Shedding Thick Skin

As she exits Jewish Voice for Peace, Rabbi Alissa Wise describes the emotional toll of years of Jewish activism for Palestine.

Arielle Angel
April 2, 2021
Alissa Wise
Photo courtesy of Rabbi Alissa Wise

A few weeks ago, Rabbi Alissa Wise sent me an Erev Shabbat address she gave at Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue in West Philadelphia, to mark her exit from her position at JVP. It’s a strikingly vulnerable speech, in which she recounts the flashpoints in her journey as a Jewish leader fighting for Palestinian liberation.

In a scene that may feel familiar to many in the movement, she writes of a Shabbat spent in the West Bank while she was in rabbinical school. She had spent all day defending Palestinian farmland from hogs released by settlers to destroy their crops and their livelihood. She recalls making kiddush that evening in the Palestinian village of Marda and hearing the voices of the settlers making kiddush echoing over the hills. “I considered putting down the kiddush cup and not picking it up again. I didn’t want to blend my voice with theirs,” she writes. But instead of ceding ground to those settlers, the moment becomes one of recommitment “to living a life the way my ancestors did—Jewishly.”

Still, to me, the most extraordinary aspect of the speech is the extent to which it focuses not on fortitude, but on exhaustion—the toll this work has taken on her. She describes a decade of death threats, sexually threatening emails, voicemails, and letters delivered to her at home. She has been barred from visiting Israel, nearly booted from rabbinical school, suffered rifts with family and friends. While taking care to celebrate the joyful, vibrant anti-Zionist community she has helped build these last ten years, she admits that she no longer feels secure in her “thick skin.” She has been feeling this pain differently recently, and ultimately, it has informed her decision to leave.

Perhaps I resonated so deeply with the speech because lately, Jewish Currents has been coming under attack more frequently. Our announcement of an investigative fund to report on Jewish institutions, as well as of our recent cover art, has prompted a swarm of online trolls leveling invective and denunciations. The paradox is not lost on us that it is precisely our claiming ownership of Jewish experience, symbology, and communal life that signals to our harshest critics that we have gone full Nazi. It’s exhausting. It’s demoralizing. Sometimes it seems there is no upside, no silver lining. I’m grateful to Rabbi Wise for articulating that feeling. It has given me the jolt of strength I needed to keep going.

This conversation has been condensed and edited. It originally appeared in yesterday’s email newsletter, to which you can subscribe here.

Arielle Angel: I was so moved by this piece. A lot of people send us narratives about feeling alienated from their Judaism because of its connection to Zionism. But there was something unique about yours, in that it acknowledged the continued pain of this dynamic that we usually assume dulls over time. Can you describe why you’re leaving JVP, and also the experience of allowing yourself to feel that pain?

Alissa Wise: It’s been so torturous. A few summers ago I was prevented from boarding a plane to go on an interfaith delegation to Palestine. In retrospect, that was the beginning of the end for me. I think the tough skin that I talk about in my piece was my superpower for a long time. It’s what let me keep going. That started in 2002, when I came out to my parents about being an anti-Zionist, and developed through everything that followed within my family, and then my struggles during rabbinical school, when they threatened to kick me out over my politics.

For a long time that pain was generative. It helped to access a deeper longing, a sense of connection. There’s a power that can come from that. But after a while, the cumulative effect of all the harassment and the maligning that happens . . . I really felt like I’d been trampled on. I reached a point where the thick skin turned from being protective to being corrosive. There’s only so much that one can bounce back from. I’m not leaving the Palestinian rights movement, but I am attentive to where I am emotionally and how that affects my ability to lead this organization.

AA: Your speech was really brave. Yes, it’s infused with a continued commitment to the work, and with love for the community that you’ve built. But there’s something really powerful in naming and centering the toll that this work takes in the long term. In saying, “I’m tired, and this is hard, and I’m done with this feeling, for now.” I think Jews who work for Palestinian liberation are often reluctant to talk about how they are being harmed by this process, because Palestinians are the primary targets of this harm. But the work does take a specific kind of toll on Jewish allies.

AW: I think this feeling is particularly acute among members of the anti-Zionist community that are very strongly and deeply Jewishly identified. The intergenerational shift around this is so intimate and fresh in our families, for those of us raised in Zionist households. And yes, there’s a rightful sense that the emotional toll that this work takes on those who are in solidarity with a directly impacted group shouldn’t be central to how we talk about it.

It’s only because I was leaving that I felt empowered to speak about this to my community. I don’t think I could have given that same talk otherwise, or that it would have been as warmly received. I decided that that was how I wanted to use that Shabbos evening, to talk directly about how deeply I feel exasperated and hurt by the Jewish community. It was a way to remind myself that the future of Judaism and Jewishness still matters to me and is the centerpiece of my life.

My kid is in second grade, and she was in her Torah school class on Zoom last week. They’re doing this project where they interview different Jews about what being Jewish means to them. The teacher introduced the concept of l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, because they were going to be talking to an elder. She asked the class, “What do you want to pass down to the next generation?”—which is a very tender thing to ask eight-year-olds. One little girl said, “I want to pass down being Jewish.” I started crying in the other room, because that’s what I want. I have this sacred, intimate responsibility to caretake Judaism in my lifetime. I’m scared about what happens to it.

AA: I feel this so deeply. And the pain of having this felt responsibility devalued and invalidated by others. Jewish Currents has flown under the radar for a while, but now suddenly the attacks have really picked up. Now we’re Nazis or kapos or whatever.

AW: Welcome!

AA: It’s crazy to me that people look at our deep engagement and wrestling with what Judaism actually means, in ways that often have nothing to do with Israel, and think, “These people are Nazis.” The other day, I met with another prominent leader in Jewish media who said they were a big fan, that they think JC is one of the most interesting things happening in Jewish life, but that they couldn’t tell anyone they were talking to me, that they subscribe under their partner’s name lest anyone should see them on the subscriber rolls. And they were talking about it as a matter of course, and I was surprised to realize that it hurt. I’ve felt this hurt for a while as an individual, but I’m starting to feel it in a different way as a leader.

When you’re really frustrated, do you ever just think, like, “fuck this community, they don’t deserve it”?

AW: Yeah, I allude to that in my talk. I’ve just been banging my head against the wall for 20 years now trying to get the Jewish community right in how we treat each other around Israel/Palestine. But for me, that’s the empowering side of the pain. I was raised in a modern Orthodox Jewish community. I went to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp. I’ve been ingrained with the idea that this tradition is mine. That’s my mantra: This is mine. I have this dogged ownership of it. And that’s part of where my fury comes from, and my commitment.

AA: You say you’re focused on getting the Jewish community to change how we treat each other as it relates to Israel/Palestine. I do struggle a bit with identifying what it is we’re asking for, because I don’t think we’re just asking for a big tent. It’s not like we want to join the Conference of Presidents or something; we have our lines, too. Should we be able to be members of a synagogue? Of course. But what is our tolerance level for the things that might be said from the bimah? In other words, what is it we actually want? Do we want to be let in, or do we want our own spaces that represent us in the community?

AW: Throughout Jewish history, there have been moments of openness and closedness. There was the Talmudic Era, when there was so much inquiry in trying to figure out what Judaism was going to be in exile. Then there was a medieval period of closedness, where everything had to be codified. Then in the modern period, Judaism opened up again with the Enlightenment. More recently we’ve been in a closed period again, because of the hegemonic power of Zionism in the Jewish community. The vision I have is one of openness.

The other day I was giving a closing workshop for JVP staff about my approach to integrating Jewishness into our organizing. One principle I emphasized to them was pluralism: No matter how much we want to interpret a Torah text or a holiday cycle or a historical event in a way that brings people into solidarity with Palestinians, we need to leave room for other ways to be Jewish. Obviously, I want there not to be apartheid in Israel. I don’t want Palestinians to be living under occupation. But that’s different from how we live our Jewish cultural and spiritual lives. Our vision isn’t that everybody be anti-Zionist, or for that to be the centerpiece of everybody’s Jewish lives. It needs to be bigger than just an expression of a particular politics.

AA: Pluralism is one of these buzzwords . . .

AW: Well, pluralism doesn’t work when there’s a hegemonic force, when everyone has to fit into a dominant paradigm, rather than letting there be many different Judaisms. It’s false, which is why it isn’t working.

AA: Have you thought about what’s next for you?

AW: Immediately after this, I’m becoming an apprentice at a community garden. I wanted to do something that would reset my body somatically. I’ve held so much of this in my body. And also, the Trump era was harrowing, it made me feel like I need some survival skills! I don’t know anything about growing food. And I’m not very tethered to my community—this garden is for people living in food insecurity and in poverty in my actual neighborhood who I have no relationship to, even though I’ve been working in my home office in West Philly for a decade.

Then I don’t know. It feels like a Thelma and Louise moment for me. Part of what took me so long to make this change was fear that I would have to give up being a rabbi, because nobody would hire me in the Jewish community after working at JVP. I have that fear in me. I want to cry thinking about it. I really don’t know where the next Jewish communal home will be for me. But I decided to dedicate my life to the Jewish people, and I’m going to pursue that and trust that the work I’ve been a part of has created enough space for another Jewish home for me. That night at Kol Tzedek helped me realize how much I had done. I saw all kinds of people coming in and realized that this wasn’t the condition of the Jewish community in 2004, when I started rabbinical school. Now there are anti-Zionist Jews all over rabbinical school!

AA: Something has to shift. I’m thinking about the IfNotNow wave of this movement, people around 10 years younger than I am, maybe 15 years younger than you. They’re going to have kids. Where are those kids going to go to day school, if they go to day school at all? We’re still missing the lifecycle infrastructure for the people who have decided that they want to live Jewishly, but in a different way. It still hasn’t emerged, but by necessity, it will have to. Or else the institutions that serve us now will have to change significantly, because their base of paying participants won’t be the same people that they used to be.

AW: This is a live question for me, because I have kids who I’m trying to raise to have access to Jewish text, without being indoctrinated into Zionism. That’s really hard. We have a private Hebrew tutor. That’s how we’re doing it. It’s not unrelated to why I decided to leave JVP. I felt clearly how my relationship to Judaism was going to compromise my children’s relationship to it, and I wasn’t willing to have that.

Arielle Angel is the editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents.