Uncategorized · March 22, 2024 10

Context Matters

Marty Levine

March 22, 2024

All our choices we made to reflect and confront us in the present. Not to say ‘look what they did then’ — rather, ‘look what we do now.’ Our film shows where dehumanization leads at its worst. It shaped all of our past and present.

Right now, we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of October 7 in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza — all the victims of this dehumanization, how do we resist?

Since I seldom watch, to my wife’s chagrin, the Oscar ceremonies, I missed hearing Jonathon Glazer, the director of The Zone of Interest, speak these words as he accepted his Oscar for the best International feature. Had I been watching I would probably have smiled and complained about his not damning the horror of Gaza directly and clearly. 

Yet for many who have stood with Israel and its siege of Gaza for more than 5 months, no matter how high the death toll has grown, these mild words were just too much:

The AJC quickly issued a press release decrying his comments saying that Glazer’s words were “…an obscene distortion of Israel’s reality and a trivialization of the Holocaust.“ 

The ADL tweeted that “Israel is not hijacking Judaism or the Holocaust by defending itself against genocidal terrorists. Glazer’s comments at the Oscars are both factually incorrect & morally reprehensible. They minimize the Shoah & excuse terrorism of the most heinous kind.”

Michael Freund, a former advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, called Glazer “a self-hating Jew of the worst sort who exploits the Holocaust to attack Israel in public at the Oscars ceremony.”

And as I write this an open letter from Jewish creative artists has gathered over 1,000 signatures as protest Glazer’s words and “Jewishness being hijacked for the purpose of drawing a moral equivalence between a Nazi regime that sought to exterminate a race of people, and an Israeli nation that seeks to avert its own extermination….The use of words like “occupation” to describe an indigenous Jewish people defending a homeland that dates back thousands of years, and has been recognized as a state by the United Nations, distorts history.“

Now I realize that Glazer committed what, for some, is the ultimate sin, attempting to place October 7th in historical context. In using the word occupation and in challenging the assertion that all Jews stand with Israel, Glazer was asking his listeners to think more deeply about the human tragedy that is playing out in Gaza and to understand that what we are seeing did not begin on October 7, 2023.

He was asking us to consider the challenging history of a small piece of land that both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians claim. He was asking us to consider the complicated and often conflicting story of the creation of the modern state of Israel and decades of conflict between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. He was asking us to hear the human pain of both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians at this very moment.

Is it possible to even dispute the reality of the occupation? The US State Department didn’t when it published, in 2017, “Israel and the Occupied Territories”Amnesty International didn’t when it published “Israel’s Occupation: 50 Years of Dispossession” in the same year.

By challenging and attacking the idea that an occupation has been in place for decades it is very easy to focus on October 7th as a moment with no connection to anything that came before it. It is easy to avoid having to grapple with these Amnesty International findings in that report:

Since the occupation first began in June 1967, Israel’s ruthless policies of land confiscation, illegal settlement, and dispossession, coupled with rampant discrimination, have inflicted immense suffering on Palestinians, depriving them of their basic rights.

Israel’s military rule disrupts every aspect of daily life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It continues to affect whether, when, and how Palestinians can travel to work or school, go abroad, visit their relatives, earn a living, attend a protest, access their farmland, or even access electricity or a clean water supply. It means daily humiliation, fear, and oppression. People’s entire lives are effectively held hostage by Israel.

The history is not easy. Jews have been living on this land for a very long time. But so have Palestinians. But context must not be eliminated in service of simple, easy-to-swallow explanations. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 resulted in 750,000 Palestinians becoming refugees, many of them finding a new home in those occupied lands. For Israel supporters these people left of their own volition and because they were told to do so by Arab leaders fighting against the establishment of Israel. But there is another story here. In a recently published book, “Our Palestine Question: Israel and American Jewish Dissent, 1948-1978” by Geoffrey Levin another perspective is developed:

While Israel long denied its role in displacing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948, Israel’s early leaders welcomed the development and quickly sought to consolidate what they viewed as gains. The mass displacement of Palestinians meant that Israel would have a much larger Jewish majority, roughly 80 percent, rather than the narrow majority of 55 percent that the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan had envisioned for a Jewish state. The refugees’ permanent absence ensured that there would be more land in Israel on which to settle new Jewish immigrants and more material wealth available for the state and for Jews in terms of agricultural land and “abandoned” residential property. It also meant, in the eyes of many Israeli Jews, that there would be fewer Palestinians in the country who were inclined to be hostile to the very existence of the Jewish state.

Those who challenged Glazer’s words sought to marginalize him as a Jew because of the assumption that it is Jewish to support Israel and anti-Jewish (antisemitic) to oppose it. In doing this they deny a long history of debate about Zionism and Israel within the Jewish community to make their political certainty easier.  Historian Levin found in his look at the American Jewish Community as Israel was created that “Even though American Jews were never united on the question, leaders of major American Jewish organizations, remarkably, basically all held the same position—that Arab opposition to Zionism was certainly not antisemitic.”

This erasure of context makes it easy for the ADL’s Midwest office to release a study of Ceasefire Now protests in Chicago that demonizes the protesters because they oppose Zionism.

 “While this activism was initially limited to criticism of and calls for action against the state of Israel, it has evolved into action against those whom activists refer to as Zionists, which in practice has often meant ‘Jews’…Anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism. Zionism, broadly defined as the movement for Jewish self-determination and statehood in the Jewish people’s historic homeland in the land of Israel, is frequently denigrated and impugned as a form of racism and bigotry by activists.”

The elimination of context is a powerful political tool. It makes it easy to ignore facts and competing narratives. It makes it easy to ignite your supporters. It is the strategy of MAGA and its leader Donald Trump.

But, speaking as a Jew I think it is doing great damage to my community. It makes it impossible for us to continue a centuries-long tradition of argument and disagreement in the search for understanding and truth; a tradition that recognizes that complex problems cannot have simple, quick answers.

I invite you to not get seduced by the comfort of simplicity. I invite you to be open to exploring the broader contexts of Israel/Palestine. I invite you to be challenged and left uncomfortable no matter what your starting point is. I am convinced that only in this way can we stop the horror of the moment, whether in your mind that horror begins and ends on October 7, or if is taking place in Gaza as I write these words. I invite you to a conversation,…if you’d like to join me.