Though my detractors often claim otherwise, I see myself as anything but a “self-hating Jew”, and the more vocal I am in my criticism of the Israeli government’s crimes, the more credence I give that claim. I passionately love my religion, and just as fervently defend its teachings to the hilt when it comes to how to treat our fellow man. That Zionism has come along, hijacked Jewish doctrines, and twisted them to form part of an all-out supremacist movement is not something I can swallow if I want to stay loyal to the true values of Judaism.
Unfortunately, by demanding that the world sees Zionism as a philosophy essentially based on Jewish principles, Zionists have managed to unforgivably drag the religion’s name through the mud for over 60 years. However, I drew some comfort from an unlikely source after talking to a boy my age in the Deheisha refugee camp in Bethlehem.
I was there as part of a marathon tour that took in Hebron, the village of al-Nueman, the Machpelah mosque, the Church of the Nativity and various other stops along the way – including the pitiful, crumbling buildings of Deheisha. Half-way through the trip, my eyes began to glaze over, as I sought to put a barrier between myself and the relentless barrage of proof we were shown of how cruelly the authorities deal with the Palestinians.
Sneering soldiers manning checkpoints, freshly-demolished family homes, welded-shut shop fronts, blood-thirsty settler graffiti crudely daubed on Palestinian houses … the list was endless, and the evidence was overwhelming. While it was clearly an invaluable experience for those on the tour who’d never seen the awful truth of the occupation up close and personal, I’d seen it all before – not that it gets any easier to take, however many times I am exposed to the reality.
But that was before I met Jihad, a young man charged with showing us round the garbage-strewn streets and decrepit homes of Deheisha. The first thing I noticed about him were his eyes, which were as dead as any I’ve seen in all my four years living here. As he sat on a chair facing our 10-man semicircle, his face was utterly devoid of emotion, and he simply went through the motions as he reeled out his clearly well-polished introduction to life in the camp.
I could hardly begrudge him his lack of enthusiasm; we were probably the hundredth group he’d spoken to about his community’s plight, and what difference had all the lip-service made to their situation? He and his people were still here, still caged in their concrete prison, still at the mercy of the Israelis, and still no nearer to achieving their dreams of independence and freedom from the shackles of their overseers.
“I just want to be like you,” he said tiredly as he gazed into the middle distance, and with those seven words summed up the eternal plight of the downtrodden and discriminated against. “I’ve got two arms, two hands … why am I any different from other people?” he went on – and, of course, the answer was staring us in the face from the gun turrets of the guard towers overlooking the camp.
As we wended our way up the narrow alleys where skinny children clad in ill-fitting clothes played among the refuse, I asked Jihad to elaborate on how he could be “like us”. His answer was simple, and – he said – representative of the views of the majority of Palestine’s millions of refugees. “We want to go home”, he said flatly. “There is no other way [that will suffice]. A two-state solution will not bring peace – the fight will go on.” He told me that although he’d chosen to use pen rather than sword to get his message across, he had no truck with those who chose to join the armed resistance.
He was vicious in his condemnation of those at the helm of the Israeli government, castigating them for their decades spent keeping his people down and subjugating them with brute force and bloodshed – however, he was adamant that he did not view their actions as emanating from Jewish sources. “Zionism is far, far removed from the Jewish religion,” he assured me. “I have no issue with Jews – just as I have no problem with Christians or Buddhists. I don’t mind Jews living here, just so long as they do it peacefully.”
He echoed the words of another local I’d met earlier, who had asked why Zionists had felt the only way to emigrate to the region was via conquest and control, rather than “the way my brother moved to the United States. He went there not to kill, not to occupy, but just to live there in peace and be a citizen like anyone else.” Both his and Jihad’s ability to clearly distinguish between Zionism and Judaism is a chink of light in an otherwise pitch black situation – and must be capitalised on by those with an interest in bringing this 60-year-old conflict to an end.
The window of opportunity won’t stay open for ever. Islamic radicals and fundamentalists are highly adept at conflating the Zionist philosophy with the Jewish faith, and Israel’s hiding behind a façade of acting on behalf of World Jewry only plays into their hands. Which is why it’s essential that those Jews who recoil at the criminal actions of the Israeli government make it quite clear that this is not being done in their names.
The dominant form of Zionism might be a racist, supremacist ideology – but Judaism is most definitely not. And the more Jews who make this distinction, the better: both for the security of their fellow Jews, as well as to prove to the Israeli authorities that they most definitely do not have carte blanche to crush the Palestinians for ever more under the guise of religious values.
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