My Zionism does not stop me from recognizing Palestinian suffering

The declaration of the state of Israel marked the official beginning of the first and only modern, democratic Jewish state. For me, personally, this represents a historic victory and a source of pride. An endlessly oppressed people, who migrated from country to country in search of a better and safer life, took charge of their own destiny. Jews returned to their homeland and created a country where they would not have to fight for emancipation or acceptance. No one will ever change my mind- the creation of the state of Israel is a miracle of history and Zionism is the realization of a people’s struggle for self-determination and liberation.

The history and ideology of Zionism I grew up learning about was linked to the history of justice that made me so proud to be Jewish. Jews, despite experiencing severe oppression, were at the forefront of labor movements in Europe and the United States as well as the fight for civil rights in the United States. Zionism, especially in the creation of the kibbutzim, was an extension of that same fight for freedom and equality. What I was not told, at a younger age, was that there was another nation for whom “Zionism” represented the antithesis of liberation. For them, it represented conquest and a loss of their homeland.

I can’t remember when I first learned about Israel or Zionism.  I can’t remember when I first heard that “Palestinians were a made up people.” I can’t remember when I was first told that anti-Semitism is the reason Israel is surrounded by enemies and unfairly scrutinized in the press. What I can remember, however, is that it was not until high school that I learned about the Nakba and learned what a settlement was. It was not until I was an undergraduate student that I learned that the state of Israel’s founding resulted in the expulsion of 700, 000 Palestinians.

While the larger Arab-Israeli conflict also resulted in over 800, 000 Jews being kicked out of Arab countries, this doesn’t change the fact that in order to create the Jewish state, people were kicked out of their homes and upon seeking to return, they were told that their deed was no longer valid. Villages were destroyed and evacuated in order to create the state of Israel. Horrific consequences of war and disagreeable government policies do not invalidate our right to self-determination but 72 years after Israel’s independence, too many Jewish institutions and spaces are failing to honestly confront history and recognize mutual suffering.

Despite growing up caring about Israel and its well-being, I did not get a chance to visit the country until I was 19 years old. Like many other Jews of the diaspora, my first trip to Israel was with Taglit. Many of us got to experience, for the first time, the only country in the world where Jews are no longer reserved to “minority” status. In Jerusalem, we visited Mount Herzl and Yad Vashem and, of course, we went to the Kotel and approached the holiest site in Judaism. No one mentioned though that the Western Wall Plaza was created by bulldozing houses and completely eradicating a 770 year old neighborhood known as the Moroccan Quarter. We discussed the demographics of the city and its importance to all three monotheistic religions but we never got out of the Old City to take a look at the underdeveloped and visibly poorer East Jerusalem. We were told that the residents of East Jerusalem are not citizens of the state of Israel and therefore do not vote in national elections, we were not told that, like the rest of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, they live under complete surveillance.

The conquest of Judea and Samaria in 1967 coupled with a failure to reach a peace agreement and finalize borders left the area under military occupation and therefore military law. The result has been the creation of two entirely different legal systems. Democratic Israeli law has come to be applied to the Israeli settlements. Palestinians, on the other hand, are subject to military rule and tried in military court. They lack basic protections seen as integral in any democracy. One of the terrible consequences of this dual system is the arrest and detention of Palestinian minors, many of them blindfolded on the street while taken to an interrogation center or otherwise arrested in the middle of the night by soldiers who forcibly enter their homes. Parents, in Israel, appalled by the actions of the IDF towards minors, have organized to form “Parents Against Child Detention” to inform the Israeli public and raise awareness. Jews of the diaspora can support these parents without compromising their belief in the existence of a Jewish and democratic state.

The military occupation also impacts Palestinians’ access to water. Palestinians face water shortages which hamper their economic activities and place a heavy burden on the poorest communities. The poor state of the pipelines Palestinians have access to causes leaks and water loss. Israel refuses to grant approval for the Palestinian Authority to repair these pipelines. Jewish groups around the world are confronting injustice and the environmental challenges our planet faces. Our Zionist identity can include a space to discuss how we can help everyday Palestinians access clean, drinkable water.

Recognizing Israel’s security challenges does not stop me from recognizing that Palestinians are currently unable to access basic human rights. Recognizing the challenges Palestinians are facing under the occupation does not stop me from recognizing that Israel is, often, the target of unreasonable propaganda. It also does not stop me from recognizing the corruption that exists within the Palestinian Authority.

Israel is only 72 years old. It has survived and become a leader in technology. Israeli universities, in great Jewish fashion, are creating leading intellectuals in the fields of the physical and social sciences. Even if I am not Israeli, I think that as Jews of the diaspora this should be a source of pride. At the same time, the policy of settlement expansion creates a great burden on Israel, Israelis and Palestinians. The many of us who believe in the existence of a Jewish state but acknowledge its shortcomings get, too often, caught between a rock and a hard place. We find ourselves defending Israel when confronted by those who unjustly single it out in their criticism and fail to recognize the significance of the land to the Jewish people. We then get insulted by those who fall on the other extreme end of the spectrum, even labeled as “self-hating Jews.” The consequences are evident: by failing to address Israel’s imperfections, its history and the current occupation, we are allowing the discourse to be hijacked by extremists who do not wish to see a Jewish state exist and those whose vision of Jewish liberation is increasingly turning into a dangerous “my country right or wrong” patriotism. I believe in “Tikkun Olam.” We should not be afraid to repair Eretz Yisrael. That starts with critically understanding how everyone from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean sea has been impacted, positively and negatively, by Medinat Yisrael.

This blog has been submitted as part of a wider campaign, which is being run by the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) entitled “Theodor & I – Zionism and Young European Jews”. Being launched on Yom Ha’atzmaut, the campaign seeks to start a discussion on Zionism, towards challenging the existing conversation surrounding the concept and ultimately highlighting the plurality of Jewish European identity and Zionism.

The opinions represented in these blogs do not necessarily reflect the position and views of EUJS.

About the Author
Born in Paris to a Belgian father and an American mother, William grew up between Paris, New York and Ostend, Belgium. Having previous work experience as a teacher and tour guide, he is now living in Brussels, pursuing a master's degree in political economy.
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