A woman named Amal Altaramasi was killed Friday while participating in the 43rd week of the Great Return March demonstrations at the separation fence between Gaza and Israel. Also Friday, my friend on Birthright texted me a picture of himself smiling atop Masada, thumbs up. He’d learned a new Hebrew slang word, “Sababa.” Cool.
Over 70 years, millions of Jews (and other tourists) have visited Israel over generations and shared in a safe, fun, positive experience without encountering Palestinians or interacting with Palestinian realities and then come home believing they’ve “seen it” and “really know what it’s like.” Israeli tourism has remained strong throughout the near-year of demonstrations in Gaza, suggesting that the Great Return March has very little effect on the regular order of life in Israel, despite the justification of the ongoing blockade of Gaza being predicated on the notion of an imminent existential threat to Israel (and the Jewish people). The existential threat the blockade poses to Palestinians bears no impact on the experience of the average visitor to Israel.
This is one of the reasons why non-Zionist Jews are often so deeply alienated from the mainstream Jewish community: the community is often centered around the Israel experience; we relate to one another through shared experiences, and many of those involve Israel, an Israel without Palestinians. I remember comparing my high school United Synagogue Youth (USY) group experience with a girlfriend who was in B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, another Jewish youth group. She said to me, “Yeah, we don’t do a lot of the religion stuff, but we’re really Zionist,” she told me, adding, “We love Israel!” Of course, we loved Israel too in USY, and Zionism was an integral part of our community education. We wrote letters to Israeli soldiers, we learned Israel advocacy skills through seminars, we hosted Israeli exchange students, we watched the video of Farfour Mouse, the controversial Hamas version of a Mickey Mouse character. Zionism still remains an integral part of how we relate to one another as we grow up, a shared system of beliefs with which we were raised.
Since I’ve become public with my stance as a non-Zionist Israeli Jew I’ve had all kinds of thrilling experiences and interactions with my fellow Jews. A brief list follows:
- Several people have contacted my parents to ask how they feel about my stance on Palestine, or more specifically, to ask, “What’s wrong with Ilana and why does she hate Israel?”
- My ex-fiance messaged me once on FB while Israel was bombing Gaza and killing 2000+ people in the summer of 2014 to tell me that the reason I was against Israel’s military action was because I have daddy issues.
- I was cornered by an old friend from college while coming out of a restroom at a wedding. He was drunk and he wanted to make sure: “You’re not one of those BDS nuts, are you?”
- I was doxxed by the Jewish Defense League, an FBI-classified extremist group, and people started contacting my place of employment, including one person who came to my place of employment looking for me. One particularly obsessive person told me that my family should have been killed by Hitler.
What it means to openly support Palestinian rights and challenge Israeli militancy as a non-Zionist Jew who was raised in a deeply Zionist community is that it means you have to reject a fundamental pillar of your upbringing, both familial and communal. By rejecting that pillar, or even questioning that pillar, the community rejects you. There is very little room in the mainstream Jewish community for questioning Israel. Very little room for support for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The only permitted criticism starts with “I’m a Zionist against BDS,” which suggests that the only acceptable way to criticize Israel is if you’re first Zionist and secondly against BDS, and obscures the reality that one need not be Zionist or in opposition to BDS first in order to think it’s wrong that unarmed, nonviolent protesters continue to get shot by snipers with no intervention.
Over 30,000 people have been shot in Gaza since the beginning of the Great Return March demonstrations, and roughly 250 have been killed. At what point do the “Zionists against BDS” own their complicity in the shooting of yet another unarmed, innocent, deeply & violently oppressed person in Gaza? At what point to people enjoying their visits to Israel recognize that their visit exists to whitewash this? It’s amazing how I can see so much labor poured into solidarity efforts across progressive Jewish movements, but that solidarity will never extend to Palestinians and even is limited when it comes to being extended towards Jews and others who support Palestinian human rights – ask Angela Davis and Marc Lamont Hill.
The mainstream Zionist Jewish community deeply alienates Jews who are non-Zionist, because Zionism is accepted as a status quo pillar of the Jewish community. What makes community is shared principles, cultures, beliefs, activities. I believe this is why the response to non-Zionism and criticism of Israel is often so shockingly violent and so shockingly outsized. To be told that I should have been killed by Hitler – on the surface, it seems irrationally violent thing to say, but probe a little deeper and there is a calculated rationality to the violence: Hitler is the worst thing that has happened to Jews in modern memory, so it should have happened to me for … believing that Palestinians deserve human rights. Hidden in the ugliness is an illuminating truth: Believing in Palestinian human rights is a threat. The question is, a threat to whom?
Similarly illuminating is the all-too-common practice of calling Jews who support Palestinian human rights “kapos.” During the Holocaust, the kapos were prisoners, often Jewish people, selected by the Nazis to serve as an “trustee inmates” and administer to other prisoners in the camps. They are often considered by history to be traitors. The practice of calling Jewish people who stand in solidarity with Palestinian this name, then, is predicated on a permissibly racist shared belief that Palestinian human rights inherently endanger Jewish lives. Thus, we must be traitors – but what are we betraying? The ever-charming Israeli talking head Hen Mazzig says we’re “worse than kapos” because we’re “betraying our people” and our lives aren’t even in danger. He’s so close, though: he accidentally points out is Jewish lives are not inherently endangered by Palestinians. By arguing, as Hen attempts to argue, that Jews who support Palestinian rights are worse than kapos because Jews’ lives aren’t under imminent existential threat, he illuminates the glaring flaw in the logic which underwrites the occupation, namely, that the maintenance of the occupation is vital in order to protect Jews.
There is a generally accepted narrative which claims that Jewish lives are inherently in danger from Palestinians, and Palestinians achieving national sovereignty would threaten Jewish existence. Permission to question this narrative is not given in Jewish institutional life. So if- if – you ask this question in Jewish institutions, or in mainstream Zionist Jewish communities, you are asking a question that is not only not allowed, you are asking a questioning which is a threat. You are questioning an established shared communal understanding which centers and prioritizes Zionism and a Jewish experience that is related to the modern state of Israel as a foundational principle which unifies Jews across denominations, nationalities, ethnicities. If we don’t share this, then what do we share? You are questioning the very thing which unites us. And the very thing which unites us is, of course, the very thing which oppresses and kills Palestinians.
May Amal Altaramasi’s memory be a blessing.