Receiving letters from old friends and colleagues always brightens my day. Usually, the content of the messages is predictably warm and comforting. They ask me how I’m doing, tell me what they’ve been up to, and recall some embarrassing high school memories that make them laugh and miss me at the same time.
Imagine my surprise then, on receiving an email from a former colleague and close friend whose first words were “Oh my god, How could you be a Zionist? I thought you were a better person than that.”
And once I got over my shock, my response to his email was a neutral, carefully worded question.
“Do you know the meaning of the word ‘Zionist?”
He responded with a vitriolic statement I had never thought he would say.
“Jewish White Supremacy. Apartheid. Annihilation of the Palestinian people. That’s Zionism. I can’t believe you’re a f*cking Zionist.”
I was heartbroken to realize that my former editor, a proud liberal, also suffered from a blindspot. A decidedly anti-Israel, bordering anti-Semitic blindspot. What was worse was that I knew he was coming from a place of seemingly righteous outrage.
But then again, there are facts and perspectives that make reality complex. And there is the human brain that sees things in black and white unless you force it to acknowledge the shades of grey.
Before I go any further, let me answer the question my ex-colleague should have asked before accusing me of ideological betrayal.
Q- What is Zionism? Who is a Zionist?
A- Zionism is the belief that the Jewish people have the right to a state of their own. In the present day, it means that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state.
Does agreeing with this statement make me a Zionist? Yes, it does.
Am I a Zionist? Yes, I am.
Do I support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement? No, I don’t.
Do I support the Palestinians’ right to self determination? Yes, I do.
Do I support Israeli settlements in the West Bank? No, I don’t.
Do I agree with Israeli policies vis-à-vis the treatment of Palestinians? No, I don’t.
All of this simply means that the Jewish state has the right to exist. That does not mean that the state’s policies cannot be legitimately criticized nor does it mean that Palestine cannot be a state.
Why then, is Zionism considered evil?
I have asked this question to a lot of people. And one of the things they say is that as a Jewish state, it will not respect equal rights for its non-Jewish citizens.
That is an incorrect assumption. Even today, over a million Arab Muslims live in Israel as Israeli citizens and they enjoy full citizenship rights. Besides, if countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Iran, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Jordan, Maldives, and Tunisia can be Islamic states, why can’t Israel be a Jewish state? And if countries like Greece, England, Costa Rica, Greenland, Iceland, Samoa, Malta, Tuvalu, and Zambia exist as Christian states, why is Israel’s Jewish identity a problem?
The other criticism often leveled against Israel is that its treatment of the Palestinians has been reprehensible.
That, I can agree with. Detention of children, arbitrary arrests, travel restrictions, illegal settlements– these are unjustifiable. And as someone who believes in the rights of all human beings, I am sharply critical of many of the policies of the Israeli government.
This is why I also care about and support the release of Ahed Tamimi and children like her who are being tried as adults despite being children. If anything, for me and a lot of Zionists, cases like Ahed’s are concerning. We believe in Israel and expect better from it than this ham-handed approach which undermines it as a democratic, just state– a state that embodies the highest and most honorable values of Judaism.
This is also where nuance and fairness comes into play. Criticizing a state’s policies and its current government is very different from trying to delegitimize the state itself. Supporting Ahed’s freedom is very different from wanting to punish the very idea and existence of Israel for the mistakes of its government. It is ironical that people who claim to believe in the rights of human beings and value individual beliefs are so quick to punish millions of Israelis as if they were a single whole instead of citizens with diverse beliefs, histories, and ideologies.
Numerous countries in the world are controlled by fiercely right-wing governments at this point in time. Many of them openly discriminate against certain sections of their society based on religion, race, caste, creed, and/or and economic status. Others are breaking down because of escalating civil conflict.
Burma is one such country. As a Buddhist-majority state, it has treated its Rohingya Muslims with immense brutality– to the point that today, the Rohingya are a stateless people. They have been called the most oppressed minority in the world by the U.N.
But here’s the interesting thing. While Burma is being criticized, no one has questioned its right to exist, no one has questioned its legitimacy, there have been no anti-Burma marches, there has been no call for BDS against Burma, the Buddhist identity is not being interchangeably used to refer to a Burmese identity, and symbols of Buddhism like the lotus and the wheel are not being seen as symbols of Burmese nationalism.
However, in the case of Israel, it works differently.
Criticism of Israel often takes the form of anti-Israeli rhetoric. The BDS movement has called for cutting off economic, cultural, and political ties with Israel. Prestigious institutions like the American Studies Association have boycotted Israeli universities and academicians. The Star of David, which is a Jewish symbol, is seen as a symbol of Zionism (Ignoring the fact that all Jews are not Zionists and all Zionists are not Jews).
And these things have spilled into the liberal movement, which is harboring an insidious strain of anti-Semitism veiled as support for the Palestinian cause.
In June 2017, two lesbians were expelled from the Chicago Dyke March for which nearly 1,500 people from the LGBT community had gathered. These women were expelled because they were carrying rainbow-colored pride flags with the Star of David on them. Apparently, the march welcomed religious symbols but not nationalist ones. These, they say, make people feel unsafe.
This argument is absurd. It is like saying Islamophobic racism is okay because the Arabic script or the Star and Crescent symbol make some people uncomfortable. The Star of David is a symbol of Judaism which is present on the Israeli flag because Israel is a Jewish state. This is no different from the ShahadahKalima (the Islamic testimony of faith) which is present on the Saudi national flag. But if that doesn’t make the Shahadah Kalima a symbol of nationalism, why is the Star of David singled out by seemingly progressive groups like the Dyke March and the Slutwalk Chicago?
And this is not the end of it. Popular Palestinian feminist Linda Sarsour has openly implied that one cannot be a Zionist and a Feminist at the same time. She says that if you’re a feminist, you must stand for the rights of all women including Palestinian women.
She is right in saying that a feminist must stand for the rights of ALL women. But I find it strange that she overlooks the fact that many Zionist women do support the rights of Palestinian women. They are critical of the Israeli government’s policies just as they are critical of the Hamas brand of Islamism that now oppresses women in Gaza.
I have a lot of Palestinian friends. I have also volunteered as an English teacher for agencies working with Palestinian refugees. And I will never forget something that my friend and student Hadira* asked me.
“How can you support them and my people at the same time? Why do you come here to teach when you support them?”
Well, it isn’t a question of Israelis vs. Palestinians for me. I care about both of them. They have both known tragedy. And over the course of the last 70 years, the leadership on both sides has made mistakes. Trust between them is understandably scarce. But for me, they are both people who deserve to live with dignity.
I envision and hope for an independent Palestine existing alongside a secure Israel. And I envision an international city in Jerusalem.
I know a lot of people disagree with the two-state solution. But in my opinion, it is the only one that makes any sense if lasting peace is to be achieved.
A few months ago, I also had the opportunity to talk to Sophie Apfelbaum*, an 80-year-old Jewish woman. She lost her father, her two elder brothers, her grandparents, and almost all her maternal relatives in the Holocaust. Her mother passed away soon after the liberation. But her consolation was that she died safe, in a homeland she could call her own.
This is a part of Sophie’s testimony:-
“We didn’t know much… nobody did. I was never taken into the camps. I was hidden away in a convent in a corner of our city [Graz, Austria]… It was very rundown. Very poor. There was no hot water. And there was often no heating. I remember, they [the sisters] called me Larissa. I was too young to know why they called me that. But later I found out that it was the name of a girl who had died just before my arrival. They wanted to make sure no one would suspect who I was. They were doing a favor to my mother… but my mother never went back to say Thank You. Like everybody who was left, we went to Israel. Our home at last. She tried to go back to her house in Graz after the war, to see if anything was left. But there was no house anymore. It was a shop for cycle repair. She didn’t know the owner and she also did not recognize the people in the other shops. It was like the entire neighborhood had changed. And that is why we went to Israel. There was no one left. No family. I still don’t know if there is anyone from my mother’s side that survived. If they were in the camps, I hope they died without suffering too much.”
At that point, her eyes teared up. And we could not continue the conversation. I have not gone back to meet her since then. But I will never forget what she told me about her experiences. Before this, she had talked about her life in Israel– the strict rationing of food and essential goods, the constant threat of war, the actual invasion by the Arab armies, the constant nightmares, the depression, the death of her mother, the feelings of restlessness and fear that she wasn’t safe anywhere.
“I was afraid they will make us leave again,” she said softly. “I don’t think I could bear it again.”
I have often seen detractors of Israel rubbish and dismiss the testimonies of people like Sophie. For me, it only reaffirms my belief in Israel’s right to exist. Plus, if I am sensitive to Sophie’s story, I am equally sensitive to Hadira’s.
And therein lies the complexity of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is not about the land. It is about the people. And you cannot sacrifice either of them for each other.
*Note- Hadira’s name has been changed as per her request because of the sensitive nature of this issue. Sophie’s first name has also been changed because she does not talk about her experiences often. And she does not wish to be hounded by people to recount her story. I know her because she is a friend’s grandmother. Both women spoke to me on the condition of anonymity.