On the morning of David Friedman’s Senate hearing for the US ambassadorship to Israel, I stood with five Muslim and Jewish partners, faced the ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and demanded the attention of an audience packed with white male decision-makers and press, along with elite members of the American Jewish community.
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In the 20 seconds I had before being escorted out and arrested, it seemed that for the first time in my life, my young, female, proudly Jewish voice would be heard by so-called American Jewish leaders.
In loud and unambiguous terms, I explained to the room that Friedman’s potential ambassadorship is devastating on two levels: for Palestinians and for the American Jewish community itself.
On one level, Friedman’s far-right vision for the region is based in Islamophobic ideology that would permanently deny Palestinians the freedom and dignity of self-governance. He lacks any formal qualifications for the position and represents an urgent danger to Palestinian and Israeli lives alike.
The second level of devastation became even more visible to me as my words were coming out. As I stood and spoke, I was showered with the disgruntled shouts of Jewish establishment figures telling me, “There’s a special place in hell for Jews like you!” and “Enjoy your time in jail!” A member of the Zionist Organization of America even shuttled the police over to a fellow movement member standing beside me, shouting, “He’s the one who blew the shofar! Get him!” (To begin our protest, we had blown the shofar — the traditional Jewish ram’s horn — to symbolize the speaking of truth, as a call to action.)
It was these words coming from the Jewish audience around me that stuck in my mind as I was led away singing Hebrew melodies, and as the hearing continued as planned. It was these words of division and the eagerness to suppress dissenting Jewish voices that made me realize that regardless of how loudly and bravely I had spoken my message, my so-called American Jewish leaders still had not heard me.
The American Jewish community currently operates in a crisis mode of self-preservation. This comes out in pro-Israel-at-all-cost politics and a stark silence on matters related to the occupation. It comes out in the culture of Birthright Israel trips and one-sided Jewish day school educations that shirk nuance and glorify the Israeli military, promoting Jewish lives and identities at the expense of others’ lives and identities.
We now live in a country where our president’s rhetoric, appointments and policy are enabling a drastic rise in hate crimes, including rampant acts of anti-Semitism. Trump has continually refused to condemn or name anti-Semitism; even his reluctant mention of it after the desecration of a Jewish cemetery this week was cursory, defensive and ultimately meaningless. Yet many prominent members of the American Jewish establishment, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Zionist Organization of America, are willing to ignore this. Friedman’s appointment as ambassador simply represents the Trump administration throwing a bone to the American Jewish establishment, in hopes that this will keep it subdued. Meanwhile, this administration has done nothing to show protection to our people, or to other more vulnerable communities with whom Judaism teaches us to join in solidarity.
It is here that the American Jewish community finds itself in moral crisis. In Judaism, we learn that all humans are created in the “image of G-d” and are therefore inherently worthy. Our Torah itself teaches us “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,” or “justice, justice you shall pursue.” We are a people charged with justice work, valuing the equality of all human lives, yet our American Jewish establishment is willing to support a violent occupation that renders Palestinian lives as less-than. We are a people that has experienced generations of trauma and persecution, yet our American Jewish establishment is willing to cozy up to a president who prefers to dodge the question of anti-Semitism altogether.
This moral dissonance is causing massive rifts in the American Jewish community, which are manifesting in painful, destructive ways. Friedman’s retracted — yet still unacceptable — comment, in which he called left-wing Jews “worse than kapos” (likening them to Jews enlisted by Nazis during the Holocaust to turn in their fellow Jews at death camps) is one such manifestation. Another is the response to our protest at Friedman’s hearing, in which our fellow audience members immediately ridiculed and punished us, rather than stopping to listen.
The confirmation of Friedman as ambassador embodies all of this hypocrisy. His visions for Israel pose even graver danger to Palestinians than the current nightmares of the occupation. Meanwhile, the willingness of the American Jewish establishment to sit idly by as Trump remains unperturbed by the anti-Semitism of his followers and shuttles in an agenda of hate marks a moral failing of my so-called leaders that I refuse to let go unnoticed.
For this reason, in the chilly, early hours of the morning of Friedman’s Senate confirmation hearing, I stood in line with members of my Jewish anti-occupation movement, IfNotNow, and the Muslim groups with which we are allied. We entered the hearing room to attempt to make our voices heard.
I disrupted Friedman’s Senate hearing because I believe that in this moment, each of us is obligated to resist in ways that can feel scary, uncomfortable or inconvenient. I broke through my racing fears of public speaking; internalized discomfort with being publicly, proudly Jewish; and an “I’m not an activist” mentality, because in this world in crisis, I know that at the very least, I am responsible for taking moral leadership in my American Jewish community.
I now understand that even though Friedman and my so-called American Jewish leaders may not have listened to me, they were not my most important audience. I was truly speaking to the overwhelming majority of American Jews, who are ready to resist and pursue justice by building a revitalized, loving American Jewish community that stands up and speaks out for the freedom and dignity of all people.
Below: A group of young activists interrupted the confirmation hearing of David Friedman, Trump’s appointee for ambassador to Israel.
— Maya Praff (@mayapraff) February 17, 2017