I grew up half Jewish and half Italian-Catholic. I made jokes about how these different identities left me mostly confused. Had Jesus risen again or not? I thought I had to choose one side rather than celebrating all the parts within myself, so I almost erased my Jewish half. I learned how to make risotto, but not matzah ball soup.
Christianity is the dominant culture in the United States and obscures the other religions. People would always say Merry Christmas to me, assuming everyone celebrated it, assuming it was the only holiday. I unconsciously accepted that and embraced my Catholic heritage more. I learned gospel hymns, but never learned the Hebrew blessings sung on Shabbat.
More Radical Reads: 5 Undeniable Reasons We Need to Talk About Christian Privilege
In addition to being stifled by Christianity’s dominant force, I also grew up internalizing sexism, striving to be like the men I deemed superior, by playing jazz and chess, composing music, reading philosophy, being stoic, and working hard.
Weighed down by sexism from without and within, I was unaware of the ways I was also part of oppressive systems. In undergraduate jazz school I was so anxious about playing equally to men that I didn’t wake up to systemic racism. I took a jazz history class, where I learned about the racism Black musicians endured, but that felt like history, miles away. I couldn’t see my white privilege because I only noticed how inferior I felt to my male classmates.
It wasn’t until I was 30 that I realized I had spent most of my life trying to prove I was as good as men, and this had distracted me from other issues. It wasn’t until I was 32, when I made a joke about Jewish people, that my Jewish friend let me know what I said was antisemitic.
“But I’m Jewish!” I said, stunned.
It turns out antisemitism is everywhere.
Even inside me.
More Radical Reads: Resisting Fear: What Being Jewish Means in an Age of Rising Antisemitism
In my thirties, when I finally uncovered the side of me that was Jewish and uprooted my internalized antisemitism, I found the joy of being Jewish: dressing up for glittery Purim events in Brooklyn; going to a feminist, antiracist synagogue; and connecting to a community of inspiring Jewish activists. The more I learned about Jewish traditions, the more I realized there was so much of Judaism already flowing through me without me even knowing: my connection to the moon, my eco-spirituality, my humor, my animated hand gestures.
As I became in touch with the Jewish part of me that was lost and erased, I also learned about the Israeli government’s erasure and deliberate killing of a large amount of Palestinian people. US media and Zionist culture declare that Israel and Palestine are in conflict, it’s complicated, and there are two sides. But 5,590 Palestinians were killed from 2008-2020 compared to 251 Israelis killed. Human Rights Watch has declared Israel to be guilty of apartheid and human rights crimes. Israel has the largest army in the Middle East, funded by the US government’s aid of 3.8 billion dollars a year. Hamas, meanwhile, has rocks and rockets that are easily intercepted by Israel’s military system. Israel is the one with the power, and their government uses it to oppress and kill the Palestinian people.
My Grandma had always talked about her love of Israel, and I absorbed that without any questions for too long. The truth of Israel’s aggression was hidden in plain sight.
Just as I first had to embrace Judaism within myself, and then awoke more to the antisemitism around me, so I learned about Zionism and Israel’s mass killings of Palestinians. The uncovering never ends, just like my battle with sexism delayed my awakening to racism. Different oppressions conceal other oppressions. Until they don’t anymore. Until we wake up from our individual struggles and realize how the system wants to keep people separated.
The veil that kept me isolated in my own struggle of sexism and antisemitism also became the path toward connection. Once we know there is a veil, we can then see through it, leading us to pursue solidarity with other causes. We can see how all the struggles overlap — that the Black Lives Matter movement is part of Palestinian liberation, part of queer and trans liberation, part of reproductive rights and feminism — that the intersection of all these injustices is where our community power lies.
When white supremacists stormed the capital on January 6th, some wore shirts that said “6MWE.” My stomach churned when I saw on Facebook what that meant: “6 Million Wasn’t Enough.”
I texted a friend: They’re talking about the Holocaust. They’re talking about me.
Some people hate me, which is sickening, and I am not going to hate or oppress anyone else. I know that it is, in the words of Jewish organization If Not Now, a “false choice between Palestinian freedom and Jewish safety.” The intergenerational trauma from the Holocaust has created an extreme militant Israeli government unable to see they are now harming others. Israel’s government is stuck in a pattern they feel is defensive but is actually violently aggressive. This round of Israeli bombing in May killed at least 256 Palestinians in Gaza, including 67 children, displaced tens of thousands, destroyed hospitals, schools, sewage systems, clean drinking water supplies, and the only COVID testing site. In contrast, thirteen Israelis were killed. That’s not Israel acting in defense — that is aggressive and violent, a series of human rights violations. When you bombard an area densely populated with civilians who are unable to escape, that’s a deliberate and horrific mass killing. That’s a war crime.
The more I dig into the rich and beautiful culture of Judaism, I learn that there is a long history of anti-Zionism within Judaism. The Judaism that I know and love wants basic human rights for all people. If Not Now states, “Palestinian liberation and dismantling antisemitism are intertwined … We will not be pitted against each other … We won’t be distracted from our fight for freedom and safety for all people.” No one is free until everyone is free, and that includes Palestinians oppressed under apartheid; Black, brown, and Indigenous people brutalized and killed by the police in the US; transgender people who are horrifically murdered; Jews experiencing hate crimes; and people in other countries fighting totalitarian and fascist governments. Our liberation is bound up in each other’s.
Still, some people try to link any opposition to Israel’s government as being antisemitic. As Palestinian-American writer and policy analyst Yousef Munayyer writes, “When people turn humanizing Palestinians into antisemitism, they not only enable the continued dehumanization of Palestinians but they also cheapen antisemitism by cynically weaponizing it.”
I, an American Jew, stand with Jews all around the world in protest of Israel’s government, because I know injustice, war crimes, human rights violations, and apartheid when I see them. I will fight for the rights of marginalized people until everyone is free.
[Feature image: Close-up of barbed wire with the golden Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem visible in the distance under a blue sky. Source: @RJA1988 for Pixabay.]
Mare Berger is a singer-songwriter, pianist, teacher, writer, improviser, gardener, and activist living in Brooklyn, NY. In April 2020 Mare released an album “The Moon is Always Full” featuring their original lyrics, songs and orchestration. You can buy Mare’s album here. Follow Mare @maremoonsong. Listen to music and read more of their writings at marielberger.com.