Local teacher and self-declared lefty Michael Levy is troubled by responses he is seeing across the world and in Santa Cruz in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. On Halloween, in downtown Santa Cruz, he felt a “gut punch” when he saw one of his lefty friends joining in with a controversial Palestinian slogan. As a Jew, he felt offended and angry and wanted to “smack him.” He decided to unpack his anger with research. Here, he makes a plea for others to do the same.
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I was downtown on Halloween evening, enjoying the wild parade of costumes, when an activist group marched past, chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” One of the marchers, whom I know from lefty groups I’ve been in around town, waved at me. The interesting part was how much I wanted to smack him.
That is not like me … so I thought I should look into it.
Why did I have that impulse? Well, even though I am Jewish, I haven’t paid that much attention to Israel throughout my life. But since the current disaster has unfolded, I have paid a lot more attention. I know some Israelis. And Jews everywhere are my people. We are a people that was turned away from country after country in the midst of the Holocaust (Canada, the U.S., Cuba, etc.). I am alive only because my ancestors thought to get out of Europe in the 1920s.
But what about that slogan? It is so loaded that there was a movement recently to have it declared illegal to chant publicly in the United Kingdom. (Fortunately, freedom of speech prevailed.) In case you don’t know, the “river” is the Jordan River, which forms the eastern boundary of Israel and the West Bank area. The “sea” is the Mediterranean, that is the west coast of Israel (and of the Gaza Strip).
I looked online to learn the history of the chant and what it really means. And the answer is … depends who you talk to. To some — including the members of Hamas — it means the Jews must be eliminated from the entire region, so that it can be an ethnically cleansed, non-Jewish, Palestinian state. (That was the interpretation that made the chant feel like a gut punch to me on Halloween.)
To others, it means that the region should be a secular, democratic state instead of a Jewish state, where all the residents can live with equity and peace.
That’s called a “one-state solution,” and I believe that if England and the U.S. hadn’t set up the Jews and Arabs to be at each other’s throats over the past 100 years, it could have been possible. Is it now? I don’t know, but here is a Wikipedia summary of a 2021 survey of Mideast experts:
“If a two-state solution is not achieved, 77% predict ‘a one-state reality akin to apartheid’ and … just 1% think a binational state with equal rights for all inhabitants is likely. Fifty-two percent say that the two-state solution is no longer possible.”
Oy. It’s very easy to get hopeless about Israel.
I myself have been heartbroken for years over the brutal mess and how much worse it’s gotten under the racist leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But, like Jewish and Palestinian peace activists I have met and listened to, I choose to hold onto a small flame of hope, regardless.
I don’t know what to advocate for now, other than to speak out against the mistaken idea that the region should or can be cleansed of any of its peoples, and against the terrible violence that implies. But I do have an appeal to marchers, Facebook and blog posters, and all those who speak out about the extreme need for change in this part of the world.
Can we insist on complete respect toward both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis? Can we check our slogans and messaging and try to understand how they are going to land with the members of each group? Can we avoid jumping on a bandwagon (talking to my dear lefty friends here) that, through awareness or not, has let anti-Jewish feelings infiltrate the essential cause of ending anti-Palestinian oppression?
In these times, we can’t afford to throw anyone under the bus. That trip does not take us to any world we want to live in.
Last, I recommend taking outraged feelings to a safe place where you can vent them and sort them out … that’s what I did and now I don’t feel like smacking my chanting friend anymore. Anger is great for getting us off our butts, but not so great as a guide to action. Peace.
Michael Levy is a local musician, teacher and facilitator who has called Santa Cruz home since 1979.