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The American Jewish Cocoon

In part that’s because establishment Jewish discourse about Israel is, in large measure, American public discourse about Israel. Watch a discussion of Israel on American TV and what you’ll hear, much of the time, is a liberal American Jew (Thomas Friedman, David Remnick) talking to a centrist American Jew (Dennis Ross, Alan Dershowitz) talking to a hawkish American Jew (William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer), each articulating different Zionist positions. Especially since Edward Said’s death, Palestinian commentators have been hardly visible. Thus Palestinians can’t easily escape hearing the way the other side discusses Israel; American Jews can.

For centuries, when Jews lived in the Diaspora as a persecuted minority, we had to understand the societies around us. Because we lacked power, we had to be smart to survive. Now, I fear, because Jews enjoy power in Israel and America, especially vis-à-vis Palestinians, we’ve forgotten the importance of listening. “Who is wise?” asks the Jewish ethical text Pirkei Avot. “He who learns from all people.” As Jews, we owe Israel not merely our devotion but our wisdom. And we can’t truly provide it if our isolation from Palestinians keeps us dumb.

If encountering Palestinians combats American Jewish ignorance, it also combats American Jewish hatred. In May, Sheldon Adelson, among the most influential Jewish philanthropists in America, said he would not support John Kerry’s plan for Palestinian economic development because “why would I want to invest money with people who want to kill my people?” Adelson wasn’t calling one Palestinian leader a killer, or even one Palestinian faction. He was calling Palestinians killers per se. And his views aren’t uncommon. At a breakfast last year, I heard a prominent Jewish leader in New York call Palestinians “animals.”

In 2010, an Orthodox professor of Jewish philosophy named Charles Manekin noticed a photo in The Wall Street Journal. It was of American Jewish students, likely in Israel for a year between high school and college, screaming at a Palestinian woman in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem where settlers have evicted Palestinians from their homes. In response, Manekin wrote an open letter to American Jewish leaders entitled “Recognizing the Sin of Bigotry, and Eradicating It.” In it, he proposed that Jewish “schools should invite Palestinian refugees to speak to the students about their experiences.” The speeches, he explained, would not be “about politics” but “about humanity.”

The beauty of Manekin’s proposal is that Jews, of all people, can relate to stories of dispersion and dispossession. To have your family torn apart in war—to struggle to maintain your culture, your dignity, your faith in God, in the face of forces over which you have no control—is something Jews should instinctively understand. Indeed, in strange ways, encountering Palestinians—the very people we are trained to see as alien—can reconnect us to the deepest parts of ourselves. Tommy Lapid, the late father of Israel’s most recent political sensation, Yair Lapid, was a hawk. But one day in 2004, watching an elderly woman in Gaza’s Rafah refugee camp searching on hands and knees for her medicines in the ruins of a house destroyed by Israeli bulldozers, he blurted out something astonishing. He said she reminded him of his Hungarian grandmother.

One hundred members of Sara Roy’s extended family were murdered in the Holocaust. Growing up, Roy, now a Harvard researcher, knew little about her father’s experiences in the Chelmno death camp because “he could not speak about them without breaking down.” It was living among Palestinians, she says, that brought her closer to her parents, not because Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians echoes the Nazi treatment of Jews—it obviously does not—but because for the first time she encountered people utterly terrified of the state that enjoyed life-and-death power over their lives.

By seeing Palestinians—truly seeing them—we glimpse a faded, yellowing photograph of ourselves. We are reminded of the days when we were a stateless people, living at the mercy of others. And by recognizing the way statelessness threatens Palestinian dignity, we ensure that statehood doesn’t rob us of our own.

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