Monday, January 16, 2012

An open letter to 17-year old Jesse Lieberfeld

Carnegie Mellon University held an essay contest for Martin Luther King day, and chose two "searingly honest essays" as winners.

One of them is by 17-year old Jesse Lieberfeld, a high-school junior, who wrote about his experience trying to understand Judaism and Zionism - and failing.


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 60 years ago?

...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 17-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 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.

Dear Jesse:

I am a bit older than you, but I remember well what it was like being seventeen. I remember having questions that could not be answered by adults and people who I thought should know. I remember asking about things that seemed self-evident to everyone around me.

I don't blame you for being uncomfortable with what you were hearing and reading about Israel and Judaism. It shows intelligence and assertiveness. It shows that you are a moral person. You are absolutely right to bring up issues that disturb you.

And I can also empathize about how you think that your questions cannot be answered. You confided in your peers, you asked your parents, and you confronted your rabbi. You did everything that you should do.

There is only one problem.

Not to put a fine point on it, but your eighth grade peers were ignorant fools. (There is no Jewish race.) And your rabbi, the person you trusted to know the answers, the person who is is just as ignorant as your childhood friends were.

I am not going to spend my time here defending Israel. I cannot defend it adequately without knowing what you think you know. But I can say, without any doubt, that you did not ask the right people to get the answers to your very valid questions.

If all I knew about Israel is from what the newspapers say and the TV images I saw, I would be upset too. You are reacting to the reality you are subjected to. And, sorry to say, most Jews are not all that knowledgeable about the Jewish state, and are ill-equipped to answer any questions that go beyond the surface.

Their ignorance is not proof that Israel is in the wrong.

Jesse, you are now famous. Your essay is in the paper. Well known people are praising you. All because of your opinion and your bravery.

And you were indeed brave for what you did.

But I'm going to ask you to do something even harder and even braver.

You see, Jesse, once people become famous for their opinions, it is nearly impossible for them to keep an open mind. They get fans who praise them. They get lots of positive reinforcement for their words. They don't want to disappoint all their new, like-minded friends.

But based on your description of the idiots who support Israel that you know, I can say with certainty that you never heard the true Zionist side of the story. Not once.

The question you need to answer for yourself, honestly, is whether you want to even listen to pro-Israel people who aren't as thoroughly clueless as your family rabbi. Can you give the other side an honest hearing with an open mind?

Most people could not.

If you think you are one of the few who could - if you are interested in truly understanding both sides of the conflict - if you can actually see the possibility that Israel is not a one-dimensionally monstrous regime - I will be happy to answer any questions you have.

In public. On this blog.

If you are interested, just email me. At the very least I can guarantee that you will learn something.