Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Wednesday, March 25, Swarthmore African-American Student Society (SASS), Race-To-Action, and Kehilah hosted a panel of Jewish civil rights veterans for the second day of a two-day series about Jewish identities and social justice. The four guests, Dorothy Zellner, Mark Levy, Ira Grupper, and Larry Rubin, discussed the relationship between the American Civil Rights movement and Israel-Palestine today, and their personal experiences that shape their idea of what it means to be a Jew in the midst of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Dorothy Zellner is a first generation Jew who is a supporter of the Jewish social justice tradition. She said she felt “heartsick” upon visiting Israel and seeing the Israeli flag on top of a 30 feet high watchtower surrounded by barbed-wire. While visiting the country, she was also teargassed and strip searched. When Dorothy had her bra taken off and commented on the unconstitutional and demeaning nature of the search, a young IDF soldier said, “I don’t care.” Dorothy described the “enforced loyalty” that Jews have toward Israel and lauded Kehilah for facilitating more open discussion about the conflict.
Mark Levy, who recently wrote an article called “I’m Still Arguing With My Mother,” identified open discussion and debate to be an integral part of the Jewish identity. When Levy travelled to Mississippi for the civil rights movement, a rabbi called him a “self-hating Anti-Semite” for not being Zionist. “Why is there this rigidity?” Levy asked. Being Zionist should not be the single defining factor of being Jewish, he said. According to Levy, the standard of being Jewish was different during the Holocaust, and it should be different now: a subject open to debate and personal reflection.
Ira Grupper grew up in a Orthodox Jewish family and was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement with 950 other activists for protesting the “illegal convening of the Mississippi legislature.” The police detained and beat the activists for 2 weeks in a variety of buildings. Dinner was served as a “form of control and humiliation.” White prisoners had to line up before the black prisoners to receive their stale bread, bologna, and watered down milk. In silence and solidarity, the prisoners would wait for all members to receive their share of food before eating as one. To Grupper, this is what it means to be a Jew. “As a Jew, I have to fight for the rights of all people. And that includes Palestinians,” said Grupper.
Larry Rubin described his journey South as a fight to “make [his] country better.” However, those in the South believed they “were out to destroy the country.” When Rubin went South, he was beaten and faced threats of lynching. They “saw me as a Jew fighting their system of segregation and injustice,” not as an individual. To Rubin, there is a deeply rooted Jewish tradition of fighting for justice. But the Jewish community he was raised in supported Israel because “history has shown, if [Jews] are not for [themselves], who will be?” But Rubin returns this thought with, “if we are not for others, what are we?” Rubin calls Israel a “privatized nation,” “run by and for the 1 percent [with] no rights guaranteed by constitutional law.” He noted parallels between lower-income Jews buying cheap houses in the settlements to “stave off Palestinians” and the migration of workers in 1880’s to the West to push the Native Americans westward. He hopes to “fight for a better Israel,” as he still feels a special relationship with the country. He believes that “the Jewish people will not be safe until others are safe.”
This two-day series led Hillel International to threaten legal action against Swarthmore Hillel, who declared themselves an Open Hillel in 2013. In response, Swarthmore Hillel changed its name to Swarthmore Kehilah, which has garnered a wide variety of student reactions. Kehilah President Sarah Revesz ‘17 believes that this event was a “major step forward” in engaging with the Israel-Palestine conflict on Swarthmore’s campus. On a personal level, this panel was a “wonderful opportunity for growth and connection,” especially since her “own experience of the Israel-Palestine issue has been primarily one of confusion and internal conflict.”
While Revesz “felt some nostalgia” in changing the name from Hillel to Kehilah, there is now a “sense of freedom […] we can express ourselves and provide what our community wants without having to fear that we’ll be punished for being true to who we are.” Revesz hopes this new change can not only challenge current members of Kehilah to rethink their sense of self, but also invite other students to join in on the dialogue.