I grew up in the womb of the Jewish Community of Washington, D.C, studied at our Hebrew Academy (a school that my grandfather helped found), and worshiped at the Beth Shalom Orthodox Jewish synagogue. After marrying, I travelled to visit family in Israel. On one trip, I had the pleasure of seeing one of the Israeli national forests that held trees that I had helped to plant with the coins I collected in my youth. Looking out from atop a tree-covered hill, I remember experiencing a feeling of pride in Israel military power while catching the sounds of Israeli fighter jets passing though the valley below.
My understanding of Israel evolved. On one of the trips to Israel, my uncle, proud of Israel’s many accomplishments, drove us to see diverse different parts of the country, including the swamps that were drained and the forests that were planted. In none of those places did we see any sign of places where Palestinians used to live. “That’s odd,” I wondered. “How do I reconcile us reclaiming a land of empty swamps and deserts and making them bloom with the fact that 700,000 Palestinians had become refugees? Where had these people lived?” Something just didn’t seem to fit. If the land had been empty swamps and deserts, how did 700,000 people become refugees?
In trying to learn more about Muslims, I took a course on Islam that presented the Muslim perspective of what Islam was like. Boy, was it different from the perspective learned from my teachers/rabbis and the U.S. media! The course made the basic tenets of Islam sound altogether similar to those of Judaism that I studied in Hebrew school: devotion to one God, giving charity, acting in humble, respectful ways that bring honor to one’s faith, and treating others as we would be treated. I began to wonder if our perceptions of Arabs were misperceptions.
As I studied the history of Israel, I learned disturbing things that did not fit at all with the things I had been taught. I had been taught things like, “Arabs started all the wars,” and “Jews never terrorized anyone.” I was very surprised to find that these fundamental facts of Jewish history were flatly wrong, that Israel, in collusion with England and France, started the 1957 war, and that there were organized Jewish terrorist groups—the Irgun and the Stern Gang. These organizations were recognized as terrorists by other Jewish organizations of their day. According to Israeli historians, the Jewish terrorist groups had perpetrated the first bombings of buses and civilian markets in Palestine (only much later did I appreciate the irony in the claim that we can’t negotiate with terrorists, knowing that leaders of the Irgun and Stern Gang had been elected Prime Ministers of Israel).
At least we Jews didn’t commit atrocities. Well, I found out we did one time, in a place called Deir Yassin. Later though, I learned that it wasn’t just Deir Yassin; Israeli historians documented that we Jews had expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinian men, women and children from their homes, whole villages of people, before any Arab army declared war on the nascent Jewish state. I no longer found this surprising. Having learned that so many of the other “historical facts” I had been taught weren’t true, learning that there had been expulsions didn’t seem surprising. Indeed, the expulsions—committed by horribly persecuted European Jews desperate for a country of their own— seemed to make a whole lot more sense than what I had been taught: that “Arabs fled their villages in order to make it easier for the Arab armies to kill Jews.” When I think of that now, it never really made much sense, as up until about 1920, there were hundreds of thousands of Muslim and Christian Arabs in Palestine, living in peace alongside thousands of Jews. If Arabs had wanted to “throw the Jews into the sea,” it seems they could have done it long before 1948. Any remaining seeds of doubt were dispelled by learning that there were Haganah war plans—in writing in the IDF archives!—that called for, “Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris)” and “the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state.”
I was left with a new appreciation of the Israel/Palestine conflict, no longer thinking of “the founding of the Jewish State” but always thinking of “the founding of the Jewish State at the expense of the non-Jewish families who were already living there.” We used to be so proud in hearing that our heroic soldiers killed 20 of theirs for every one we lost because we cared so much for human life. Now I realize that killing 20 of them for each one of ours, or imprisoning hundreds or thousands, shows nothing about our regard for human life./ I’ve begun to consider how the world looks both to us, and to them. Yes, we are horrified when a Gilad Shalit is taken prisoner. But now I feel the same pain for each and every Palestinian who is taken prisoner. We know the pain when the people of Sderot are terrorized; I feel the same pain for the terror suffered by our brothers and sisters in Gaza. I still feel the pain knowing that Jews were killed in the Hebron massacre of 1929, but now I also realize that over 800 Muslims were killed in Palestine that year, and that the conflict was caused by colonialism and nationalism, not by anti-Semitism. The idea of Israeli democracy and equal treatment was lost, too. I read the writings of Palestinian Christian families, Israeli citizens, who were displaced from their homes and not allowed to return to those homes after the 1948 war was over, even though the families were still living in Israel. A Jewish person from Minneapolis can go live in the homes of those families, but not the Israeli Christian family who had been expelled. And those trees I had helped to plant? They had been planted over the remains of Palestinian families’ homes and villages. I don’t have the same sense of pride in those trees anymore.
I hear my Israeli relatives talk of Arabs as though they were animals. Having grown up in the Jewish community, I used to think that way, too. I understand that thinking, knowing that we’ve seen Arab terrorism and that my Israeli family members have probably lost close friends to it. Still, I know that we commit most of the killing. I’m left with the same sick feeling upon hearing Arabs called animals as when I heard Blacks called animals back in a less enlightened time in Washington, DC.
My sense of Jewish morality remains as strong as ever. The lessons in Torah tell me that the expulsions of Palestinian families from their homes and villages were not in keeping with Jewish values. Yes, we Jews must have peace and security, but peace and security can’t come from mistreating other people. Peace and security will come when we realize that what we did was not in keeping with our Jewish standards, when we treat our Muslim and Christian brothers as we would ourselves be treated, and when we tear down the walls and invite Palestinians to return to their homes and villages to live in peace together.
Feldman is author of A Jewish American’s Evolving View of Israel published by the American Council for Judaism (and Compartments: How the Brightest, Best Trained, and Most Caring People Can Make Judgments That are Completely and Utterly Wrong.