Originally published at Tikkun Daily
In a remarkable moment* Wednesday night at my book event in Washington, D.C., I was asked about my views on the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement by a Palestinian-American in attendance.
During both the question and answer – which comprised three minutes of an 80-minute event – not a single American Jew was hurt, nor was Israel harmed, by the conversation. This despite dire warnings from American Jewish leaders about the dangers of such "illegitimate" discourse and my inclusion in the Jewish communal tent.
Instead of causing communal damage, the moment elicited nods and applause from a packed house of mostly progressive Jews at the MLK Jr. Memorial Library, where around 200 people braved biblical rains in the District to gather for a book event sponsored by J Street and Americans for Peace Now.
It was a beautiful, moving event. It was also an event that never should have happened.
Past its entrance and a casually-staffed security station, the MLK Jr. Memorial Library opens into a cavernous, rectangular hall illuminated by the hum of florescent bulbs stretching overhead. Light reflects off of cappuccino-colored brick walls, speckled marble floors, and colorful murals of black Americans. Computer keyboards click. Elevators ping open and shut. Shoes shuffle on the shinny floor.
It is a space where the homeless seek refuge, children skip with books underarm, and adults stroll with purpose. It is a communal space. In other words, it is not your typical location for a book reading or speaking engagement. But for the one which occurred on Wednesday night – an event focused on reconciliation and the importance of dialogue with the 'other' – there could not have been a better setting.
Perhaps this setting contributed to making it an event unlike any I've experienced while on 'tour.' Over the past year, my book appearances have typically followed the same pattern: I tell the reconciliation narrative from my book – What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? – and rather homogeneous crowds ask fairly predictable questions.
But Wednesday night in D.C. was different. Sitting on a low stage, I watched a diverse range of people fill the hall with purpose as chairs were hastily configured to accommodate the unexpected numbers. I smelled the rain upon those who approached. I listened to a cacophony of voices, picking out fragments from the din, the topics supposedly unspeakable, the words supposedly dangerous. The occupation ... / Reconciliation will never ... / They banned him for boycotts ...
Everyone in the room knew we should not have been there, knew that we had gathered together because the DCJCC had cancelled my previous event due to the 'pro-Israel' politics of fear, had chosen for all of us to gather somewhere else, under a different roof. And so those seated in the library's cavernous hall seemed simultaneously grateful to be gathered together and perplexed by the circumstances which had brought us to this place.
Eventually, I began speaking, as I always do. And eventually, I ended, as I always try to do in under 30 minutes.
And then came the questions.
Now, at none of my book events had the topic of BDS ever come up. Never had an audience member brought it up. After all, it has little to do with my book. However, when I had completed my narrative, when it came time on Wednesday night for those in the crowd to rise, grasp the microphone and probe, we all knew it was going to come, that it was unavoidable. That someone was going to ask. Not because it was natural to do so, but because the institutional Jewish community had made it a focus of attention, had brought us together because of such attention.
When several questions in, a gentle, soft-spoken man in his sixties rose and pressed his mouth to the metal mesh of the microphone, we knew it was time. So did he. And so I was asked about my views on BDS, was given the chance to address the elephant in the room.
And so I did, reiterating my nuanced support, as a progressive Zionist, for Palestinians' right to nonviolently oppose Israel's geo-political policies via economic sanctions. Reiterating my view that, as one who still clings to the two-state solution, I honor such nonviolent efforts to affect policy change in the region.
And when I said the following, spontaneous applause echoed through the hall:
"This is exactly the type of nonviolent initiative critics of BDS have been clamoring for Palestinians to embrace. 'Move away from violent resistance,' they said. 'Embrace peace,' they said. Well, guess what? That nonviolent movement is here. And it's something that must be addressed, not ignored."
And that was it. We moved on to exploring, together, the limits of reconciliation, the power of dialogue, the need – or lack thereof – for forgiveness. We discussed Israeli politics and the psychology of fear and the efficacy of restorative justice. We discussed and discussed and ...
... after many hands shaken, many hugs given, many conversations concluded, we exited the great hall, leaving it to those who inhabited it before our arrival.
As I walked out with a friend, a young child dropped a book, the smack of its impact echoing off the stone walls. Rather than pick it up, she looked up at her mother, worried about what had just happened. "It's okay," she said. "It's not broken, everything's fine."
And it was.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, just out from Oneworld Publications.
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