I came of age in the United Sates during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. The leaders I admire from that era are people like Martin Luther King and Harvey Milk. My involvement in the anti-war movement and support for the civil rights struggle contributed to forming my core values.
In many ways my conversion to Judaism is an imponderable. I cannot articulate very coherent reasons for taking that step in my fifties, but I can identify certain things that attracted me to Jewish culture. In every liberal cause I was ever involved in, Jews were disproportionally represented. True, they were secular, not religious, Jews, but I believe their consistently siding with the oppressed against the powerful has something to do with the foundation story of the Jewish people. The Exodus from Egypt is a story of triumph over oppression. Maybe as a minority almost everywhere, Jews have a vested interest in liberal policies. The Holocaust, a tragedy of unspeakable evil, sometimes threatens to replace the Exodus as our foundation story, but it too is ultimately a story of triumph over oppression, and the modern state of Israel stands as a monument to that triumph.
But the modern state of Israel is just that—a modern political state. As a Jew, of course, I can identify with Israel as a Jewish state, but unless I check my core values at the airport, once in Israel, I confront realities that run counter to those core values. What do I do with Israel’s nearly fifty-year-old occupation of the West Bank? What should my attitude be toward relentlessly expanding settlements in the West Bank and the resulting expropriation of Palestinian land? What responsibility do I have as a Jew for the fanatical Jewish settlers who attack mosques and churches and uproot Palestinian olive trees?
I was fortunate to travel to Israel with my friend Francis Landy, a religious studies professor and a Jew with deep Zionist roots and many friends and family in Israel. Within days of landing in Israel, Francis and I were in a car with activists from Ta’ayush headed for the south Hebron hills in the West Bank. The Israeli human rights organization Ta’ayush monitors the settlements in the West Bank by sending activists to stand with Palestinian shepherds and farmers in their confrontations with the settlers and the IDF. We spent the day with an extended Palestinian family whose land had been expropriated by settlers.
The disputed ownership is in the courts, and the family shows up once a week to assert their claim to the land. About twenty IDF soldiers and border police were there to make sure no one ventured on to the plot. The settlers didn’t show up, but they had in previous weeks with violent consequences.
In the two weeks we were in Israel, I met friends of Francis who are involved in such organizations as Ta’ayush, Rabbis for Human Rights, and Yesh Gvul, which urges soldiers not to serve in the occupied territories. Many of them are religious. They have been in Israel long enough to have experienced both intifadas and the terror of suicide bombings. Yet they have not become bitter or hateful (as I fear I might have in such circumstances) but have remained faithful to their core values. I greatly admire their moral courage.
Israel is an incredible achievement—a modern, vibrant culture and an economy that is among the most innovative in the world. No Jew could possibly go there without feeling proud. Among the sources of pride for me are the fellow Jews who stand with the oppressed against the powerful as Jews have always done.
– Alan Rutkowski