Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists (Ed. Avigail Abarbanel, Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2012) is a revelatory, unique book which reflects on the Zionist ideology and practices through the personal accounts of Jewish peace activists who have dared challenging the ingrained beliefs held by their community and families.

They represent a growing number of Jewish people of all walks of life, different generations, background, and life experience who live in countries around the world — Australia, Canada , Israel, United kingdom, and United states. Yet, there is an underlying common thread of humanity and a search for justice which links them together, and has been formed through a long journey of painful self-searching and personal agony. In the words of Avigail Abarbanel who meticulously and perceptively edited and prefaced the book: “to me the stories seem to complement each other, and together paint an interesting and valuable picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and activism in this area.”

The Zionist Heritage

The Zionist ideology played an important part in the home life of contributors and weighed heavily on the way they were brought up. Nonetheless, many of them started to question the morality behind the Zionist ideology in their youth. “Ever since I was a teenager I have had confused thoughts and feelings about Israel, but I have not felt that I had permission to express them. I was made to believe that I did not know enough facts or history to have a valid opinion. I was told that as I didn’t live in Israel. I had no rights to express such thoughts” notes Lesley Levy. Other contributors expressed a stronger rejection of the Zionist project. Ray Bergman says:

I claimed that the Jewish community was complicit in crimes that, while not of the same magnitude of the Nazi crimes against the Jews, were nonetheless of a quality that felt to me disturbingly similar. These crimes resulted in the apparently permanent displacement of most of the non-Jewish population of the Holy Land, and the persecution and denial of basic rights of those who remained.

Poignantly, the Israeli-born historian, Ilan Pappe, whose archive-based book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine exposed the fallacy of the Zionist narrative, expressed his own deep sense of deception:

I recognised the powerful way in which nationalism and settler colonialism have affected the professional historiography of the Zionist movement, and later the state of Israel. But on a very personal, almost emotional level, I had a sense of betrayal.

Nicole Erlich refers to her own ingrained Zionist past: “I remember when even in my mind the term “anti-Zionist” was entirely and immediately interchangeable with ‘antisemitism.’” She then perceptively observes “when Judaism can let go of its profound fear of humans — particularly Arabs — and allow itself to move past its obsession with victimhood and exceptionalism, a far healthier and more creative chapter will begin.”

Cultivated Sense of Victimhood

The legacy of the Holocaust and the ensued sense of victimhood had been imprinted on the past of many contributors whose family members perished in, or survived, the Holocaust. The creation of the State of Israel, which has been seen as a refuge for victimised and persecuted Jewish people, was never questioned.

“I had been so deeply and continuously immersed in Jewish victimhood that it never occurred to me to focus on any aspect of the Arab- Israeli conflict other than what I perceived as the ongoing threat to Jewish security,” comments Yaniv Reich whose grandparents’ family vanished in the Holocaust.

Looking back, Israeli-born, Avigail Abarbanel reflects on the misuse of the Holocaust through a continued indoctrination:

The question of whether another Holocaust was possible was repeatedly raised and debated throughout my education. I now realise that it wasn’t about finding a definitive answer to the question, but rather about keeping the possibility alive in our young minds. I was taught that everyone in the world, including Arabs, hated us just because we were Jews.

Having witnessed as a child the destruction of neighboring Palestinian villages, in the wake of the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, I came to confront the

collective consciousness that has never forgotten the Holocaust, but had shut its eyes, heart and soul to the injustice of the Palestinian Naqba. How long could we continue to survive with our false consciousness if it ignores forever that of the Palestinian people?

Have we truly faced up to our false collective consciousness? I ask myself. Sadly, having been hounded, by Jewish Zionists and anti-Zionists alike, for supporting a colleague who defended her right to question the Holocaust’s narrative, I feel that there are still invisible boundaries which encroach on our perception of Jewish identity and result in sanctioning some deep-rooted concepts that became an inseparable part of the Jewish Psyche. Such mental blocking process is expressed succinctly by Rich Forer:

As I matured into adulthood, my identity became more entrenched within cultural and social boundaries, beyond which I had no awareness or understanding. These boundaries were analogous to having bridle reins connected to the sides of my head, prescribing how far I could turn in any direction.

Taking a Stance

The turning point which led contributors to take an active stance has been, in some cases, a horrifying event they had witnessed, or coming across material of which they became aware via the media, literature or researching the Zionist historiography as in the case of the Israeli historian — Ilan Pappe — whose research of state- released state documents “debunked Israel’s foundational mythology” and has “reaffirmed important chapters in the Palestinian narrative.” Ilan Pappe’s eye-opener book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine inspired younger generation of Jewish and Israeli people to question their own entrenched beliefs in the morality and justice of the Zionist project and take a stance against Israel’s continued dispossession of the Palestinian people.

The Israeli -born Maya Wind went through a traumatic experience while helping Palestinians to harvest their olive trees in the West Bank village of Ni’lin and being caught, unknowingly, in a demonstration against the building of Israel’s segregation wall:

Suddenly four soldiers come running toward us with rifles drawn and pointed right at us. They draw near and warn us that if we do not clear out within five minutes, they will shoot tear gas grenades at us. …That afternoon in Ni’lin the “us” were the Palestinians and Jewish Israeli activists and the “them” were IDF soldiers….They were shooting at us, and forbidding farmers from harvesting their own land.

That horrifying experience had etched into Maya’s conscience, who decided, after a troubling process of self-searching, that she could not serve as an Israeli soldier in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. She joined other school leavers (known as the Shministim in Hebrew) who refused to serve in the IDF. On their draft day they publically announced their refusal to join the army and sent an official letter to the Israeli Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence and the Chief of Staff. The letter was circulated widely by the national and international media and was backed by interviews in which they explained their collective decision “not to serve the occupation of Palestine.” Maya and her conscientious objectors young colleagues were thrown into prison by the Israeli authorities who regarded their action as a criminal civil disobedience. This experience only served to galvanise Maya’s determination:

Today I stand opposite the majority of Jewish Israeli society and am called a traitor. At times it is hard not to believe that I am. But then I know that there are times in which we must ask ourselves honestly what is right by humanity, not by people closest or most similar to us.

Jeff Halper, who emigrated to Israel from the USA in the early seventies, went through a similar “rite of passage” to activism when he witnessed in 1998 a demolition of the family house of his Palestinian friend by ( as euphemistically called) Israel’s Civil Administration. A year earlier, Jeff and his activist colleagues have founded the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition, but the brutal act of a gratuitous house demolition made him first aware of being an ” An Israeli in Palestine”(which is also the title of his recent book, 2008 ):

It pushed me through all the ideological rationalization, the pre-texts, the lies and bullshit that my country had erected to prevent us from seeing the truth: that oppression must accompany an attempt to deny the existence and claims of another people, in order to establish an ethnically pure state for yourself … nothing could reconcile what I was witnessing and experiencing with the Zionist Narrative I had learned.

1998 was also the year in which one of the younger book’s contributors — Rae Abileah — first visited Israel and “fell in love with the land ” — having been barley aware, at the time, of the Palestinians’ existence. However, Israel’s barbaric onslaught on Gaza in December 2008, and the utter destruction which followed, had awakened Rae to the Palestinian plight:

Many like myself , who had been more or less silent about Israel’s occupation , could no longer turn away from this gross massacre and violation of human rights…I had always been reluctant to compare the genocide of my people with the oppression in the Holy Land , but the images of death stung just the same.

Rae’s inevitable transformation took the form of direct activism and getting involved in the growing global movement of boycotting settlement products. She participated in an active protest against the powerful Israel lobby in the States — AIPAC — and has taken direct action against Netanyahu’s address to the American congress where she was physically assaulted by a member of the audience. Yet, Rae Abileah did not loss her determination to fight for justice for Palestinians:

My generation will not inherit and repeat the mistakes of our fathers. We are equipped with new tools to rise up nonviolently like our sisters and brothers did during the youth-led uprising in Egypt in January 2011, to create a new future.

Looking into the future, I strongly believe in the realization of the Palestinian rights for self-determination as enshrined by the PLO Charter. Resistance and direct nonviolent actions against Israel have an important part to play in exacting growing pressure on the Israeli state to respect international law. As Jeff Halper realistically argues: “Israel is a political fact that cannot be simply erased even if one feels all the normal justification to do so.”

The Arab Spring and the rising of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt demonstrate the viability of ascending globally to recognised political power by employing democratic processes. My belief is that a unity between Fatah and Hamas which will be based on a new constitution/bill of rights, (that will also endorse the rights of the Palestinian refugees to a just solution), which would open the way for building democratic apparatus, leading to being officially recognised by the UN as a fully-fledged member-state. Such recognition will enable the Palestinian Unity Government to fight effectively against Israel’s illegal occupation by referring the country to international courts based on the UN Human Rights Charter and conventions. Indeed, a Palestinian’s bid to place the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem was approved recently by UNESCO — a move which was opposed by Israel and US, but has been seen by Palestinians as an affirmation of their sovereignty.

Alongside, legal actions in international courts against Israel’s occupation of Palestine, direct protest and boycotting actions have to be continued so as to sustain a constant pressure on Israel until she implements full rights for Palestinian Israelis (see Susan Nathan’s contribution and her moving book The Other Side of Israel “which is based on her life experience while living in a Palestinian Town in the Lower Galilee). Crucially, the rights of the nearly 300,000 internal Palestinian refugees who live in “unrecognised villages,” should be also fully restored by the Israeli state — thus, turning the “Jewish state” into “a state for all” which would confer equal rights and offer equal opportunities to ALL its citizens, regardless of their faith, and lives in peace and harmony alongside a sovereign Palestinian state. Rising beyond factional, sectarian, and tribal loyalties, I believe, is the only way for both Jewish and Palestinian people to achieve peace through justice and realize their hopes for the future.

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