Like many of my readers, and unlike my wife and children, I am an Israeli by choice. I immigrated to Israel nearly 46 years ago. My wife and children were born in Israel. Nearly six years ago, one of my children left Israel with her husband and daughter. They decided they didn’t want to raise their young child in Israel. They did not want to live in a country which was becoming increasingly religious, right-wing, racist, lacking tolerance of diversity, and apartheid-like. My two grown-up sons have so far remained in Jerusalem. They participate in the anti-government protests, but not regularly, and unlike my wife and I, they don’t always participate in the “Gush neged haKibush” – the bloc against the occupation part of the protests.
I don’t know if my two sons and their partners will stay in Israel, they are here with us for the time being. We are seeing some of our friends leave Israel and some others seriously thinking about leaving. I don’t think about leaving, for me the struggle has not yet been lost and I am not willing to give up fighting for a just and democratic Israel in which all citizens live with equality and an Israel that no longer occupies the Palestinian people. For me, Israel has always been home in the deepest sense of the word and it is not easy to leave home.
Part of my struggle is that I no longer define myself as a Zionist. It took me a long time to come out and say this publicly. My difficulty was mainly because I became an Israeli based on the Zionist Law of Return. Had I been born in Israel; I would have declared that I am no longer a Zionist a long time ago.
I came out in support of the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel in 1975. For me, in those days it was the Zionist solution that would enable Israel to be the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people and all of its citizens. I thought that if there was a national home for the Palestinians on part of historic Palestine, then not only would Israel end its occupation of the Palestinian people, but also the Palestinian citizens of Israel could be treated equally as full Israeli citizens, as they would no longer be suspect of identifying with the enemies of their state. As long as there was a viable peace process with the Palestinians, I thought that was a chance that true equality could exist within the State of Israel and that the occupation could end.
That has not happened. The occupation has become harsher than ever. Discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian citizens has deepened with increasing racism and hatred between the Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel and growing alienation of the Palestinian citizens towards the State of Israel. As Israel has become more right-wing and much more religious and the agenda of genuine equality is not within the platform or any of the religious right-wing political parties and civil society organizations it seems impossible to imagine the reality that I dream of and work for.
What is done in the name of Zionism now and for many years are actions that are diametrically opposed to everything that I value. Zionist responses are actions of building more settlements on Palestinian land, erasing Palestinian villages, pogroms against innocent Palestinians, passing the Nation-State law, and a lot of other legislative initiatives on the way as well as daily encroaching annexation. I no longer believe in the idea of a Jewish democratic state, it is no longer possible – perhaps it never really was. Jewish supremacy in the State of Israel has taken on proportions that make it impossible to imagine Israel as a state where all of its citizens can be genuinely equal.
With no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the horizon and the daily encroachment of annexation of the West Bank without granting millions of Palestinians even the most basic human rights, Israel has truly become a new form of apartheid. The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid defines “the crime of apartheid” as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them”. The term racial group is a broad term, as we use it in Israel, not limited to skin color or other race-based definitions, but rather related to ethnicity, religion, national identification, etc. Israel is not apartheid South Africa, there are many differences, but Israel does fit the international definition of apartheid.
My struggle for what I want my home – Israel – to be, comes from two sentences in Israel’s Declaration of Independence (and not from the whole Declaration). “[the State of Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its citizens irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
And of course: “We extend our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.”
Israel has not lived up to those declarations of intent – particularly with regard to Israel’s closest neighbors – the Palestinian people. Israel is further away from them than ever before. The current Israeli government will do nothing to bring us even one millimeter closer to ending the occupation. In fact, it will continue to implement the plans of the most right-wing elements of this government – building more settlements and doing everything possible to encourage Palestinians to leave. The present and the future look quite gloomy and it is easy to sink into despair. I understand people who are relocating or seeking to relocate. If my children were small perhaps, I too would consider it. But for me, with grown up children, and no other place in the world which feels like home to me, I am here to fight for what I believe in. Here I need to draw on the ability to imagine a better tomorrow and use strategic thinking to develop the road map to reach that better place.
When reality is so bleak it is very difficult to draw on imagination which is not naïve fantasy. We must remain connected to reality and seek to define the ways in which it would be possible to change public opinion. I am 100% convinced that if Israelis believed that there was a sincere partner for peace in Palestine, public opinion in Israel could rapidly change. The same is true for Palestinian public opinion – if there were leaders in Israel that spoke sincerely about living in peace with the Palestinian people, public opinion in Palestine would change. It is difficult to see that happening with the current leaders in Israel and in Palestine. But our leaders will change – they are not here forever.
We need great people on both sides with vision and abilities to stand up and enter the political arena. We are suffering badly from the lack of leaders with vision who can reignite hope and who understand that the future of the Israeli people and the Palestinian people is intertwined. I have little hope that the US or Europe will provide the help and support that we need. We must find every point of leverage that we can identify to create the future that we want. We must impress upon Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman not to give away the greatest leverage existing today to move Israeli public opinion towards understanding the urgent need to end the occupation. Saudi normalization with Israel in the absence of iron-clad agreements to move towards ending the occupation will leave us frozen in the unbearable continuation of the great injustice of occupation and the inevitable escalation of violence.
The anti-normalization movement in Palestine, while understandable makes it difficult for us to build bridges for mutual support and solidarity – but we must do it anyway. It is more difficult today to create possibilities for Israelis and Palestinians to meet and get to know each other. From 1989-2011, I organized and ran, with Palestinian colleagues, more than 2000 working groups of professionals from Israel and Palestine. Today that is very very difficult – but not impossible. It must be done and this kind of serious work must be undertaken by young Israelis and Palestinians and the international community needs to renew its efforts to enable this.
We must always keep in mind that some of the more important, significant and earth-shattering events in history were not predicted or imagined, such as the Sadat visit to Jerusalem, the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, the emergence of Nelson Mandela from prison and being elected President of a post-apartheid democratic South Africa. We have no real ability to know what tomorrow will bring, but it is our responsibility to help to create a much better future. We cannot give up hope, the struggle is ongoing and we have not yet lost.