We must not stifle those who question Israel's policies

Much of my identity is tied to the Hamilton Jewish community, where my husband and I grew up. I have wonderful memories of my 11 years at Jewish day school, attending synagogue regularly with my family, and many community celebrations at the JCC. 

Now, as a mother with four young children, I struggle with how to instill my love of Judaism and sense of community to them. Even though my children are all under 10, our discussions and bedtime reading regularly centre around human rights conversations, often driven by current events. We spent significant time last summer discussing the Black Lives Matter movement, George Floyd’s death, and systemic police brutality.  We read books about our country’s mistreatment of Indigenous people, the atrocities committed within the residential school system, and ongoing steps towards reconciliation. And now, we discuss Israel and the endless plight of the Palestinian people. I struggle internally to balance my family’s desire to be committed to social justice, and recognize that we cannot fulfill this goal without committing ourselves to work for — or at the very least talk openly about — equality, opportunity, and the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people. I am deeply concerned about our community’s unconditional support for Israel, and unwillingness to engage with any form of dissent within the community.

We do not shy away from contentious conversations with our sons. They are aware antisemitism is real and on the rise. My grandparents fled Europe in 1938, and my children know these stories well. They understand why they had to leave, they are aware that Hitler’s aim was to kill their great grandparents and annihilate the Jewish people and they know that Israel was established as a country in 1948, partially as a result of this. But they also know that in order for this to occur, people had to be displaced. We talk about the Palestinian families, very much like our own; large, educated, loving and devoted families, who only want for their children the very same thing we want for ours. 

I am no longer able to ignore Israel’s violations of international human rights. I cannot accept the narrative that Israel is solely defending its right to exist, as justifications for its actions. It is not enough for me to justify Israel’s military actions by saying Hamas does worse.  While I do not pretend to have the answers to this decades old conflict, the only way forward as a community is to ask the difficult and uncomfortable questions. 

I am not alone among North American Jewry in feeling this way. Organizations like IfNotNow, Independent Jewish Voices, and JStreet have recently had significant increases in participation. Their membership is mostly comprised of progressive and young Jews, who, like myself, proudly identify as Jewish, believe that human rights are universal and indivisible and must be upheld without exception, and yearn for Palestinians and Israelis alike to have the right to peaceful and secure lives. 

We, as a community must not stifle those who question Israel’s political policies. We cannot equate opposition to the current Israeli government’s policies to antisemitism. We must find a place within our own community where dissent is both accepted and respected. 

Growing up, I spent a lot of time at Temple Anshe Shalom, and two of my children currently attend Kehila Heschel, the school located within its walls. I am reminded of the guidance that adorns the entrance: “To do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God.” Let us all work to make these our community’s guiding principles with respect to the ongoing Palestinian and Israeli conflict.

Rachel Loewith Rochwerg

Letters published in the Letters to the Editor section do not necessarily reflect the views of the Hamilton Jewish News or its publisher, the Hamilton Jewish Federation. To submit a letter for publication, email wschneider@jewishhamilton.org.