, that my fellow believers and I
were not part of anything so flattering.

Although I was fortunate enough to have parents who did not
try to force me into any one set of beliefs, being Jewish
was in no way possible to escape growing up. It was
constantly reinforced at every holiday, every service, and
every encounter with the rest of my relatives. I was forever
reminded how intelligent my family was, how important it was
to remember where we had come from, and to be proud of all
the suffering our people had overcome in order to finally
achieve their dream in the perfect society of Israel.

This last mandatory belief was one which I never fully
understood, but I always kept the doubts I had about
Israel's spotless reputation to the back of my mind. "Our
people" were fighting a war, one I did not fully comprehend,
but I naturally assumed that it must be justified. We would
never be so amoral as to fight an unjust war. Yet as I came
to learn more about our so-called "conflict" with the
Palestinians, I grew more concerned. I routinely heard about
unexplained mass killings, attacks on medical bases, and
other alarmingly violent actions for which I could see no
possible reason. "Genocide" almost seemed the more
appropriate term, yet no one I knew would have ever dreamed
of portraying the war in that manner; they always described
the situation in shockingly neutral terms. Whenever I
brought up the subject, I was always given the answer that
there were faults on both sides, that no one was really to
blame, or simply that it was a "difficult situation." It was
not until eighth grade that I fully understood what I was on
the side of. One afternoon, after a fresh round of killings
was announced on our bus ride home, I asked two of my
friends who actively supported Israel what they thought. "We
need to defend our race," they told me. "It's our right."

"We need to defend our race."

Where had I heard that before? wasn't it the same excuse our
own country had used to justify its abuses of African-
Americans sixty years ago? In that moment, I realized how
similar the two struggles were - like the white radicals of
that era, we controlled the lives of another people whom we
abused daily, and no one could speak out against us. It was
too politically incorrect to do so. We had suffered too
much, endured too many hardships, and overcome too many
losses to be criticized. I realized then that I was in no
way part of a "conflict" - the term "Israeli/Palestinian
Conflict" was no more accurate than calling the Civil Rights
Movement the "Caucasian/ African-American Conflict." In both
cases, the expression was a blatant euphemism: it gave the
impression that this was a dispute among equals and that
both held an equal share of the blame. However, in both,
there was clearly an oppressor and an oppressed, and I felt
horrified at the realization that I was by nature on the
side of the oppressors. I was grouped with the racial
supremacists. I was part of a group that killed while
praising its own intelligence and reason. I was part of a
delusion.

I thought of the leader of the other oppressed side of years
ago, Martin Luther King. He too had been part of a struggle
that had been hidden and glossed over for the convenience of
those against whom he fought. What would his reaction have
been? As it turned out, it was precisely the same as mine.
As he wrote in his letter from Birmingham Jail, he believed
the greatest enemy of his cause to be "Not the White
Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white
moderate, who - lives by a mythical concept of time - .
Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright
rejection." When I first read those words, I felt as if I
were staring at myself in a mirror. All my life I had been
conditioned to simply treat the so-called conflict with the
same apathy which King had so forcefully condemned. I, too,
held the role of an accepting moderate. I, too, "lived by a
mythical concept of time," shrouded in my own surreal world
and the set of beliefs that had been assigned to me. I had
never before felt so trapped.

I decided to make one last appeal to my religion. If it
could not answer my misgivings, no one could. The next time
I attended a service, there was an open question-and-answer
session about any point of our religion. I wanted to place
my dilemma in as clear and simple terms as I knew how. I
thought out my exact question over the course of the
seventeen-minute cello solo that was routinely played during
service. Previously, I had always accepted this solo as just
another part of the program, yet now it seemed to capture
the whole essence of our religion: intelligent and well-
crafted on paper, yet completely oblivious to the outside
world (the soloist did not have the faintest idea of how
masterfully he was putting us all to sleep). When I was
finally given the chance to ask a question, I asked, "I want
to support Israel. But how can I when it lets its army
commit so many killings?" I was met with a few angry glares
from some of the older men, but the rabbi answered me. "It
is a terrible thing, isn't it?" he said. "But there's
nothing we can do. It's just a fact of life." I knew, of
course, that the war was no simple matter and that we did
not by any means commit murder for its own sake, but to
portray our thousands of killings as a "fact of life" was
simply too much for me to accept. I thanked him and walked
out shortly afterward. I never went back. I thought about
what I could do. If nothing else, I could at least try to
free myself from the burden of being saddled with a belief I
could not hold with a clear conscience. I could not live the
rest of my life as one of the pathetic moderates whom King
had rightfully portrayed as the worst part of the problem. I
did not intend to go on being one of the Self-Chosen People,
identifying myself as part of a group to which I did not
belong.

It was different not being the ideal nice Jewish boy. The
difference was subtle, yet by no means unaffecting. Whenever
it came to the attention of any of our more religious family
friends that I did not share their beliefs, I was met with
either a disapproving stare and a quick change of the
subject or an alarmed cry of, "What? doesn't Israel matter
to you?" Relatives talked down to me more afterward, but
eventually I stopped noticing the way adults around me
perceived me. It was worth it to no longer feel as though I
were just another apathetic part of the machine.

I can obviously never know what it must have been like to be
an African-American in the 1950s. I do feel, however, as
though I know exactly what it must have been like to be
white during that time, to live under an aura of moral
invincibility, to hold unchallengeable beliefs, and to
contrive illusions of superiority to avoid having to face
simple everyday truths. That illusion was nice while it
lasted, but I decided to pass it up. I have never been
happier.

[Jesse Lieberfeld, 17, is an 11th grader  at Winchester
Thurston. His essay just won the 2012 Martin Luther King,
Jr. Writing Award. Also see our dear friend Phil Weiss's
piece on the award. ]

___________________________________________

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