My Israel/Palestine Learning Curve Is a Zigzag

Part 1: My Moroccan-Israeli family

I am the child of a family of Moroccan Jewish refugees who found refuge in Israel. My mom was 16 on the day in 1956 when her entire life in Morocco abruptly ended — the day that her father was tipped off by an Arab friend that he was marked for death by the Moroccan liberation fighters (who were trying to oust their French colonizers) because he was discovered to have assisted other Jews to emigrate to Israel. She and her many siblings and their parents packed what they could take with them in suitcases and left their home in the middle of the night, taking their place in steerage on a ship loaded with livestock and other Jewish refugees. They headed to a refugee camp near the southern French coast, penniless and waiting to figure out their future.

Israel gave them that future. The Israeli government settled them, at first, in a small town just south of Tiberias called Poria. After some years, they moved to Shkhunat Hatikvah, which at the time was a heavily Mizrahi Tel Aviv neighborhood known for poverty, rat infestations and street gangs. The family grew — a new baby almost every year until there were 12 siblings in all. My grandfather rebuilt his furniture-making business in Tel Aviv. My mom, who had avoided being married with kids by age 20 like many of her sisters, valued her independence and ventured to America in 1961, eventually marrying my Midwestern American Ashkenazi father in 1966. He helped her parents finally move out of the slums and into an apartment in Bat Yam. Over the next two decades, most of the rest of the family made similar treks, moving into apartments in Bat Yam, Holon and Azor, residential enclaves of southern Tel Aviv. Today, the Elkouby family is a classic Moroccan-Israeli clan, a multigenerational web of 80-plus people mostly still centered in Holon and Bat Yam, but with branches in Rishon Letziyon, Herzliya, Eilat, Los Angeles and Miami. The reigning matriarch of the family is my Aunt Soulika,[1] now in her 80s, who lives on the second floor of a house in Azor above her daughter and son-in-law, and their young-adult kids below

Part 2: Azor

Since my high school days, I’ve spent lots of time at my Aunt Soulika’s house. Many of my happiest memories took place there — afternoon al ha-esh (barbecue) gatherings, late nights eating fresh fruit on the balcony with chain-smoking cousins, the first time my wife came to Israel with me. I’ve walked all around the neighborhoods of Azor, past the mini-grocery stores that are open at night, past the schools and community center, and along narrow streets with cars half-parked on sidewalks. It’s not a particularly beautiful part of Tel Aviv, but I love it, and it is one of the places on earth where I have felt most loved.

The name Azor has its origins in antiquity. There is an archeological tel (hill or mound) at the town’s center and a layered history, including battles between Crusaders and Muslims. The town’s current name is the Hebrew version of its pre-1948 Arabic name, Yazur, a Palestinian village of 4,000 residents that was attacked by Irgun forces and forcibly depopulated in April 1948, about two weeks before the British Mandate formally ended and Israel declared independence. In 2000, the Israeli historian and political scientist Meron Benvenisti published Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948, in which he noted that at the time, a synagogue in Azor was meeting in a building that was a former Muslim shrine, and that an adjoining Muslim cemetery was in disrepair and was being used as a garbage dump for local yard waste.[2]

This is the intersection in my life where my growing awareness of the Nakba meets my own family’s story of survival. I struggle to hold this dual consciousness and these competing emotional impulses every day — in my conversations with my relatives, in the Israel-related parts of my job, in my activist choices and in my private thoughts.

Part 3: Zionism and me, circa 1998

Over the course of the past quarter century, I’ve undergone an incremental re-education of my understanding of Zionism and of the Nakba. In 1998, I was a liberal Zionist who knew that nakba was the word Palestinians used to describe their dispossession and exile in 1948, but like most Jews, I didn’t believe that Israel was primarily morally responsible for it. I thought that their losses were tragic but would never have happened if multiple Arab armies had not attacked Israel in its infancy.

Throughout the ups and downs of the first hopeful years of the Oslo peace process, I was generally unmoved by Palestinian demands for an unqualified and total right of return to their pre-1948 lost lands and homes. To me, that demand sounded like a classic negotiating starting position — one I assumed that Palestinians knew was not realistic and that would ultimately be withdrawn in exchange for the maximum that Palestinians could get from the negotiations. I was even somewhat offended by that particular Palestinian demand. All I could see in it was a desire to undo the existence of Israel as a Jewish-majority state, which I equated with a desire to deny legitimate Jewish claims to sovereignty in at least some part of the land. The Palestinian demand for a total right of return even sounded to me like it carried a whiff of antisemitic revulsion at the thought that Jews should have any role in society other than that of dhimmi — legally protected but subjugated second-class citizens under Muslim hegemony. My relatives had already played that role, and it hadn’t worked out very well.

During those years, like other liberal Zionists, I was also passionately opposed to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza because I despised the role of the military occupier, controlling the lives and movements of an entire people against their will. I also saw the growth of settlements as land-theft dressed in the clothes of misguided religious piety and ultra-nationalism.

What has happened to me since then is that I’ve learned so much that I previously had not known — both about the Nakba, and about the breadth and viciousness of violent antisemitism during the years before, during and after 1948. In the paragraphs that follow, I’d like to share, in some depth, some of the things that I’ve learned that have transformed me from the liberal Zionist I was in 1998 to the confused, conflicted Zionist I now am.

Part 4: My Nakba learning curve

Let me start with the Nakba. It was in my last year of rabbinical school that I first saw one of Israeli historian Benny Morris’s maps of hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages depopulated or destroyed during the war of 1948.[3] Morris’s maps included a key code. The different shapes used to denote the Palestinian towns corresponded to the cause of the flight of its residents: forced expulsion by Jewish soldiers; ordinary flight by civilians ahead of impending warfare in the area; “whispering campaigns” in which Israelis spread false rumors of crazed Jewish militants coming soon to rape and murder; and more. What became clear to me, for the first time in my life, was that Israel’s hands weren’t clean. Some significant percentage of Palestinians were the victims of violent expulsion.

In time, it dawned on me that in the final analysis — even if all of the Palestinians in 1948 had fled solely due to impending warfare in the area and not a single village had been forcibly evacuated by Jewish forces — the real decision to make the Nakba permanent happened when the Israeli government in the years immediately following the war decided to deny those Palestinian civilians the ability to return to their lands and homes. If, as some Israeli battlefield commanders in 1948 have claimed, their decisions to evacuate Palestinian towns were guided by conscientious military procedures intended to prevent civilian casualties in imminent arenas of battle, all of those acts of civilian dispossession could still have been reversed by Israel after the war. Israel could have allowed all civilians the chance to return to their homes and resume their civilian lives. It was David Ben-Gurion’s refusal to do that which cemented in place the central issue of the conflict from a Palestinian perspective.

In more recent years, I’ve come to understand that for Palestinians, the Nakba hasn’t been a one-time event (or even a two-time event, if you include the second mass exodus of Palestinians that took place in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war). Palestinians sometimes speak of a “rolling Nakba,”[4] an ongoing progression of the Israeli state using its might to keep taking more Palestinian lands and squeezing more Palestinians into smaller bantustans or even entirely out of the region. This happens by many means. In the West Bank, it happens through settlement expansion and land expropriation, and through the denial of building permits to Palestinians living there to enlarge their homes to accommodate population growth. In East Jerusalem, it happens through a complex system that makes it risky for any Palestinian living there to leave the area for any meaningful period without risking loss of their right to residency there. It happens through policies of collective punishment against the Palestinian population as a whole, through the practice of home demolitions, through the abuse of bureaucracy to disrupt Palestinian access to claims for lost properties and assets. Within Israel proper, it happens through the chronic and intentional withholding of equal resources for infrastructure in the Arab and Bedouin sectors, and through the incremental reduction of the legal rights of non-Jewish Israelis.

Within the mainstream Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities, the Nakba has been denied, minimized and covered up (figuratively and literally). My Hebrew school never taught it. Various Israeli leaders have denied responsibility for it. Sometimes, evidence of it has been literally buried under Jewish National Fund forests and the establishment of new Israeli nature reserves. Sometimes, the evidence has been more poorly and haphazardly covered up. (See Yazur/Azor above.)

I have been a slow learner. While two generations of Palestinians have lived different versions of the ongoing realities of the Nakba, I have painfully come to a basic and limited outsider’s understanding of the immensity and intimate reaches of the Nakba as an ongoing framework that limits freedoms and interrupts interpersonal connections of all kinds within the Palestinian community. As the Palestinian American historian Sherene Seikaly once put it: “What the Nakba means for Palestinians is our inability to be together. It is a separation of Palestinians from one another, from their families, from their communities, their spaces of worship, spaces of everyday life.”

I remember my shock, for example, when, during a 2006 visit to Israel and the West Bank, my wife and I met the sister of a Palestinian American friend in Bethlehem. She was a public-school teacher in her 30s — warm, kind and energetic in a way that people who love children can sometimes be. She had never seen the Mediterranean Sea in person. It’s 45 miles from her house. During that trip, we also spent a day with a different Palestinian friend who lives in Bethlehem — a 40-something man married with kids. We happened to meet his wife as well, though we learned that that was a bit of a rare treat. Because she is a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, if she spends too much time with her family in Bethlehem she risks being stripped of her Israeli residency permit that allows her to keep her apartment in East Jerusalem. Even though both she and her husband were born and raised in their respective locales, they have to build an absurd and pointless schedule of transit back and forth through Israeli military checkpoints in order to prevent the Israeli government from declaring her “absent” and no longer eligible for residency in her own home. The Nakba is the centerpiece of the Palestinian narrative; it separates people, it saps energy and brings absurdity into their daily lives, and it is ongoing.

In a classroom 25 years ago, I first sipped tentatively from a trickle of learning about this aspect of Israeli-Palestinian history. Eventually, I found the firehose — a flood of Palestinian loss, trauma, rage, righteous indignation and determined creative resistance that shakes and disorients me. I still harbor many of the same concerns as I did a quarter-century ago for the rights of Jews to some form of collective sovereignty in our historic and spiritual homeland, as well as to safety and refuge, but I no longer see Palestinian demands as clever Trojan horse arguments designed to outwit my people out of our hard-earned state. I now see the Palestinian notion of justice as having been, all along, about the Palestinian experience. In other words, “their take on things wasn’t about me — duh!” was what finally dawned on me. Today, I understand that if I was Palestinian, my world would be shaped, caged and driven by the Nakba past and present.

Part 5: My antisemitism learning curve

All this notwithstanding, I am not Palestinian. I am Jewish, the son of a Moroccan Israeli woman whose country of origin turned violently against her and robbed her of everything but the clothes on her back. And while no Palestinian was ever to blame for what happened to her, her family or the 160,000-plus Moroccan Jews who also became refugees, still and all I am the child of a Jew who is one of millions whose lives Israel has saved from oppression or death. Earlier I wrote that over the last quarter-century, I’ve learned much that I previously had not known — both about the Nakba and about the breadth and viciousness of violent antisemitism during the years before, during and after 1948. Let me now share some of what I’ve learned about the second of these things because they are also real, are sometimes poorly known, and are essential to a just and compassionate understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Modern Zionism was a project of rescue and refuge designed to save millions of Jewish lives from death, systemic oppression, existential dependency on unjust regimes or some combination of all three. To understand the decisions made by the Jews who worked and fought to create Israel, we need to know how they perceived the ways in which their world was changing, and to understand the fierceness and immediacy of the existential threats facing most Jews. Doing so does not absolve Zionists of the wrongs they have done to Palestinians, but it does help prevent us from demonizing them or misunderstanding what has motivated their actions.

When you look at the world’s largest Jewish communities from the mid-19th to mid-20th century, you find millions of Jews facing repeated and systematic exclusion, subjugation and violence in most of the countries in which they lived. During several stretches of this period, pogroms were so widespread and frequent that it is difficult to number them. They took place not only in the places most associated with them, like Russia and Eastern Europe, but also in places like Syria, Morocco, Egypt and Iran.

During this era, European democracies were fragile and many fell apart. Newly popular cheap paperbacks and daily tabloids circulated fake news antisemitic tractates like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion faster and in larger numbers than ever before, and sensational and conspiratorial stories promoting xenophobia and fear of a secret Jewish “globalizing” cabal bent on world domination became increasingly influential among the masses and in halls of power. Meanwhile, along with rapid changes in mass communications, industrial transportation technology was also transforming the world, primarily through new massive train systems. As the 20th century dawned, these technological changes would serve to scale up and accelerate the horrifying things governments could do to entire populations of undesirables.

The more I learned about the demonization, violence, gaslighting, cruelty and indifference with which so many powerful societies treated Jews throughout the modern era, the further down a sinkhole of astonishment, horror and revulsion I went. We’re not just talking about German antisemitism here or Russian for that matter. We’re talking about the America First movement in the United States in the 1930s and ’40s, which at one point helped facilitate a coup plot against the American government and which linked to a network of Nazi-aligned members of Congress.[5] We’re talking about the popularization and spread of blood libels against Jews in Muslim societies, and the relocation of hundreds of high-ranking Nazi officials to a warm welcome in Egypt after World War II. From Cairo, men like Johann von Leers, who had aided Goebbels’ antisemitic propaganda efforts in Nazi Germany, advised Egypt’s Information Department.[6] Von Leers was appointed head of Egypt’s Institute for the Study of Zionism. He and many others helped shape and influence anti-Zionist propaganda with the support of Arab League leaders. We’re also talking about the Farhud in Iraq in 1941 — a mass pogrom against one of the largest Jewish populations in the Middle East in part resulting from the organizing efforts of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the exiled Palestinian leader known as the Mufti of Jerusalem, who met with Nazi officers and helped design and implement the spread of Nazi propaganda in various parts of the Arab world. And we’re talking about the Soviet Union’s policies towards Jews as well.

In other words, from the dawn of the 20th century until well past the end of World War II, Zionism operated as a political movement in a context of widespread, fierce and unpredictable antisemitism in every major region of the world where Jews lived in meaningful numbers. And during that stretch of five to seven decades, Zionist leaders also faced the frightening ways in which the new communications and transportation technologies of the era made it possible for a surge of antisemitic public sentiment and government action in any part of the world to lead to mass deportation or extermination. To cite just one example, between May 15 and July 9, 1944 — just 56 days — Nazi-led Hungarian authorities rounded up and deported about 450,000 Jews on 147 trains. Almost all of them perished at Auschwitz.

But Zionism was not only responding to Nazi atrocities. Consider, for instance, what Zionists saw playing out in the Soviet Union — home to between 2 and 3 million Jews in 1948, and ruled at that time by Joseph Stalin, a man who repeatedly implemented policies of mass deportation and cultural erasure using the technological tools of mass-communication and mass transportation. Stalin had 18 million people shipped by train to the Gulags, a vast network of hellholes where at least 1.5 million died. The end for whole communities could come down quickly. In just three days in May 1944, 200,000 Crimean Tatars were loaded into cattle cars and railed to Uzbekistan. In fits and starts, Stalin turned this machinery of cultural genocide, mass incarceration, media manipulation and murder against Soviet Jews.

In 1938, Stalin closed all schools in the USSR where the language of instruction had been Yiddish — more than 750 of them. From 1948 to 1953, during the last five years of his life when his paranoid fear of Jews intensified, his government went into overdrive targeting Jews and Zionists as a threat to the USSR. Stalin banned Yiddish books and newspapers, closed the central Jewish publishing house in Moscow and shut down synagogues and yeshivahs. He purged Jews from political and diplomatic ranks, universities, the army and key professions. Stalin had the best known Soviet Yiddish writers, poets, stage actors and artists arrested, and on Aug. 12, 1952, a group of 13 of them were executed after a swift conviction on false charges. Three years prior, in 1949, Stalin orchestrated a wave of show trials in Eastern Bloc states alleging, for the first time, an international Zionist, imperialist and American conspiracy involving prominent Communist Jewish leaders.

Given that Stalin had directed the USSR to vote in favor of the 1947 U.N. partition plan establishing a Jewish state in part of British-run Palestine and that he likewise offered immediate recognition of Israel the day it declared independence in 1948, it may seem strange that his anti-Jewish policies took on a heavy dose of anti-Zionist rhetoric. It comes down to this: Stalin had, for strategic reasons, directed the USSR to vote in favor of the creation of Israel when he thought it to be a good move vis-à-vis the West, hoping that a Jewish state founded by Socialists might become a reliable ally. But as soon as he concluded that that political calculation was incorrect, his policies towards Jews, Israel and Zionism became fiercely hostile.

By the beginning of 1949, Stalin’s program of accelerated cultural genocide against Soviet Jews came to include a massive propaganda campaign vilifying Zionism as part of a capitalist/American/Nazi conspiracy to destroy the USSR. This campaign was accompanied by a series of high-profile “exposés” of supposedly Jewish-led spy rings, reaching into the highest levels of Communist societies. A series of spectacular show-trials targeted groups of mostly Jewish defendants who would present coerced confessions admitting to their involvement in non-existent international Zionist conspiracies. Public hangings would follow the trials, along with editorials and local workers’ meetings presenting urgent calls upon all good Communists to be vigilant and look out for people in their lives who may be trafficking in “bourgeois nationalism” (the code name for Zionism) or “rootless cosmopolitanism” (the code name for Jews with questionable loyalty to the USSR). There were thousands of publications involved in this nonstop effort — from Moscow to small towns. This propaganda campaign of demonizing and aggrandizing Zionism as part of a global conspiracy heavily influenced the newspapers, radio broadcasts and classroom curricula of much of the Arab world, especially among the USSR’s Cold War client states. And needless to say, the impacts were huge on the 2 million-plus Jews living in the Soviet Union.

Stalin’s policies came to a head with “The Doctors’ Plot,” which blew up the front pages of Soviet newspapers on Jan. 13, 1953. The Doctor’s Plot was a massive government fake news campaign planned and directed by Stalin that accused a group of prominent Jewish doctors of having intentionally murdered several important Soviet officials by secretly giving them improper medical treatments. The accusations claimed that these doctors were part of a conspiracy involving international Zionism, American spy networks and other imperialist powers seeking to weaken Soviet leadership before launching a war to destroy the USSR. Within 24 hours of the story breaking, hundreds of other Soviet and Soviet-sponsored media platforms repeated it. Immediately, Jews across the USSR and in the Eastern bloc were targeted by their peers in government agencies, factories and in research facilities as possible spies.

Stalin, whose health had begun visibly deteriorating, had planned multiple acts to this carefully scripted series of episodes of political theater. According to three former Politburo members at the time, his endgame was the mass deportation of all Soviet Jews — as many as 3 million people — to the remote lands of the east. Six weeks after the headlines announcing the Doctors’ Plot broke, Stalin died, and then a surprising thing happened. The Soviet government, in its first-ever admission of this kind, announced that its leaders had completely fabricated the Doctors’ Plot; that it was in fact a lie and a hoax; and that the doctors were being released from prison and should have their reputations restored. This would be the beginning of a lengthy process of de-Stalinization. For the purposes of this essay, it’s important to keep in mind that during the frenzied two months between the 1953 Soviet headlines splashing the fake news of the Doctors’ Plot and its official retraction, Jewish leaders were terrified that some kind of disaster was about to befall several million Jews, barely eight years after the Nazi death camps had been closed. Anything — waves of new pogroms, new purges of Jews from ever more professions, sentencing of masses of Jews to the Gulag or mass deportations — was possible.

Shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a million Soviet Jews rapidly immigrated to Israel. From a Palestinian perspective, this mass migration of Jews to find refuge and first-class citizenship in Israel was, understandably, a heavy dose of rubbing salt in the open wounds of the ongoing Nakba. At the same time, from a perspective sympathetic to the global plight of Jewish liberation and survival, the State of Israel saved a million-plus Jews from a system that oppressed them and might easily have destroyed their culture, or even killed them had just a few historical moments played out a little differently.

Part 6: My thoughts are all zigzags of sympathy and understanding

Earlier, I mentioned the moral/emotional conflict I experience daily. The more I learn about the Nakba and its ongoing progression, the worse the Israeli and Zionist records appear. At the same time, the more I learn about the realities of industrial-era modern antisemitism in so many parts of the world (including the Muslim world), the more I see that of all the many things the State of Israel is, it is very much the place that has saved the lives of millions of Jews from oppression and possible murder when no one else would.

I see as well that the Jews who moved to Ottoman and later British Palestine, hoping to build a refuge for other Jews, were something quite different than other groups that have migrated to a new land and sought to establish a society for themselves without the consent of the existing population and without the intention of integrating into the existing society (one of the basic definitions of settler colonialism). They were Jews — part of a unique, transnational nation with historic and uninterrupted, ongoing spiritual ties to their homeland, and part of a group that, on a global scale, was staring down the barrel of possible existential disaster. They did not come to Palestine to plunder resources for an armada-backed mercantile corporation, to “convert the natives” to their religion or to claim land for some distant crown.

They came to a territory that had had shifting imperial rulers for centuries and whose permanent political status was uncertain with the desire to implement a new and different Jewish survival strategy. Their project’s central aim was to rescue millions of Jews and disrupt their chronic condition of subjugation, conditional welcome, and periodic murder and expulsion. They brought a global perspective to bear on their mission, focusing on the longstanding situation of Jews around the world. Given that Jewish experience had long taught Jews that the people to ask permission before moving somewhere were imperial rulers and not local townsfolk, that was the path that the first waves of Zionist immigrants pursued, getting permission to purchase lands and create new settlements from authorities based first in Istanbul and later in London. And so, they did not ask permission from the local Palestinian population to launch their nation-building project. And when they ultimately fought them and their Arab allies in 1948 and won, they dispossessed them and took steps to make that dispossession permanent. That they also experienced some measure of shame and guilt about having done so is attested to by how hard they worked to cover up the evidence of the society they pushed aside. Zigzag.

I’ve never had more sympathy and respect for Palestinian beliefs and attitudes towards the conflict than I do now. No longer do I feel offended or surprised by Palestinian demands for an unequivocal and full right of return, nor do I see antisemitism as a motive for a Palestinian idea of justice. I now feel that if I was Palestinian — if I was a child of the Nakba, still living with the ongoing expansion of the Nakba day to day — for anyone to demand of me that I see justice in terms of Zionist concerns would feel insulting and utterly erasing of my people’s nightmare. Zionism has largely achieved its mission of rescue and refuge. The vast majority of the world’s Jews now live in countries where they are not systematically oppressed or imperiled in the ways that have typified Jewish existence in so many parts of the modern world, and for those Jews who do experience peril, the doors of Israel are open. Now I understand that if I was Palestinian, it would seem beyond chutzpah to me for the people who got the rescue they needed to look into the eyes of the people they dispossessed and demand recognition of their right to exist. I didn’t get that before. Now I do.

But I also have never had as clear an understanding of what the world has looked like to Zionists throughout most of the past 150 years, and I feel a sense of injustice when I hear people diminish, deny or display ignorance of the very good reasons for why Zionism was immersed in a worldwide project aiming to protect millions of imperiled Jews. There’s an emotional distancing from Zionism that takes place in some of these discourses that I don’t share, that I can’t share without setting aside my own family’s story of rescue and redemption in Israel.

I’m especially bothered by the deep ignorance that pervades left-wing discourse about Zionism with regards to the roles that post-World War II Nazi and Soviet propaganda have played in influencing anti-Zionist polemics. As noted above, during and after World War II, Nazi officials linked up with major Arab leaders to help design anti-Zionist propaganda, and the Soviet Union’s specific lines of discourse vilifying Zionism stripped it entirely of its understandable aims and reframed it instead as an imperialist, conspiratorial, counterrevolutionary menace having nothing to do with the threats facing Jewish communities. When certain contemporary anti-Zionist discourses repackage tropes and assumptions that derive in part from these toxic sources, my hackles go up, and I know something’s wrong. There’s no need for these tainted sources to make the Palestinian case for justice — reality and an appeal to basic human rights make a devastatingly powerful case.

This essay has zigzagged many times between lines of sympathy for Palestinians and Zionists, and I’ll close with yet one more example: Given all the ways that the deck was stacked against so many of the world’s Jews during the early decades of the modern industrial era, I’m honestly astonished and inspired by Zionism’s success at saving millions of Jewish lives, even with everything else that I now know about it. When I first began learning more about the Palestinian experience, I was afraid that I would end up hating Zionism or wishing that it had never existed or succeeded. But the more I’ve learned, the more I sympathize with what Zionists were facing as their movement solidified. To my surprise, a growing empathy for the Palestinian Other has begotten a growing empathy for my own people as well. It has also reminded me of a lesson that many great writers have explored: people seeking to overturn a brutal and longstanding unjust order can do grave wrong while also doing right. They can get tunnel vision and push aside moral imperatives that complicate or possibly require reconsideration of their plans. They can start piling up morally compromising alliances as the ends come to justify all kinds of horrible means. The line between a morally righteous struggle for a people’s liberation and the willingness to commit brutal crimes in the name of that struggle is easily crossed. Powerful or powerless, oppressor or oppressed, ethical responsibilities attach to us all, including Zionists and Palestinian liberation activists as well.

The Irish professor of international relations Fred Halladay offered his own version of this warning in 2010 when he said,

One should not accept at face value what people who are struggling [for their liberation] say: they may well be committing atrocities of their own. At the extreme end you have the PKK, the Shining Path, the Khmer Rouge and so forth. They may often be involved in inter-ethnic conflicts where they use a progressivist language to conceal what is in fact chauvinism towards another community. It goes for both Israelis and Palestinians. It goes for the IRA in Northern Ireland. It goes for the Armenians and the Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh, and other cases. So solidarity should not be taken at face value. Solidarity should be critical of what people say and do, while also being guided by the longer-term evaluation of people’s interests and rights and material social progress.[7]

Part 6: Next

Later this spring, I will visit my family in Israel once again. I’ll be hoping to learn how they feel about the current upheavals in their society. There’s a widening gulf of cultural difference between me and so many of them — not just in terms of my internal discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their often right-wing attitudes. I have never succeeded in explaining what Reconstructionist Judaism is to them. They basically think I’m a Reform rabbi. Most of them are very proud of me, a few disapprove, and honestly, that’s probably as good as it’s going to get. To the degree that my daily Jewish experience reflects and celebrates evolving North American Jewish communal norms around racial justice, gender identity and interfaith families, my Israeli relatives and I live in thought worlds that often feel galaxies apart. I’m learning to accept that, too.

This is a difficult time for many of them. The economy for working-class Israelis like my relatives isn’t great, and money is tight. Lots of my younger cousins, and their spouses and kids, have moved back into their parents’ apartments. I’ll try my best to communicate and listen well, but my Hebrew, though good, is not fluent, and their English is worse. This trip is centered around a work conference and some vacation time dedicated to several top-priority family needs, so I doubt I’ll spend nearly as much time engaging with Israeli and Palestinian activists as I would like. But all of what I’ve described above will be rattling around in my consciousness — unresolved, contradictory and jangled as always.

[1] Not her actual name.

[2] Meron Benvenisti, (2000): Sacred Landscape: Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948, University of California Press. pp. 32-33, 292.

[3] Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, © 1989 Cambridge University Press.

[4] I learned the term from Professor Sherene Seikaly (University of California, Santa Barbara) during the June 21, 2021 webinar “Palestinians, Israelis, 1948 & Now: On Researching, Teaching and Asserting the Reality of the Nakba” presented by the Foundation for Middle East Peace, available online at https://fmep.org/resource/palestinians-israelis-1948-now-on-researching-teaching-and-asserting-the-reality-of-the-nakba/.

[5] For a riveting and intensely distressing piece of investigative journalism on just how widespread and dangerous the American white-nationalist and anti-democratic movements of the 1930s and ’40s were, listen to Rachel Maddow’s podcast, “Ultra,” at https://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-presents-ultra.

[6] Rogge, O. John, The Official German Report, © 1961 A. S. Barnes and Company, Inc., pp. 380-81.

[7] “Who is responsible? An interview with Fred Halladay,” online at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/who-is-responsible-interview-with-fred-halliday/.

14 Responses

  1. Excellent piece, Maurice, thank you. A few further questions/consternations that arise for me in the context of the history that you lay out here:

    *The unfortunate interplay of early Zionist aspirations and actions in the holy land and reactions in Arab countries. What happened to your family can never be justified, but it is part of the tragic history, it seems to me, that the movement for the safety and liberation of the Jewish people had unintended effects not just for Palestinians but for other Jews.

    *The irony that while Israel did indeed act as a haven for masses of Jews immediately following World War II and for some communities of Arab Jews in the 1940s and 50s, in more recent decades I think it can reasonably be argued that there is today no place on earth that is more dangerous for Jews (that is, more Jews have died there in wars and in terror attacks than in any other country on earth, even with the occasional incident of terrible violence against Jews here in the U.S. or France or elsewhere). Another zig zag.

    In the end, I hope all those purporting to care for Israelis or Palestinians will realize the need to do all we can for the wellbeing of all of the inhabitants of the land, realizing that in this moment, historic claims aside, the destiny of Jews and Palestinians in all of the land is deeply intertwined.

    1. That would be my comment as well. I couldn’t find the beginning … or the end of the comment thread that would have invited my input …. apologies for jumping in on yours.

      To the Author:

      But/And my response to you would have been a lot like this man’s.. I could begin by simply saying, “THANK YOU” for forcing my eyes, my heart, and my mind ….. open, I will never look at a piece of partisan opinion around the situation in Israel/Palestine again. – by reflexively either agreeing or resisting. I had never understood the full history, the full complexity, and the full lived experience of those on opposite sides of the ongoing living tragedies, and the the tangled histories of Jewish & Palestinian people – all of whom are simply wishing for safety,, a rest from persecution & a Homeland. My deepest admiration goes to those on both sides of the ongoing conflict in Israel .- two peoples of whom at least some are trying to commit to the difficult task of “Living Together in Peace.” And my most fervent wish for the rest of the world would be to stop reflexively “Taking Sides, but Rather Try to Listen, Empathize & help where possible.

      There are conflicts somewhat similar to that with which those who share the Land of Israel must resolve …. all over the world. We have something similar here in the United States. At least some of these conflicts may be “Tests” from the Creator, on which they’re really only 2 possible Final Grades – A & F. – Evolve or Devolve. Come together to recreate a Planet on which our Children & our Children’s Children can live … or eventually “Go Extinct” as other *inadequate” species have done.

      But this was a STUNNNG piece, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I will be working through the complexities of what you wrote for quite a while – the lessons transcend political and social … and go all the way to Spiritual. And I think that’s because this may be Humanity’s Final Exam – Evolve or Die. What you did was to offer a Path Forward. From the Bottom of My Heart – THANK YOU.

  2. Thank you for this, Maurice. I appreciate your honest wrestling with the complexities of Israel-Palestine. Your piece will be very helpful in explaining those to others.

  3. A fine essay, factually-based, and appreciated. Missing, however, are comments about past attempts at resolution. Inescapably, Jewish Israeli opinion has moved and ensconced itself on the right (like the members of the writer’s family) since the second intifada became the political choice of the Palestinian Arabs when a brokered peace settlement (like any agreed upon settlement satisfying no-one’s ultimate goals but allowing for peace and land for both sides) had been reached. It’s all well and good to appreciate the histories and abrogated rights of peoples in conflict, but how does one proceed in this case given the history of the past two decades?

    1. I would add, unless I missed it, there is no acknowledgement of the refusal by the Palestinians to accept the partition into two states in the first place. This is not to diminish what has transpired since 1948, and how bad the Netanyahu governments have treated the Palestinian population, but could it have been different? My only issue is that there seems to be no accountability on the Palestinian side.

    2. @Adrian Sondheimer MD

      I don’t understand the logic of your argument.

      “Inescapably, Jewish Israeli opinion has moved and ensconced itself on the right (like the members of the writer’s family) since the second intifada became the political choice of the Palestinian Arabs…”

      The Second Intifada ended eighteen years ago. Are you saying that an event eighteen years in the past has “inescapably” determined events since then? How?

      If the power of the past is really “inescapable,” we might as well argue that events two decades prior to the Second Intifada are what made that event itself “inescapable.” The relevant determining event in that case would be the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which began in 1982.

      Try to imagine the Jew who would accept the idea that the infamous suicide bombing of Sbarro’s pizza in Jerusalem (2001) was made “inescapable” by the Phalangist massacre at Sabra and Shatila (1982), or else, by the use of cluster bombs in Beirut by the Israeli air force in the early 80s (“area denial saturation bombing”). I’m an unapologetic partisan of the Palestinian cause, and I wouldn’t dream of making such a claim.

      So try to imagine how a Palestinian is supposed to react to the idea that the last twenty years of state-sponsored expropriation in the West Bank, and indiscriminate killing of Gazans, were “inescapably” set in motion by the Second Intifada. It’s as though every time a Palestinian family or neighborhood is expropriated, the American-born settlers doing it think: “We’re doing this so that no one will ever attack Sbarro’s again!” A little hard to believe. And as someone who’s spent time with settlers, not something I’ve ever heard them say.

      This is a small catalogue of Israeli injustices against Palestinians:

      https://www.btselem.org/publications/fulltext/202101_this_is_apartheid

      It’s not credible to believe that all of that happened because of the Second Intifada. How did the Absentee Property Law become a response to the Second Intifada? Or the settlement movement? Or the occupation itself? These are phenomena that in some cases stretch back to the founding of Israel, and in other cases, precede the First Intifada by years or decades. They’re phenomena that have developed in a consistent way over several decades. They’re not a response to the Second Intifada. They precede both intifadas and follow a logic of their own.

      So I’m sorry, but your “Second Intifada” story is not credible. The chronology makes no sense, and neither, for obvious reasons, does the arrow of causation. Israelis didn’t move to the Right because some immovable force forced them there. They chose to move to the Right, and were choosing to do so before the Second Intifada ever began.

      My father’s family was evicted at gunpoint from the Indian city of Amritsar, where they lived before the partition of India and Pakistan. They lost everything in the process, and had to flee to Pakistan. In that respect, my family’s history parallels Rabbi Maurice’s. But I’ve never regarded hostility for Hindus or Sikhs as “inescapable.” Are there parts of our family that indulge that hostility, and act on it? Sure. Do the rest of us make excuses for it or regard it as inescapable? No. We hold them responsible for what they say and do, and endure the friction that comes about as a result.

      It doesn’t matter that our family was literally railroaded out of our home by the Hindu and Sikh mobs of 1947. Nor does it matter that Muslims were slaughtered en masse by Hindu mobs of 2002, or are menaced by comparable mobs today. How we think about the present and future is not determined by the past. Two of my cousins, prominent in Pakistani politics, led a peace delegation to India in 2012. Their efforts went nowhere. But in politics, most efforts do. If the past made the present inescapable, we would give up today. We don’t.

      The Palestinians that I know have to wake up every morning, face the occupation, and renew their commitment to the non-inescapability of the past. The alternatives, after all, are suicide or homicide. A friend of mine who lost family members to an Israeli attack wrote a book called “I Shall Not Hate.”

      https://www.amazon.com/Shall-Not-Hate-Doctors-Journey/dp/0802779492

      He doesn’t hate, and he’s not the only one. “I Shall Note Hate” is the credo of almost all of the Palestinians I know, people who, considering their circumstances, have more than ample incentive to hate. Yet they resolve not to. There are, I know, plenty who do hate, but at least as many who don’t. Neither thing is a matter of destiny, fate, or resignation to forces beyond our control. We have to stop pretending that it is.

      Your comment proceeds as though “the history of the past two decades” was all somehow a credit to Israel and reflected discredit on Palestinians–as though Israelis have been consistently peace-loving and Palestinians consistently rejectionist. That’s not the history I know, and it’s not the reality I’ve seen in any visit I’ve made to the area in the past decade. The last three decades, supposedly interim years working toward a final settlement, have seen an enormous consolidation of Israel’s conquest and colonization of the occupied territories–almost all of it with the acquiescence, sometimes the eager support, of American Jews. None of that reflects well on Israel, and none of it suggests a good faith desire for peace on Israel’s part. It reflects the behavior of a regional hegemon that knows that it has a superpower and a diaspora population to cover its back.

      A “brokered peace” under such circumstances is more likely to be a scam than anything else. That’s the Palestinian view of the Oslo peace process. Instead of dismissing it, and making excuses for the right-ward drift of Israeli politics, I think American Jews might profit by asking why Palestinians regard the existing peace process as a fraud. I’m not a Palestinian, and to be blunt, I regard it that way myself. It didn’t have to be a fraud. The question is why it ended up being one. “The Second Intifada” is not the answer.

  4. I deeply appreciate this piece and wish it would be included in readings for high school and college kids studying history. The complexity is real, and well explained. Thank you so much.

  5. Kol haakvod for opening your innermost thoughts and fears as you present a complex situation that we all care about.

    That said, I would like to echo and add to Adrian Sondheimer”s comment about the reluctance of the Palestinians to accept a Jewish state in the area. As you must be aware, the UN partition plan (for a very small Israel) was reluctantly accepted by Ben Gurion but totally rejected by the Palestinians. Had they said yes, the picture today would have been way different. And then they had a second chance, and a third (while Israel agreed to a settlement freeze for years) but they rejected all compromises and instead started the Intifada.

    for two adversaries to make peace there has to be compromise. When one side goes for all or nothing what should be expect the other to do?

  6. This is a really powerful, unique and thoughtful piece, Maurice. The way you balance and articulate the different narratives and sympathies was quite extraordinary. I have a feeling I’ll be returning to re-read this in the coming months and years. Thank you.

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