Until the age of eighteen, if you said the word Palestine, I’d cringe.
If you continued to talk, my stomach would drop, my head would cloud over, and I would be very confused as to why you were doing this to me. I would think that you didn’t like me because I loved Israel or worse, because I was Jewish. I’d be silent, patiently waiting for you to stop.
Unless the conversation was about the senseless hate and anti-Semitism of Arabs/terrorists. In that case, I would’ve been used to it.
Until the age of eighteen, everything I knew about Israel I learned at Jewish summer camp. I started going in 1999 at age eight, and have returned for twelve summers. I learned how to craft, canoe, and to love Israel as my home. We sang the Israeli national anthem every morning and admired our buff Israeli counselors who woke us up in the middle of the night for mock army training. I loved summer camp, so I loved Israel, too.
My love for Israel wasn’t an accident, but just one product of years of research and planning on the part of Jewish-Zionist camping professionals. In the words of the Camp Ramah Berkshires, “Building a camper’s connection with Israel is a central part of Camp’s mission,” a mission that is shared by many of the one hundred and fifty other Jewish camps around the country that serve over 70,000 young Jews every summer.
And it works, too. According to a study conducted in 2011 by the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Jewish summer camp alumni are 55% more likely to “feel very emotionally connected to Israel.” Some of these campers grow up to be politicians, like congressman Ted Deutch of Florida, a self-proclaimed “lifelong activist in the pro-Israel community,” who, when talking about his Israel education at Camp Ramah Poconos, has said, “I still feel that impact in the work that I do.”
I’m not sure about Rep. Deutch, but as I grew up and encountered the politics of Palestine, I quickly learned that an emotional connection to a place doesn’t necessarily mean you know much about it. I was taught to love Israel, not to understand the political situation of Palestine.
Instead, “Palestine” is a bad word at camp. It incites eye rolling and groans. It means you wanted to spoil everyone else’s fun. It is a world where Palestine doesn’t exist.
As a teen I became liberal youngster who was the first person to criticize injustices in every place around the world – except for the ones perpetrated by Israel. When it came to Israel, my politics were not based on knowledge of a political situation, but positive memories I made in a community that shunned any conversation that wasn’t extreme Zionism.
I was conditioned to ignore the bad news and to focus on Eretz Yisroel, the Holy Land. When confronted with information about Palestine, I would piece together arguments that felt right, while blatantly ignoring segments of history and politics that felt wrong.
The first time I confronted these gaps in my education was actually in Israel, on a Taglit-Birthright trip after my freshman year of college in 2010. Birthright is summer camp’s logical successor in a young Jew’s Zionist education; an immersive experience only for Jews that presents Israel as an apolitical dreamscape.
Looking back, there were plenty of moments on the trip where certain themes like “institutional racism” or “occupation” could have been explored, but Birthright’s goal is to have young Jews connect to Israel on an emotional level at the exact time they’re asking themselves the “who am I?” kind of questions. So instead of learning about a horrifying political situation, we drank on the beaches of Tel Aviv and made out with sexy IDF soldiers.
Towards the end of our trip, Daniel, an EDM enthusiast and one of the ten IDF soldiers on our trip, invited our group to a barbecue at his house in Oranit. At first glance, the hilltop suburb looked like where I grew up – all the houses were the same, centralized urban planning, nice water fountains on the back patio – but another glance would show the separation fence, cutting through the yellow hills of the West Bank.
At the time, a friend had pointed out the landmark and mentioned that we must be in the West Bank, yet at that time those words meant very little to me. No one had ever explained to me what a ‘green line’ was, or that this quaint looking suburb in the West Bank – established in 1985 in the midst of the rising tension that produced the First Intifada – is actually a settlement, illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, regarded as a human rights violation by the UN, and generally considered antithetical to the peace process.
At the time, none of those ideas meant anything to me. Upon my return to the United States, I began a three-year process learning what all those things meant, which began the painful unlearning of my Zionist education.
I started slowly, trying to figure out what I hadn’t been told, what the words flotilla, blockade, and occupation meant. Eventually I began listening to stories from real-life Palestinians, and found out that they’re normal people like you or me. But unlike me, they have been continuously marginalized and massacred by the Zionist project. A project that I had directly benefited from every day of my Jewish-Zionist life.
This process of realization was uncomfortable, but as I continued to listen I learned that this discomfort wasn’t simply because I was Jewish. Rather, it was because I had always been taught that sympathizing with Palestinians was something absolutely un-Jewish. And as I learned at summer camp, I love being Jewish.
In spite of this, I still love summer camp, and it pains me to think that the community that taught me my most cherished life lessons continues to perpetuate hate. This past summer, I returned to my camp in a management role with the goal of beginning an effective dialogue on Palestine.
At the beginning, there was a lot of debate, not dialogue. Like the time I ended an argument by calling a counselor and former IDF soldier a racist with no empathy, but only after she had called me naïve for referencing statistics published by the UN on quality of life in Gaza and before calling all Palestinians “liars” for reporting to Amnesty International that they didn’t have enough water to drink. It was unfathomable to me that someone who I had once respected could say some of the most violent and racist things I’d ever heard, yet her views were accepted in our community.
Midway through the summer and Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, it became clear to everyone that something was amiss in the Holy Land. Besides the intermittent all-camp prayers for the State of Israel and support group for IDF soldiers, the consensus on Palestine was silence.
After a summer of arguing and crying, I had one request to the camp administration: just say the word “Palestine” in front of our campers when we pray for Israel. I don’t expect summer camps to turn into a hotbed of political activism overnight, or that a ten year-old needs to understand the complexities of international law. However later that summer, when we prayed for Peace for both Palestinians and Israelis, we began a different conversation. We acknowledged, at its most basic level, that Palestinians aren’t just human shields, terrorists, or suicide-bombers, but people – a fact that Zionist ideology disputes.
Growing up I never knew any Palestinians, so I never noticed that these terms insist that Palestinians aren’t quite human. By teaching Israel by not teaching Palestine, we tell Jewish youth that Israel can exist without Palestine, that everything would be easier without Palestinians. That they deserve the violence Israel commits against them.
How could I respect and be proud of a community that not only condones the mass murder of thousands, but blames them for their own deaths? As I found out, I’m not the only Jew who’s asking these questions. Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and the Open Hillel movement are breaking out of Jewish-Zionist mold and offering Jews a way to be proud of being Jewish while opposing the occupation, racism, and Palestinian dispossession.
The futures of our peoples are bound together. If the mainstream Jewish community wants peace, we need to treat Palestinians as people deserving basic human decency, rather than barbarians. Being Jewish shouldn’t imply complicity in hate and mass violence. It’s time to actualize our Jewish values and oppose the violence of Israel. For if not now, when?