By Leigh Hoffman
This post is written for a Jewish audience, while its’ sentiments are also relevant to the anti-occupation conversation more broadly. I refer to ‘we’ and ‘our’ throughout the post, referring to Jews.
These words together are no longer an anomaly; their co-existence is becoming more than just whispers in Jewish consciousness. The convergence of the identity of “Jewish” and the politics of “anti-occupation” is still met with disdain, exclusion, and social violence within mainstream Jewish communities, yet its power is growing. Jews and gentiles alike are becoming used to the fact that I, we, exist.
“They say that this conflict is about Jew versus Arab, that somehow as a Palestinian I am against all the Jews, and they are against me. But, I want to tell you something.”
I am sitting in my living room, in a rented activist apartment, in the small Palestinian village of Huwwara, just south of Nablus in the occupied West Bank. My hands feel warmer than the rest of my body, cupped around a glass of mint tea. My legs are crossed in front of our small gas space heater, turned on at half-hour intervals so we can conserve the below average quantities of gas currently being rationed by Israeli authorities. My friend is talking passionately, his eyes gleaming with conviction as he continues.
“You and me, Jew and Muslim, we come from the same place. I have nothing against the Jews; I have everything against the Occupation, because it has taken everything. My family’s home, our village, now our land here… it has taken my friends, my brothers, to jail, and it tries to take away our will to live.
“You, you are Jewish. And we are friends. But your people, over there, with the guns and the gas and the walls, they are not my friend.” Samer gestures towards the door, staring intently as if on it was projected all his pain and loss. As if simply waving at it would blow away all that holds him down.
My heart is beating, and I know I cannot argue with him. I have denounced Zionism; I have flown across the world to stand in solidarity with Palestinians, to engage in direct action against the occupation and risk my health and safety to combat ongoing abuses against Palestinians. I am Samer’s friend, and I want to tell him that those people, over there, are not my people. That they, and the state they created 67 years ago which destroyed Samer’s family home and sent them into refuge, are not my friends. That I am opposed to everything they do. Yet, I know he is right. They are my people.
“Listen. Your God promised this land to Abraham, yes? To his sons? His bloodline? Abraham is the father of us all, of Muslims and Jews. My people are also his sons. But it is not even about that. Look at this life, is this how people should live? How can the world sit by and watch our homes be destroyed, how can people fund companies which steal our land, defend soldiers who murder our brothers?”
His voice resonates with resilience, and I wonder how many times he has made this impassioned speech. I wonder what his life would look like, feel like, without all of this anguish. In his eyes, I am free. I live without much restriction or threat of violence. I breathe deeply, and know that I will get the chance to do so again. I exhale with a belief that freedom can, and must, exist for everyone. Yet, I realize in this moment, that I can never know what freedom will be for him. That must be up to Samer to decide. Up to Palestine.
“This is the life.” His eyes stare ahead, at the living room door, and I sense him drift away, to thoughts of a life already lived, and perhaps a life to come.
This is the life.
This simple message, starkly and painfully clear, echoes through the trees of Palestine. In my months in the West Bank, I heard these words countless times, whispered from the lips of the young and old, steeped in resigned articulation. The occupation is brutal; unbearable. Too many tears have been shed, too much blood drawn by American-issued weapons of the occupation, too many souls stripped from their bodies too early. It is almost impossible to hear, learn, see the brutality of the occupation and not feel like it weighs on my shoulders too, that it is my responsibility to change.
Yet, the words that Samer speaks are not my own. The experiences and day-to-day realities of life under occupation are not my own; they are not my heart, they merely leave an imprint as they embroider themselves through my veins. The heavy sorrow that weighs on the bodies and spirits of Palestine because of too many silenced voices and lives cut too short, is not mine. The brilliant, exhilarating smiles, passionate resilience, and unending generosity of Palestine are not mine. This is not my life.
As a Jew against the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, it is all too easy to co-opt the critical conversation surrounding the occupation. Whether it be because of the social and physical ostracization and harassment I have faced trying to voice my opinions in the mainstream Jewish world, or the self-fulfilling boost of my ego from standing against the grain and advocating for justice contrary to what I was raised to believe as a Zionist, I feel personally and emotionally implicated in the conversation surrounding anti-occupation and pro-Palestine politics. Maybe it is also just part of this assumed-to-be-natural affinity I feel between being Jewish and being anti-occupation, despite and perhaps because of their supposed oxymoronic combination.
These are dynamics that demand critical reflection, and risk replicating the same power dynamics that enable the occupation. Fundamentally, the occupation is about an unequal power and its global legitimacy: the world’s acceptance and encouragement of Zionist claims, and the simultaneous denial of Palestinian claims to their land as well as the denial and erasure of their lived experiences. There are hundreds of consequences to this, but crucially the occupation works on an assumption that Israel is more important than Palestine. Working to end the occupation must center the experiences and voices of those directly affected in politics, possible solutions, discourse. As a Jew, I am not directly affected by the occupation. Yes, I feel some effects in my life; I feel the negative and painful consequences of being part of communities that are co-opted by Zionism, and defend the status quo of Israeli abuses. I am offended and hurt by these associations, and this is a major motivator in my political work against the occupation. Ending the occupation, however, must be about freedom for Palestinians from oppression and restriction, not primarily about freeing Jewish communities from association with violence and repression. Immediately and uncritically validating the visceral affinity between “Jewish” and “anti-occupation” (or any relation to Israel politics more broadly) serves to re-enforce the power of Zionism and the occupation at the expense of Palestinian voices.
Being anti-occupation means voicing dissent to the violation of human rights ongoing in the Occupied Territories and against Palestinian communities. All too often, Jewish discourse opposing the occupation becomes a platform for absolving Jewish guilt. Jews engaged in anti-occupation work must be careful not to dominate the conversation, to avoid monopolizing occupation discourse at the expense of Palestinian voices and experiences. The occupation values the voices and experiences of Israelis over Palestinians, built on an assumption of an inequality of value of human worth. By contributing to anti-occupation discourse and work as a Jew, I run the risk of replicating those same power dynamics, informed by legacies of colonialism and white supremacy and orientalism, which deny legitimacy to victims of colonial violence, to Arabs and Muslims, to indigenous peoples globally. I believe in the human right to dignity and to live free from oppression and violence. I further believe in the power of resistance, in the ability of those who are marginalized to articulate their lived realities, and imagine alternatives. These must be the central tenets of any anti-occupation work done by those who are not living under occupation, by working to empower Palestinian voices in public discourse, and challenging internalized racism and its’ effects on shaping public discourse.
Yet, as my friend Samer told me, those that are committing atrocious violence and war crimes are my people. I have tried to deny or distance myself from that fact, but the truth remains. I am associated with them in name and history and culture, and they are claiming to act on my behalf. Recognizing the global privileging of my voice and experiences as a Western, white, Jew, I choose to be an anti-Zionist and against the occupation. Yet, I do so strategically; the role of specifically Jewish anti-occupation work has great potential to intervene directly in our communities to untangle Zionism and funding for the occupation from Jewish institutions, communities, and consciousness. Israel is funded and directly supported by countless Jewish organizations, and this support is crucial to maintaining the occupation and strength of the Israeli military. Without such support, the occupation would end. We must work to de-colonize our minds and wallets as well as the Land; without the former, the latter would not be able to be sustained.
My history and legacy are narrated by stories of the resilience to survive in the face of genocide and state violence. I grew up with stories of Jewish strength, of the necessity of continuity and survival in a hostile world, of the importance of Jewish connection and history. The threads of this legacy weave together my faith, prove that it is possible to survive, thrive, against all odds. That humanity is capable of destruction and evil, but the human spirit is stronger. This history is my heart, and it pulses through my actions and choices, softly against the words inscribed I have inscribed on my heart that this is the life. And we, as Jews, can do better. We can do better than internalizing histories of communal oppression as indicators that we must only look after ourselves; we can resist the urge to simply alleviate our guilt whilst simultaneously strengthening Jewish voices at the expense of others. We can choose respect for humanity, and strategically analyze our positioning. Do the hard work of engaging directly with our families and communities who fund the occupation, who mutter racist sentiments over Shabbat dinner, who trust our voices because they do not trust the Other. We must learn to love and trust the Other, imprint their words on our hearts so we can bring their stories to our people who are holding them down, but not claim this conversation as our own.