My name is Eli Zavatsky. I am a Kadima member, a Jewish Voice for Peace organizer, and a public school teacher. Today I want to talk to you about Jewish dignity, belonging, and safety. I want to talk to you about growing up Zionist, and why my Jewish values are the very thing that call me to stand with Palestine.
In this weeks Parsha, Jacob tricks his father Isaac into giving him a blessing. Really weird. Isaac calls for Esau, his older son, to hunt for him and give him food so that Isaac can bless Esau before Isaac dies. But Jacob, the younger brother, disguises himself as Esau and tricks the blind Isaac into blessing him instead. Jacob lies. Jacob, who will become Israel, sacrifices his dignity for the sake of belonging. This is the same sacrifice that Zionism demanded of me. I can take the easy belonging of the Israel myth, but it means sacrificing my Jewish values of peace and justice.
I grew up Zionist. I believed the lie I was taught in Hebrew school, that Israel was a land without a people for a people without a land. My Zionist deprogramming has been slow, and hard. But it is possible. It is possible to be Jewish without being Zionist, to have my dignity as a Jew and to belong, without terrorizing Palestinians.
I am here today for my grandmothers. Rosselle and Celia. May their memories be for blessing. Rosselle was an Italian-Jewish holocaust survivor. Mussolini forced my Jewish family out of Italy, then Hitler and the Vichy government forced us out of France. Celia was a Japanese-American survivor of the Heart Mountain concentration camp. President Roosevelt forced my Japanese family out of California.
On October 13th, Netanyahu forced over one million Palestinians to evacuate northern Gaza. Both of my grandmother’s were two years old when they were displaced. Since October 7th, over 158 Palestinian 2 year olds have been killed. This horror and personal connection breaks through the propaganda. My Jewish soul is living this life to help heal G-d’s world, to do tikkun olam. And may Adonai continue to bless me with clarity and conviction when the path of healing is clear. Precisely because I am jewish, because my ancestors were displaced and not enough people stood up for them, I stand with Palestine.
How can it be, that we who had our books burned, could ever burn books? That we who were forced into ghettoes, could ever, ever create them? How could we who were almost erased, ever, ever even come close to erasing another people? I refuse. I refuse to let Judaism mean genocide. I refuse to erase Palestine. I refuse to create safety through violence. For jews to be safe from fascism, we must fight against it everywhere, for everyone, not become the fascists ourselves.
Three weeks ago I went to Washington DC with Jewish Voice for Peace. I did not tell my mother. As I said, I grew up Zionist. And I did not know if I would get my mother’s blessing.
The weekend after DC, I had tea at her house and told her what I did. I did not disguise myself, as Jacob did, I was honest and direct. I told her I was nervous to tell her, that I was scared to disagree. But I told her about singing, about getting arrested, about feeling so close to G-d and our ancestors as I fought to stop another genocide.
And my mom gave me her blessing. She said she was proud of me. When I asked her about her Zionism and the Zionism I grew up with, she said that when she was a little kid, Israel made her feel safe from the nazis. But that now, as a 60 year old woman, this just doesn’t make sense. Then in a moment of tenderness, she said “I’m not sure how to feel safe now.” And I told her, I had never felt safer than in the rotunda fighting for Palestine. I knew I was making the world safer for Jews. Our security comes from solidarity.
Both of us verklempt, with tears in our eyes, my mom took my hand and said “Well Eli, what you’re doing is making this old Jewish lady feel safe.”
May we never again have to trick our parents for blessings. May we have the conversations with our families. May G-d illuminate the path of peace. May we never again buy our safety with violence. May Palestine be free.