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July 22, 2019 Lynne Peskoe-Yang

An Israeli Official Called My Family a “Second Holocaust” — and I Felt Relieved

In a recent meeting, the Israeli Minister of Education, Rafi Peretz, called my family part of “a second Holocaust.” According to three sources present, the new Netanyahu appointee told the Cabinet, in response to a presentation on demographic trends among American Jews, that the rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in the United States was the moral equivalent of our people’s greatest trauma in recent memory. 

When I read his comment, I braced myself for a wave of indignation. Instead, I felt relief.

Like so many American Jews, I was raised with the image of Israel as a beacon of safety. The world was made up of nations that could turn hostile to Jews at any moment, if they weren’t already openly antisemitic. This warning, fraught with worry and love, came from my elders, my teachers, my rabbi – people who’d experienced a direct antisemitism that, at the time, felt very foreign to me as a white, Jewish child in a nearly half-Jewish neighborhood. But I believed them, because they knew better: We are never safe, not really; not here.

The message resonated with me, but the implied addendum – that Israel was our real home – didn’t stick. I could not reconcile my Jewish outlook on the world with the reality of an increasingly authoritarian nation, where dreams of peace were undercut by political reality under Netanyahu’s conservative pro-military bloc.

I met Palestinians and Arab Israelis whose lives and cultures were being held hostage by the occupation. I felt more and more alienated from Jewish Israeli society. I felt for my Israeli peers, but we increasingly did not understand each other any more than a random grouping of twenty-somethings from opposite sides of the planet might, despite our shared Jewishness.

As my awareness of the world grew, I felt myself letting go of my parents’ and grandparents’ Israel-centric Jewish identity. But it wasn’t just Jewish nationalism I was giving up. In fact the process seemed complete around the same time I stopped accepting American nationalism as a productive ideology.

During this time, I came out as bisexual and was embraced by a community of LGBTQ+ Jews I had never known existed; to my delight, nearly all of them were activists. Furthermore, the speakers of the diasporic Jewish languages I studied in college – Cochin and Piedmontese Jews, trilingual Ugandans and Salonicans, Jews from Kaifeng and Addis Ababa and my own cousins in northern Argentina – felt more familiar to me than speakers of modern Hebrew.

As an adult, I have found spaces to observe communal rituals where my non-Jewish spouse and my child, a Jew of color, are welcomed like dearest family. These are communities who were willing to consider the wholeness of my identity; they accept that wielding my white privilege on behalf of others was part of my religious observance. They understand that who I am is bound to the people I love, that their safety is my safety. I couldn’t be Jewish unless it was a Jewish practice to pursue justice for other people. They understand this because they feel it, too.

The rise of US fascism, compounded by the impending threat of the climate crisis, has forced me to reevaluate the direction of my life. Even as violent antisemitism has spiked in the US, I’ve felt my roots here deepen with every chance I get to express solidarity against racism, transphobia, xenophobia,, and other causes that now feel utterly inseparable from my own self-interest. My obsessive reading of Jewish philosophers, activists, and historians has become its own ritual, reminding me that it’s possible to fuse optimism with anger, reverence with agency, self-love with solidarity. Their writings on xenophobia have been especially healing as I battle the secondhand grief and rage that belongs to everyone who fights for an end to human rights abuses at the border and elsewhere. 

I know I’m not safe here – not really – but I’m here. Some of my ancestors might have been able to give up their diasporic cultures, their non-Jewish communities, but it’s too late for me; I’m joyfully bound to these people. My Jewish identity has sustained me spiritually as I grieve the future I was promised; I have never loved my faith or my people more than I do today. 

When Rafi Peretz called my family a second Holocaust, I was relieved – because, for the first time, I realized that my Judaism does not depend on the opinions of the Knesset. My faith is so much larger, more diverse, and more beautiful than Peretz or Netanyahu can imagine. My diasporic Judaism compels me to pursue justice for all people, as the Talmud commands; my homeland is wherever I can begin to repair the world.

Lynne Peskoe-Yang is a journalist covering technology, language, and justice. Find her on Twitter at @lynnepeskoe.

 

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.

 


  • frahs

    You wrote “I felt for my Israeli peers, but we increasingly did not understand each other any more than a random grouping of twenty-somethings from opposite sides of the planet might, despite our shared Jewishness.”

    It doesn’t sound like you tried hard enough to understand the other side. Making friends with someone from another country is no easy task. After several years of learning Hebrew, I’ve finally made friends with someone from “the other side” (an Israeli) and it’s changed my perspective on the middle east a lot.

    Also… this article conflates Israel with Israel’s Government. A nation’s political leader is not necessarily a great representative of its people. For example: Trump is America’s president. ’nuff said.

    I’m not a supporter of the occupation either. But you can’t just say “that’s bad” — criticizing is easy, thinking is harder. If you’re just going to add small portions of that to this article, you need to have a bit more nuance than all the thousands of other articles out there literally saying the same thing, otherwise it’s just another one of *those*.

    This is obviously very personal. People who talk about “the silent holocaust” are scum, as if the freedom to fall in love with who you want is a burden on the continuation of the Jewish people (Israel is a modern nation. People have freedoms there). But you’re mixing too many different things here, and it feels like an emotional rejection of Israel as a whole because of one side of it that you didn’t like (for very valid reasons).