Stories Jews Were Told: Israel, Zionism, and Palestine

What is the story American Jews have been told about Israel and Zionism, and how does it differ from the reality of what happened in Palestine?  Like many American Jews, I was told by my teachers at Hebrew School and in the Jewish Day School I attended that the creation of Israel meant that Jews would never again have to live through another Holocaust.  That slogan, “Never Again,” popularized by the notorious Jewish Defense League, reverberated throughout the Jewish community.  As part of the story, I learned that Arabs, like the Germans, hated Jews and wanted to destroy us.  They were our enemies.  The refrain, “they want to throw us into the sea,” was etched into my consciousness.  I was told that they — the amorphous they — didn’t value human life and were not like us.  The process of dehumanization wasn’t subtle.

I learned about the Zionist dream, of deserts blooming, of our people, a third of whom had been murdered, able, at long last, to live freely and fully in our own homeland.  I learned a variation of “a land without a people for a people without a land.”  And when I studied Zionism more seriously in college and afterwards, I learned a new variation of that refrain — that, in fact, people were living there, but they were peasants, wanderers, who did not have a cultural or national identity.  In other words, they weren’t really a people so could easily integrate as a minority into the new Jewish state.

At home, I learned about Zionism and Israel without the hateful rhetoric.  I grew up in a home imbued with Jewish culture and rooted in Jewish experience — “Yiddishkeit” — with parents who were civil and human rights activists and were extraordinarily ethical people.  I learned Jewish history and to be proud of who I was without adhering to the concept of the “chosen people.”  Because my father served as an assistant to Jewish leader Rabbi Stephen Wise, who had trusted President Roosevelt to take action to save the Jews, I grew up hearing stories about the ways the U.S. government failed to rescue Jews and how Israel would be the safe haven that Jews desperately needed.  I learned about struggles for self-determination and about Israel as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.

But, regardless of the tone or intention, this story that I and so many Jews accepted as a given was fundamentally flawed.  That is, the story failed to include that, as Jews were migrating to Palestine to fulfill the Zionist dream, Palestinians were already living there, and, yes, they identified as a people with cultural and national identities and aspirations.  And overwhelmingly and profoundly different from the Zionist dream, the Palestinians’ expression of their cultural and national aspirations was being fulfilled in their homeland and didn’t require displacing another people.  But this reality did not become part of the Hebrew school curriculum or make it into the American Jewish psyche.  This part of the story simply wasn’t being acknowledged or told.

Today, when American Jews look at the Israeli massacre in Gaza and the occupation, and hear that, according to the Israeli government and American Jewish establishment, the Palestinians and Hamas want to destroy Israel, how can we forget that it was the Zionist movement that came and took over another people’s homes and land?  How can American Jews not understand the Palestinian yearning for their homeland, particularly a homeland that was taken from them by force? 

Any discussion among American Jews of Israel and Palestine requires us to push ourselves as a community to reflect on our history and on the story many of us blindly digested; it requires us to understand that the current massacre grows out of a long history of dehumanization of a people and denial of their national rights in the land of Palestine.  Understanding that reality — that is, re-telling the story to include the impact of Zionism on the Palestinian people — doesn’t minimize or ignore the horror of the Holocaust or our commitment to insuring that it never happens again to Jews or to anyone else.  Rather, the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust is best honored by our involvement, as Jews, in speaking the truth and participating in movements for justice that insure the right of the Palestinians and all peoples to live with dignity.

Donna Nevel, a community psychologist, is a long-time organizer for Israeli-Palestinian peace and justice.  She was a co-coordinator of 1989’s Road to Peace conference, which brought together representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israeli Knesset (Parliament) for the first time in the United States.