Anti-Zionism is not at odds with being Jewish
I grew up a default Zionist. At home, my family’s Jewishness took the form of eating bagels on the weekend and sometimes lighting the Hanukah candles. A proud atheist and eternal adolescent, my father smoked pot prior to my grandparents’ Seder dinners, and ruined his three childrens’ appetites by buying us burritos en route, ensuring our disinterest in the parsley dipped in salt water, the matzah ball soup, the sweet wine and the orange-glazed chicken leg. So, too, he aided and abetted our inattention to the Passover stories about how Jews, the Children of Israel, escaped enslavement in Egypt.
But, however half-assed our Jewishness, it came with a vague—but unquestioning—conviction that Israel did, indeed, belong to the Jews. And it was not until recently that I came to understand the strength of this belief, and how it leaves no space between being born Jewish, and laying claim to the Israeli state as a birthright and refuge from persecution.
Although my journey to discovering the problems with a Jewish state was gradual, I can precisely date my commitment to opposing Zionism. That date, May 17, 2013, is stamped into my passport, marking my arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. I had made the 30-some hour journey from Honolulu to participate in a faculty development seminar in the West Bank. The seminar was designed to forge relations between US and Palestinian academics, and I hoped to meet colleagues who might contribute to a special issue of Biography, an academic journal I co-edit, centered on “Life in Occupied Palestine.”
During the 11 days I spent visiting Palestinian universities, cultural centers and refugee camps, I was confronted by the architecture of apartheid and occupation. The checkpoints, bristling with armed Israeli soldiers—sometimes massive concrete structures, sometimes “flying,” or suddenly erected; the 520-kilometer Separation Wall, 85 percent of which twists and turns inside the West Bank; the separate system of roads and tunnels for Israeli Jews and Palestinians; the hundreds of newly constructed, incursionary Israeli hilltop settlements, looming white and pristine over Palestinian villages.
I met professors, bus drivers, storekeepers, café owners, students, government officials, administrators, musicians, writers, artists, street vendors and small children. Every one of these encounters brought me face-to-face with the Palestinians whose human rights Israel violates on a daily basis.
By the time I entered occupied Palestine, I had a fairly solid understanding of the violence and exclusions—as well as the billions of U.S. dollars annually—upon which the maintenance of a Jewish state depends. I also knew Israel’s founding in 1948 was premised on the expulsion of more than 750,000 Palestinians. And I had read about the decades of illegal occupation, colonization and apartheid that have resulted in the ongoing expulsion and ethnic cleansing of Palestinian people, and the near disappearance of Palestine from the map. My studies had already led me to endorse the Palestinian-led BDS campaign. I had signed onto the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) with intellectual conviction, but also with some mixed feelings—I had friends and family members who viewed my endorsement as renunciation of my Jewishness, and as evidence that I was self-hating, even anti-Semitic.
After my 2013 visit, and after working on the Biography issue and then returning to Palestine in 2015 to launch it, my ambivalence was stripped away. Israeli settler-colonialism was no longer the abstraction of shrinking swathes of green on a map. Instead, it was made up of stories and images that got under my skin and, sometimes, took my breath away. I now had friends who had lost eyes to rubber bullets, brothers to bombings, family homes to demolitions. On their way to work or to do daily things like empty the trash, they had been stuffed into rubbish cans, arrested, stripped of their shoes. Students told me of fiancés imprisoned for participating in Right to Education campaigns. Israeli security officers deliberately dropped their computers at airports. Soldiers entered their homes at night and photographed or arrested their children. They regularly did not reach work or school—or the hospital—because they could not pass through checkpoints.
In Hebron, the Palestinians I met could not, under Israeli military law, enter their own homes through their front doors, or walk freely on the streets. Above the streets I saw, caught in overhead wire meshing, the rocks and dirty diapers that Israeli settlers in stolen houses threw down at them. Watchdog group the Temporary International Presence in Hebron reported on the sewage and acid settlers poured through the netting, onto Palestinians’ heads. Palestinians walk through streets full of hateful screeds. One particularly haunting piece of graffiti we saw, signed by the Jewish Defense League, read, “Gas the Arabs.” This chilling “transfer of oppression” from the genocide of Jews under Nazi Germany to the present-day situation in Palestine was also evident in October, 2015, when an Israeli soldier was recorded warning Aida refugee camp residents that if they did not stop throwing stones, “We will gas you until you die.”
On my way to Nablus one day, in the 90 degree heat, I saw a settler in a black top hat and long black coat—an all-too-real apparition—standing over a small girl, knocked down and bloodied at a checkpoint. As Palestinians rushed to her aid, the settler returned to his car and raced off. Later I read that this had been a hit-and-run.
Yet, the Palestinians I met who live under this brutal occupation did not for a minute confuse my Jewishness for Zionism. They invited me into their homes, cooked multi-course meals, gifted me with za’atar, with books of embroidered Palestinian flowers and with music cds. They bought me cardamom-scented coffees and mint lemonades in the cafés we visited together. Strangers helped me navigate maze-like streets. I understood this beautiful warmth and generosity as a refusal to be dehumanized and erased by the machinery of settler-colonialism and occupation.
My time in Palestine taught me that anti-Zionism is not at odds with being Jewish. It also allowed me to see my participation in the BDS movement as a labor of love. It is not Jews, but Zionism, that sustains violently institutionalized divisions between Jews and Palestinians; between Jews and all non-Jews. And it is anti-Zionism, and support for the struggle for justice in Palestine, that affords Jews, and indeed all people, a way to overcome these dehumanizing divides.