Past, Present and Future Tents in Jewish Atlanta

Past, Present and Future Tents in Jewish Atlanta

When the U.S. closes its doors and refugees are targeted by Donald Trump’s ban, I get concerned and activated.

I was recently on a panel discussing “Compassion in Action: An Interfaith Response” to asylum, refuge and relocation. Instead of capturing the powerful content of this Muslim and Jewish panel, the AJT headline tried to discredit it: “Pro-BDS Voice Allowed to Speak for Jewish Atlanta.”

I don’t presume to speak for the entire Jewish community. It has never fully represented me or my values as a Sephardi/Mizrahi Jew or as an Israel/Palestine activist.

Like the other panelists, I shared multiple stories concerning the conditions of refugees, asylum seekers and global migration as a Jewish person active in these issues. I spoke about the 1938 Evian Conference and how my Turkish family on Rhodes could not obtain U.S. visas. Most of them were killed in World War II.

So when the United States closes its doors and Syrian and other refugees are targeted by Donald Trump’s ban, I get concerned and activated.

Ilise Cohen

I spoke about how Palestinian refugees have yet to fulfill their right of return and about the difficult status of Palestinian-Syrian refugees, about Israel’s detention of African asylum seekers and the racism they experience as black Africans, some of whom are Muslim. I urged the larger community to study and dismantle white supremacy, Christian dominance and the underlying roots of Islamophobia that made the Muslim ban possible.

Why attempt to discredit the panel? Let’s be honest: Our Atlanta Jewish community has often had a tent problem — with Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews, with LGBTQ Jews, with interfaith families, with Jews of color and with Jewish advocates for Palestinian human rights, to name a few.

In 2014, 10 Jewish Voice for Peace members asked to meet with the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta about events in Gaza. We were asked not to enter the building and not to use the parking lot. Eventually they said we could meet in the “courtyard.” Chairs were brought outside along the parking lot in the summer heat, even though one of us suffered from COPD.

One simple request, never granted, was for a public statement: “Arab lives are just as valuable and important as Jewish lives; Palestinian lives are just as valuable and important as Israeli lives.” The tent was closed that day.

In 2000, the Second Intifada had begun, and the rhetoric of hate in the Jewish community was vitriolic. I was assaulted at Ahavath Achim Synagogue at a pro-Israel rally. Community members I had known my entire life, including families who had carpooled me to Jewish day school, stood by as I called for help.

I felt ashamed of my people and their (in)actions. I was traumatized and needed a path to overcome my rage and grief.

I sought emotional support from three rabbis. Each gave a similar answer: Why do you have high expectations of your community? If you just lowered them, you might find it easier. Their tent was too small for me.

Recently, I attended a benefit with CAIR, a Muslim civil rights group. I felt proud to be Jewish and to know that people in that community understood why I and Jewish Voice for Peace stand against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and all forms of racism and bigotry.

Why wouldn’t they? The Islamophobic sentiment and anti-Arab racism that target Muslims and Arabs in this country also fuel the almost-50-year Israeli military occupation of Palestinians. I felt welcomed in this tent.

I remain an advocate for Palestinian human rights and for ending racism toward Mizrahi/Sephardi Jews and Ethiopians in Israel as well as more broadly in our communities.

Some would rather divert attention from ways that we, as Jews, participate in structural oppression of black people (including black Jews), Muslims, indigenous people and others by focusing on victimization and not addressing white privilege. Jewish institutions rejected the Movement for Black Lives platform because it supports Palestine. Considering at least 20 percent of us are Jews of color and Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews, this rejects our own communities.

With rising anti-Semitism, the only model I see is aligning with those who fight against injustice and demand a world that includes us all. That’s the tent I’m building with others.

I don’t accept being part of a tent that has borders and walls and is exclusive to a particular viewpoint or group or that is primarily about seeking proximity to power. The AJT had it wrong: A BDS Jewish voice was not allowed to speak for the Jewish community; a multifaceted Jewish activist speaks because this is her community.

Twenty years ago, it was a problem to say “occupation.” Ten years ago, “Palestine.” And now, BDS. How long does this community take to move on critical issues of justice?

Activists working on justice-related issues with Palestine/Israel will keep pushing until the pressure to support Palestinian rights is irresistible. There really is no other option.

We must awake to the real danger: the white supremacist nationalists who fuel anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, misogyny and transphobia, and the Jewish people who align with them and these ideas. I am not interested in that tent, at all.

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