Speaking to the Presbyterians About Selective Divestment
On February 8, 2005, JVP Co-director Liat Weingart and Israeli human rights attorney Shamai Leibovitz spoke to an audience of members of the Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Below is a transcript of Liat’s speech. You can download and watch videos of both speeches at the following links: Liat Weingart | Shamai Leibovitz.
Speech to Chicago Presbytery
My name is Liat Weingart. I am a co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the largest and oldest grassroots Jewish peace organizations in the US. JVP has some 10,000 members and supporters, and a board of advisors that includes high-profile American Jews like Tony Kushner and Adrienne Rich and Israeli peace activists.
JVP was the first Jewish group to publicly support the Presbyterian Church’s decision to investigate selective divestment. The decision on selective divestment is an incredibly brave one. It is a strong statement that Americans will no longer continue to fund the humiliation and brutality that Palestinians suffer every day. I thank you for making that decision, especially given how painful the reaction from the organized Jewish community has been. The evidence of that is in the room with us today, with the glaring absence of the three other panelists. But your decision to investigate selective divestment is evidence of your clear commitment to the Jewish people.
There is a silent majority of Jews in the US who feel completely alienated from mainline Jewish groups because those groups are no longer in line with their central beliefs of justice and equality. Most Jews in the US are not affiliated with the institutions that purport to represent us. Never in American history have so many Jewish groups sprung up outside of the mainstream of the Jewish community, in defiance of the flawed leadership of our community.
By making a decision to investigate selective divestment from Israel’s occupation, you have made it clear that you recognize the core of what being Jewish is all about – respect for human life and dignity. I want to thank you for being brave enough to stand strongly as allies to Jewish people.
It’s so difficult to be allies to Jews when Jews are accusing you of betraying them. But at the core of being an ally to us is understanding why some of us are reacting with great anger – and then refusing to be deterred by that anger. Actually, Jews are stuck in the middle of a cycle – because of how we’ve been oppressed, we’ve become oppressors.
I am an Israeli-American Jew and the grandchild of four Holocaust survivors. All four of my grandparents were forced to leave their homes and everything they knew because they were hunted by the Nazis. When my grandparents fled their homes, they left behind their entire extended family, most of who were killed. My great grandmother lost all nine of her sisters and brothers. In October of last year, I traveled to Poland to learn about how they lived and died. And I went to learn about what their murder means for people like me, the children and grandchildren of survivors.
In Poland, I stood on the soil that my family lived on for generations. It’s the same soil that’s stained with their blood and ashes. I walked into the crematoria and gas chambers at Auschwitz, where I think my family was murdered. Since October, I’ve had nightmares every night. When I close my eyes to sleep, I’ll see a pile of burning human corpses. I have a recurring nightmare that I’m standing alone in front of a pile of corpses. I can’t turn and run, and I can’t scream, and I’m horribly alone, knowing that my family is somewhere in the pile. Or I dream that I’m surrounded by the ghosts of six million Jews, my family among them, angry beyond belief at everything that was taken from them. No scream is loud enough to express their anguish. (I’m not telling you this as a story, I’m telling you because this is my experience every night of my life.)
In fact the crematoria are in rubble. Outside of Israel, most Jews are as secure as most other human beings. However, the subjective experience of the millennia of persecution and genocide is quite another thing. Since my visit to Auschwitz last October, the constant fear that I and many other Jews live with has come to the surface of my consciousness. In some ways, my nightmares are a new phenomenon. But in reality, Auschwitz and the legacy of persecution and targeting that my family faced was always in my house as I grew up. No one talked about it, but you could feel it. A constant level of tension and anxiety that you wouldn’t notice until you woke up with a stiff neck and sore muscles, not having any idea what you spent the night running from. I know this is a common experience for Jews. One of my Jewish friends wonders which neighbors will hide her children just in case there’s a severe anti-Semitic outbreak. I’ve heard a number of Jews say that they think about having an extra suitcase packed, “just in case.” My grandfather stocked our cabinets with pieces of bread wrapped in cloth, “just in case.”
Since most of us have yet to heal from the traumas we have endured, most Jews do not feel safe. And many Jews feel homeless, no matter their level of material stability. We are prone to feeling and even acting as if the gas chambers in Auschwitz are still functioning. We’re scared and ready to fight for our survival. Anyone who had our history would be. Today, in Israel-Palestine, terrified, nuclear-armed Jews rule over 3 1/2 million Palestinians who live without any kind of representation in the government that controls the most mundane details of their day-to-day lives. Both peoples suffer, but who is the victim, and who is the oppressor? For every Israeli Jew killed in a suicide bombing, four Palestinians are killed by an Israeli tank, helicopter, or bulldozer – probably operated by a scared young Israeli. (I should say an American helicopter, since they’re built by Boeing, and an American bulldozer, because they’re built by Caterpillar.) Every day, Palestinians encounter scared Israeli soldiers at hundreds of Israeli checkpoints that choke Palestinian roads. Palestinians live in fear that their homes will be destroyed at any moment by a Caterpillar bulldozer, and human rights groups in Israel say that 95% of home demolitions have nothing to do with security.
Why am I here? Because we need help from you, our allies. Yes, we need you to understand how the oppression of Jews has led to oppression by Jews. We need you to cleave to us. But we also need you to help us stop. Help us stop destroying Palestinian homes, subjecting Palestinians to random brutality, suppressing the liberty of another people. PCUSA’s decision to investigate selective divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation is an important step in helping us to break that cycle of victim/oppressor.
The country of my birth is killing itself from the inside and Americans, mostly, are profiting from it. I’ve heard people say that divestment from Israel’s occupation will hurt Israel’s economy. There’s very little evidence for that. 75% of the military aid that Israel receives from the US must be spent buying military equipment from American companies. So, selective divestment from the occupation wouldn’t primarily affect Israeli companies but American ones. Many of those companies lobby our government for a warlike American policy towards Israel and Palestine. And at this moment, the Israeli economy is so heavily militarized that other industries, let alone programs to meet human needs, are neglected. Selectively divesting from the occupation means investing in brighter futures for Israelis and Palestinians.
I’m not asking you to selectively divest from Israel’s occupation just because it’s the right thing to do. But because we Jews need you to stand with us now as our allies. Cleave to us. But expect things of us. Don’t let us get away with anything less than what we’re capable of. We know you feel bad about what has happened to Jews. Sometimes this “feeling bad” has made our allies timid. It comes across like: we didn’t keep the Jews of Europe alive, so we’ll just keep quiet while they oppress and humiliate the Palestinians. We need you to stop feeling that bad. We need you at our side as partners in our liberation. And we will not be truly liberated as long as we are occupying and bullying the Palestinians. We need you to understand the history we’ve endured. But we also need you to persist in seeing the best in us and consistently expecting and demanding it of us.
There’s a verse from Matthew Chapter 5 that I love. It’s verse 14.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
The General Assembly made an incredibly brave and powerful and right decision by choosing to investigate selective divestment from the Israeli occupation. And the Presbyterian Church has been attacked since that decision was made. Cleaving to your Jewish brothers and sisters will not be comfortable now. It will not be easy. But don’t let go of us, and don’t let go of all that we’re capable of. The time is now – set the lamp on the stand. Stick to the decision that the GA made to investigate selective divestment from the occupation.
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