by Tema Okun *
[See personal information at the end of this article. Though The Shalom Center is no sense "anti-Zionist," as this author describes herself -- we support an Israel with a special relationship to the world Jewish people and a peaceful relationship with a new Palestine and all other Middle Eastern states -- we believe the vivid descriptions of life on the West Bank that Ms. Okun brings are both accurate and important to reckon with.]
I am a Jew. I am a religious Jew. I am an anti-Zionist Jew. I realize that to make this last claim is to risk that you will stop reading, as often any claim of anti-Zionism brings with it a label of traitor, anti-Semite, self-hating Jew.
I hope, however, that you will give me the benefit of the doubt, at least for the few minutes that it will take you to read what I have to say.
I've been a Jew all my life although I was not raised with a Jewish education.
In my late 40s, I began to study. I read, I joined a synagogue, I helped start a Talmud study group. I was and am drawn to the essential command, attributed to the great Rabbi Hillel, that our task as Jews is essentially to “not do to others that which is hateful to you.” I love how, in very Jewish fashion, Hillel tells us what not to do. I love and am daily challenged by how extremely difficult such a simple command can be.
I did not know much about Israel until I became more engaged as a religious Jew. The organized Jewish community teaches us that the Israeli narrative is the Jewish narrative. Support for Israel, the story goes, is synonymous with being a good Jew.
Now, some ten years and four trips to Israel/Palestine later, I invite you, if you think you can bear it, to hear why I care more about Hillel's commandment than I do about a state.
With my partner who is also Jewish, I have just returned from 15 days of staying with friends, a family who lives in Samiramis, technically a Jerusalem neighborhood, but one that sits on the Palestine side of the Wall, less than a mile from the infamous Qalandia checkpoint.
Unlike previous years where we participated in delegations, house rebuilding, or activism related to our work with ICAHD-USA (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA), this time we frequently walked the streets of Ramallah, stopping for homemade ice cream at Baladna's, shopping for shoes and handmade embroidery. We traveled north to Nablus and Tulkarem to visit family members and share succulent meals that left us bursting. We took one late night trip to Jericho to sit in the local park, drink cola, and talk; another to Jaffa Beach where we shared a picnic, conversation, laughter; we went to multiple weddings where men and women danced late into the night to the beat of loud, pulsing music.
We were privileged to see again what we have seen before -- how rich and full and engaging life in Palestine can be, how the people here are like people everywhere, attempting to live with some degree of happiness in a culture that deeply values familial relationships, good food, education, meaningful work, laughter.
We also bore witness, as we do on each trip, to encroaching apartheid. As we drove deep in the West Bank along the road snaking north to Nablus from Ramallah, we could look up and see virtually every hillside topped by a Jewish settlement. In some cases, the settlement is recent, a few caravans dotting the hilltop, their electric lights strung from pole to pole, glowing bright yellow through the night, a display of dominance. More often, the settlements are permanent, neat rows of identical houses with their prototypical orange roofs, poised on the top of the hill, ready to dip down onto the Palestinian farmland below. These are announced by the row of modern streetlights on the two-lane road we are traveling, beacons proclaiming the presence of Israeli Jews on the landscape. The lights illuminate the stretches of Arab road where Jewish settlers have to drive because the infamous “bypass” roads (the Palestinians call them apartheid roads) have yet to be built, the ones that allow only Jews to travel from mainland Israel into the West Bank without encountering Palestinians.
The omnipresence of these smaller settlements on the road to Nablus is new since our last trip in 2005; a look at the latest UN map shows the Palestinian landscape dotted with them like an x-ray showing a virulent, spreading cancer.
When President Obama talks about stopping the spread of settlements most people probably have little idea of what he means. Somehow the word “settlement” invokes an image of tents, a kind of unstable, fragile community. The first settlement I ever saw had to be pointed out to me because it looked like any modern suburb in the U.S., row upon row of contemporary houses set along well paved roads. I certainly did not expect what I saw - a solidly interwoven infrastructure common to any town or city - housing, water, lights, streets, stores planted immutably on the landscape. I soon came to understand their function. The massively large ones, housing hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers, are designed to penetrate deep into the West Bank. Pisgat Ze'ev, Mod'in, Ma'eleh Adumim - each is protected by the Wall whose crooked path illegally pilfers huge swaths of Palestinian land. Each functions to divide Palestine into separate cantons making a contiguous state impossible. The newer smaller ones, the ones I see on the hilltops between Ramallah and Nablus, act like beachheads, strategically positioned to continue the slow but sure process of Israeli land grab.
The stories about how these settlers take over this territory deep in the West Bank are horrible. These are Jewish idealogues, often newly arrived from the U.S. Once they seize a hilltop, they move down the hill by harassing the unfortunate Palestinians who happen to live or farm the valleys below, sometimes poisoning their water and fields, killing their animals, introducing hostile plant and animal life, burning precious olive trees. Their goal is to intimidate farmers and families physically until they leave, making room for more settlement construction in their place. What you could not know, because no one ever says so, is that whenever a group of Jews establish a settlement, soldiers come in to protect them, making it possible for the Israeli government to hide this theft of land in plain sight.
As I ride along the road, any road, I realize that a Palestinian cannot drive from here to there anywhere in the West Bank now without encountering a settlement, or two, or three. I begin to take in how it feels to be surrounded, literally, by entitlement and hostility. I think about the ubiquitous story told in the Jewish community, crafted carefully by the ideology makers, painting Israel victim to a hostile Arab population that wants nothing more than to drive us into the sea. I don't know whether to laugh or cry at the irony of such a story, for it's not us, the Jews, who are being driven out.
It's us, the Jews, it's Israel, the state designed for us the Jews, that is driving Palestinian people off of their land and into exile.
I think too, of the irony in the Israeli mantra that the Palestinians, the PLO, the PA, Hamas, all Arab nations, must recognize Israel, something that each of these groups has done in one way or another, although Israel refuses to acknowledge it. Again, I don't know whether to laugh or cry at this recurring argument for the incursion of Gaza, the killing of innocent men, women, and children, the essential incarceration of a culture for over 40 years of Occupation. We have to do these awful things, the story goes, until they, the hated Other, recognize us, declare our right to exist. From my seat in the car, traveling to Nablus, looking up at settlement after settlement, it is not Israel's right to exist that is in question.
The only way to justify this literal occupation of other people's lives and land is to make them inhuman. Israel, with the help of AIPAC, B'nai Brith, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federations, and a myriad of other mainstream Jewish organizations, have done this well. In conversation after conversation here in this country, I witness their success as otherwise compassionate Jews deftly generalize about Palestinian men, women, and children in ways that we swiftly condemn when done about us. An elderly couple almost spits their anger at me, describing the fear their Israeli daughter feels living in such close proximity to the threat of rockets and suicide bombs.
I want to invite them to consider that their daughter's fear is shared, often many times over, by daughters and mothers and sisters and sons in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. I want to invite them, and any of you who have never been, to come and live, as I did, for two weeks in Occupied Palestine. Come with me to the checkpoints, where you will be herded into metal troughs so narrow you can't turn around, through turnstiles designed specifically to be too small for the average human body, yelled at by young 18, 19, 20 year olds whose contempt and disregard for those they control reeks off their skin like sweat. Come with me as we attempt to travel the short trip to Nablus on a Saturday to meet up with friends and family, only to find that Israel has closed all the roads leading out of Ramallah, a city of over 25,000 people, trapping us here on the Jewish Sabbath day without explanation or care.
Come and hear the stories, told at every gathering of Palestinians, of the latest injustice endured by a family member, a friend, at the hands of an Israeli soldier or settler. Point as I did, to inquire about a man dancing, full of joy, in a wedding picture. Hear the story of how he was taking his pregnant wife to Gaza to meet his parents, how he was stopped by Israeli soldiers, forcibly taken to Gaza while his wife was sent back to Ramallah. Two years have passed and he has yet to meet his young child because Israel will not give him the identity papers they require so he can see his family. Meet Fadi, a member of the family we are visiting, a young man in his late twenties who spends his days and many of his nights working, trying to make a living as we all have to do. Fadi cannot go with us to Jaffa Beach, next to Tel Aviv, literally half an hour from his home on the Palestinian side of the Wall, because he does not have and will never get Israel's permission to go. These two people, and millions like them, are not a security risk of any kind; their crime is to be Palestinian.
Come with me and talk to the family whose home, built on their own land, was demolished for lack of a permit that Israel will not give, a family who has only to raise their eyes to see Jewish homes constructed at a fervid pace on a Palestinian hillside a half mile away. Come with me to the fields of a man, the mayor of a local village, who has been separated from his fields by the Wall, forbidden to ever reach them again by an Israel who tells the world that all he has to do is petition for permission to get to them, when the reality is that his petition has been permanently denied without explanation.
Come meet the grieving father and mother whose young boy was killed when Israeli tanks parading through the town sprayed bullets sending one through their gate and into their son's back. These people, and millions like them, are not a security risk of any kind; their crime is to be Palestinian.
Come with me, I beg you, and tell me that your safety, mine, depends on treating people this way. I have not even spoken the worst of it. I have not described the legalized theft of water, land, crops, trees; the complex system of laws that rob Palestinians of both livelihood and a future. I grew up as a white girl in the Jim Crow South and I have spent my adult life in the study of racism; what I see when I go to Palestine is Jim Crow on steroids.
What I'm saying to you, although I'm not supposed to say it, is that Zionism is indeed racism - the supremacy of one race over another for the benefit of the first.
The Jewish community is not in danger from Palestinians or Arab nations. We are in danger because we interpret “never again” to mean never again for us when we should mean anyone and everyone. We are in danger because we continue to engage in a community-wide denial about what Israel is doing in our name.
I remember the time when a respected member of the Jewish community in my town called me a “shonda” (shameful) when, with my partner, I talked to a Jewish Sunday school class about what we had witnessed in Palestine (an unusual occurrence, for few synagogues will allow us to speak).
I was struck, as I have been when attempting to address racism here in the U.S., that the focus of his anger was not Israel's transgressions but the fact that we were speaking about them.
What does it mean that we are silent while the very meaning of what it means to be Jewish is becoming irreparably damaged? Our survival does not depend on a state that violates our fundamental values; our survival depends on honoring those values, the ones that instruct us “not to do to others that which is hateful to you.” I invite you to consider what I've witnessed, or, if you can, to go and witness for yourself. I invite you to consider what it means to be a Jew today, when literally millions of people experience us as a people who control their every movement, their ability to access water, farm their land, build houses, live their lives. I invite you to consider what you hope it will mean tomorrow and the day after. For me, the question is not what are we willing to do for the sake of Israel. The question is what are we going to do for the sake of Judaism?
* Tema Okun has worked with community-based non-profits for over 20 years. Her work as a staffer for the Rural Advancement Fund, the Carolina Community Project, Grassroots Leadership, and the Institute for Southern Studies has formed the core of her organizational experience, where she has served in such varied roles as development director, training director, and interim executive director. Tema has a B.A. from Oberlin College, Ohio (1975) and an M.S. in Adult Education from N.C. State University (1997). She also teaches at Guilford College in Greensboro in their Justice and Policy Studies Department.