By Leigh Hoffman
“Go to hell, Arab! This is our home! You Nazi killed my father!”
The words hurled from the lips of a middle-aged Israeli settler living in Hebron barely dented the air. The sun shone off the metal handcuffs linked around the wrists of a 16 year old Palestinian. These common comments are not intended for me, yet in the twisted reality of life under occupation, I am somehow entitled to react in ways unpermitted to those living under its oppressive bigotry. I purse my lips, eyes tender with restrained anger, and I struggle to imagine what history lessons, what social upbringing, this woman had to enable her to believe such passionate falsities. What version of history inspires her anger, her conviction in the belief that she has a right to be here? Where did the story become so twisted, so perverse to compare a 16 year-old bound by Israeli state handcuffs to a genocidal anti-Semite?
Hebron (or al-Khalil in Arabic) is a contentious city. Its changes over time and illustrate the limitations in the classic Zionist doctrine that “Israel facilitates the restoration of Jews to their biblical and ancestral homeland.”
The Jewish religion and culture, people, are intimately connected to the historic land of Palestine. As the ‘promised land,’ the land surrounding the Jordan River was the geographic location of the development of Jewish religion and ancient culture, where the Israelites transformed into Jews. The entire Jewish calendar and holiday cycle is based off of the seasonal cycle in Palestine; many Jewish traditions trace their origin to practices of the Israelites during the Temple periods. The Jewish connection to that land is undeniable.
Despite the legitimacy of Jewish connection to this tract of land, the Jewish people are by no means exclusively entitled to maintain and cultivate such a connection. The creation of a “Jewish state” serves to monopolize the spiritual and cultural connection the Holy Land, by promoting Jewish connection to the land at the direct expense of existing indigenous populations, like the Palestinian community in Hebron, and other cultures deeply intertwined to the Abrahamic Holy Land. The displacement of indigenous Palestinian communities is but one example of this manifest; communities which have lived in the land of historic and occupied Palestine have familial connection as well as spiritual-religious engagement to the land actively been stolen and destroyed by the occupation. Not only does Israel attempt to actively deny indigenous connections to the land by actively pushing out existing populations and destroying any evidence of their existence, but also it denies the legitimate connection of descendants of Abraham, non-Jewish, to the same land. The ‘promised land’ was promised to all descendants of Abraham.
The legitimacy of Jewish connection to Palestine is a fact often ignored by non-Zionists, which serves to dismiss very real spiritual, historical and cultural meaning. However, there is no legitimacy in this connection finding expression in the form of a political nation state. The so-called ‘right for Israel to exist’ is a questionable political argument, as The Right for a nation state to exist is not recognized by any international body or law.
There is evidence of consistent Jewish habitation in the land, mostly in Safed, Hebron, Tiberias, and Jerusalem, since at least the Middle Ages. While their numbers were small, these existing Jewish communities demonstrate that Jewish presence in the Holy Land has been historical consistent, contrary to the perceived Zionist need to restore a physical presence of Jews in the promised land. Further, these generally peaceful histories illustrate an alternative configuration of Jewish presence in their ancestral home, outside of the boundaries of an exclusive Jewish state. This is particularly true in the case of Al-Khalil/Hebron; in this holy city, Jews and Palestinian Muslims lived together for centuries, including intimately and in shared homes and families. Centuries of the city’s history illustrate a model of shared existence between the two faiths and communities, mutually fostering and maintaining engagement with their shared ancestral homeland. This was the case until the onset and spread of political Zionism; with the increase in numbers of Jewish settlement in Mandate Palestine, and increase in the threat to Palestinian and Arab autonomy in the region, riots erupted throughout the city in August 1929. Jews were murdered and their property destroyed, while many hundreds other Jews were hidden and protected in the homes of their Palestinian neighbours. Ultimately, extreme measures were taken, and the centuries old Jewish communities in the city were removed for safety concerns by the British Mandate government in 1936. Hebron was the first city to be settled upon the conquest of the West Bank by Israel, and today Israeli policies in the city are motivated by protection of solely Jewish Israeli citizens and the continual displacement of Palestinian communities to make room for expanding settlements. Those that are settling Hebron today are mostly American Jews, few of which have direct lineage to the Jewish families displaced by the violence against them and displacement policies of the British government during the Mandate period.
While Jewish connection to the Holy Land is culturally and spiritually valid, many claim that the historical links to the land are questionable at best. Claims to land ownership or entitlement, based in Biblical sources and G-d delivered promises 4000 years ago, are received with skepticism contemporarily. Not only do such claims to past ownership hold little validity in democratic legality, they also ignore the legitimate land claims made by indigenous populations who have been living and working on the land for generations, often proven through crops and government issued land ownership documents.
Meaningful Jewish connection to their ancestral homeland is a cultural process, which must not undermine the value of Jewish experience and identity outside of historic Palestine. As a ‘wandering’ people, Jews have been able to create homes and facilitate immense cultural and spiritual development as a community for thousands of years, all around the world. These valuable experiences are often ignored or dismissed by Zionist ideology, which seeks to value Jewish experience and development as only meaningful when in direct connection to Israel. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, is quoted as saying, ‘eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will eliminate you.” Heroes of left-wing Zionism are known to echo these sentiments; Yossef Brenner, one of the main figures in the revival of Hebrew as a modern spoken language viewed Diasporic Jews as intellectually and morally backwards, poor, depressed, and weak, seeing these qualities as positive, in fact, as they mandated Zionism as the only feasible solution to Jewish ailments. Contemporary Zionist figures, such as the darling Israeli author A. B. Yehoshua, are known for their negation of the Diaspora. Yehoshua once stated “a full Jewish life could only be had in the Jewish state… [that] Diaspora Judaism is masturbation…[in Israel] it is the real thing.” After the shooting of shoppers at a Kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu capitalized on the incident of anti-Semitism to promote Jewish immigration to Israel, stating to French Jews that “Israel is your home,” and aiming to undermine the centuries-long history of Jewish life in France. The centrality of a Jewish state in Zionist ideology is a threat to meaningful Diasporic life, and negates thousands of years of engaged Jewish history globally.
Sustained connection to a geographic territory is often cited as a condition of peoplehood and social nation; in the context of Israel, however, the importance of land has become overly central to defining the nation, at the expense of other elements. From this confusion, a middle-aged Israeli settler in Hebron/Al-Khalil feels justified in calling a Palestinian youth bound by handcuffs, detained for an infraction of which there is no evidence but the claims made by an Israeli settler his same age, a Nazi. Feels entitled to her house, which two decades earlier housed a Palestinian family of fifteen, before they were bullied and stripped of the right to safety in their own home and forced to leave. Obsessed with land ownership, the state of Israel has illegally confiscated thousands of acres of land, and monopolized land ownership rights in the hands of Jews. The centrality of land in the Zionist narrative enables legally enforced racial segregation, but it need not be like this: Jewish connection need not take the form of exclusive territorial sovereignty.