Just over a month has passed since my last piece, and no small reason for this has been the trouble I’ve had putting pen to paper. The issue of Israel and Palestine, Jews and Zionists, has been a focus of my life … much as it is for the world now and long before I was born. My aunt used the right of return and after making Aliyah from the Netherlands lived in Israel for many years, before being labelled a “goyim” (derogatory word for a non-Jew, or a Jew who’s ignorant of the Jewish religion) and insufficiently Jewish when she asked for permanent citizenship. Indignant, she invoked the memory of my family who, nearly extinguished during the Holocaust, wouldn’t stand for Israeli questioning of her identity, my identity, as a Jew. Which brings me to why my hands are typing these words, I want to tell the story of Jewish identity, Jewish liberation, and the narrative that combines these things. And, most of all, why the Jewish narrative can’t be Zionism’s.
As with all stories it’s best to start at the beginning. With technological advancements, and an ever more interconnected world, perhaps increases in Jewish migration to the Levant were inevitable. Though Jewish migration to Palestine, in the late 19th/early 20th century particularly, was of course also largely spurred on by spikes in Europe-wide persecution (waves in an always present anti-semitic sentiment are littered throughout history, the 17th century Polish king Khmelnytsky murdered a third of the Jews under his rule) and the newly formed Zionist ideology (generally considered to have been founded in the 1890s by Herzi’s Der Judenstaat).
It’s important to remember that living in the “Land of Israel” has always been encouraged as many of the Torah’s mitzvot (“religious commandments”, such as tilling the soil near Jerusalem at certain times) cannot be fulfilled unless one is in the Holy Land, in fact the Midrash halakhah’s sifre says the commandment to live in Israel is more important than the other 612 combined.
But, and oh so crucially, migration to Israel and habitation is not the same as the establishment of a nation-state. Especially not a state predicated on a religious nationalism, one that creates an underclass through the elevation of the Jewish ethno-religious group above others. The idea that Jews, because of their tribe and their religion, should have rights superior to their counterparts – naturally, enforced by government – is anathema to everything I know and feel about the faith they claim to hold so dear.
To talk of superior rights isn’t the worst of it, not every Zionist refuses to question non-Jews’ right to exist in their presence (or right to exist at all), as Jewish-only roads and 150 Jewish-only settlements demonstrate. To take an even more extreme case, the Chief Rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba, Dov Lior, described the mass-murderer and member of the Jewish supremacist group “Kach” (denounced by even right-wing Israeli members of the Knesset as an extremist organisation and eventually banned in 1994), Baruch Goldstein, as “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust”. Words that should, might I add, make any with a true understanding of the lessons of the Axis’ horrors sick, words that amount to the desecration of my butchered family’s graves. Dov Lior has also asked that the Bedouin be given incentives to leave Israel so they can “return to their native land”, claimed “a thousand non-Jews aren’t worth a Jew’s fingernail”, said he’d flatten Beirut if it meant he could save one Israeli soldier’s life, kill non-Jewish babies in time of war, and has described Obama as “the kushi (a Hebrew word comparable, according to some, to nigger) of the west” and Arabs as “evil camel riders”.
On the 30th September, a mere month having passed since the end of Protective Edge, Dov Lior insisted that the Israeli government “must strive to clean the entire country [of Palestinians]” and “there will never be peace” because “there is no one to make peace with”. If that wasn’t enough, he came out with the claims “this is their [Palestinians’] character, they are for war” and Arabs “know how to lead a democratic government just like I know how to deal with camels”. The man’s fixation on camels, topsy-turvily, might outstrip the apparently excessive one exhibited by those he mocks.
The earliest Jewish olim (“migrants”), it’s been argued by a massive margin, came with an unshakeable belief in the socialist, secular, and humanist ideals. One of the founders of the kibbutz movement, Joseph Baratz, famously declared: “We were happy enough working on the land, but we knew more and more certainly that the ways of the old settlements were not for us. This was not the way we hoped to settle the country – this old way with Jews on top and Arabs working for them; anyway, we thought that there shouldn’t be employers and employed at all. There must be a better way.”
There is a better way. And we can find it by living up to Hitler’s description of us and gypsies as “enemies of the race-based state”. Of the Holocaust’s 11 million victims, 6 million were Jews worked to death as slaves or murdered in what we described as the Shoah (Hebrew for “whole-burning”), and 2 million were gypsies killed in what the Romani called the Porajmos (“the devouring”). Swept up in the Nazis’ cult of death were socialists, Slavs, non-heterosexuals, and countless others. And it is important to remember the systematic slaughter of state-sponsored genocide was no more tragic than that by the Reich’s armies as they marched across Europe, Asia, and Africa killing tens of millions of innocents.
Enemies of the race-based state Jews are, and the blood-soaked walls of race are built higher than maybe any one of us could climb. But whether these walls are of the mind, or the very real apartheid that carves the Palestinian land in to fragile pieces, we should pull them apart brick by brick until the barriers of hate are but a distant nightmare.
The word for messiah comes from the Hebrew “mashiah”, and the Jews believe he will arrive to free all of humanity from the shackles of ignorance, war, and slavery. It is the Torah’s commandment for Jews to live in peace with whatever city gives them shelter, and the belief in liberation deeply instilled by the stories of Moses and the Exodus, that reminds us our love of peace must come before everything else. The scholars and teachers warned that for the Jews’ fear of oppression to truly end, we must end oppression itself. If we allow injustice, oppressor and oppressed, to exist anywhere, we abdicate our place as children of God.
And as the children of God, those who believe in the essence of Abraham’s and his spiritual descendants’ teachings, will know – this life is a test. A test to see whether we can leave those who believe in peace to live in peace, as there can be no greater gauge of our worthiness to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than our striving to create it on Earth. Whether it be to a member of Hamas who sees an Israeli civilian’s life as anything less than precious, or to a brute in Likud who sees the corpse of a Palestinian child as mere “collateral”, we should say, to take a line from the Jewish and Muslim holy texts, “to save one life is to save humankind”.
Never again. And never forget. Under the roar of war and Israeli guns is drowned not only the dreams of the Palestinian people, but the culture, history, and soul of the Jewish people as well. When we realise this, when every pilgrim can pray in silence, maybe the Holy Land will be worthy of its sacred title. As the saying goes, until all are free, we are each in chains.
This is why I support the Gazan struggle not in spite of my Jewishness, but because of it.
Shalom aleichem. As-salamu alaykum. Peace be with you.