Sainati: The absence of Palestine in my Jewish experience

Leo Sainati, Op-Ed Contributor

I was raised a reform Jew in a Northern Virginia congregation which didn’t have the largest Jewish population, but enough to make up a decent-sized community. I also participated in a regional youth group and went to a summer camp sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism. While I regard Judaism as having a very positive impact on my life, its overtly pro-Israel stance has always lingered as a point of contention.

Understandably, Judaism is inherently pro-Israel. The country is our homeland, given to us as a place of refuge after the Holocaust by the international community; a sanctuary for a group that has been the victim of attacks for most of history. We had to struggle to keep Israel, fighting numerous wars with neighboring countries that were not eager to have a democratic, Jewish state on their borders. As a result, many Jews regard Israel with much pride. However, many are also blind to its faults.

As an American Jew, I never associated much with Israel. Yes, it was a sacred place for my people, but besides that, it seemed to be just another country where Jews lived. In Sunday school I learned Israeli geography, customs, culture, cuisine and language. I knew all the words and tune to the Israeli national anthem, and studied the symbolism of its flag. Leaving Sunday school, my image of Israel was filled with sunny beaches, ancient ruins, exotic markets and beautiful deserts. All of this holds true, but I was unprepared for the harsh truths about Israel.

Having always been shown maps of the entire Israeli-Palestinian region that left out the Gaza Strip and West Bank, I will admit that I did not even know Palestine existed for much of my childhood. Under no circumstances was Palestine or anything remotely related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict mentioned with a critical view in any of my countless Jewish experiences. I was surprised, as a result, when I learned that Israel was not victimless in its struggle with Palestine, killing innocent civilians and encroaching on Palestinian land. I vehemently defended Israel when faced with horrifying anecdotes and facts, yet began to realize that my Jewish image of Israel and the real one were quite different. In this regard, I knew Judaism had failed me as it has and is failing many others; the history of Israel should not be taught through the lens of Judaism alone.

Judaism stresses the importance of welcoming those who are different than us and understanding those with whom we disagree, so it surprised me no discussion surrounded Israel’s culpability in regard to Palestine. In July 2014, while I was at a Jewish summer camp for teen leadership, three Israeli teenagers were found murdered. The whole camp was convened, prayers were said and mourning followed. Yet just a day later, when 16-year-old Palestinian Muhammad Abu Khdeir was abducted, beaten, choked and burned by two Israelis? Nothing.

This column isn’t meant to be an anti-Israel tirade, as both sides are far from blameless in this horrible conflict. Yet Judaism, or at least my reform Judaism experiences, failed to give me a balanced and educated view of the country we adore and call home. No doubt Israel is sacred and a truly special place, but is it Jewish to not criticize it? Does not educating the next generation of Jews with both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian narrative instill them with Jewish values? How can we be good Jews by brushing past Israel’s actions and blindly support our homeland? We need to hold Israel accountable.

Regardless of whether you are pro-Israel, feeding people one side of the narrative is unquestionably harmful to Judaism. It is appealing to relish in the small but mighty power of the Israeli Defense Forces, savor our independence and statehood, and finally be able to call Israel a home for the Jews. But doing so by disregarding the Palestinian narrative is disingenuous and misleading.

Leo Sainati is a SESP freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.