Michael Brull pays tribute to Jenny Green, one of the great Australian Jewish activists for the rights of Palestinians.
I first spoke to Jenny Green online in 2010. We both commented on a couple of online Jewish blogs, and happened to dissent from community orthodoxy on Israel. I don’t like adding people I don’t know on Facebook, so our conversation at that point was mostly perfunctory.
Though she said she liked what she’d read by me, I got the impression she was quite religious, and warned her that, “I would’ve otherwise imagined you’d tend to dislike what I say.”
She responded that “yes, it’s a bit of a contradiction. I’m religious, but I’m very left-wing. … I am, socially, the most non-conservative person you’re likely to meet this year. I just happen to be religious too, is all.”
Those who knew her would attest to how true this was.
Though we lived near each other, I didn’t actually meet Jenny until 2011. She invited me to speak on a panel at Limmud Oz, a supposedly pluralistic forum for Jews to talk about various things.
Jenny said it was important to have a “dissident” voice on her panel about dissent. She told me that on the question of Israel and Palestine, she had been “utterly shaken by the UN flotilla report”.
However, I did not meet her at Limmud Oz, because in May her and her partner resigned in protest from it. They were outraged that Limmud Oz would ban supporters of Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) from presenting at the conference.
They said that “we abhor the idea of being associated with an organisation/event that bans ideas.” Yet “we by no means support BDS against Israel, though we sympathise with some of the motivations for BDS.”
Their concern was that “a blanket rule banning people adhering to a particular political position regarding Israel (not about the individuals) seems totally out of line with Limmud-Oz’s principles. Rather, it shows a lack of empathy for others’ views, and a belief that fascistic exclusion might benefit a diverse forum. We do not think the Limmud-Oz executive should define who is ‘in’ the Sydney Jewish community.”
Though Jenny withdrew from the event, she encouraged me to present anyway, with a different moderator.
I believe I first met Jenny the night before the conference. I was busy with impending law school assessments, from which Limmud Oz was a distraction, but made the time to meet her and hang out for a while.
She had a warm personality. She was the type of person who had a disarming frankness, and also an inquisitiveness I found charming.
I showed up wearing a hoodie from a Zionist youth movement, which she promptly remarked disapprovingly about. Jenny tended not to make nice, nor avoid confrontation. She was honest, and you always knew where you stood with her.
I was a bit apprehensive about Limmud Oz. I hadn’t confronted a gathering of Jewish people with my political views on the question of Israel and Zionism since high school.
I was pleasantly surprised by the relatively non-hostile, and even interested reception I received from many in the audience, who packed out the room to listen to the panel I was on.
At the time, Jenny’s political dissent seemed relatively mild. My panel included a supposedly liberal Zionist, who seemed to me hard to distinguish from the rest of the Jewish establishment.
In time, Jenny would come to share my loathing for what in Israel is known as those who “shoot and cry”.
In 2013, I myself took the initiative, and proposed a panel for Limmud Oz. I asked Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins if he would present with me at Limmud Oz. He agreed, and I suggested Jenny moderate our session.
Jenny agreed, until Limmud Oz decided that this session would be too subversive. They would only permit the panel under certain conditions.
Firstly, we would have to choose between Jenny or me being on the panel: we could not have both.
Secondly, Jenny could not be moderator: they would choose the moderator (and eventually they imposed someone without even seeking my consent).
Thirdly, our panel would need to be balanced with a communal representative, which wound up being a person on the executive of both the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.
Jenny immediately announced she would have no part of it. She was still happy for it to go ahead, and to read my speech, but she boycotted the conference.
I don’t remember if Jenny ever supported BDS – I think she said she didn’t do boycotts. But in a way, boycotts were quintessentially Jenny. Jenny was a woman of unalloyed, pure moral principles. Self-righteousness came naturally to her, because she expected high moral standards, from herself and from others.
I won’t pretend to understand the awfulness of Jenny’s death for her beloved partner and children. As the shock subsides, and the rawest of the pain diminishes, her partner’s poignant observation at his eulogy will remain: “Jenny’s children will never really know their mother, how singular she was, and how in love with them” she truly was.
I would like to say that I think it is also a loss for the Jewish community. Jenny wasn’t born Jewish. She had a Jewish father and Catholic mother, and identified with Judaism since childhood. She finally completed her formal conversion to Judaism when she was 40.
I sometimes joked that she’d converted straight to self-hating Jew. There aren’t many of us, and it can be quite thankless.
Some people deal with being critical of the Israeli government and Zionism by cutting off links with at least some others in the community, or by choosing more mild ways of expressing those criticisms.
The hardest path is to be at the heart of the community, and deal with all of the abuse, vilification and so on that comes with those who haven’t succumbed to Likudnik (or fake liberal shoot and cry) Zionism.
Jenny was at the heart of the community and never stepped back in the slightest from the fiercest criticisms of Israeli war crimes and oppression.
During the war on Gaza last year, which seemed to never end, there weren’t many who kept track of the horrors and kept their humanity. After a month of unspeakable brutality, even those of us far, far away were emotionally and morally exhausted.
That was Jenny. It was extremely trying for her – she wasn’t a person of platitudes, of polite disagreement. She expressed her disgust and horror loudly and repeatedly, and made sure all her posts were public – so that even strangers could see them and troll her.
At the bottom of this, I will share one of her posts, to give a sense of her moral fury at the slaughter in Gaza. I once said to her: wouldn’t it be easier on you to limit who could view your posts? She snorted: Who do you think I want to see these posts, you?
Jenny stuck by principles without compromise, and expected others to as well. Whilst I took a comparatively mild position on the moral failings of the Jewish community, Jenny regularly expressed her disgust.
The war last year was a bit of a turning point for her, as she started deleting friends on Facebook, as it became too hard for her to deal with people defending the indefensible.
I think over time her position on the conflict radicalised a bit. She came to support a one state solution in recent years.
Jenny and I had a falling out earlier this year, which I regret not patching up whilst I could. But she said she admired my writings, which I appreciated. Our community does not have many voices like Jenny’s, and it will be poorer without hers.
One of my favourite memories of Jenny is when she invited me and Rabbi Kamins to her place. Presumably, she intended me to take her side, as she subjected the Rabbi to a very fierce grilling about why he hadn’t spoken out about what had happened in Gaza.
I took a more mild approach, trying to explain the situation, what had happened, and why I felt some justifications weren’t valid.
She was a much harsher accuser, and when I laughed she was puzzled, and later texted me to ask what I found amusing about the situation.
She couldn’t understand why I might have reservations about her fierce interrogation of the Rabbi (who I think is a decent man, who has in general spoken out to a greater extent than I would’ve expected).
The Rabbi – who she loved – hadn’t lived up to her standards. I think Jenny wanted all of us to live up to higher moral standards. In a way, that wasn’t an easy thing to do, nor a popular one, and naturally led to friction with some others.
Some have suggested that this sort of thing is part of a Jewish tradition – demanding higher standards of the community. The conservative intellectual Norman Podhoretz once wrote a very harsh review of Hannah Arendt’s study of Adolf Eichmann. He was exasperated by the “inordinate demands she is always making on the Jews to be better than other people, to be braver, wiser, nobler, more dignified.”
Though Jenny was religious where I am secular, I like to think of Jenny as belonging to this type of Jewish tradition.
As some readers may know, I spent a lot of 2013 in hospital. Jenny visited me on several occasions, and brought posters of Bertrand Russell to brighten up my surroundings. She didn’t do so because I requested her company, but because she heard I was ill and asked if it was okay.
When I was released from hospital in February and had a stoma bag, she joined me at my home for dinner. She wasn’t someone who paused awkwardly and avoided the topic in silence, but remarked on how I interacted with the stoma bag, with respectful curiosity.
She was not a woman of cringing political correctness, but kindness, decency, and a deep desire to understand.
Jenny was a woman of deep integrity, and fierce, uncompromising commitment to principles. She was formidable, and it is sad she is gone. RIP.
The thing that I find the very worst, the most completely repugnant and the most utterly incomprehensible is the near complete indifference shown by Israel, a majority of Israelis and the vast majority of Jews in the Australian community to the slaughter of so many Palestinian children in Gaza – small children, not even the big children who are being killed in even greater numbers. I have, over the past 49 tragic and violent days, witnessed people that I know cautioning outsiders who venture an opinion that the unequal death-toll is misleading (WTF), that the parents are to blame for their babies’ deaths, because apparently they have some option for how to protect their children from the IDF and its bombs. They don’t, of course.
They are trapped and they have nowhere to hide, nowhere to escape to, the borders are closed and controlled by Israel and they basically just get to sit there and wait to be killed. I have witnessed people I know saying that Palestinians don’t love their children as much as Jews do, so they don’t care to protect them enough. It is often unclear what these people mean – whether they mean that they don’t love them enough to not support Hamas, as if Israel’s indiscriminate bombs can tell which child has Hamas-sympathizers for parents, or whether they are supposed to have somehow got them out. Either way, it is a total, fictional nonsense.
Around 500 Gazan children have been killed during this latest round of hostilities, and quite a handful of children killed in the West Bank, which has slipped under the radar because of the sheer magnitude of death in Gaza. But yet, the death of one Israeli child – every bit as much a tragedy – is viewed as a great universal tragedy, a cause for national mourning. Which is appropriate, but also completely appalling, given the near-total silence on the slaughter of so, so many children who happen not to be Jewish.
Let’s be clear about this: it is Israel’s army which killed these children. Israel’s soldiers which pushed the buttons and fired the guns. Not Hamas. The sophistry involved in trying to twist that statement to make a different truth is contemptible and transparent. It convinces no-one. Even worse are those who can bring themselves to say that the deaths are tragic and then follow on with ‘but….’.
It is a huge thing to do, to explain away and justify the death of so many children. If I ever had any lingering doubts about where my ethical choices would take me, the pressure to do just that made the path ahead very clear. To accept that the death of so many babies is necessary to ensure the survival of Zionism (an equation I don’t accept the truth of anyway) is a Rubicon I cannot and will not cross.
If the Diaspora community, the leaders, the Rabbis and the ordinary Australian Jews insist, as they do, that in order to be a good Jew I have to be a bad human and support these atrocities, I choose trying to be a good human and holding on tight to my unshakable belief that we are all equal, that we are all the same, that every child is my child, and that no ideology is worth killing children for. If Zionism requires this, then it is worthless. Nationalism is, in my opinion, a great moral canker, and these ideas of ethnic superiority a shallow front for greed and selfishness and the legal code of a Bronze-Age God of War demanding perpetual propitiation.
It will be a cold day in hell before I forgive the community for making me choose between being a good Jew and a good human.
I don’t give a fuck about the rest of the politics. If the bottom line is this much killing of innocents, then there’s no point in even considering the rest of the bloody politics.