This California resolution conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism hits close to home … literally.
For the past two months, I was subletting a beautiful bedroom, in a beautiful house, with a beautiful backyard garden. On the few occasions when I invited friends over, nearly all of them marveled at the house. The splendid plants, the white piano, the cozy front-porch armchair, the kitchen swimming in sunlight. Each time, my stomach would turn, and I would shrink with awkwardness. It’s the same experience I have, sometimes, in a gorgeous, hip little coffeehouse in a gentrifying Bay Area neighborhood. The glass terrariums with their jewel-like moss and succulents. The indoor hanging bike racks and convenient public tire pump. The fancy teas in Mason jars on worn wood tables. The queer styles and asymmetrical haircuts. I enjoy these places, and I often avoid them (and not just for my wallet’s sake). They induce a special queasiness, the disquieting pleasantness of displacement.
This house — the house where I was staying: the landlords/housemates who owned it (1) run a nonprofit that “celebrates the earth-based traditions of Judaism,” and (2) have deep ties to community in Israel. Neither of these two facts poses an inherent problem. But I wondered, and I worried. Was my live-in landlords’ earthy loveliness part of the soft face of oppression?
And how would I even go about finding out?
First of all, here’s why such a worry might occur to me. From what I understand, certain Israeli organizations have used environmentalism as a justification for expansionism and settler colonialism in Palestine.
Determined to “make the desert bloom”, an international organisation — the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (JNF-KKL, or JNF) planted forests, recreational parks and nature reserves to cover over the ruins of Palestinian villages, as refugees were scattered far from, or worse, a few hilltops away from, the land upon which they and their ancestors had based their lives and livelihoods.
Today, as Israel portrays itself as a “green democracy”, an eco-friendly pioneer in agricultural techniques such as drip irrigation, dairy farming, desert ecology, water management and solar energy, Israeli factories drain toxic waste and industrial pollutants down from occupied West Bank hilltops into Palestinian villages, and over-pumping of groundwater aquifers denies Palestinians access to vital water sources in a context of increasing water scarcity and pollution.
For me, this echoes painfully with the doctrine of “manifest destiny,” and the US colonizer history that continues to romanticize the “purple-mountain majesty” of a land bloodied by genocide and slavery. Again — not that all environmental groups endorse or perpetuate (whether tacitly or overtly) colonialism and genocide. But some have, and some do.
How did my landlords understand this pattern of greenwashed settler colonialism, and view their connection to it as US Jewish leaders practicing earth-based spirituality in deep community with people in Israel/Palestine?
I couldn’t ask. I was afraid. Not so much of what they would say, but of the potential fracas that might ensue from even raising the question. A fracas that would probably mean bad news for a certain tenant.
For similar reasons, the entire time I was staying in their house I avoided bringing friends around. What if they criticized Israel within earshot of the people who owned my home?
I mentioned my landlord quandary the other day to a friend of mine — a friend whose political opinions I deeply respect, and who has done organizing work around Boycott-Divest-and-Sanction of Israel (BDS) in solidarity with Palestinian people. At first, he pushed back and questioned why I hadn’t raised my concerns with my housemates soon after moving in with them.
In general, I agree — if Person A has a problem with Person B, it’s far better to ask Person B about the issue directly. Otherwise, Person A will likely go on making assumptions, resigning themselves to semi-resentful eggshell walking — if not all-out passive-aggression.
I also agree with my friend that if I wanted to, I could potentially use my Jewish ancestry — Holocaust, distant family in Israel, etc. — to make certain arguments in a way that could be somewhat easier for my housemates to hear. Maybe.
And yet. California legislators lump together well-founded criticism of the state of Israel with attacks on Jewishness itself. Was it unreasonable to infer that my landlords may share this belief? They may not — I absolutely grant that possibility. But was I willing to risk outraging them to find out?
My answer: no. At least not alone, not while I was living under their roof (without an easy fallback plan), and not while the potential payoff was so limited. After all, these are not folks with a ton of power (I don’t think), and neither are they people with whom I anticipate remaining in community. If they were my family, or my sangha, or big-time school administrators, it might be a different story.
On the other hand, collectively resisting legal restrictions on criticizing Israel, mobilizing workplace/economic power in solidarity with Palestinian struggle, and creatively opposing racist pro-Israeli propaganda in our communities, strike me as great ideas.