Yesterday the French foreign minister signalled his country’s intention to recognise the state of Palestine, with the proviso they’d only do so if the next round of peace negotiations failed. The day before, the British parliament recognised Palestine in what was a largely symbolic vote. A vote, observers presume, intended to make the Israeli government shake in their proverbial boots at the deterioration of relations with major powers should settlement expansion (and other key signifiers of the occupation) continue or escalate.
The UK. France. Sweden. Spain. All these countries’ governments have sent similar signals to Netanyahu and the Knesset. Yet, the Israeli Labor party spent the time leading up to the vote trying to persuade its British counterpart, and others attending, that they should either abstain from or oppose the motion.
This leads one to the inevitable conclusion that the mainstream Israeli left is morally and intellectually bankrupt, utterly without direction; at best, they can muster a de jure support for a two-state solution while ignoring the de facto reality Israel’s policies are utterly undermining it. When challenged on this, the Israeli Laborites and their contemporaries will inevitably tell you that Palestinian statehood must come after negotiations conclude. As if, somehow, the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and other basic dignities only exist when Israeli statesmen decide they should.
Forget, for a moment, the debate between whether a secular one-state or two-state solution would end more quickly the violence, bigotry, and discrimination that plagues certain inhabitants of Israel-Palestine. Many of those to whom this debate matters most have yet to even find their way on to the playing field.
The real purpose of the negotiations is to determine how Israelis and Palestinians can live in a condition of mutual respect and peace, not to decide whether one party is allowed these fundamental rights at all.
This obscene narrative where Israel has every right, and Palestine none, is challenged by only a few in what Israelis and particularly Zionists would likely call “far-left”, “radical”, or even “terrorist” circles. Ending completely the dominance of the Zionist narrative, on the left of all places, and finding a replacement for the Jewish people who turned to this political/liberation movement out of desperation, ignorance, prejudice, and fear, will require an acknowledgement of the history and culture of all the peoples this terrible conflict embroils.
The issue of Palestine and Israel, Jews and Zionists, anti-Zionists and anti-semites, has been a focus of my life… much as it is for the world now, and began to be long before I was born. My aunt used the right of return and after making Aliyah from the Netherlands lived in Israel for many years, before being labelled a “goy” (derogatory word for a non-Jew, or a Jew who’s ignorant of the Jewish religion) and insufficiently Jewish when she asked for permanent citizenship. Indignant, she invoked the memory of my family who, nearly extinguished during the Holocaust, wouldn’t stand for Israeli questioning of her identity, my identity, as a Jew. We, as Jews, all possess a total right to say what our view is of the story of Jewish identity, Jewish liberation, and the narrative that combines these things. Including, believe it or not, why the Jewish narrative can’t be Zionism’s.
As with all stories it’s best to start at the beginning. With technological advancements, and an ever more interconnected world, perhaps increases in Jewish migration to the Levant were inevitable. Though Jewish migrations to Palestine, in the late 19th/early 20th century particularly, were of course also largely spurred on by spikes in Europe-wide persecution (waves in the west’s post-Great Revolt anti-semitic sentiment are littered throughout history, the 17th century Polish king Khmelnytsky murdered a third of the Jews under his rule) and the newly formed Zionist ideology (generally considered to have been founded in the 1890s by Herzl’s Der Judenstaat).
It’s important to remember that living in the “Land of Israel” has always been encouraged as many of the Torah’s mitzvot (“religious commandments”, such as tilling the soil near Jerusalem at certain times) cannot be fulfilled unless one is in the Holy Land. In fact, the Midrash halakhah’s sifre says the commandment to live in Israel is more important than the other 612 combined.
But, and oh so crucially, migration to Israel and habitation is not the same as the establishment of a nation-state. Especially not a state predicated on a religious nationalism, one that creates an underclass through the elevation of the Jewish ethno-religious group above others. The idea that Jews, because of their tribe and their religion, should have rights superior to their counterparts (naturally, enforced by government) is anathema to everything I know and feel about the faith they claim to hold so dear.
Of course labour Zionists, liberal Zionists, and others (whose influence was even greater during Israel’s founding and leading up to it) will claim the true Zionist project was to create a democratic “Jewish state” that also fully respected its minorities. But what would that even look like? How can a state be truly “Jewish”, “Christian”, pick any excluding adjective, and still really be inclusive? In a crude sense, this contradiction is perhaps the very source of the tragedy of Israel. A contradiction that its believers are either unwilling, or afraid, to follow to its conclusion. Lest their hollow dream is shattered.
To talk of superior rights isn’t the worst of it, not every Zionist refuses to question non-Jews’ right to exist in their presence (or right to exist at all), as Jewish-only roads and 150 Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank demonstrate. To take an even more extreme case, the Chief Rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba, Dov Lior, described the mass-murderer and member of the Jewish supremacist group “Kach” (denounced by even right-wing Israeli members of the Knesset as an extremist organisation and eventually banned in 1994), Baruch Goldstein, as “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust”. Words that should, might I add, make any with a true understanding of the lessons of the Axis’ horrors sick, words that amount to the desecration of my butchered family’s unmarked graves (in six of the concentration camps scattered across Nazi Europe. Dov Lior has also asked that the Bedouin be given incentives to leave Israel so they can “return to their native land”, claimed “a thousand non-Jews aren’t worth a Jew’s fingernail”, said he’d flatten Beirut if it meant he could save one Israeli soldier’s life, kill non-Jewish babies in time of war if there’s even a chance they’ll grow up to harm Jews, and has described Obama as “the kushi (a Hebrew word comparable, according to some, to nigger) of the west” and Arabs as “evil camel riders”.
At the end of September, before the blood of Gaza’s dead in the wake of Protective Edge could even run cold, Lior demanded genocide and asked Israel at the Givat Oz Vgaon outpost to “cleanse the entire country [of Palestinians]”, and commented that “there was no peace and there will never be peace, not because we do not want [peace], but because there is no one to make peace with”. Lior added “this is their character, they are for war, and the traits of a nation do not change”, and that Palestinians “know how to lead a democratic government just like I know how to deal with camels”.
Some Israeli politicians have criticised Lior’s racist incitement, he’s even been arrested for it, but to this day no real action has been taken as every arrest resulted in naught.
The earliest Jewish olim (“migrants”) came with, it’s been argued by a massive margin, an unshakeable belief in the socialist, secular, and humanist ideals. One of the founders of the kibbutz movement, Joseph Baratz, famously declared: “We were happy enough working on the land, but we knew more and more certainly that the ways of the old settlements were not for us. This was not the way we hoped to settle the country – this old way with Jews on top and Arabs working for them; anyway, we thought that there shouldn’t be employers and employed at all. There must be a better way.”
There is a better way. And we can find it by living up to Hitler’s description of us and gypsies as “enemies of the race-based state”. Of the Holocaust’s 11 million victims, 6 million were Jews worked to death as slaves or murdered in what we described as the Shoah (Hebrew for “whole-burning”, hardly inaccurate as the predominantly Ashkenazi victims constituted two thirds of European Jewry and half of the world’s), and 2 million were gypsies killed in what the Romani called the Porajmos (“the devouring”). Swept up in the Nazis’ cult of death were socialists, Slavs, non-heterosexuals, and countless others. And it is important to remember the systematic slaughter of state-sponsored genocide was no more tragic than that by the Reich’s armies as they marched across Europe, Asia, and Africa killing tens of millions of innocents.
Enemies of the race-based state Jews are, and the blood-soaked walls of race are built higher than maybe any one of us could climb. But whether these walls are of the mind, or the very real apartheid that carves the Palestinian land in to fragile pieces, we should pull them apart brick by brick until the barriers of hate are but a distant nightmare.
The word for messiah comes from the Hebrew “mashiah”, and the Jews believe he will arrive to free all of humanity from the shackles of ignorance, war, and slavery. It is the Torah’s commandment for Jews to live in peace with whatever city gives them shelter, and the belief in liberation deeply instilled by the stories of Moses and the Exodus, that reminds us our love of peace must come before everything else. The scholars and teachers warned that for the Jews’ fear of oppression to truly end, we must end oppression itself. If we allow injustice, oppressor and oppressed, to exist anywhere, we abdicate our place as children of God.
And as the children of God, those who believe in the essence of Abraham’s and his spiritual descendants’ teachings, will know – this life is a test. A test to see whether we can leave those who believe in peace to live in peace, as there can be no greater gauge of our worthiness to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than our striving to create it on Earth.
Whether it be to the bigots in Hamas (in this case a party spokesman, the top representative in Lebanon, and head of international relations, Osama Hamdan) who claim “we all remember how the Jews used to slaughter Christians, in order to mix their blood in their holy matzos”, or brutes in Likud who see the corpse of a Palestinian child as mere “collateral”, we should say every civilian’s, every non-combatant’s life, is precious and totally undeserving of violence. The murder of the Gaza Four and Daniel Tragerman must be described exactly as they are: injustices. To take a line from the Jewish and Muslim holy texts, “to save one life is to save humankind”.
Never again. And never forget. Under the roar of war and Israeli guns is drowned not only the dreams of the Palestinian people, but the culture, history, and soul of the Jewish people as well. When we realise this, when every pilgrim can pray in silence, maybe the Holy Land will be worthy of its sacred title. As the saying goes, until all are free, we are each in chains.
This is why I support the Palestinian struggle not in spite of my Jewishness, but because of it. A Jewishness rooted in the Haskalah, the Enlightenment.
The true Israel, the true promised land, is not Zionist – it can never be Zionist – but an inter-religious community, an inter-racial community, a beacon of harmony and coexistence where it not only lives side by side with Palestine, they are the same. A land promised to Jews, and to all people.