Two cemetries: Waking from my Zionist dream

The photographs of two cemeteries come to mind as I think about my journey away from my former Zionist self. In the first photograph I am a skinny five years old, holding my beautiful blond mother’s hand as we are paying our respects at the funeral of Theodore Herzl, the so called founding father of Zionism. Herzl died in Vienna in 1904 but his remains were reburied in 1949 in the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, named in his memory.

I was born in Haifa, Palestine. My parents’ nationalities were registered as ‘Palestinian’ by the British Mandate authorities, yet the State of Israel re-issued my birth certificate in which my birthplace was changed to ‘Israel’, even though I was born four years before the state. I grew up in Israel, the daughter of migrants from Bucovina, Romania who did not question the Zionist colonization of Palestine.

The second photograph is of two tombstones, taken in December 2016 when I travelled to Haifa to bid my last farewell to my parents in their resting place on the slopes of Mount Carmel, during what was to be my last visit to my former country.

A long time passed between my two cemetery experiences, as other cemeteries were filling with the graves of Palestinian men, women and children murdered by the Israeli racial colony, and of Israel’s sons and daughters, conscripted to kill for their state.

We were educated to love what we were told was our homeland – the Palestinian terra nullius (land without people) stolen from the native owners of the land for the benefit of Zionist colonization. Only in my early twenties, shortly after the 1967 war, did a chance encounter make the anti-Zionist penny drop. And there was no turning back.

This is not the confession of a ‘good Zionist seeing the light’ in the spirit of Jewish exceptionalism. Rather, as I write in my book, Traces of Racial exception: Racializing Israeli Settler Colonialism (Lentin 2018: 18-19), I speak as a member of the perpetrator collectivity:

Growing up, we were indoctrinated by the lethal mixture of Jewish victimhood on the one hand, and white Jewish supremacy on the other. We were repeatedly told that Jewish people, though superior to the Palestinian Natives of the land, were, are, and will always be victims of antisemitism; that the ‘whole world is against us;’ … that the Holocaust was ‘the worst crime in the history of humanity,’ regardless of colonialism, slavery, and the wholesale annihilation of Indigenous peoples; and that the Holocaust was not only ‘unique’ but also the only genocide that mattered. We were repeatedly told that Israel, as a haven for the ‘entire Jewish nation,’ is justified in ‘defending itself’ by using whatever means… I studied in one of Israel’s elite private schools where education was Prussian in spirit and military in style. But I was extremely fortunate to have escaped army service by a fluke; I had asthma and thus not considered a ‘chosen body.’

So far so normally Zionist. To be honest, I cannot remember having any doubts until after the 1967 war, during which, as a non-soldier, I roamed the streets of Jerusalem with a bunch of friends also not enlisted for a variety of reasons, experiencing both the danger Israel was allegedly in as we were repeatedly told by politicians and media, and the ‘miracle’ of the six days victory. Once the war was won, I remember crossing into occupied East Jerusalem, for many years a forbidden object of desire, and stumbling upon corpses of murdered Jordanian soldiers lying in the street – my first encounter with violent death. I also happened to witness the famous victory scene at the ‘Western Wall,’ where politicians and soldiers celebrated the ‘liberation’ of the city, and became momentarily infatuated with a gorgeous Palestinian waiter in Bethlehem – unacknowledged Orientalist wet dreams of terror and desire.

However, long before reading Edward Said’s The Question of Palestine (that I am proud to have translated into Hebrew for Mifras publishing house),came the chance encounter in a Jerusalem night club with a bunch of Marxist members of Matzpen – the Socialist Organization in Israel. Answering my naive question as to why the Israeli military was still bombing Syria despite our victory, one of them gave me a quick introduction to Zionist imperialism and colonialism. He explained that the 1967 War was anything but defensive but rather a link in the colonial Zionist aggression chain, aimed at completing the job of gaining as much Palestinian land with as few Palestinian people as possible.

I was writing this after the State of Israel passed the 2018 basic (constitutional) Nation-State Bill that enshrined racial Jewish supremacy. Jewish supremacy, as I argued in my book, is not only racial, it also copper fastens the Jewish possession of Palestine as a land allegedly promised by the Jewish god to the ‘people of Israel.’ This is in the spirit of what the Indigenous Australian scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2015) terms ‘the white possessive,’ and the African American scholar Cheryl Harris (1993) terms ‘whiteness as property’. If you exchange ‘whiteness’ with ‘Jewishness’, what Harris says about the link between race and property makes total sense: “Whiteness and property share a common premise – a conceptual nucleus – of a right to exclude. This conceptual nucleus has proven to be a powerful center around which whiteness as property has taken shape. Following the period of slavery and conquest, white identity became the basis of racialized privilege that was ratified and legitimated in law as a type of status property” (Harris 1993: 1714).  

Indeed, Israeli Jews and their migrant Jewish parents believe that the nebulous entity of ‘the Jewish nation’ had full rights to possess Palestine, regarded as terra nullius, the proverbial ‘land without people’ which we, the Jews, were allegedly entitled to as ‘a people without land,’ a ubiquitous Zionist slogan worth unpacking. Though in The Question of Palestine (1980: 9) Edward Said mistakenly attributes this slogan to the British Zionist writer Israel Zangwill, it was first used as early as 1843 by the Church of Scotland clergyman Alexander Keith in The Land of Israel According to the Covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. As Adam Garfinkle (1991) argues, it was not at all clear that ‘the land’ meant Palestine – after all, at various times Zionist leaders considered other territories including Uganda, Kenya, Madagascar and Argentina – or that ‘no people’ was meant literally. In fact, most Zionists believed that Palestine was desolate only because ‘there was not in Palestine “a people” in the then current European sense of a group wedded to a particular land whose members defined themselves as composing a separate nation.’ The history of Zionism demonstrates that this slogan overlooked Zionist leaders’ full awareness that Palestine was already populated when the Zionist colonizers started arriving in the nineteenth century, even though no one called them ‘colonizers’ or even ‘migrants;’ they were rather called olim, a Hebrew term denoting ‘those who ascend’ to the promised land.

This meant that like many generations of Israeli children I was brought up on notions of entitlement and possession. Palestine was ‘moledet,’ or ‘mechora’ – two Hebrew terms for ‘a person’s birthplace’, whether we were born there or not, and we ‘knew’ that the land was unquestionably ours, just as white European colonizers felt about Australia, their own terra nulllius, as Moreton-Robinson writes:

The first wave of invading white British immigrants … claimed the land under the legal fiction of terra nullius – land belonging to no one – and systematically dispossessed, murdered, raped and incarcerated the original owners… the lives of Indigenous people were controlled by white people sanctioned by the same system of law that enabled dispossession…The non-Indigenous sense of belonging is inextricably tied to this original theft: through the fiction of terra nullius, the migrant has been able to claim the right to live in our land. This right is one of the fundamental benefits that white British migrants derived from dispossession (Moreton-Robinson 2015: 4-5).

Needless to say, British and Jewish colonizers were not the same. If the British colonized in order to extract riches and exploit the Indigenous natives, Jewish colonizers, they told us, were fleeing pogroms, forced conscription, and persecution in their European diaspora. However the early Zionists themselves explicitly cast the Zionist project in settler-colonial terms: ‘Yishuv’ – the name given to the Zionist pre-state polity in Palestine – literally means ‘settlement’ or ‘colony’ in Hebrew. And the first Zionist Congress of 1897 that voted in favour of Jewish migration to Palestine, explicitly decided to establish three types of colonies in Palestine: kibbutz, moshav and town. Indeed, Israeli Jews were brought up on ideals of ‘settlement,’ ‘conquering the land’ and ‘fulfilment’ through the ‘redemption’ of ‘the land of our ancestors,’ terms ubiquitously used in literature, songs and everyday talk, informing life choices like joining a West Bank settlement in the service of the colonizing collective.

As argued by scholars of settler colonialism, the colonization of Palestine was unique in first purchasing Palestinian lands and establishing colonizing institutions already in the nineteenth century, including the World Zionist Organization, The Jewish Colonial Trust, The Colonization Commission, the Jewish National Fund, the Palestine Office, and the Palestine Land Development Company. Only later did the Zionist settlers resort to violence that culminated in the 1948 Nakba and the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians and the destruction of more than 500 Palestinian villages and urban neighbourhoods. The expropriation continues to the present.

Inserting myself into the project of constructing Zionist subjects, I remember that everywhere I went, kindergarten, school, youth movement, family gatherings, social events, I was expected to obey the collective dictum of making the stolen land ours. ‘Arabs’ were at best exotic creatures and at worst under-developed peasants, whose stolen houses we coveted and took over as ‘absentee property,’ and whose food we appropriated as ‘Israeli cuisine.’

In fact – even though I lived in the mixed Palestinian-Jewish city of Haifa, Palestinians were objects of contempt and derision, termed ‘Israeli Arabs’ and not ‘Palestinians’, as this would have acknowledged their self-determination and ownership of the land. Palestine, we were taught, was named after the ancient land of the Philistines, one of the many biblical tribes populating the land of Canaan, amongst whom were also the Judeans and the Israelites – who became ‘Jews’ only much later. We children were told ‘Arabs’ were a dangerous ‘fifth column,’ and had little to do with them on a social level, even though there were two upper class Druze students in my school. Little did we realize then that the Druze leadership had a ‘blood contract’ with the Israeli state, served in the Israeli military and enjoyed special favours not shared by Muslim and Christian Palestinian citizens, and were part of a wide network of informers forced and incentivized to service the colonizing state. Only in 2018, with the enactment of the racist Nation State Law, did the Druze realize that their special status was of no use, as the law left them out of the remit of the ‘Jewish nation’, now legally deemed the only legitimate owner of the land of Palestine.

Let me confess that since early childhood I felt both rage and profound sadness. As I was writing this, consumed by images of further Israeli assaults on the besieged Gaza enclave and the West Bank, even during the Covid crisis, my anger and sadness threaten to drown me in useless despair. This, and my family’s refugee past, dictated my politics. The lecture I got from my Matzpen comrade was the trigger I needed, designing (as did my father’s calling me already at the age of two and a half ‘the leader of the opposition’) my life of resistance to the Israeli racial colony and of solidarity with my Palestinian sisters and brothers.

My writing and researching reflect this duality of sadness and rage. I published short stories and novels about my family’s migratory past, their Romanian origins and researched a doctorate on the gendered relationship between hyper masculinized Israel and the feminized Holocaust. I published fictional and factual accounts of my solidarity with Palestine; my 1982 book, Conversations with Palestinian Women, a set of interviews with six Palestinian women activists, the first of its kind in Hebrew, is still being taught in Israel. My interest in Holocaust survivors led me to an interest in the Palestinian Nakba. Though drawing this parallel provoked Jewish opprobrium, my research on women Holocaust survivors led me to researching Israelis who commemorate the Palestinian Nakba which, I argue, is a form of melancholia, turning mourning over the expropriation of the Palestinians into mourning for the grieving Israeli self. In between writing about Palestine and becoming involved in the Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Academics for Palestine, I have also written on race and racism in Ireland, my latest book deals with Ireland’s Direct Provision regime.

I am in my seventies now, and it’s as good a time as ever to discuss the price paid for my lifetime of solidarity with Palestine. Having spent a lifetime of arguments over Israel and Palestine with my late partner, I can now write and speak in public about Israeli atrocities without Upsetting anyone I love, even though the Zionist establishment and the Irish Jewish community still regard me as a ‘self-hating Jew’ while the racists deplore my support for migrants and asylum seekers, accusing me as a ‘Jewess’ who has come to Ireland to ‘commit genocide on the white Irish’. My children and their partners are on my political side, and even my twelve years old granddaughter loves coming to anti-Zionist demonstrations with me.

It is also a good time to ask what, if anything, I have achieved by following my sadness and rage in constantly criticizing my former country. Does anything we do serve anyone but ourselves? I have little doubt that my path had been paved for me in early childhood by parents whose own migration trajectory led them to desperately attempting to become part of the  Jewish society in Palestine and later of Israeli society. My father was, however, keenly aware of injustice. Never much of a soldier, as a member of the pre-state militia, the Hagana, he was part of the force that conquered Haifa and emptied it of its Palestinian citizens. He and I had had many arguments about Israeli politics, but in his last year, after the 1973 war, father wrote to me of his growing doubts. In one of his last letters before his death in June 1974, he expressed his despair most explicitly:

Hard times… on the one hand, the war with Syria continues, on the other, the internal situation contributes to our political isolation…Is humanity really that cruel and selfish, or is the blame in us? I find it hard to decide… After all, we did not seek wars and conquests, we merely wanted to live in peace with our neighbours, or perhaps I am wrong and we sought imperialism and oppression? … (22/5/74)

All this does not answer my question as to what good does my activism do, and more broadly, whether academics can, and must also be activists. Beyond expressions of appreciation from Palestinian comrades, the answer to the first question is that it does not really matter. As for the second, I have little doubt that it is our duty as academics to also be activists and strive for social justice. As for me, I simply have to carry on, trying to keep hope against hope, and to maintain a faint belief that history will see the Palestinians right. One day.