The Israeli government deliberately invokes terrorist attacks, rockets, and scary brown men in headscarfs to stoke the population’s fear, but I am scared of the racism Zionists use to justify the occupation. Originally published August 2014.
“I was in prison for eleven years,” says Munib, angrily. He explains how his Israeli jailers would make him stand in water: “Up to my neck, for three days”. He gesticulates, showing how he was also electrocuted on the leg, as we drive the narrow road to Bil’in, a tiny Palestinian village south of Jerusalem, next to the separation wall.
I am in the West Bank to understand why everything I have been taught is wrong. Munib is there because – though constantly under attack – Palestine is his home. The facts are casual to him, but they are told with fury.
Later I speak with Ertefaa, a self-deprecating Palestinian woman who works at the refugee centre in Aida camp near Bethlehem, where 5000 Palestinian refugees live in cramped confines: “My husband was in jail twice, six months. My brothers were imprisoned. The brothers of my husband, two brothers, were killed – four months in between both of them. My daughter’s husband was also imprisoned.”
As a child I learned that “the Israel/Palestine conflict” is highly complex, with a long history of wrongs on both sides. Growing up as a member of an orthodox synagogue, pro-Israel politics were the norm, and certain kinds of questions frowned upon. Zionists – those who believe Israel should be a Jewish homeland – say it is us vs. them: the victimised Jews against the murderous Arabs. To condemn Israeli human rights abuses is to ignore the Jewish history of persecution that makes the modern Israeli mentality intelligible.
But the reality is much more simple. Today the so-called “Jewish, democratic state” is synonymous with daily brutality, land occupation, militarism, settlements, and dispossession. Though varying forms of Zionist thought exist – each imbues the worthwhile aim of protecting the Jewish people with nationalist imperative. For us to be safe, the thinking goes, we must have our own country. To keep the country safe, we must use force to keep out threats. Because the people living there don’t like us pushing them out, they are by definition threatening, and in need of suppression.
Despite all this, at Sunday morning Hebrew school, Diaspora Jews like me learn to celebrate the 1948 Declaration of Independence, with nothing said about what this meant for the 700,000 Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed or displaced from their homes. I was taught that any criticism of Israel, or of Zionism, means that you want to see Israel destroyed and the Jewish people evicted.
At 19, at the time of a university occupation against Operation Cast Lead, I found out for the first time that many people thought Zionism was wrong, that massacring the people living in Gaza could not be justified as self-defense. I was shocked, then angry, then upset. A combination of revisionist history and group mentality maintains a significant Zionist consensus among Diaspora Jews – we see Palestinians living in poverty, their families killed and their homes destroyed, and are told that this is because Hamas does not care for its own people…unlike Israel.
Operation Protective Edge, in which over 1900 Palestinians and nearly 70 Israelis have now been killed, is just the most recent, inevitable consequence of a brutal, militaristically-advanced settler-colonial occupation encroaching on the lives and lands of a subjugated people – using a 30-foot wall, settlements, missiles, tanks and the withholding of basic human necessities to perpetrate continued domination. This form of militarism is not specific to Israel – the Islamic State, the treatment of Native Americans in the USA, and South African apartheid bear comparison – but that doesn’t make it any more defensible.
People arguing in favour of Israel often play on its relative democracy and tolerance, its status as a beacon of enlightenment in the savage east. But Israel today is obsessed with ethnic purity – its more totalitarian policies strategically enacted out of sight of Tel Aviv’s bougie bars and beaches.
While in Israel this year I lost count of the number of times I was quizzed as to my religious heritage by random Israelis. The question,“Are you a Jew?” was asked of me more in a month than at any other time in my life. Refusing to answer caused some consternation – and where all interactions are guided by fears of the Palestinian majority, of the loss of “the Jewish democratic state”, I can see why. As a counterpoint I also experimented with purposefully telling Palestinians that I am Jewish, the primary reaction being surprise, then pleasure, and the short response: “welcome”.
In this way Israel is characterized by the twin paranoias of security and ethnicity. The government pretends that ever increasing policing of Palestinian identities is what will eventually lead to Jewish safety – but the continual violent suppression of another group will only cause violent resistance.
The policing is enacted through daily indignities, including restrictions on freedom of movement. Military checkpoints like Qalandia – which guards the route between the West Bank and Jerusalem – exemplify the harsh reality of occupation. With its blackened concrete towers and enclaves of barbed wire, Qalandia is strategically designed to convey a message to Palestinians: you are criminals.
To cross the checkpoint you queue in steel bar enclosed cages barely wide enough for one person to stand, surrounded by rubbish and asinine “keep clean” signs. IDF guards bellow through loudspeakers from behind small, plastic windows: “Israel forever” is graffitied onto one window, next to a Star of David. Travelling to Jerusalem one day on a Palestinian coach, I was surprised when the majority of the people got off the coach and stood outside in a queue, leaving three other non-Palestinians and me.
As a white tourist I was allowed to stay on the coach, treated politely by teenage, machine-gun wielding IDF soldiers, while people in their own country were routinely lined up outside, treated as suspicious terrorist others.
These facts of Palestinian life don’t gel with what pro-Israel Diaspora Jews believe about Israelis and Palestinians. Zionist Jews simply do not comprehend that the only people who are in real danger of being made refugees are the Palestinians, that while Israelis stress the abstract right to exist, Palestinians are being killed in their thousands. Like other neoliberal states, Israeli government strategy deliberately plays on the population’s existential fear: invoking terrorist attacks, rockets, and frightening brown men in headscarfs. This enables the occupation to entrench itself across land it is not entitled to.
All of this erases an important anti-Zionist Jewish tradition. While today a majority of observing Jews identify with the state of Israel, there is both a growing and visible minority of anti- and non-Zionist Jews, and a rich history of anti-Zionism within Judaism. Political movements like The Jewish Labour Bundand thinkers such as Abraham Serfaty, Emma Goldman and Leon Trotsky are often ignored or dismissed as “self-hating traitors”. In the UK today groups like Jews for Justice for Palestinians, Jewdas, Young Jewish Left and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist network are active voices against the occupation.
In practice Zionism is indistinguishable from the Israeli nationalism that sees the oppression of Palestinians like Ertefaa or Munib as necessary collateral for Jewish survival. Those who support Israel are buying into the idea that Palestinian lives are worth less than those of Jews. A cursory glance at prisoner exchange numbers is demonstrative: in 2011 IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was exchanged for 1027 Palestinians.
This month, hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated worldwide against the massacre in Gaza. Marching in London with the Jewish bloc has been a powerful experience. Under the banner “not in my name”, we show that Israel does not speak for all Jews.