A shorter version of this article appeared in Jewish News today:
There is an etching of Jerusalem hanging on my wall.
My Israeli cousin made it and gave it to me for my Bar Mitzvah. Each week, I sit in synagogue and pray, facing the Promised Land, reciting those beautiful words: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither…”
Am I an anti-Zionist Jew? I think I am.
Zion. For Jews in the Diaspora, it´s a mixture of myth, history, legend. It´s not just another state in the Mediterranean. It has a meaning for all of us far greater than that. And whether we like it or not, for us in the Diaspora, Israel defines much of what we do.
But I don´t like it. In fact, increasingly with every year, I don´t want any part in it.
I was first asked the question when I was a teenager, and I´d just started university: “Are you a Zionist?” He hissed it like a slur. “Yes,” I said. “I think I am.”
I thought I was.
I thought I was because I had a strong sense of a possible two-state solution; of the idea that Jews ought to have a homeland; a sense that, however awful things were now, Israel could one day be a safe haven not only for Jews but for all of humanity. That was the dream of Israel with which I was raised.
For generations before, mass migration to Palestine was a real opportunity. For those fleeing persecution and genocide, it was a chance to finally start afresh in a safer place. For the early kibbutzniks, it was a way they could finally realise those ideals of socialism and democracy they´d yearned for: more than just a state, a Utopian project.
But I´ve only ever known that Israel in stories. The only Israel I´ve known since I had any understanding of the news is the one since the Second Intifada. All I´ve ever seen of Israel has been failed negotiations, expanding occupation, bulldozers and war.
It´s been nearly ten years since the people of Gaza elected Hamas, and Israel responded by blockading it and putting it under international seige. That’s a long time. It´s enough time to foster extremism, create a climate of constant war, and to entrench prejudices and hatred that cannot be undone by dialogue alone.
“Are you a Zionist?” my friend asked. It was 2008. Israel hadn´t yet bombed Gaza in “Operation Cast Lead”. It hadn´t yet used white phosphorous against the caged-in population. I hadn´t yet seen video footage of women clammering to see if their children were buried under rubble.
“Yes,” I said. “I think I am.”
That was before I´d visited Israel. When I did, I began to change my mind.
I first went to Israel in 2009, just after Operation Cast Lead , the assault on Gaza that shook the world,. I cruised past checkpoints that have destroyed the lives of Palestinians with my British passport. I saw holy sites in Jerusalem interspersed with 18-year-olds carrying machine guns. I discovered for the first time that the land in whose direction I had prayed my entire life was cut through the middle by a separation wall that made living and working a daily humiliation for so many Palestinians. And I realised what every Jew realises when they visit the Holy Land: I didn’t know the first thing about it.
I thought there was a war between two groups of people who were nothing like me. I imagined a beautiful and historic place only slightly sullied by some ‘troubles’. I don’t think I even realised, before going, that Israel was occupying Palestine. If I did, I don’t think I knew what that meant.
It all came together as I sat on a beach in Eilat, not far from places where people I couldn’t see and would never see struggled to rebuild their homes and their lives. A young Israeli soldier sat down next to me and we started chatting. He had just finished a military tour and was taking a holiday to go scuba diving. Eventually, he asked the question that, in hindsight, I realised was the reason for the entire conversation. He asked me: “In other countries, what is the perception of Israel?”
What could I tell him? Perhaps I could have told him what I thought he wanted to hear, that Israel was the only democracy in the Middle East and our greatest ally in the world. Perhaps I could have told him what I really felt, that Israel’s actions have disgusted me and everyone I know, that I couldn’t understand how Jews, my people, could do such things. In the end, I settled for a compromise. “It’s complicated,” I told him.
“Good,” he said. “It should be complicated. I have lost three years of my life to fighting Palestinians. I don’t even believe they’re my enemy.”
I wish I were imaginative enough to make this story up. The significance of that interaction only slowly became apparent to me. Israel, in its constant state of war, isn’t only destroying the lives of Palestinians. It’s destroying Jews.
How can I call myself a Zionist? How can I say I support this state that´s carrying out massacres, the one that has no plan for peace, or desire to achieve it? I can´t delude myself that Israel´s use of force is at all proportionate or even justifiable.
It might be comforting to imagine a different Israel: the one I´d heard stories about. The one with the nightclubs in Tel Aviv that gave rise to Dana International. The one with the holy sites and beautiful gardens in Haifa. The one with the etching of Jerusalem I have hanging on my wall.
That Israel is real. There´s no denying that´s a part of what Israel is. But that Israel is inseparable from the one beyond the “Green Line”, with its checkpoints and its separation wall and its forced evictions and its bombing campaigns.
The mythical land I cherish is one and the same with the one whose senseless and aggressive acts disgust me, and a myth is just not enough to keep me believing. I don´t think I can be a Zionist Jew.
In Eylon Aslan-Levy´s recent article, “On Jewish Anti-Zionism“, he makes an important point: Zionism is an answer to a question, the Jewish question. That long-standing question for Europe: how can these people, so fundamentally different, live without getting in the way of these nationalist states? Anybody who rejects Zionism needs an alternative answer to the Jewish question.
But what if the question´s all wrong? We need a safe haven, and so does everybody else in the world. The question can´t simply be how we give a safe home to Jews. Surely it must be more demanding than that: how do we build a world where nobody is displaced, where nobody lives in fear of genocide, where everyone can live their lives fully and freely, including the Palestinians?
I don´t have the answer to that question, but I know it has nothing to do with waving flags and pledging loyalty to a state.
I´ll have to start by answering a question I was asked a few years ago: “Are you a Zionist?”
No, I don´t think I am any more.