Growing up in a Jewish family, who suffered huge and indescribable losses during the war, just like many others, has meant that I wasn’t always able to see Israel for what it is: a racist and brutal occupying power. For weeks I’ve been obsessively reading the news, seeing the images of blood and destruction, homes and entire lives reduced to dust. Previously I might have dismissed this as mere propaganda, as Palestinians “playing the victim” or perhaps I would have blamed Palestinians for their own deaths. Going to university in another country, meeting Palestinians and especially having friends who challenged me is what made me question my previous beliefs.
I remember at age seven, being showing a black and white film about the concentration camps. I remember being told about how we Jews have always been hated and will always be: how if “it” happened again, our neighbour would gladly walk into our house and take it. And yes, I remember being told that I was a “different” Jew, I was a “good” one. Did my dad also wear those funny curls? At least I wasn’t so “sensitive”. Or just this week being told that I was the “nicest” Jew one of my colleagues had ever met, as if that was a compliment.
I also recall at age six being shown a picture of Theodor Herzl, the iconic founder of modern Zionism and being told about his heroism, about the courage of the early Zionists and the Irgun militias. In my Judaism class we proudly celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) and sang the Israeli national anthem without understanding the Hebrew words we were reciting in tune. Zionism and Israel were explicitly and implicitly understood as a fundamental aspect of our Jewish identity. Israel was the only viable solution to anti-Semitism and perpetual Jewish victimhood. It was at best a necessity and at worst a right for us to defend ourselves through the establishment of a state.
I remember a family lunch at which one person sitting around the table suggested that we should “put all the Arabs in a boat and sink it”, that would be a good solution. An awkward silence ensued. Every couple of months I hear about members of my extended family making “Aliyah” (“returning”) to a land that was never theirs. Anniversary gifts have consisted of donated trees, their seeds sown on stolen Palestinian land. Over the course of the past 8 years I have had countless heated and emotional arguments with family members and friends. Again and again I’ve had to challenge the idea that Israel is “protecting” itself, that it is only doing what’s necessary, it is doing what anyone else would do to protect their family. I’ve had to tell people who I love and trust how no, Muslims are not inherently violent and murderous and how Palestinians are not responsible for their own suffering.
While, heartbroken, I read about nights of terror, the destruction of entire neighbourhoods, hospitals crying out for supplies while blood spatters the floor, I continue to be confronted with the reality that this is being carried out in my name. Being Jewish and having grown up in a (liberal) Zionist family entails a strange and at times exhausting identity struggle. I have to justify myself for denouncing occupation, murder and destruction. I am the “extremist”, I am the crazy “brainwashed” left-winger, and I don’t know what I’m talking about. I just want to support a “popular” cause.
What I’ve come to realise is that for me being Jewish means that I have a duty to denounce the atrocities of the Israeli state, not for religious reasons, but because they are committed in my name and in the name of Jews around the world. I have to denounce this violent occupation, because otherwise Israel will steal my voice and use it in the name of ‘self-defence’ – a very particular and perverse version of self-defence which is entirely devoid of context. We are asked to forget that Jews too have the capacity to be violent, to dehumanise and to humiliate others.
There is only one option: we have to speak out and we have to scream in solidarity not only with Palestinians, but with the ‘otherised’ non-white Jewish population of Israel, asylum seekers, migrants and many others. We have to struggle and organise to denounce Israel’s actions in the name of ‘protecting’ all Jews. Many Jews all across the world are already doing this. If we don’t speak out now Israel will do it on our behalf.