Why I am building a shared community of Jews & Arabs in Nazareth Illit

A letter to my Palestinian Arab Israeli partners in Nazareth Illit:

I too grew up in a country where the symbol on the national flag was from a religion other than mine.

I too grew up in a country where I was a minority – a minority that has increasingly been subject to racism.

I too grew up in a country where there are politicians on both sides of the political spectrum who saw me as disloyal to the state and worthy of hurtful lies made against my people.

I grew up in England as a Jew, living as many minorities have done over the course of human history, keeping our heads down, subject to the whims of whoever was leading the country at any given time.

At the same time, I also grew up in a privileged environment. I was sent to a private school, I had the toys I wanted, meals out and family holidays abroad.

As I grew older, my connection to the Jewish religion and to God became more and more antagonistic, and yet my identification as being part of the Jewish people became stronger. My history wasn’t the Kings and Queens of England, but was the Kings and Queens of Israel. Each Pesach I recalled how I had left Egypt with my people, how I had suffered in Egypt, how I had been expelled from Spain, experienced the pogroms of Eastern Europe, the blood libels in Damascus, the Holocaust, the kosher supermarkets of France, synagogues in Pittsburg and suicide bombings in Jerusalem.

I realized that it was a chance of birth that I spoke English. I could just as well have spoken French or Spanish or Russian or any other language that my people have spoken in their nearly 2000 years of exile.

I became inspired by Eliezer Ben Yehuda, to paraphrase him, who took the Hebrew language from the synagogue and the house of study and turned it into a living language – with his vision he forged a people with a common language, both as a means and as a value itself.

I became inspired by, and even identify with, to this day, a small group of young Eastern European Jews who lived at the end of the 19th/ beginning of the 20th century. They were fed up with their situation, both from the incessant discrimination and persecution from the society at large, but also from within the Jewish community, their own families, their own parents, who they saw as conservative, backward, meek, resigned to their fate, with a different set of values of how we are supposed to act as human beings.

These kids, after all they were mostly 17, 18 and 19 years old, decided they were going to take their fate into their own hands. They decided to say goodbye to their families, get on boats, and travel to the inhospitable, boiling, malaria infested backwaters of the Ottoman Empire to work in agriculture on this unforgiving land.

Except this description does these young people a terrible disservice. They didn’t do this because it was a lifestyle choice and this was where each of them would rather live their lives. They made this choice because they were willing to act on their beliefs and take responsibility for the plight of their people. They believed that the redemption of the Jewish people would only take place if the Jewish people built a society of their own, running our own lives, led by our own leaders, becoming a normal people, yet with high expectations, based on the values of justice, equality, solidarity and labour, in the very same land which our ancestors had dwelled in.

I saw in my own Jewish upbringing, that I was fed up with my situation, both from the incessant discrimination and persecution from the society at large, but also from within the Jewish community, my own family, my own parents, who I saw as conservative, backward, meek, resigned to their fate, with a different set of values of how we are supposed to act as human beings.

I followed these young idealists, like many before me, and hopefully like many after me, to take my place at the centre of the Jewish people – no longer in the periphery in the far flung Jewish diaspora, in order to shape this society which is as yet still far from the perfect place that the pioneers dreamt of.

This is my Zionism. It is the belief that the nearly 2000 years of exile has turned my people away from its historic responsibility, both to itself and to the world at large. It’s responsibility to heal and build and grow and create and change and love. We have a culture, a language, a collective history, values and also a land which, if we use these things wisely, gives us a platform to be a light unto the nations.

But my Zionism is also something else. My Zionism is also inextricably linked to my belief in Shivyon Erech Ha’adam. My Zionism is about the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, but not at the expense of anyone else. On the contrary, it is our responsibility as progressive Zionists to fight for the rights of all people, of all minorities – for who understands better than us what it means to be oppressed.

For my whole adult life I have advocated for a Zionism which includes justice for the Palestinians living on both sides of the green line. From my activism in the occupied territories, including organizing demonstrations, tracking the occupancy of settler houses, recording the building of new infrastructure and roads, squatting in Palestinian houses under the threat of demolition and much more. I was also a refusenik, sent to military prison for refusing to serve in the occupied territories to protect settlers. I also ran meeting seminars in Cyprus for several years, gatherings that brought together Jewish Israelis and Palestinians from within Israel and from the West Bank to talk, meet, get to know one another – to talk and to listen.

I am now here. Here to be part of this multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious community (Kehila Meshutefet) of Nazareth Illit. This is our shared home, and we have an obligation to make it as homely as possible for everyone that lives here. Equal opportunities for all – for housing, education, health, public transportation, employment, budgets, political representation, freedom for religious practice – for everything.

Last month I commemorated 20 years since coming to Israel. I came not because I believed that the Zionist dream has been realized – the opposite – I came here because I believe that we still have so, so much work still to do. And 20 years later, I’m still doing that work.

About the Author
Anton Marks is a British-born Israeli and a founder member of the largest urban kibbutz in Israel. He has been an informal educator for the last 25 years, and has recently returned from Shlichut in Maryland for the youth movement Habonim Dror. His passion for Zionist education, Tikkun Olam, Jewish history, identity and culture are a recipe for engaging and challenging articles.
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