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Lecture Notes: Jews united against violence

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It began--well, who knows when the conflict began? That's part of the problem. The religious might say it began with Abraham and his sons Isaac and Ishmael. Flash forward some thousands of years to September 28, 2000, and Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount plaza, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock sit. This was followed by (spontaneous? orchestrated?) rioting by Palestinians, followed by Israeli self-defense? brutality? Watching, listening, and reading about this second intifada led to sleepless nights for Chicagoan Steven Feuerstein, computer software author, former activist against apartheid in South Africa and injustice in El Salvador, former planter of trees in Israel.

Not that he planted the trees directly. Feuerstein's never been to Israel. The trees are the ones you buy in Sunday school: you send money to the Jewish National Fund, and you get a certificate that says a tree has been planted on your behalf. When I was in Sunday school there was no question that you would buy a tree--in memory of the grandparent you were named for, say, or, if you were a "bad" boy, in honor of your dog. Buying a tree is such a common Jewish-American experience that poet Julia Vinograd used the image in "For My Tree in Israel," first published in Tikkun, to express disappointment in some of Israel's policies: "There is blood on my tree, / on the tree with my name in Israel /...There must always be an Israel / because my tree is there / and they shall never come with axes / and cut down my name. / But there is blood on my tree / and the smell of blood / and I want my name to be good again."

So Feuerstein paid for trees, and put coins in the blue JNF box that was a staple in a lot of Jewish homes, and after high school left Long Island for college at the University of Rochester. "As my horizons broadened, I got more critical of Israel, but from a distance," says Feuerstein, now 43.

Then, last fall, "suddenly it was my time. I had the need to publicly declare that what is done is not being done in my name." That led to the purchase of poster board and markers, and Feuerstein and his wife went to a protest organized by local Palestinians and held up their signs: "I AM JEWISH AND I WANT ISRAEL TO STOP KILLING PALESTINIANS." That protest led to another, which led to a photo of Feuerstein with the sign going out over the AP wire, which led to an E-mail from his uncle in Rochester, upset to see his nephew staring out from the local paper carrying a sign critical of Israel.

Other E-mails followed, and Feuerstein responded by creating a Web site called Not in My Name (www.nimn.org), through which like-minded souls could find news of their cause. He then started a group by the same name that organizes political and educational events, and a listserv where members and supporters can share information. Currently there are about 320 listserv subscribers--about 100 of them in the Chicago area. NIMN has just instituted dues; nearly 70 people have paid up.

One early supporter was Cindy Levitt, an activist and freelance educator raised Reform, though not particularly observant, in suburban Saint Louis. "I was raised to live an honest moral life, to give back to the community," says Levitt, who's on NIMN's steering committee. She traveled to Israel once, in 1975. "A lot of the time what people say now is, 'When were you last there?'" Levitt says. "If you say you haven't been there at all, it's really bad....I didn't have to go to South Africa to know apartheid was wrong."

Levitt sent a letter to the editor to the Chicago Tribune last fall, reacting in part to a commentary by Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Kotzin had reported on a recent visit to Israel, writing that Yasir Arafat and his followers are "doing anything they can to gain sympathy and support and make Israel look like the aggressive opponent of a fair resolution of the conflict."

Levitt wrote that the U.S. Jewish community has "for the most part, uncritically supported Israel" and called for American Jews to "question the current assault on and killing of Palestinians." Her letter led to both approval and opprobrium; one letter retorted, "She is Jewish, if at all, in name only." Someone in her synagogue called her "a self-hating Jew," and she received harassing phone calls. She unlisted her phone number. She had a police friend give her safety advice. Her parents are supportive, though afraid for her.

Kotzin says he considers NIMN to represent the opinion of a "tiny, tiny, tiny minority" of the local Jewish community. "People are entitled to their opinion," he says. "If people in Chicago want to align themselves with an anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian cause, they're free to do that. We all want peace."

Inside NIMN, members have varying views about how to achieve peace. Some favor a separate Palestinian state; others do not. Officially, according to its Web site, the group supports "a peaceful and just solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict," including an end to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, withdrawal of the settlements, a shared Jerusalem, "equitable distribution of critical natural resources," and "a change in U.S. policy so that our tax dollars are not used to fund the military occupation."

NIMNers have participated in post-September 11 peace rallies in Chicago and New York and maintain a weekly antioccupation vigil at noon Fridays outside the Tribune Tower. On Monday the group will sponsor Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery on the Chicago leg of his national lecture tour. Recently called a "veteran of the frayed Israeli peace movement" by the Washington Post, Avnery was the first Israeli to meet publicly with Arafat, in 1982. Born in Germany in 1923, he moved to Palestine with his family soon after Hitler's rise in 1933. He was a member of the Jewish underground fighting the British; was twice wounded in Israel's wars with Arab nations; was a member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament; has been a journalist and publisher of the popular antiestablishment magazine Ha'olam Haze; and was a founder of the Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) group. He has advocated a separate Palestinian state since 1948. He's received numerous international human rights and peace awards--none, he has remarked, from an official Israeli body.

"Mr. Avnery has called for peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians for the past 50 years," says Feuerstein. "He has fought in and lived through enough wars to know that there is no possibility of a military solution to this conflict."

Avnery will speak twice on Monday: at 12:30 PM in room 1200 of the John Marshall Law School, 315 S. Plymouth Court, and at 7 PM at DePaul University's Schmitt Academic Center, 2323 N. Seminary, room 154. Both events are free. For more information call 312-409-4845.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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