What I Learned About Antisemitism and Palestinians From My Parents

By Nora Lester Murad – May 2022

When I’m upset, like I was after last night’s antisemitism presentation at Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, I tend to wake up in the middle of the night feeling fully charged and needing to act. When this happens, the first person I think of is my mother. Since she died last year, I’ve been immersed in her papers and the papers she collected from relatives across generations–papers that during her life were hated junk, but which upon her death have transformed into precious memorabilia.

The two fifty-pound boxes that now sit in my daughter’s art room are layered with evidence of my parents’ commitment to acting for social justice. There are countless letters to the editor penned by my mother and my father on topics ranging from Vietnam to nuclear weapons to workers’ rights. There are poems and speeches about capitalism and equality and Jewish ethics written by my parents, and even by my brother when he was as young as age seven. And in the clippings and photos and journals protected by tiny locks and keys are evidence of my own inherited legacy as a social justice activist. There doesn’t seem to be a time before I knew and cared about equality and before the lack of it hurt my heart, just like there was never a time before I was white and Jewish.

So, I ask myself, “What should I do about the distorted, racist and self-destructive narrative about antisemitism that I heard at the temple last night?” and this makes me wonder what my parents would do and what my grandparents, escapees from Russian pogroms, would have done.

In a way, it’s easy for me to speak out like they did. My sadness and yearning bubbles up in my writing and speaking, whether or not anyone is listening. But I don’t know how to make myself heard. How can I make a difference when the distorted narrative is so expertly woven and has become so hegemonic?

Someone will call me an antisemite for that last sentence. They will say that my words are the modern iteration of the age-old antisemitic trope that Jews control the world. It won’t matter if what I said is true, or the context of my saying it, or my record as an antiracist, or the fact that I sign all my emails “Love, Nora” because I really am driven by love. All that matters when “they” (pro-Israel mainstream Jewish activists who have authorized themselves to speak on behalf of all Jews) point their finger and label someone antisemitic is that they don’t like what you’re saying. As a Jew dedicated to Palestinian rights (even worse, a person who married a Palestinian Muslim and who mothers three girls who identify as Palestinian), I fall into the category of people they want to discredit and silence.

How then can I show Jews and non-Jews that they’ve been duped into thinking there is something inherently incompatible between Jews and Palestinians, to believe that any gain in Palestinian rights comes at the expense of Jews? I said this last night to the high school student who spoke on last night’s panel when he stepped off the bimah. I said that the very survival of Jews as a people with an ethical lineage is tied to Palestinian liberation. I said that the litmus test of our morality–or aspiration to it–is whether we stand up for Palestinians right now. His smile fixed on his face and his eyes scanned something or someone in the back of the hall, and he nodded awkwardly and walked away. There’s no way for me to know if any part of my message got through.

Usually there’s a lot more push back. For example, two weeks ago I worked on a panel about Palestinians in Newton and there were people who tried to prevent the event from happening. When they couldn’t, they tried to control what the Palestinians could say. When they couldn’t, they tried to jump into the conversation to redirect it. When they couldn’t, they followed up afterwards with long emails back-and-forth making claims about the event being harmful to Jews. It wore everybody involved down and, like last night’s event, it made me feel hopeless.

I wish I could clear away the fog and distinguish between the people who are ideologically opposed to Palestinian equality and those who are just misinformed. I want to focus on the folks who don’t know what Israel is really doing and don’t see through the propaganda we get from the mainstream Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) who spoke at last night’s event.

Again, someone will call me an antisemite for that last sentence. They will say that while I have a right to disagree with them, I shouldn’t attack a Jewish organization, because that is a manifestation of contemporary antisemitism. They will say that it’s proof that antisemitism comes not only from the political right, but also from the left. They will say that I am proof that Jews are hated, which is why they need and deserve to have Israel as a safe haven. Never mind that I am Jewish and that they are denying me (and the hundreds of thousands of Jews who think like me) safety and self-determination by labeling me an antisemite. Never mind that I’m a product of a long, long, long history of Jewish activists who stand up for what’s right, even when it’s unpopular or dangerous.

After the event last night, I confided my despair to another attendee, an avowed antiracist who I wrongly thought would be sympathetic to my point of view. The person was visibly angry. How dare I challenge those amazing people who spoke out against hatred of Jews? The speaker from the ADL had talked about the importance of being broadly antiracist, of working in coalition, of working for a world in which everybody can be safe. “I loved everything he said,” I tried to explain. “But that’s not what the ADL actually does.” As she shook her head and backed away with a look akin to disgust, I tried to tell her that the ADL has long led activities targeting Palestinian students and their allies on college campuses, including by collaborating with the FBI to surveil people of color. I was going to tell her how the ADL is being exposed as a civil rights group in name only, that there is a #DropTheADL campaign endorsed by a growing list of brave and credible organizations across the country. But she wasn’t listening. She was getting into her car, driving away from the ranting lunatic (me) who was trying to explain that these are life and death issues to people I love, that I care about what is happening to Jews, Judaism and to Palestinians, that I beg her to look past the propaganda.

I kind of understand why many people can’t see the sleight of hand in the mainstream zionist narrative, but I kind of don’t. Is their disingenuousness not obvious? One panelist last night talked about how Jewish students are targeted on campuses and gave the example of a protest against the hanging of an Israeli flag in a dorm window. Maybe that makes sense to others but to me it’s just nonsense. If Christians had hung an Israeli flag in a dorm window, there also would have been a protest. The protest wasn’t targeting Jews, it was targeting Israel. It wasn’t targeting Israel because it’s run by Jews, but because they are colonizing and occupying Palestinians. Protesting an Israeli flag is protesting a state. It is not antisemitic.

We don’t need trumped up examples of “antisemitism from the left” to prove there is antisemitism. There is enough proof of hatred, including against Jews. So, what purpose is served by the intentional expansion of the definition of antisemitism to include criticism of Israel except to protect Israel? While the ADL and others claim that Israel is singled out as a perpetrator, in fact, they want to single Israel out as exempt from scrutiny. Why can we criticize other states for their policies and actions – France, Iran, Canada, Myanmar – but when we criticize the State of Israel, we’re antisemitic? Can’t smart people like those at the temple last night see how dishonest and destructive it is for influencers like the ADL to push the narrative that supporting Palestinian humanity is anti-Jewish?

The ADL speaker also mentioned Whoopi Goldberg’s comments about the Holocaust as if everyone one of us in the audience agree that her comments were antisemitic. Well, I don’t. To me, having a discussion about whether the Holocaust was motivated by racism against Jews or whether it was fascism that leveraged ethnic hate is a conversation worth having. There’s nothing hateful to me about Whoopi’s position, and if she’s proven wrong, there’s nothing hateful about her being wrong. The ADL speaker was manipulative when he disputed Whoopi’s comment about Nazi crimes being white-on-white violence by citing that 15% of US Jews today identify as people of color. Don’t people listening to this wonder what the racial makeup of Jewry in the United States in 2022 has to do with the racial makeup of German Jewry in the 1930s?

I feel my face contorting and my stomach clenching as I write this. I want to have the conversation about antisemitism and other forms of hatred and oppression. I want to expose it and unite against it, but how can I when the ADL and it’s pro-Israel allies are confusing the heck out of everyone with their rhetorical manipulation? Don’t folks realize that the ADL isn’t protecting Jews, it’s protecting Israel, which is not a manifestation of Jewish identity nor necessary to Jewish survival. Israel is a state just like any other state. And it happens to be a militarized, right wing state. There is nothing pro-Jewish about supporting a militarized, right-wing state as it steals land, water and human rights from another group of people. Period.

My request to people of conscience is a simple one: think critically. When the ADL says that 60% of hate crimes against religious minorities are aimed at Jews, ask questions. Does it make sense to give weight to those statistics when the ADL has an extensive network in place to solicit data about incidents involving Jews and no other religious minority has that network? Does it make sense to rely on FBI statistics when Muslims and people of color have been targeted by the FBI and are unlikely to report hate incidents to them? Does it make sense to rely on these statistics when hate against other religious minorities like Muslims can be counted not only in the religion category, but divided into hate against Arabs, Asians or other races? Does it make sense to rely on FBI statistics when those very same statistics say that only 1% of hate crimes in 2021 had to do with gender. ONE PERCENT.

Again, someone will call me an antisemite for that last sentence. They will say that I’m denying or minimizing hatred against Jews. They will relate that to the trope of denying or minimizing the Holocaust. But again, this is rhetorical manipulation. I’m not saying that there isn’t hatred of Jews. I’m not saying that hatred of Jews isn’t increasing. In fact, since racism in general is increasing, I assume that hatred of Jews is also increasing, and I agree this is unacceptable. But I don’t draw those conclusions from these politically-motivated statistics. Doesn’t anyone else see the irony in the ADL’s call for people to tell the truth while they parrot these nonsense statistics?

Thinking critically means asking what narratives are privileged and which narratives are silenced. It means asking who benefits from the narrative that says that Israel needs to exist because Jews are at risk, because Jews are surrounded by enemies, because Jews have no allies, because Jews were victimized like no other people in history have been victimized? Thinking critically means acknowledging the reality of Jew hatred but not using it to justify another people’s oppression. We can, and must, fight against antisemitism and fight against Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

Right now, I think it’s pretty clear that our priority should be assuring the security of the 5 million Palestinians living under a brutal Israeli occupation and the 2 million who live as non-Jewish citizens in a state that has declared in law that non-Jews do not have a right to self-determination in Israel and the over 6 million Palestinians who comprise the longest and largest refugee population in history. Recently, when a Jewish friend said he felt scared going out of the house into the hostile environment (of Massachusetts), I pointed out that I, as a Jewish woman, am much, much, much more at risk of harm from being a woman than I am of being Jewish.

My parents, Katharine Sharfman Lester and Herbert Lischinsky Lester, were not perfect, but they were pretty darn amazing. In those two fifty-pound boxes that will take me years to sift through, there are letters of gratitude from countless Mexicans and Central Americans who found refuge in our house while undocumented. There are newsletters describing my parents’ work on committees of social workers and Tuberculosis patients and leading conferences, demonstrations, community meetings against wars and weapons and human rights violations. There is testimony that they delivered in court trials demanding equality in public education and benefits for unhoused people on skid row. And there is evidence of support for Palestinian rights long before it was common or cool because they stood up for everybody, not “everybody except Palestinians.”

My parents were human beings and they were Jews. From them, I learned that we do what’s right because if we don’t, we’ve lost ourselves and we’ve lost hope for a better future. From them, I learned  that the way to fight hatred of or discrimination against Jews is to fight all discrimination and bigotry. Yup – that’s what I learned about antisemitism and Palestinians from my parents, and its those same humanistic, Jewish values that I will continue to teach and promote.