Journey to Hebron

When I first arrived in Israel, I believed that I had the entire conflict figured out and neatly wrapped within a few inviolable facts and slogans that validated my worldview of what it meant to be Jewish, Israeli and Zionist: “A Land without a people and a people without a land” I could quote without apprehension – referring to the early Zionist belief that Palestine was empty of inhabitants. Argue “Deir Yassin” and I would respond with Gush Etzion and the Haddasah medical convoy massacre. Discuss the 1948 Arab Palestinian refugees, and I would counter with the massive (forced?) exodus of Jews from Arab countries. Tell me that Israel should withdraw from Judea and Samaria (the west bank), and I would tense up emotionally and become completely immune to any logical persuasion. In other words, I was like a slave to my own ironclad opinions – almost unwilling to accept the other side of the argument or to see any basic humanity in the Arab/Palestinian narrative. Indeed, the moment that the basic tenets that I had come to believe regarding Israel and her history were criticized, I always tended to dismiss them as irrelevant, untrue or even anti-zionist.

This was the worldview that – due to my voracious reading habits and to a large degree, my emotional ties to the Jewish narrative – I had come to accept; a scrawny, bespectacled Aussie kid growing up within the Jewish bubble and dreaming of the Holy Land. Perhaps ironically, as I enter my fifth month in Israel and actually live and observe the Arab-Israeli conflict from within, I have come to the tentative realization that conflict is so complex and intricate – that by mentally summarizing the situation into a few historical flashpoints and soundbytes, I have been not only untruthful to myself, but to all the victims on both sides of the border.

The Melbourne Jewish community is by and large one built by Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Ties with Israel are incredibly strong, with large numbers of Jewish high school graduates spending their ‘gap year’ in Israel, and quite a few even staying on to make Aliyah and join the IDF (myself included). Another by-product of this environment, and one that I only begin to notice now, is that the picture we have of Israel is painted with bright colours – one that ignores the Palestinian side or masks over the entire Arab world as bloodthirsty Jihadi terrorists preparing to drive us into the sea. I must admit, that I had even dabbled in literature denying the existence of a distinct Palestinian people altogether: “After all there has never been a Palestinian state or people in history” I convinced myself. Little do I realize that such an argument is inherently foolish, as all identities – regardless of their historicity – are essentially self-conceived. The entire argument would become one of who has stronger links to the Holy land – whilst ignoring the realities and facts on the ground: That the Jewish people and Arab Palestinians have both made their home between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea.

The more time I spend here, the more opinions and stories I hear and the more I see, I realize that in their own way, everybody here is very right, and very wrong at the same time. Left wing, right wing, religious, secular, Zionist, Jewish, Arab, Palestinian – this is the crazy concoction of everything that has been thought of and conceived to explain the violence, the anger, the baseless hatred and the unboundless kindness that I have come across in this blood-drenched land during my short stay. I have gone from consuming hours of news and media reports, scouring opinion forums and talkbacks – to becoming completely apathetic toward the political situation altogether – and reading almost nothing; for so many things that I observe here, openly contradict the media reports that I rely on for information and history. My solid opinions and the “I know everything” attitude that I arrived here with have crumbled impressively to the point that I am entirely confused as to who is right and who is wrong; what is true and what is fake. Everybody here is correct, and everybody has their facts (or emotions more-so) to back it up. And who am I really, to question somebody who has lived here their entire life? Who am I to deny to the right of an Arab farmer to till his lands in the seam zone, or for the Israeli victims of Arab terror to call for harsher retribution against terrorists and their sympathizers? I’m just some kid piggybacking this conflict and getting a ride through history. Yesterday I set out to convince the world what needed to be done. Today I keep my mouth shut, listen silently and ask inquisitive questions; powerless to prevent the events spiralling out of control around me.

Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron

The more time I spend in Israel, the more I realize that this conflict at it’s core is not so much about religion, nationality or land, but rather it’s about people. Regular people – most of whom don’t get involved in politics or ideology, who prefer to live a quite life, like the life I had in Australia. “We’re not angels or demons,” a local Arab from Hevron told me as I visited the ancient city, “we were born into this crazy situation, and now we just want to live our life normally.” The massive cave of the patriarchs compound loomed before us, cut in half by a wall to separate Muslim and Jewish worshippers for fear of a repeat of the 1994 massacre, perpetrated by a militant Jewish-American that left nearly 30 Muslims dead. The reason I bring this up, is to show that Jews and Israelis are capable of evil as well, the same kind of evil that we vilify Palestinian terrorists for. At least this attack was unequivocally and wholly condemned by Israeli society, whilst similar attacks on the Arab side are usually praised and glorified.

The Casbah in Hevron

Indeed, visiting Hevron was an eye-opening experience for me: a strange journey into a different world of tight alleyways, ancient stones and a tense feeling so thick that you could cut it with a knife. The Casbah – which once housed the ancient Jewish community of Hevron, is now a modern battlefield of ideologies that illustrates this conflict better than another. A populated, dense area – the former principle Arab market of the city spirals through the narrow alleyways, manned by ageing Palestinian caricatures – wearing traditional white-black Kaffiyehs, sitting quietly by embroidered carpets and ‘made-in-china’ souvenirs, smoking tobacco from a pipe, and staring blankly into a bygone era when this market was bustling full of people. In the floors above the market, Israeli-Jews have moved in, reclaiming the houses their parents had been dispossessed from, following their massacre and expulsion in 1929. An Israeli flag flies from the edge of one of the windows.

The Israeli flag from inside the market

Below it, a net has been erected by the Arab shopkeepers to prevent the settlers from dropping stones down below. It was such a strange feeling, standing in the market, looking upwards at the Israeli flag. Up there are my people. Down here are the people I sympathize with. Both sides have claims to this city. Both sides have a right to live here, to pray here. Both sides have ruined this place – a city built by the love of our forefathers, now consumed entirely by hatred.

I returned to Jerusalem, dazed and confused – from the heat, from the conflict, from this swimming pool of intensity that I jumped into when I got off the plane. Relieved to be back in Israel proper, I strolled through Yafo st – a lively boardwalk lined with shops – just as the warm Judean sun began casting her shadow over trendy rooftops and balconies. The place was packed with people in every direction, as an impromptu band sang over-played Israeli rock’n’roll from the 80s. I sat down and observed quietly: Middle-aged women sipping late at a nearby cafe. A gaggle of teenagers in summer clothes organizing a sleepover. An elderly couple walking past the band, receiving a nod of recognition from the guitarist and then staying on to listen a little more. A Rabbi hurriedly walking past to make afternoon prayers, followed closely by a religious Muslim woman, inspecting some of the latest fashion at the adjacent boutique. It felt so hard for me to believe that Hevron – a virtual warzone compared to this – was just a cool 30 minutes drive from here.

Israel's graffiti covered separation barrier

That night I stayed at my uncle Ran’s place in Jerusalem, and we began discussing the separation barrier that I had visited that afternoon – built to prevent suicide bombings from the Palestinian territories. At the edge of Bethlehem, the walled, concrete section of the barrier (that makes up 10% of the entire fence) dominates the road in front of it. On my return from Hevron, I stopped by the graffiti covered barrier, that has almost become a post-Berlin symbol for anti-nationalists and anarchists everywhere. Every single message and artwork has turned the wall into a figurative monument: spraying a profound quote is like tagging your name in history books. “‘Alaskans for Palestine’; ‘UCLA ’09 against the occupation!’ – who do these people think they are, coming to this part of the world and getting themselves involved in the conflict?” I muttered openly with a touch of annoyance. “Perhaps they also have a stake in it?” Ran prodded, while concentrating on the dishes. “All the people perpetuating the violence seem to be from outside Israel! Most people here just want to live their lives peacefully. What the fuck do Alaskans have to do with Palestine??” I shuffled uncomfortably on the couch. A brief silence ensued, and then Ran unloaded the big one: “You’re one of them too, aren’t you?” he asked, in a wise, yet humorous way. And as much as I’d like to deny it, he’s basically right. My emotional, historical, religious and family connections have pulled me to this land – an intense yearning unexplained by logic. My desire to enlist in the IDF stems from my ideological perceptions and my belief in Jewish self-determination – a self determination that I believe should not come at the expense of another people’s. Indeed, at my base, I’m still a Jew born in Australia. Maybe a Palestinian born in Alaska, attending UCLA feels the same way?

Overcome by immense tiredness, I shuffled around on the mattress, trying to forget about the collapsing situation around me, and everything that I have gotten myself into. Ran turned off the light, as the sounds of distant traffic and flickering street lights poured in through the fly screen. I dozed off perhaps for a minute, and suddenly I found myself once more in Hevron. The terrible heat of the sun beat down on my face, as I slowly made my way through an abandoned street between an Arab and Jewish neighbourhood: Every door had bolted shut, and every window had been shattered by rocks. Garbage lay strewn beside dust that had been collecting there for years, and the blue sky seemed much paler than usual. My mouth was parched from the heat and the thirst, as I came across half-ripped Arab posters immortalizing Palestinian suicide bombers, right next to Jewish signs proclaiming the message of Rabbi Kahane. Unawares, the muezzin – the Muslims call to prayer – began sounding off throughout the city. First a distant whisper from the furthest mosque, and then closer and closer, until it vibrated in my ears, as if each new voice was a louder echo of the first. It sounded like a proclamation to besiege the Jewish quarter that I now found myself in –  a quarter filled with bumper stickers calling for the forced expulsion of the Arabs in Israel. The Muezzin echoed defiantly loud and clear – beating down on my face like the heat of the sun, whilst the stickers radiated an equally overwhelming political message that seemed too much to bear. There I stood awkwardly not quite part of it, not quite taking sides – the thirst killing me and driving me into a delirious trance, the oppressive heat of the sun frying my thought process. I was stuck in the middle, on the fence, not quite sure where I belong.

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Being Jewish and criticizing Israel

Being Jewish today is not easy. Not only do Jews have the burden of religious and cultural obligations, but we are generally expected by wider society to be the archetypal role models of ‘morality’, ‘servitude’ and victim-hood. Indeed, in the wake of 2000 years of pogroms and persecutions across Europe and the Middle East culminating in the The Holocaust, The Jewish people have always been considered the mistreated minority: by the left as the defenseless underdogs and the scapegoats, by the right as the stateless wanderers at the mercy of benevolent kings and tyrannical rulers. But by 2011, a mere 65 years after the crematoria of Birkenau fell into their ghostly silence, everything has been reversed. The State of Israel – a country whose rasion detre is to provide a refuge for ‘The Wandering Jew’, is today portrayed as the aggressor rather than the victim. The words Israel and “apartheid”, “occupation” and “Nazi” have become so synonymous, that with the help of the internet, the transition from ‘helpless Jewish scapegoats’ to  ‘vicious Jewish oppressors’ is accelerating faster than ever.

Jewish and anti-Israel: antisemtism?

But amidst the antisemitic barrage of hate speech and hyperbole, lies legitimate criticisms of the State of Israel – her policies, the domestic and social problems, as well as her relationship with immediate neighbours. Israel is generally accepted as  ‘The Jewish collective’ – the single most identifiable symbol of Judaism across the world, so when Israel is criticized legitimately, this can often be misconstrued as anti-zionism or even anti-semitism. What I wish to focus on however, is the curious (and growing unfortunately) phenomena of Jewish anti-zionism in the wider context of Jewish voices criticizing Israel from the Diaspora. Make no mistake, Jews can be antisemites as well as anybody else (Pablo Christiani and Shlomo Sand instantly come to mind), and many of the voices spearheading the attack against Israel from college campuses across America and Australia, are in fact Jewish. The question is – what motivates so many Jews to rise up against their homeland and side with her enemies?

This is a question that I posed to international human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler when he came to speak to us at school. Is it that because so many Jewish children are raised on a steady diet of social justice, they feel compelled to interpret Israel’s actions as a gross injustice? His answer was insightful and interesting. Many of these Jewish anti-zionists have little or no connection to their heritage, and their campaign against Israel is often misguided, because they are ignorant of the facts on the ground. They are perceived by others to have more legitimacy in this issue because they are ‘Jewish’ – and Israel is ‘the Jewish state’ , yet ironically, the only time they publicly display or feel connected to their ‘Jewishness’ is when attacking Israel or siding with antisemites.

As an example, he reminded us that many of the Soviet Union’s most vociferous supporters were (yep, you guessed it) misguided Jews. Despite the fact that 2 million Jews were caged within the totalitarian Stalinist confines of institutionalized discrimination, and that students and mothers were marching on the streets of London, New York and Johannesburg demanding the freedom of Soviet Jewry – overzealous Jewish communists in the West continued to voice their support for the regime: A regime that denuded millions of Jews of their identity and still insisted that the word “Jew” was printed on their passports, so that they would never forget what they were. Today, a growing number of “Jewish communists” wage a similar, misguided battle. The simple fact that their parents are Jewish instantly makes them “experts” – yet they arrive on campus with little or no idea about Israel, Jewish history, culture or tradition. As little as 25% of American Jews have visited Israel. The number that attend Jewish day schools or youth groups is even lower. Every second Jew intermarries. Chelsea Clinton’s marriage to Marc Mezvinsky was hailed as proof that the golden age of the Jews of America is at it’s peak – however in another age such a marriage would have been widely shunned and criticized.

Martin Luther King: "When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism.”

At the risk of calling Jewish anti-zionists ‘traitors’, I have to admit that I am somewhat ambivalent about being so quick to dismiss them as loonies or useful idiots. On the one hand, I share many disagreements with them. On the other, I’m proud that there is such a wide diversity of thoughts and opinions within the Jewish community. These people may be the ‘black-sheep’ of the family, but they’re part of the family nonetheless. I see this growing trend of anti-Israel radicalization amongst Jewish youth as synonymous with the distortion and deterioration of left-wing politics – which historically assumed support for the Jewish people and the State of Israel. An example is the Guardian newspaper which initially voiced support for Zionism, only to become infected with rabid Arabism over the course of the century.

Indeed, Jews have historically aligned themselves with the left side of politics. The left demanded Jewish emancipation in Europe during the 19th century. Jewish women spearheaded the fight for universal suffrage and feminism. The Bund, Trotsky and the Mensheviks lobbied to bring down the Czar in Russia, and create an egalitarian socialist utopia for all citizens. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched hand in hand with Martin Luther King at the height of the civil rights movement. These are all examples of Jews and left-wing politics working hand in hand to achieve universal human rights and freedom for all. The bad news, is that for the past 30 years, classic left-wing politics has all but disappeared, only to be replaced with a hollow shell of fanatical, ignorant, youth claiming immediate expertise on the Israeli-Arab conflict after reading Wikipedia.

Secular Jewish antizionism - misguided

This is essentially what Jewish youth face on university campuses across the Western world. They are immediately receptive to any injustice: Tibet, Darfur, The Congo. They hear soundbites on the Israeli-Arab conflict for the first time, and the magical, idealized picture of the Jewish paradise shatters: Israel isn’t the heroic wonderland of their childhood, but an aggressor fighting in their name! Yet rather than researching about the conflict in-depth to discover its root causes: the existential threat Israel faces on a daily basis – and the democratic and human rights afforded there as the only in the entire region – they immediately jump onto the bandwagon of anti-zionism, further propagating the distorted image of Israel as the chief violator of human rights in the entire world. This view is further compounded by anti-zionist academia and faculty on Israeli, American and European campuses – further forcing brutal images down unsuspecting throats. This is at least one of the principle causes of secular Jewish anti-Zionism. Jewish anti-Zionism on religious grounds from groups such as Neturei Karta demands a separate article altogether, however, they too seek to achieve the same outcome: the destruction of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.

The claim that ‘all critiques of Israel are antisemitic’ is patently false and ignorant, because that would mean that Israel is the #1 most antisemitic country on Earth. There are no secrets in Israel. The Hebrew press uncovers everything and presents the damning allegations to the Israeli public. Does this make Israeli journalists writing in Hebrew for an Israeli audience antisemitic? Of course not! Every one of Israel’s 6 million Jews has something against the government and its policies: the despicable education system, unnecessary bureaucracy, the communities in ‘the territories’ (West Bank), final status on Jerusalem, and so forth. Their anger is neither antisemitic nor anti-Zionism – it is rather constructive criticism by those who love the country so much that they choose to live there. From this we can deduce the yardstick between legitimate criticism of Israel by Jews in the diaspora: if the criticism is directed to a distinctly Israeli audience, then it is most likely constructive criticism, appealing to voters to rectify the problems in their society. If the criticism is directed at a non-Jewish or a hostile audience, then the criticism, whether legitimate or hateful, instantly is construed as anti-Zionism.

Jewish refusenik turned head-of-the-Jewish-Agency-for-Israel, Natan Sharansky presented the famous three D’s to determine whether criticism of Israel is in fact antisemitic:

1. Demonization: portraying Israel as the single worst violator of human rights in the world and the embodiment of evil. This includes claiming that Palestinians are the ‘new Jews’ or that the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are now perpetrating a new Holocaust upon Arabs living in the vicinity.

2. Double Standards:  ignoring other far more serious crimes committed worldwide by focusing solely on Israel and her imperfections, turning a blind eye to Arab incitement and terrorism, and selectively bemoaning the “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, whilst ignoring Israeli deaths at the hands of Hamas, Hezzbollah and the al-Aqsa martyrs brigade.

3. Delegitimization:  inferring that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state. This includes incorrectly portraying Israel as a vestige of colonialism or claiming that Israel is an ‘apartheid state’. Other examples include using selective quotations from Jewish texts such as The Talmud or Shulchan Aruch to support an anti-Israel agenda. Additionally, citing being ‘Jewish’ as conferring some type of authority to speak legitimately on behalf of other Jews in order to denigrate Israel is antisemitic.

I have a confession to make: I too have many qualms about the Israeli government and the path the country is taking. The correct place for me to air these complaints is in Hebrew on an Israeli newsite – to those who are receptive to such criticism and have the voting right to change the situation. Attacking Israel on non-Israeli sites or arenas is easily misread as anti-zionism and gives fuel for neo-nazis, Islamists and antisemites who don’t understand the nuanced and complicated problems within Israeli society. It is irrelevant that I’m Jewish, that I’m moving to Israel in a couple of months, or that I plan to enlist in the IDF: If my criticism breaks one of the three D’s or is directed at the wrong audience – then I too am guilty of antisemitism, and I hope that I am the first to recognize this. I remember talking to an elderly Hungarian Jew on our way back from a Passover Seder at night. I asked him why he decided to leave Israel, and what his views are on the country in general. He gave me a sharp stare, and then cooled off a bit: “I could tell you,” he answered me, “but I’m here now, not there. I don’t have to endure the hardships of living in Israel. I have no right to speak out against them.” And then we continued on in silence through the deserted streets and flickering light lamps – his droll, heretical wink giving me the answer that I was looking and hoping for.