For a while I had been reluctant to write this story, because it seemed so baggy and shapeless. The best essays are crisp, with a clearly defined turning point and an easily identifiable ah-ha moment. This story has none of those that I can see. A clear path would make a better essay, but all I have is this murky stew.
My path of change of mind and heart about Israel and Palestine was a long one, and when I try to trace it, many seemingly unconnected points stand out.
In university (1978-1982), I was involved in the anti-apartheid movement, which at the time was focused on divestment from South Africa. I learned a lot about the apartheid system, which was so much more brutal and more repressive than was generally known. I learned about US complicity and involvement in the apartheid regime. No surprise there. But I also learned about Israel's role in South African apartheid. That, I can tell you, I found shocking. Remember the Israel I had learned about at home?
Israel was, to them, a fragile but tenacious outpost of democracy in an otherwise backward region of the world. Israel had made the desert bloom. Israel was experimenting in socialism. Israel was fighting for her life. Israel was where Jews could find refuge if they were suddenly unwelcome in their countries of origin. Israel was surrounded by enemies who sought to destroy her. Jews needed the possibility of Israel and Israel needed our support.I didn't know what to make of this new information. It was confusing, a cognitive dissonance. I tucked it away, and did nothing. By "did nothing," I mean that if asked, I might have repeated the platitudes I grew up with, about the only democracy in the Middle East or how there is no Palestine. I might have said, "It's a very complicated situation." Mostly I avoided the issue.
Once in university, I also saw the omissions and inconsistencies in my family's worldview. This is not the classic case where a little distance allows a young person to see the imperfections in a happy home; quite the opposite. My family life had been so filled with turmoil that I never had space to process these details, to question the little things. Now I realized how the word "Arab" was always preceded by an epithet. I recognized how my parents rejected the my-country-right-or-wrong jingoism of many Americans, but embraced that same ethic about Israel. Their progressive politics were genuine, but they maintained a strict double standard when it came to Israel.
Again, I didn't do anything with this knowledge. I just tucked it away.
Here's a moment which may seem unrelated, but feels essential to my awakening: in university, a classmate talked to me about the Armenian genocide. I had never heard of it - not one word. This young man was very passionate about raising awareness about his people's history. I was ashamed of my ignorance. (He was an excellent educator. I wish he could know how he opened my mind that day.*)
When I next spoke to my mother, I mentioned this: "Did you know there was an Armenian genocide?" She did. She knew a lot about it. I think at that moment I began to question - and to shed - the special status of Jews as Most Persecuted People. It takes nothing away from the Holocaust to know that others have been slaughtered. I note with sadness that in Hebrew School, I never learned that other people were targeted by the Nazis, too. I never learned that Romani, gay people, people with disabilities, people deemed mentally ill, and others were also rounded up and exterminated. Why was it necessary to erase those histories in order to teach us ours?
When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, and the Sabra and Shatila massacre became public, I argued in Israel's defense and did not understand why people blamed Israel for the atrocities. I feel great shame as I admit this. (An investigation into the massacre by an Israeli commission has since laid responsibility with Ariel Sharon, then Israeli Minister of Defence.)
A short time later, I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I really appreciated how, after the exhibits on the Frank family and the Jews of Amsterdam, the story was widened to include the victims of repression and genocide everywhere.
These two disparate events - a massacre in a distant refugee camp, and my visit to the Anne Frank House - became linked in my mind. I was starting to see a bit more clearly.
I began to think that the Jewish community in which I was raised had taught the wrong lessons about the Holocaust. I felt they were saying, "Jews have been persecuted throughout history, and now they must be protected. Israel is our special protection." But the more important lessons of the Holocaust would be about recognizing escalating scapegoating and repression, about how small steps of degradation and dehumanization can progress to genocide. It would be a lesson about universal human rights, about oppressed people everywhere. About how, as the famous saying goes, evil happens when good people are silent.
I felt that if we are to glean any meaning from the carnage of history, if we are to make any attempt to prevent genocides, the lesson of the Holocaust cannot only be about Jews.** Jews are not the only oppressed people, neither now nor through history. Acknowledging this does not change the facts of our own past oppression. It merely connects us to the larger family of humanity.
Here's another point on the path. In university and later in New York, I met Palestinians. People who identified themselves as Palestinians! I was taken aback, although hopefully I didn't show it. Wait, I thought, there is no Palestine. Then I thought, what does that mean?
This, finally, was the basic disconnect lying beneath that cheery suburban Zionism I was raised with: people were already living there. People were already living there. When the "world" - the dominant powers that gave themselves the right to divide up the globe according to their own interests - gave Israel to the Jewish people, there were already people living on that land. Who were those people? Where did they go? What happened to them?
By the time I read this 2008 essay by Howard Zinn, my mind had already changed, but he expresses almost exactly what happened to me. Of course the precise details are different, but his awakening - "It did not occur to me" - resonates deeply with me.
I was not long out of the Air Force when in 1947 the U.N. adopted a partition plan for Palestine, and in 1948, Israel, fighting off Arab attacks, declared its independence. Though not a religious Jew at all, indeed hostile to all organized religions, I had an indefinable feeling of satisfaction that the Jews, so long victims and wanderers, would now have a "homeland."Perspectives
It did not occur to me--so little did I know about the Middle East--that the establishment of a Jewish state meant the dispossession of the Arab majority that lived on that land. I was as ignorant of that as, when in school, I was shown a classroom map of American "Western Expansion" and assumed the white settlers were moving into empty territory. In neither case did I grasp that the advance of "civilization" involved what we would today call "ethnic cleansing."
It was only after the "Six-Day War" of 1967 and Israel's occupation of territories seized in that war (the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the Sinai peninsula) that I began to see Israel not simply as a beleaguered little nation surrounded by hostile Arab states, but as an expansionist power.
In 1967 I was totally engaged in the movement against the war in Vietnam. I had long since understood that the phrases "national security" and "national defense" were used by the United States government to justify aggressive violence against other countries. Indeed, there was a clear bond between Israel and the United States in their respective foreign polices, illustrated by the military and economic support the United States was giving to Israel, and by Israel's tacit approval of the U.S. war in Vietnam.
True, Israel's claim of "security," given its geographical position, seemed to have more substance than the one made by the U.S. government, but it seemed clear to me that the occupation and subjugation of several million Palestinians in the occupied territories did not enhance Israel's security but endangered it.
Once this basic fact sunk in - people already lived there - I saw the Law of Return as if for the first time. I had never stepped foot in Israel. My family had lived in the United States for three generations, and before that, in Eastern Europe. Yet I, an American, had more right to live in Israel than people who were born on that land and whose families had lived there for countless generations. I had this right whether or not I was an observant Jew. I had the right because my mother was Jewish.
This no longer looked like the sacred birthright of an oppressed people. It looked false and corrupt, like some kind of legal double-speak. I couldn't articulate it at the time, but what it looks like, more than anything, is the South African system of manufactured "homelands" and "passports" and racial designations that were instituted to justify apartheid.
I may have been taken aback when a friend identified himself as Palestinian, but I was shocked when I first heard of the Nakba. It was a lot to take in: that the day our synagogue and Jewish youth groups and marching bands and parades had celebrated as Israeli Independence Day was, for other people, a day of mourning, the commemoration of the expulsion from their homeland. Well, sure. Think about Columbus Day from the Native American point of view. You won't find any celebrations of Pizarro in the Andes.
It's getting mighty crowded
File enough papers in the back of a drawer, and eventually the drawer won't close. At some point, all the information I was avoiding became impossible to ignore.
Sometime in the 1990s, I don't know when, I read about the Wall, and I saw the words Israeli apartheid. It took time for me to process this. Gradually, I steeled myself and read more. I read about the conditions Israel had placed on the daily lives of Palestinians. I read about bulldozers. Read about the occupation. I already knew quite a bit about South African apartheid. It wasn't much of a leap.
I had two choices. I could deny reality, or I could admit that Israel was an imperialist, expansionist power. It had built an apartheid system and was guilty of massive human rights abuses.
I wish I could tell you what year it was, what I was doing. I wish I could identify a final straw. I can't. It was a gradual awakening, like layers of gauze being lifted from my eyes. One day things came into focus. It was time to bring my thoughts about Israel and Palestine into line with my core values. I realized that because I support the rights of all people to autonomy and self-determination, I must support Palestinians' rights to those, too. And just as I oppose repressive regimes the world over, I must oppose the repressive Israeli regime, too.
I could say it didn't matter that the oppressors are Jewish and I am Jewish: right is right and wrong is wrong. Or I could say that our shared heritage makes it more horrible - that Jews, of all people, should know better. It makes no difference. The only ways I could justify support for Israel's policies and actions were either with claims to nationalism, which I abhor, or worse, with a claim of racial or genetic superiority. There was simply no other defense.
Next: some stumbling blocks for many Jewish people: violence, anti-Semitism, and the non-existence of Israel.
Continue to part 3.
* See? Talk to people about justice. You never know.
** Much Holocaust education is now about this.