Blessed Are You God, Who Sets Captives Free
Our Zoom call this week will be at our regular time: Friday at Noon EDT.
Our guests will be Sally Abed, a Palestinian from Haifa and leader of Standing Together, which brings Jews and Palestinians together to struggle for justice and peace, and Avrum Burg, former Knesset speaker who has been working on creating a Palestinian-Jewish party dedicated to equality in Israel-Palestine. Amidst this horror, I want to talk to two people who are devoting their lives to the freedom and safety of everyone between the river and the sea.
As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Omar Barghouti, Benny Morris, Noam Chomsky, and Bret Stephens.
See you on Friday,
Hi. Our call this Friday is gonna be at noon for paid subscribers. It’s gonna be with Avrum Burg and Sally Abed. Sally is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and Avram is the former speaker of the Knesset. Both of them work to create a joint Palestinian-Jewish struggle for freedom and equality, and I just felt like those are the people I wanted to talk to at this moment. I honestly didn’t really know what I was gonna say or what I was gonna do in this video. I’ve just really been struggling. I mean not like, you know, not like people in Israel have been struggling, you know, certainly and not like people in Gaza are struggling. But just, you know, this is around the time of my father’s yahrzeit, his third yahrzeit. It always happens right before Sukkot. And the weird thing is that Sukkot is called Z’man Simchateinu, the season of our joy. So it’s always such a strange time for me because this is the period of collective joy, you know, it brings back the memory of my father.
But then something happened around this time that really made me so hopeful and reminded me of him because one of the things that I remember as a kid that made a really deep impression on me was that South Africans, mostly blacks South Africans from the ANC, would come visit our home in Cambridge, Massachusetts when they were going on fundraising tours. I don’t know what they were doing in the United States. My father often hadn’t seen these people long time, but they would come sometimes and stay with us. And I would see my father with them and I could just see that it was a vision for me watching my father with these people—this is during apartheid, you know—in Cambridge of like a vision of a South Africa that could exist, you know, that didn’t exist.
And as it happened, a Palestinian friend of mine was visiting New York and stayed with me. So, it was just near the time my father’s yahrzeit and my kids were getting to hang out with him. And I thought, you know, they are now maybe seeing a vision of a kind of interaction between Jews and Palestinians, you know, of love and admiration and equality. And maybe they will have that vision that I had of a different South Africa, of a different Israel-Palestine. And then I was in shul for the end of this holiday, which was over Shabbat and then Simchat Torah. And then the attack happened and I—because I wasn’t on electronics until Sunday night. So, it happened Saturday morning after the newspapers, and everyone in synagogue was kind of like knew something had happened. We were saying Tehillim. We were saying like Psalms. But people didn’t really know what was going on. And I think it was also just a weirdness of like, if you knew too much what was going on, then maybe that was a sign that you might have been violating Shabbat. And then this holiday ended in Israel and so people in Israel could communicate, but the holiday is one long day longer here in the diaspora for reasons that I won’t get into.
And so, then it was like people were trying to hear from their loved ones who could call them, but they couldn’t receive the calls. And people were doing all kinds of crazy things like trying to get non-Jewish people to turn on their phones and check their WhatsApps for them. And I was just, you know, I was like still in this cocoon of the Chag of the holiday, not on any phones. And so, I was just kind of like dreading when that ended on Sunday night, and it would all hit me with all its full of force. And, you know, my kids’ reaction was interesting as they really didn’t want me to say anything that would make us hated. You know, again, I don’t wanna suggest that these are significant problems compared to the problems that people in Gaza and in Israel are facing right now. But it was, you know, one person said to my daughter, ‘well, you know, your dad must be really happy about this. Are you happy?’ And, you know, my son said, ‘we were gonna be the most hated people on this side of Central Park.’ And so, I was thinking and I just, you know, how can I convey to people the depths of my sorrow, you know, of my pain that, you know, how can I—because so often like the way that we do it in the Jewish community is the way that you show that you really are feeling the pain of B’nai Israel, of our people, is by anger and by saying you will lash out, right? No mercy, right? That’s how you show you really love other Jews. How do you show you really love other Jews by showing that nothing Israel does to the Palestinians will bother you. The fiercer the better, right? Then you really, really love other Jews. That’s how you prove it, right? Like that’s the currency, right, that we have, right? But if you don’t believe that, how do you show the idea of Jews as a family? B’nai Israel. The children of Israel. The metaphor from Genesis of us being children of one extended family that becomes a nation in slavery. How do you show that you genuinely believe that? That you do feel like the pain of any member of our people is my pain. How do you show that if you don’t believe that punishing Palestinians, that killing Palestinians, that blockading Palestinians is our path to safety.
And I feel like at this moment, it’s so hard for Jews to hear anything other than what is gonna keep us safe? And I think that is because of this powerful metaphor of family that has been reinforced by a real trauma that is kind of often in the deep recesses of people, but then comes to the surface at moments like this when you see Jews being killed, being kidnapped, and horrific, horrific things. I have no patience for people who justify those things. I have no patience for them. I really don’t wanna be in conversation with those folks right now. It’s too painful for me. But I also cannot try to prove to people that I, and people like me, that we genuinely love other Jews and genuinely feel for other Jews by endorsing a set of reactions that put aside the horror that they bring to Palestinians. Put aside the horror of cutting off Gaza from electricity and water and food. Put aside the horror. This does not keep Jews safe. If it kept Jews safe, what happened on Saturday morning would never have happened because Israel has blockaded Gaza for more than 15 years now. Israel has pummeled Gaza, bombarded Gaza again and again and again. G-d knows if beating up on Palestinians, if brutalizing Palestinians kept Jews safe, Jews in Israel would have been safe a long time ago, starting with the Nakba when most of the people who live in Gaza were forced into Gaza. If this was the way to keep Jews safe, this would never have happened. This logic in other contexts, if it were not us, we would understand it so simply. The logic is for every Hamas member that you kill, for every bunch of weapons that you destroy, you are producing more trauma, and more hatred, and more rage, and more people, and they will join Hamas. And if Hamas doesn’t exist because the Palestinians have been fighting against Zionism in Israel long before Hamas started, some other organization will exist. And if you get rid of this set of guns, people are ingenious and creative. They will find more guns. They will make more guns and you will be where we were today again.
And this is not true just for Israel. This is true for when Britain was dealing with the IRA. And when apartheid South Africa was dealing with ANC. And for that matter when the United States was dealing with its kind of neocolonial conflicts. You have to deal with the root of the problem, which is that you are cheek by jowl two peoples in a very close proximity to one another. And in the long term—maybe not even the long term—if those people who live right next door to you, if they are not safe, if they are not free, if they don’t have a basic, decent life, sooner or later they’re going to fuck with you, and they’re gonna mean that you can’t have that either. That the lives of Israeli Jews and the lives of Palestinians are inextricably intertwined. This is what Martin Luther King tried to tell white Americans about their relationship with Black Americans: that our fates were intertwined. And just because white Americans were on top at this moment, they were sitting on top of a volcano because the misery they were inflicting on Black Americans would come and reach them some form or another sooner or later. And it and it came in the most horrifying, horrifying way on Saturday.
And so, I know I’m not gonna move anybody who I would want to try to move in the Jewish community in a moment like this by talking about international law and human rights and morality as precious as those things are. So, I would simply say to them: is this the way to keep us safe? Israel goes into Gaza on the ground for days and days and days. God knows how many people die. Then what? Then what? Hamas is still gonna be there. And if Hamas weren’t there, some other group would resist, because you know what? The people who launched violent attacks at Israel in the 1950s and the 1960s and the 1970s and the 1980s, they weren’t Hamas because Hamas didn’t even exist. It’s not about Hamas. It’s about a struggle with the Palestinian people that can only be resolved when both peoples have the basic freedoms that all people deserve.
So, I’m sure Sally and Avrum will say much more profound things than I did and I feel profoundly inadequate in my ability to speak now given the enormity of the suffering that is taking place on the ground. And here I am sitting, you know, in my apartment on the Upper West Side. But every morning among the prayers that Jews say is a prayer for the release of captives. And I want to say that prayer a second time today for the Israelis who are captive in Gaza—I can’t even imagine their terror—and also for all of the Palestinians who are captive in Gaza and in different ways everywhere that Palestinians live without the same basic rights, that G-d would will free all captives. Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam matir asurim. Blessed are you, Lord our G-d who sets captives free. I’ll see you on Friday.