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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 1/15/09

Israel, Palestine, and a Personal Conflict

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By Rowan Wolf

I come from a varied background which has taken me on a winding and somewhat tortuous trail throughout my life. There are a series of threads that tie me to Judaism and hence Israel, and to the Palestinians.

I come from what is sometimes referred to as "humble" beginnings. In my case I was the only child (as far as I know) of mixed race parents who lived in poverty in the inner city of Kansas City. At the age of 7 (after my father was imprisoned, and my mother "remarried") I was removed from my mother's custody and put within the "tender care" of the Jackson County Juvenile Justice department. After almost a year in confinement at the downtown facility I was sent out into foster homes.

Throughout my early life I was steeped in a variety of Christian denominations, and dutifully baptized in each along the way - Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist.

I was also a child from the inner city of Kansas City dumped into a generally middle class world which glaringly contrasted and conflicted with my beginnings. I was deeply aware of the inequalities evident between these worlds, and the prejudice of the middle class towards the poor. I bore the insults and assaults from foster parents, other children, and other children's parents. That disgust that often bordered on hatred that was directed at me marked me deeply. It was a clear and conscious choice on my part to fight for social justice. It started early - by the time I was 10 - and continues to this day.

One might wonder how this ties to the issue at hand. Throughout my life in a variety of social justice and civil rights movements and actions I have worked side-by-side with Jews. Whether in the Womens' Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Farm Workers Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, the anti-poverty movement, and even the environmental and alternative media organizations, there were Jews.

Some of the Jews were "practicing" and some were not, but they shared a deep (and cultural commitment) to justice and equality. To a person, the hundreds of Jews I worked with were dedicated to the depths of their souls to a world of justice and peace. The religious Jews sometimes framed this as a burden placed in their hands (and the hands of all Jews) by God. Their unswerving dedication to do good was a "mitvah." In this context, a mitvah commonly means an act of kindness and consideration that is done without thought or expectation of recompense or recognition. In fact, most mitvahs are done or given secretly, and these are the most smiled upon by God. Hence, many of the Jews I worked with were not in leadership positions giving news conferences or getting paid for the work in the movement. They worked, often tirelessly and often at great personal risk, out of the limelight. More "tightly" mitvah means following the 613 commandments in the Torah.

Not surprisingly perhaps, my path of social justice also became part of my spiritual path. Also not surprisingly that spiritual path led me to Judaism.

Being a foster child, I came to adulthood without this society's "natural" support network of a family. Being a lesbian and childless, I did not plug into the extended support network of family-by-marriage. Being a social justice activist in Reno, Nevada (where I lived at the time) was a small circle indeed.

I found myself in a spiritual crisis that overlapped with my social and political crisis. Long since I had disconnected myself from Christianity and institutionalized religion. By accident, or perhaps divine guidance, I found my thoughts and heart drawn to Judaism. I started studying and ultimately ended up at the doors of Temple Sinai - a reform congregation in Reno, NV. A co-worker who became a friend was a member of Temple Sinai and I went to temple weekly with her and (and sometimes her husband). What I found at Temple Sinai was not just a community, but a community that shared what the activist Jews throughout my life had shared - a deep sensitivity and commitment to justice.

Ultimately, I took the classes - including classes in Hebrew - to follow the steps for conversion to Judaism. I converted and became a formal member of Temple Sinai. I had found both a spiritual home and the warm embrace of a community, something that I had never experienced in my life to that point. One of the hardest things I did in moving from Reno to Portland, Oregon was leaving Temple Sinai and the home I had found there.

On arriving in Portland, I visited a number of synagogues a number of times but never found the community I had found at Temple Sinai. One of the Portland congregations (for example) was reaching out to gays and lesbians and wanted to start a separate support group within the congregation. This was so far from the inclusiveness of my Reno congregation that I walked away in sadness. Acceptance is not a group within a group and an effort at integration. It was the hug of the grandmothers (and fathers) of Temple Sinai who saw me and my sexual orientation was just not an issue. This does not mean that they just "overlooked" it, but it was not an issue in that they acknowledged that it was part of who I am - and it didn't matter.

Since moving to Portland, I have also been privileged to have the opportunity to work and talk with many Muslims, and most of them have also been people of good heart who hope and work for justice and peace. More than a few of them have been dramatically impacted by events in the Middle East, in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Kuwait, Sudan, Palestine, and the "counterterrorism" activities in the United States.

Slowly, I creep up on the heart of this story.

Why? Because of all of the above. because of my understanding of Judaism, and the history and culture of Jews with whom I have worked and worshiped; and because of my friendships and interactions with Muslims. I have long struggled with the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. For a long time, I supported the idea of a Jewish state, but also felt that the Palestinians were not being dealt with in either fairness or justice. Over the last ten years or so I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the very concept of a "Jewish" state. Repeatedly, we are seeing that religiously controlled governments are not particularly "just." This is true whether looking at Afghanistan under the Taliban, the United States growing marriage of "Christianity" and government, or Judaism and Israel.

The atrocity of ongoing political and military actions between Palestinians and Israel flies in the face (and soul) of everything I connect to in relationship to Judaism. The leadership of Israel has apparently become what they hate, and embrace it with religious vigor and (self)righteous victimhood.

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Rowan Wolf is an activist and sociologist living in Oregon. She is the founder and principle author of Uncommon Thought Journal, and Editor in Chief of Cyrano's Journal Today.

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