An Oppressor Engaging Herself

By Gale, Leanne | Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal, Annual 2019 | Go to article overview

An Oppressor Engaging Herself


Gale, Leanne, Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal


A few weeks ago, I was honored to participate in a conversation on "Engaging the Oppressor," along with freedom fighters from around the world. As they shared their pain, trauma, and steadfast determination, I felt deeply grateful to learn from their brilliance. If you have not yet read their reflections, please turn the page and read them first.

But as I sat down to share some reflections, it did not feel right for me to comment on how members of oppressed groups should engage the oppressor. In the context of Palestine, I am the oppressor: a white Jewish woman, raised in mainstream American Jewish and Zionist institutions, with a long history of travel to and support for Israel. Much of my privilege and power has come at the expense of Palestinian freedom. I decided that the best use of this space might be to share my process of engaging myself. The following text is my attempt to do that. My hope is that this text will serve liberation movements in some small way in the years to come.

When I was a sixth grader in my Jewish day school, we were assigned to read The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. The novel tells the story of a twelver-year-old Jewish girl named Hannah Stern who lives in an upscale New York suburb. At the beginning, Hannah is sitting through her family's Passover Seder, bored out of her mind. But when she goes to open the door for the Prophet Elijah, she is suddenly transported to Auschwitz. Hannah spends weeks experiencing the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp, watching as the Jews around her are shot, hanged, and thrown into mass graves. Finally, as she is about to enter the gas chamber, she is transported back to her family's Passover Seder. Hannah hugs her grandparents with relief and enthusiastically joins the family at the table. The message was clear: hold your community close, because the gas chambers are always around the corner.

We were also assigned to watch the film at home. I remember sitting on the couch next to my father--a rabbi--heart pounding out of my chest. After three Jewish men were hanged in the concentration camp, I fled the room and ran upstairs. That night, like many other nights of my childhood, I lie awake into the early hours of the morning, frozen in my bed, terrified that the Nazis might suddenly come marching down my street. Like Hannah, I lived in an upscale Jewish suburb of New York. If the Nazis came, where would we run? Sometimes I would get out of bed and slowly peer out the window, watching for signs of tanks.

By the time I was in high school, I had visited four Holocaust museums, read over ten Holocaust books, and watched over fifteen Holocaust movies. At our annual Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, we would listen to survivors tell first-person accounts of their experiences. An elderly man in our gymnasium once spoke of drinking urine and eating human flesh to survive.

My experience is not uncommon. Young adults who grew up in the American Jewish community often trade Holocaust education stories, each one more disturbing than the next. One friend was forced to play a Holocaust-themed version of "hide-and-seek" at his Jewish summer camp. Another was taught how to pack a "Holocaust bag" in case she needed to run quickly.

It is in this context of Holocaust anxiety that I learned about Israel. Our educators and rabbis taught us that Jews were alone in the world, and that Israel was our one safe haven from the ever-looming threat of genocide. The best thing we could do for our community was to fight for the Jewish State. If we were really brave, we would fight with our bodies, moving halfway around the world to serve in the Israeli military. Otherwise, the least we could do was to go on Birthright and lobby with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Growing up, I remember only vague mentions of Palestinians. They were terrorists. Anti-Semites. Mothers who did not love their children. One of my Hebrew teachers referred to Palestinians as "animals. …

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