Elijah Kahlenberg

Reuniting Family: Overcoming Mono-Ethnic Territorial Exclusion

“Why should I care about Palestinians? This is Judea, which is for the Jews, Arabs should return to Arabia.” After leaving Gush Etzion’s junction one day in late July, I came upon over 100 Nachala settlers confronting IDF soldiers. Nachala is a far right settlement organization led by extremist Daniella Weiss, a settler who just sanctioned the burning of the Palestinian village of Huwara in early March following a recent settler rampage in the area. The above quote, from one of the Nachala settlers I confronted, especially haunts me. The parallels between such rhetoric and that of finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, who recently claimed Palestinians are not a people and have no native connection to the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, proves this mindset is no minuscule anomaly. This sentiment is rather a growing tumor rationalizing decades of bloodshed. To untrained eyes, Israelis and Palestinians appear to be in a struggle over religion, land, or other variables; however, the battle over narrative and identity reigns supreme. We, Jews/Israelis and Arabs/Palestinians, constantly identify one-another as foreigners in our home; however, by comprehending that “other” as family, we have an outlet for reconciliation.

As Palestinians are family, I cannot remain silent while you endure decades of occupation and forced displacement. I likewise witnessed such oppression firsthand while residing on a Palestinian farm in the West Bank for multiple months. Whether it was the inhumanity settlers/soldiers treated Palestinians with at checkpoints, or the roadblocks I traversed to visit Jericho and Ramallah with Palestinian friends, or just awaking to a wall dividing our homeland, I could not accept this reality. Regardless of one’s opinion concerning the necessity of such occupational techniques, the Jewish collective must never lose sight that such techniques have, and will always be, evils imposed on the Palestinian people.

Based on my above sentiments, many will be quick to judge my outlooks. As a staunch defender of Palestinians’ basic human rights, I am likely being categorized as one who believes Jews have no connection to this land and should ‘return’ to their grandparents’ birth nation. While I imbibe the Palestinian narrative, my acknowledgment of Palestinian identity/suffering does not negate Jewish identity and connection to the land. Eretz Israel is undoubtedly the land of my forefathers. My ancestors, Ukrainian Ashkenazim and Greek/Turkish Sephardim, were enslaved from Judea into Rome and expelled throughout Europe. Assertions denying Jewish ancestral connection to Eretz Israel are ever-increasing due to the association of that connection with justifying Israel’s atrocities; however, to sever our connection to this land separates Jews from our religion, culture, language, and everything that makes us Jewish. 

A fact I take issue with is understanding this connection to the land through the lens of exclusivity. Benjamin Netanyahu said the quiet part out loud when he stated that Israel is “not a state of all its citizens” but “the nation state of the Jewish people – and only it.” Various Israeli leaders have justified evils against Palestinians through this mindset, with the Nakba topping such sins. To the Jewish collective, we know we cannot be colonizers within our ancestral homeland but to Palestinians, how can we not be colonizers? Our monopoly on violence often parallels the French in Algeria and Americans in Iraq, thus, in the eyes of Palestinians, of course we are foreign occupiers. Identity can be solidified through suffering, and Palestinian identity has undeniably been crafted through Jewish indifference to the “the other” in our homeland.

I do my utmost to encompass the Jewish narrative while understanding the Palestinian story. Understanding the identity of ‘the other’ includes accounts of suffering alongside a people’s connection to the land, a concept many Zionists fear acknowledging in relation to Palestinians. Many believe that acknowledging Palestinian nativity concedes Jewish ancestral connection to the land; therefore, their logic typically situates Palestinians as foreigners descended from Arabian conquerors. While some lineages are traceable to Arabia, this relationship does not define Palestinian identity. Rather, Palestinians overwhelmingly descend from local Levantines, including Samaritans, Canaanites, pre-Islamic local Arab tribes, and even Arabized Hebrews.

Based on contemporary ideologues, one should believe claims showcasing parallel Jewish-Palestinian origins as blasphemous. Prime Minister Netanyahu tweeted that Palestinians, “whose ancestors came from the Arabian Peninsula,” lack the “the 4,000 year connection that the Jewish people have with the land.” Similarly, Mahmoud Abbas attacked Ashkenazi Jewish connection to the land when he falsely claimed Ashkenazim “have no relationship to Semitic culture, Abraham, Jacob, and others” as they hail from “Khazaria.” These modern ‘foreign’ conceptualizations of ‘the other’ are meant to negate our national legitimacies; however, by seeing our identities’ complementary natures, reconciliation is possible. Just analyze Prime Minister Ben-Gurion’s (now-suppressed) claim from 1918 that “in their [Palestinian fellahin] veins, without a doubt, flows much Jewish blood” from Jews who relinquished their identity to “maintain their attachment…to the land.” 

Rekindling a familial comprehension of ‘the other’ has the power to remove our erroneous and historically-recent animosities; however, proliferating this understanding will take many brave Jews and Palestinians revealing their identity to “the other.” In tumultuous times like these defined by bloodshed and animosity, be the courageous soul who reaches out the olive branch so one day both our peoples can remember we are cousins, not enemies.

About the Author
Elijah Demetrios Kahlenberg is a student/researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and the founder and president of Atidna International, a joint Arab/Palestinian and Jewish/Israeli campus-based peace initiative. Elijah analyzes historical issues pertinent to Arab/Palestinian-Jewish/Israeli peace/reconciliation, the Israeli settler movement, Palestinian history, Jewish interfaith relations, and Jewish history in the Eastern Mediterranean.
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