Am I allowed to be a Palestinian Jew?

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Two brothers are on the couch next to me, speaking rapid Arabic and sipping their beers. Though they look white, they have no discernible accent and to my ear, their Arabic is flawless. I assume they’re Arab, even though there’s something not-quite-Arab about them. But this is a party, so we switch to English and the important things in life: wine, beer, and mopeds.

An hour later I’m talking to them again, and a revelation shocks me. “They’re Jewish! Did you know that?” I’m stunned – not because I don’t know Jews who can speak Arabic, because I do – but because they pulled it off so effortlessly. They gave no impression of putting on airs, pretending to be someone they’re not. They were completely at ease with the other mostly-Arab partiers, joking around with their friends with native fluency. But they’re Jewish, and we’re in Israel, so they must be Israeli, so….what?

“You’re Jewish?” “Yeah, we’re Palestinian and we’re Jewish.” More stunned-ness. My initial reaction was that they’re Palestinian Jews from before the founding of the state – there were, of course, Jews who lived in the Middle East before Israel existed. For the most part these Mizrahi (Arab, lit. Eastern) Jews have integrated into Israeli society, though there is discrimination facing this community as well and for the most part they would never identify as Palestinian. But racial profiler that I am, I knew these were not Mizrahi Jews. They looked too much like me, like my Ashkenazi Jewish and white Christian friends.

“Our grandparents are from Poland and the Ukraine. They were communists, and they immigrated here from Europe. But our parents raised us as Palestinian – yeah, we’re Ashkenazi but we’re Palestinian. We went to Arab schools, we speak Arabic. Our friends are Arab.” Dumbfounded, I begged them to continue. I suppose it could have been the wine, but these Palestinian Jews veritably blew my mind.

I pushed some more. “But how are you Palestinian?” They responded with a simple question. “You’re American, right?”

I began to realize I was still stuck in my jahiliyya (ignorant, in Arabic) framework in which Palestinian necessitated the co-descriptor Arab. I am, after all, a product of the worldview, framework, and conventional discourse surrounding us which tells us that this identity is impossible. As much as I normally resent and resist this imposed discourse, in my subconscious the Palestinian and the Jew are still enemies. We are told that Jewish and Palestinian are two irreconcilable identities, and we internalize this. Further, the conflation of the identities “Israeli” and “Jewish” is constantly forced on us and it is always juxtaposed with Arab and Palestinian. Indeed, this case of mistaken identity is so pervasive and so global that everyone accepts the definition of Palestinian as Arab and Israeli as Jewish and as against everything Palestinian and Arab.

A few years ago, I read a children’s book to my Hebrew School students about a Jewish boy and a Palestinian boy who play together during childhood. As they grow up they become enemy soldiers at war with each other because that is supposedly the inevitable – if sad – truth of this land. This is what we are taught and this is what we are still teaching our children.

Trapped by the predominant narrative of Jew versus Palestinian, even those of us “in the know” have trouble removing ourselves from this mentality. But who says they can’t be friends? Is there a dividing line between these identities? We are so accustomed to these ideas being mutually exclusive – but I bet if you asked, anyone who gave it a moment of thought will say a Jew can also be Arab. So why cannot a Jew be Palestinian, or a Palestinian a Jew?

Who drew these lines, and why do we abide by them? The Palestinian-Jew dichotomy is not only imposed, brainwashed into us, but it is completely fabricated. To be Jewish is to be a part of a religion, heritage, culture, and tradition. It is not a nationality. I repeat, and Netanyahu, take note: JEWISH IS NOT A NATIONALITY. On the other hand, to be Palestinian means to be a part of the community whose members can trace their lineage back to this land, the families who have historically owned homes and property in this corner of the world. For many, it is living here that makes them Palestinian. It is a national identity, a shared history, and a shared place. Palestinians are a diverse group: Muslims, Christians, atheists, Bedouin, Druze, Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Americans, Communists, Marxists, capitalists, anarchists… even Jews.

The dichotomy, if one exists at all, is not Palestinian-Jewish. A reasonable dichotomy is those who were already here versus those who came later, those who consider themselves native; much like I consider myself native to the US because I was born and raised there, in that culture. (Apparently there is a huge amount of post-colonial literature on this topic, in which the über-colonialist adopts the indigenous national identity in at attempt to sort of anti-assimilate, or claim the land as his own through identifying foremost with the native. I would say this is what happened in the US, and these brothers are the first of that phenomenon here.) In the same way that I am not Native American but am still American, they are Palestinian. I consider myself to come from there, it’s my culture, and my home. They were born and raised here, immersed in Palestinian Arab culture, and it’s their home. On Palestine, in Israel; they are Israeli citizens who, like the many of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, identify with the Palestinian national identity, rejecting the concept of an inherently racist, ethnocratic, xenophobic, verging on theocratic state.

Their Palestinian Jewish identity and the complicated questions it was raising was beginning to draw me in, not only because of the phenomenality of their identity, but because I could see a lot of myself in them – the über-colonialist, the Jew with conflicting identities, someone who is always told they can’t be who they believe they are. I was drawn to their story because it so mirrors my own.

They’ve been outsiders their whole lives. Theirs is the only white Jewish family in a neighborhood of Arab Muslims, Central Asian Jews, and Ethiopian Jews. They were the only non-Arabs in their classes throughout their entire schooling in Arab Christian schools. The older one keeps his identity a secret from his group of Jewish Israeli friends. They know he is leftist, speaks Arabic, and didn’t serve in the IDF, but they don’t know “the truth.” Unlike most Jewish Israeli citizens, they did not serve in the Army despite (somewhat) mandatory conscription. The way they see it, as Palestinians, it’s not their army. “They didn’t want me anyway,” said one. “I had to make them reject me,” said the other. (He told of a lawyer friend of their parents, who informed them of a little-known law which states that anyone – even an Israeli Jew – who identifies with Arab culture more strongly than Israeli Jewish culture are exempt, like most non-Jewish Arabs, from Army service.) But their complex identity is not always understood by other Palestinians. “Some guy told me I can’t be Palestinian because I’m not Arab – but that’s wrong. Palestinian is national, not ethnic.” Theirs has always been a life in direct opposition to a system which tells them what they can and can’t be and believe, and of them rejecting this and creating their own, unique identities.

I am Jewish. My father is Jewish. My mother was raised Presbyterian and never converted. Before my sister and I were born, my parents had a discussion about religion; my dad has never cared strongly for organized religion so was ambivalent about the whole thing, but my mom thought it was important that we be brought up with something. My dad countered with the stipulation that if there must be a religion in the house, it should be Judaism. So my sister and I went to Jewish preschools, went to Hebrew School, celebrated our B’nai Mitzvot, observed the holidays, and even kept Kosher for a few years. (We live in Maine, so finally had to acquiesce to the demands of eating fresh shellfish.) Both of us even underwent an Orthodox conversion. Despite this, my whole life people have been telling me that – regardless of my belief or my practice or my traditions – because my mother is not Jewish, I am not Jewish.

Being Jewish is an important part of my identity, and it will not be denied or defined by someone else’s limited perspective. In the same way, the Palestinian Jewish identity of these brothers flies smack in the face of our standard perceptions of identity in Israel/Palestine. These identities are a product of the discourse created by Israel’s power struggle which necessitates the synonymity of Palestinian and Arab, to the exclusion of every and all things Jewish. This binary distinction is sprouted from untruths and manipulation, created so Israel has free reign to act according to its belief that it has exclusive rights to speak for all of us (even when it doesn’t want us), a right upon which it depends for its political survival. In return we – Jews – must defend its principles and actions no matter what, comprising our values and personal identities in the cross-fire. Israel has co-opted my ancestral identity and turned it into racist nationalism by adopting it as an indispensable part of its rhetoric. Israel sullies the Jewish religious identity and simultaneously destroys the Palestinian national identity: in no other scenario are we told in such absolute terms how we can and cannot identify.

Mainstream definitions of our identities, and in particular those such as Arab, Jewish, and Palestinian, are formed and informed by dominant memes, formulations, and perceptions that we may not entirely understand or even realize exist. The antitheses used in popular discourse – Arab versus Jew, Palestinian versus Jew, Israeli versus Arab, and the amalgamation of Jew as Israeli and vice versa – have created boundaries, limiting what we can say and do and think and even who we are allowed to think we are. This identity crisis will continue until Jews and Israel are no longer used interchangeably and until we are allowed to define our own identities. Identity is complicated and nuanced and we take what we want from our various sides, but amalgamations should be permissive, not prohibitive. I can be American and Jewish, and they can be Palestinian and Jewish, because nationality and religion are not mutually exclusive. In this world of a separate church and state, these should be complementary characteristics.

We can so easily get fenced in by what someone else defines for us and not dare to expand our own definitions and boundaries. To be fully free to express our own complete identities, especially here where politics and media try so hard to control them, rejecting “Jewish” as a necessary and exclusive characteristic of the Israeli identity and rejecting Arab as a necessary and exclusive characteristic of Palestinian identity will lead the way to being able to identify as a Palestinian Jew.

If being Palestinian and Jewish is contradictory, it means neither Palestinians nor Jews are willing to coexist because they are inherently incompatible identities. The ability to combine these identities in one person is a prerequisite for equality in Israel. To achieve this, Judaism must be relegated to a religious, cultural, or ethnic – and not a national – identity. And the Palestinian identity must be secular, national, tied to a place and a geo-political history and all that that entails. In these terms, with these identities, there is no reason that a Jew cannot be Palestinian, or that a Palestinian cannot be a Jew.

“We are the future” one boy says jokingly. “It’s not a joke,” says his brother. The only liveable future is one in which the us vs. them mentality dissolves into the shameful recesses of history. They believe that soon – maybe in thirty years – Israel as we know it will be gone, and they’ll be prepared. They will already be rid of the mentality in which everyone is everyone else’s enemy. By internalizing both sides of a divisive dichotomy, they are the future. I, too, am a part of this future; we are dismantling divisive rhetoric, imposed and perpetuated by the mainstream media and created by Israel’s political needs, by taking these words, redefining them, and crafting our own identities to reflect who want to be, not who someone else told us we were.

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