Can we talk?

American Jews are the key to peace in the Middle East, if only they’d speak up

In Bethlehem, Palestinian lawyers protest Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

In Bethlehem, Palestinian lawyers protest Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

Photo By Patricia Daugherty

Shalom, Sacramento’s Jewish community! Have you been concerned about the situation in Israel, but afraid to speak up? Here’s your chance. Call me at (916) 498-1234, ext. 1364.

I was standing at the checkout counter the other day and slipped the clerk my debit card. “Scheide,” he said, pronouncing my name correctly, which only happens one time out of four. “Yes, a good German name,” I reply, congratulating him on his feat. “Oh, it’s a Jewish name,” he said, before quickly adding, “That’s a good thing.”

“Not really,” I retorted. “I got all the brains but none of the money.”

That’s one of the stock replies I’ve whipped out over the years whenever the subject of my Jewish ancestry comes up. It’s not completely tongue-in-cheek. I am, for example, related to the Gottschalks, and I can guarantee you I haven’t seen one thin dime from their department-store operation.

Here’s another personal favorite: I’m part Irish and part Jewish, which means my mother worries that I drink too much. When you’re Irish and Jewish, you can get away with jokes like that, just as blacks are permitted to use the N-word, and no one else is. Which brings us to a topic as seemingly removed from ethnic humor as it could be, Israel’s holiday invasion of the Gaza Strip, which as of this writing has resulted in the deaths of more than 500 Palestinian men, women and children.

I grew up believing wholeheartedly in the officially approved narrative of Israel’s creation. Few causes would appear to be more just or noble than creating a homeland for the European Jews, who were nearly exterminated as a people by Nazi Germany. The fact that nearly 1 million Palestinians were forcibly removed to create this homeland was conveniently left out of the discourse, making Israel’s David-vs.-Goliath story all the more compelling.

However, like any other tale, there are at least two sides to this one. That has become blatantly clear in the wake of Israel’s “pre-emptive attack” on Lebanon in 2006 and the current invasion in Gaza. In both cases, backed by billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, Israel has used its might to collectively punish thousands of innocent Lebanese and Palestinians for the actions of so-called terrorists who would be called freedom fighters if the shoe was on the other foot.

Of course, anyone who deigns to point that out in the United States will immediately be branded an anti-Semite, thanks to organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has waged a 40-year propaganda campaign to snuff out any and all criticism of Israel, in Congress as well as in the media. Indeed, for all intents and purposes, AIPAC’s extreme right-wing agenda has become the voice of Jewish America.

The paradox is that if Jewish America can be called monolithic, it is bent profoundly in the opposite direction, toward the progressive side of the political spectrum. Examine the history of our labor, civil-rights and peace movements, and you’ll find American Jews at the heart of each one. Poll after poll has shown that most American Jews opposed the invasion of Iraq. Yet when it comes to Israel’s increasingly bellicose relations with its Arab neighbors, American Jews have by and large remained silent.

It’s time to break that silence. If anyone is qualified to speak for American Jews, it is American Jews, not AIPAC and like organizations. The same basic sense of fair play Jews have helped bring to the American political scene desperately needs to be applied in the Middle East.

It’s not going to be easy. Someone might even call you an anti-Semite, or as in my case, a self-loathing wannabe Jew. But until the discussion starts, there will be no peace, ever.

So, can we talk?