By Rich Siegel, January 1, 2012
This essay was first published in Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists, edited by Avigail Abarbanel (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012), used with permission.
I consider myself a cult survivor. I was raised in the cult of Atheist-Zionism-Posing-as-Judaism. I stated this to a few select friends several years ago, and they thought it was funny. The statement brought with it a pregnant pause, as though a punch line was going to follow, as though I were telling a joke. No punch line. I’m serious. More recently, subsequent to Israel’s 2006 Lebanon war and the massacre in Gaza of 2008-2009, I find that I can say this and it is taken seriously. People know that something is very seriously wrong with Israel, and with the culture that supports Israel. They may not understand it, but they’re more open than they were.
My family’s involvement with Zionism goes back to its beginnings. It includes a grandfather who fought with the Jewish Legion to “liberate” Palestine from the Turks in WWI, great-great-grandparents who went to Jerusalem for their retirement in the 1920’s, the best buddy of an uncle who smuggled arms from Czechoslovakia to Jewish terrorist groups in Palestine in the lead-up to the 1948 war, grandparents who were officers in their local B’nai Brith1 chapter, and a cousin who was involved in “Operation Mural”2. He currently represents Jewish/Zionist NGOs at the United Nations office in Geneva. His wife writes Muslim-bashing books under a pseudonym.
During my childhood, Zionism and Israel were held up on a pedestal. They were central to our existence, our identity, our raison d’être. They were our sub-cultural equivalent of “Mom and apple pie”. I grew up convinced that they were perfect and beyond reproach. There was simply nothing in my environment to indicate otherwise. Finding out that I had been lied to all my life, and that I had been supporting something that I would never have supported had I been told anything resembling the truth, has been absolutely shattering.
My Atheist-Jewish parents got together with a group of their Jewish friends in 1963 to start up a new Reform synagogue in the suburb of Pearl River, New York, which previously had not had a synagogue. Some in this group were atheists, some had religious beliefs. I grew up in Beth Am Temple, where the belief system echoed that of my parents: “We’re proud to be Jews, members of this ancient group that everybody hates for no reason. We love Israel, our Jewish country that we need as our refuge in case another Hitler comes to power. Everybody hates Israel for no reason, just like everybody hates Jews for no reason.”
We knew about relatives who had perished in the holocaust. Although they were distant cousins, the holocaust loomed large for us. Our awareness of the massive loss of Jewish life during that dark time formed a significant part of our sense of who we were. This combined with the liberal political agenda of the 1960s and 1970s. We opposed the war in Vietnam. We supported African Americans in their struggle for equal rights. We opposed American overseas military activity while supporting Israeli military activity, and saw no contradiction in this. Israel was different. There were antisemitic Arab hordes trying to drive the Jews into the sea. It was about survival.
I took Hebrew School and Judaism seriously. When I was old enough, I began fasting on Yom Kippur3 even though my parents did not fast. Lessons on the holocaust were presented to me both in Hebrew School and in my parents’ discussions of their personal philosophy. One aspect of the history made a big impression on me: There were Germans and other Europeans who protected Jews from the Nazis, often at great personal risk. I thought about what I might do if I were in their situation. What would it be like to know that your people were committing monstrous crimes against humanity, and to have to make a choice between loyalty to them and doing the right thing? Opposing America’s crimes in Vietnam was a clear choice, but considering the possibility of having to oppose my people, the Jews, seemed impossible. I was glad that there was no reason to do this.
There was a paradoxical element to our worldview. We considered that it was through our “Jewish values”, our superior Jewish intellect and morality, that we were able to embrace progressive agendas. As contradictory as this was—I consider chauvinism antithetical to anything progressive—there was evidence to support it in my environment. Jews tended to be liberal Democrats, anti-war and pro-civil rights. The majority of the population in my town, Irish and Italian Catholics, tended to be conservative Republicans, pro-war, and racist. This was back when there were real differences between Democrats and Republicans.
My sub-culture didn’t mix well with the local majority culture. In the second grade a girl told me that her father said I killed Jesus. I told her I’d never killed anybody. I was a skinny smart kid who wore glasses, got very good grades, and sucked at sports. In my family, sport was not stressed and academic achievement was. I was a target for the tough non-Jewish kids I grew up with. And I was bullied quite a lot. Taunts of “Jew-boy” and “faggot” were frequent—lack of prowess in sport being ample evidence of homosexuality in the tribe of the playground, and there was occasional violence. I was also a bully, although it took me many years to see this. I took my humiliation out on kids who were more vulnerable than me: the fat kid at school, and my younger brother at home.
I found refuge in music, discovering early on that music was power. It earned the respect of my peers. I didn’t get bullied on school concert days. Music also provided something else, which I did not have language to describe at the time. It filled a void produced by the spiritual desert I was raised in. The rejection of God, the belief in the privilege of belonging to a universally despised and superior people, and the pressure to achieve academically to prove that we were indeed superior, were not working for me, although consciously I accepted all of it. Music was spirituality—a term I would have rejected at the time. It provided a sense of wholeness, which my anti-religious religion was not providing.
There was one childhood incident that gave me pause. On a visit to see an elderly aunt who lived at an Orthodox Jewish nursing home, my brother and I encountered Orthodox Jewish kids. Their parents did not allow them to play with us. My parents explained that because they were Orthodox they viewed us as goyim. It occurred to me that even the kids at school who bullied me were still allowed to play with me.
By the time I reached high school the bullying had become overt Jew-hatred. Kids would throw pennies at me. “Pick it up, Jew boy.” They were just as cruel to the very few African American kids at Pearl River High School, delivering taunts of “nigger” and making jungle noises. My parents decided to leave this racist town, and move to a place with a larger Jewish population.
Spring Valley was only a few miles away but worlds apart. The daily humiliations ended and I thrived. My experience of what we called antisemitism had served to make me more committed to Judaism, and by extension to Zionism, as the two were inseparable in our belief system. I believed Jews were persecuted, and that I had been personally persecuted, for being moral, intelligent, progressive.
I was an active teenage Zionist. In 1974 I went with a group of kids from my Jewish summer camp to protest against Arafat’s appearance at the UN, on the grounds that he was a terrorist. I had never seen so many people in one place before. The sea of humanity stretching several city blocks reassured me that I was on the right side.
There was a disturbing incident at a Zionist youth group I attended. Our adult sponsors wrote Zionist lyrics to songs from West Side Story, and passed around lyric sheets for a sing-along: “When you’re a Jew you’re a Jew all the way.” One repeated line stated, “We’ll kill those Syrians.” I remember feeling uncomfortable. Did I really want to sing about killing people? I rationalised that it must be OK. Arabs are our enemies. The adults in charge wouldn’t do something wrong. I sang along. (Apologies to Leonard Bernstein, and to Syria.)
After I graduated from college I took a trip with my family to Israel, to celebrate my youngest brother’s Bar Mitzvah. The previous Bar Mitzvahs in my family, mine and my other brother’s, were held at Beth Am, but now my mother was fulfilling a life-long dream with her youngest, celebrating a Bar Mitzvah at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Afterwards I was approached by an Orthodox Rabbi and it was the first and only time in my life that I’ve ever laid tefillin.
While we toured Israel I managed to secure employment playing piano at a luxury hotel. My family left, and I began my adventure in my Jewish country. My experience there was confusing. I was often taken for being a goy. I am light-complexioned, with light hair and green eyes, but so are many Ashkenazi Jews. Perhaps I don’t carry myself Jewish. I often heard disparaging comments like sheygetz4, that people assumed I didn’t understand. Then when it was revealed that I was indeed Jewish, there was warmth and welcome. Acceptance was clearly conditional. I didn’t like the way it felt. It was not lost on me that I’d had my ass kicked as a kid for being a Jew, that Orthodox Jewish kids were not permitted to associate with me, and now as an adult in my Jewish country, I was rejected as a presumed goy.
I didn’t like the feel of the place and was glad to leave, when an offer came to play shows on a Caribbean cruise ship. The job was fun at first but it soon became a challenge. I was getting burned out from many months at sea, but I was afraid of getting off ship, being unemployed and forced into medical school—something my father wanted me to do. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to be a Jewish stereotype (“my son the doctor”), but that I had my own direction as a musician. I would take a week or two off here and there, and run up to New York to look for work, without success. On one road trip back to the Port of Miami I checked into a road-side motel in Southern Georgia.
I realise that in discussing my “revelation on the road to Miami” I leave myself open to various interpretations. Some might not be so kind. However, simply stated, I checked into a motel an atheist who was going through some emotional turmoil, and checked out a believer in One God. I have remained one ever since. Not a god who had an only son who died for my sins, and not a god who deals in real estate, but One God, One Love that connects us all to Him/Her/It, to each other, and to Eternity, to the fabric of the Universe, which is One Love.
I immediately had to re-think my childhood, my atheist parents who were founders of a synagogue, the tribal paranoia and martyrdom and the disdain for any notion of spirituality. I saw clearly the worship of the twin idols of Jewish identity and Israel. I identified the spiritual desert for what it was, and brought my new awareness home to a family that included two troubled younger brothers. My parents assumed that I had been converted by a Catholic girlfriend. I offered that if they would care to look into the Jewish religion, they would find that God is actually a big part of it.
I quit working the ships, settled in New York and soon became an in-demand freelance musician. I began to look for a Jewish place of worship where I would be comfortable. Orthodox Judaism was out of the question because of its multitudes of laws and the endless debate and analysis about them. Why would the Master of the Universe give a hoot if I push a baby carriage on the Sabbath, inside or outside a wire perimeter hung between telephone poles5? I wasn’t going near any of that. I investigated Reconstructionist Judaism but found that they were worshipping Jewish tribal identity and Israel much the same as in my Reform synagogue.
Finally and reluctantly I began looking outside Judaism. The “New Thought” movement, consisting of various types of churches and centres, has worked nicely for me for many years. I’m a member of the Congregation of Universal Wisdom, which does not offer religious services, and I attend services regularly at Unity churches and Religious Science centres. I enjoy the focus on One God without tribalism, and often provide music for religious services.
Remarkably, for many years, having identified contemporary Jewish culture as a cult, and having gone outside Judaism to worship, I was still so totally indoctrinated into Zionism, that I continued to believe all the mythology. I still believed that Israel had never done anything to harm anyone, that we went to Palestine wanting good neighbourly relations, but the Arabs just hated us for no reason. Distanced from Judaism and Jewish culture, I still held a “liberal Zionist” stand politically.
I got married in 1998 to my lovely wife Xuan who is Chinese. I married for love disregarding the Jewish directive against intermarriage. The following year we left the city for suburban New Jersey. In 2004 my wife, pregnant with our daughter Emily, came to visit me at an out-of-town job. While waiting for her outside the train station in Providence, Rhode Island, I discovered a table that activists had put out displaying literature about the Israel-Palestine conflict. (Outreach works!). Curious, I picked up some material, including Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer, by Phyllis Bennis. I got to the section about the Deir Yassin massacre. Jews massacring Arabs. My jaw dropped. This had somehow been concealed from me all my life.
I’ve been reading continuously since then. I’ve come to understand that Zionism has been a political agenda that sought to take a land with a 95% non-Jewish population, and turn it into a Jewish-exclusivist state. It achieved this in 1948 through massacres, campaigns of fear, and military forced mass expulsions—taking over most of Palestine and making over three quarters of a million people homeless, establishing the state of Israel on mostly stolen land. In 1967 it conquered the balance of Palestine, beginning an era of brutal occupation and settlement in occupied areas. It’s not rocket science to come to the conclusion that this is criminal, and just as easy to dismiss the various excuses commonly given for it.
Becoming active in the cause was automatic. I remembered having learned as a child about individual Europeans who protected Jews against Nazis, and having admired their commitment to doing right while insanity prevailed in the world around them. I had pondered what I would do in their position, later to discover that I had been in their position all my life without knowing it. I also credit my parents, because even in their atheism, and even though they taught me the lies they had been taught about Israel, they always valued justice and human rights more than anything else. I learned that from them. Today they are disillusioned with Israel.
It hasn’t been easy. I’ve lost long-term friends and some family members. But I really don’t feel a sense of loss about it. I see those relationships as having been Jewish relationships, based on a requisite tribal agenda, rather than genuine friendships. The friends and family that matter are still with me.
Perhaps the most difficult part was coming to appreciate the reality of the criminality of Zionism at the same time as becoming a father. It’s excruciating to know that Palestinian fathers cannot keep their children safe because of the insanity of this programme that unknowingly I supported all my life. This adds to my passion as an activist.
I find it painful to witness the spectacular hypocrisy of a people who are still whining, “Where was the world during the holocaust?” while committing another holocaust in Palestine. It’s a depravity that paradoxically I find both familiar and unfathomable. The willingness among Jews to obsess with Jewish suffering while being completely immune to Palestinian suffering, scares me. I don’t want to believe that I come from a place that sick.
Remembering myself as a child, both a victim of bullying and an unconscious bully, I’ve sometimes been tempted to excuse Israel. But Israel’s leaders know. Zionism’s leaders through history have always known. And the public has always had the responsibility to know.
Having made a U-turn on Zionism, I still had to resolve my relationship with my Jewish tribal identity. Two incidents served to cement a decision about this issue. The first was in 2006. It was the story of Tove Johannson, a young Swedish peace worker. While escorting Palestinian children home from school in Hebron, the group was attacked by settlers chanting, “We killed Jesus. We’ll kill you, too.” A settler broke a bottle over the young woman’s face and caused her severe injuries. I remembered having been accused of killing Jesus at the tender age of seven, and was shocked that members of my tribe were admitting it, and proud of it, while acting in a depraved and violent manner. It seemed to me that they were almost begging for the next holocaust, and were making it unsafe to be a Jew.
Soon after, in 2007, I found out that a local Orthodox synagogue was planning to host a West Bank settlement real estate event. An Israeli company was touring American synagogues selling settlement homes directly to American Jews. I organised a demonstration against it (with no help from the local “peace and justice coalition”, a largely Jewish organisation that refused to get involved), and thought it a good idea to contact the rabbi and ask him to cancel the event. This led to a lively email correspondence, as the rabbi saw an opportunity to try to bring a wayward son back into the fold.
When it came up that I have a Chinese wife and a mixed-race daughter, he became disgusted and ordered me to not raise my daughter Jewish, because by Jewish law she is not6. When I told him about having come to believe in God and that my belief directs me to reject tribal chauvinism, he insisted that I had invented my own god. It became clear to me that his god only exists in a book that can be misinterpreted and manipulated so perversely that it can lead to the justification of murder and theft. I saw clearly that he, and those like him, are atheists just as much as the atheist Jews of my childhood synagogue. (The real estate event went on as planned.)
I made the decision to stop calling myself a Jew, to simply leave the cult. I respect the Jewish activists who speak about the crimes of Zionism as antithetical to “Jewish values”, but I’ve had quite enough of “Jewish values”, and embrace only universal values. Judaism, like all ancient religions, is a mixed bag. You have to take what you like and leave the rest, or else be subject to its contradictions. Orthodox Zionists, who would be aghast at this notion, are the foremost practitioners of this, rejecting the “golden rule” found in Leviticus7 in favour of the tribalism and nationalism also found in various other writings.
The honourable agenda of Reform Jewish anti-Zionists like Elmer Berger and Alfred Lilienthal failed miserably. They promoted a Judaism based on the universalism of the prophets, rejecting Jewish nationalism. Not only were they unsuccessful, but they’ve been all but forgotten. I take this as evidence that, despite other possibilities in the religion, the ethos of Jewish life is more about tribalism and nationalism than anything else. I do not wish to be part of it.
In considering whether I can be of better service to Palestine as an Anti-Zionist Jew or as an Anti-Zionist ex-Jew, I finally decided that representing myself honestly was the best path—the path more likely to bring better results.
I find I have little patience for those who advocate for a “two state solution” or for any solution that calls for continued Jewish exclusivity in any part of historic Palestine. Clearly, peace will come with justice, and justice calls for the return of the refugees and their descendants, and the re-making of this land into a pluralistic society.
For me it’s simple: One God, one human race, equality, justice. We live in a world that tries to make those things very complicated. They are not.
1 B’nai Brith, Hebrew for “Sons of the Covenant”, is a Jewish service organisation. It was founded in 1843 in New York City. B’nai Brith is engaged in a wide variety of activities such as the promotion of Jewish rights and the state of Israel, assisting hospitals and victims of natural disasters, awarding scholarships to Jewish college students, sponsoring low-income senior housing, and opposing antisemitism.
2 “Operation Mural” was an undercover operation led by Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, to smuggle Jewish Moroccan children to Israel. The operation took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the newly independent Morocco restricted Jewish emigration out of the country.
3 Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement. It’s a day of fasting and atonement, observed exactly ten days after Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
4 A Yiddish word for a non-Jewish boy or young man. It can has different degrees of pejorative connotations depending on context. A Jewish boy who has been naughty could be called a sheygetz.
5 This is a reference to the ritual enclosure of eruv that is constructed in some Jewish neighbourhoods. The eruv permits religious Jews to carry objects from a private to a public domain on the Shabbat.
6 Jewishness is determined by the maternal line. According to Jewish law a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother will produce a non-Jewish child.
7 Leviticus 19:18 states, “… Love your neighbour as yourself”, and 19:34 states, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself”. These are considered the Jewish version of the “Golden Rule”: One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.
Illustration: http://www.shutterstock.com/cat.mhtml?lang=en&search_source=search_form&version=llv1&anyorall=all&safesearch=1&searchterm=jewish+blood&search_group=&orient=&search_cat=&searchtermx=&photographer_name=&people_gender=&people_age=&people_ethnicity=&people_number=&commercial_ok=&color=&show_color_wheel=1#id=94916881&src=858c86c7e0e37670313f2f40ea1c1a1f-1-5 or http://shutr.bz/GXRt6e