Steven Salaita: Reflections from Yom Kippur, during which I was honored to have attended part of a service led by Brant Rosen at Tzedek Chicago and to give a talk on the importance of decolonization:
Rabbi Brant spoke movingly of the need to direct our empathy to peoples and places unauthorized by sites of power. It was a language of worship in a Jewish space, during a Jewish celebration, but nobody could miss its universal importance. (By the time congregants promised to walk with Razan Al-Najjar I was nearly in tears.)
As that portion of the service wound down, I kept thinking about a deceptively simple question: what compels human beings to so readily identify with authority? Or, more pointedly, to so eagerly protect authority from resistance?
We see images of Palestinians in Gaza—beleaguered, impoverished, terrified, entrapped—confronting an advanced technocratic military. The protestors, exiled from their ancestral villages, often carry nothing but an irrepressible desire for freedom and dignity. What makes an observer identify with the men holding guns? With the politicians demanding murder? With the pilots dropping chemical weapons?
How is it possible?
We see images of Black people brutalized by cops—gunned down, beaten, incarcerated for generations—of children at a colonial frontier—scared and shivering, some still in diapers—wrested from their parents. How can anybody take comfort in the jailer, the police chief, the border patrol, the district attorney?
When will affirmations of life cease to be dangerous? Why is it considered radical to uplift the innocent?
How does this happen?
What kind of twisted education, what sort of misplaced identity, can transform observers of conflict into empaths of the oppressor?
These commitments to the probity of force, bred into our apprehension of logic, feel like a systemic betrayal of our impulse to pleasure and cooperation. The trick isn’t finding answers to the questions I raise, no matter how complex and no matter how adamantly we disagree, but in creating spaces for vulnerability and reflection. That’s how I came to understand the notion of atonement yesterday: we can’t redeem our misdeeds by accepting the rewards that accrue from moral laziness.