On Shame, Empathy, and Israel-Palestine

I proudly supported the two-state solution from the moment I realized my Jewish day school had indoctrinated me on the discussion of Israel and Palestine. I was repeatedly told that Israel was my home for all nine years of my Jewish education. The Israel-Palestine conflict was never taught or explained to me — Israel was simply the victim of Palestinian terror. Believing in the two-state solution was liberal for my insular Jewish community, which had maps of “Israel” in every classroom that did not acknowledge any Palestinian land. I took Professor Sa’ed Atshan’s course on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict last semester, and for ten days this past winter break, 35 Swarthmore students from the class and seven professors, administrators, and community activists toured East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Israel proper.  

What I realized on Swarthmore’s study trip was that supporting two states — even if they are equal and democratic — was not an opinion many, if any, participants expressed. I do concede that I am not sure what “equal” means at this point, given the reparations Israel owes Palestine. On the bus one evening, I overheard someone say, “I don’t see how a state with a Jewish majority could exist without being an apartheid state.” I think this could be true, but it’s not absolute.

Speaking about the Israel/Palestine conflict on campus has proved incredibly difficult. The issue is complex and confusing, and incredibly emotional. Every person who holds an opinion on the conflict has a reason for their beliefs.  

Six years after my first visit to Israel proper, after learning extensively about the conflict and visiting Palestine, I still believe in the two-state solution, only now I fear I will be criticized for holding this belief. On a certain level, the two-state solution forgives Israel’s actions pre-1967, such as the Nakba, when 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes in 1948. I worry that if I say that I do believe in some form of a culturally Jewish state with a Jewish demographic majority, people will assume I do not support Palestinian human rights. One night in East Jerusalem, a fellow student told me she did not understand how a person could identify as a “Zionist” and support human rights. I believe in equal rights for Palestinians and for all humans. I deplore Israel’s military occupation and settlement of Palestine. I think the State of Israel was formed immorally and shamefully in many ways.  

But, after the Holocaust, survivors had nowhere to return. Yes, Zionism is an idea that was started many years prior to the Holocaust. The Holocaust still happened, however, and should never be disregarded. Jewish people also do originate from the region. While most were exiled 2000 years ago, some remained. Jewish people upheld the belief in and love for Israel for thousands of years in communities in Europe and the Middle East, a tenet of Jewish religion that was outwardly criticized by my classmates and one of the tour guides on our trip. I personally feel comfort when I see a Jewish woman walking with her young child on a street in Tel Aviv. On a basic level, seeing this makes being Jewish feel safe. The Pittsburg Synagogue Shooting of this past October made me a little more fearful of being a Jewish person in America.

I wish that I didn’t feel ashamed by the fact that I like and love parts of Israel. I worry that I will be judged by my peers for it, and I judge myself. I abhor so many of Israel’s actions and I think many Israelis — as well as myself as a Jewish American, to an extent — are complicit in its crimes. Despite this, I do not want to see the Israeli side of the 1948 established borders cease to exist.  

Halfway through the trip, our group toured Hebron. Hebron is a Palestinian city that the Jewish religion considers holy to Jewish people. Jewish settlers and the Israeli military currently occupy Hebron. There are certain roads in Hebron that only citizens of Israel can access. The Israeli military guards the settlement and uses force and terror to keep Palestinians away. My initial reaction to Hebron was simply that what I saw was not Jewish. It is not the Judaism I grew up feeling proud to be from. I felt angry that the people who settle in Hebron claim the land in the same name as my Judaism that fights for justice and a better world. I am disgusted by the settlement, army presence, and atrocities committed in Hebron. I want to do everything in my power to see Israel’s military occupation of Palestine end.  

However, I do see visiting a synagogue in Tel Aviv as Jewish, just as attending a Shabbat service in any city would be. So when the head rabbi of the synagogue we visited personally welcomed our group to the congregation and said in his sermons that he hoped we return, and a Swarthmore student sitting behind me rhetorically responded, “I’m good” to the people sitting around her, I felt deeply upset. I do believe we can separate criticism of Israel from Judaism, but criticizing a synagogue for being just that is not a judgment of Israel. It’s a criticism of Judaism.  

More than one month has passed since I returned from Professor Atshan’s course study trip. In the month since my return, SGO voted against showing support for divestment from Israel, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) tweeted “It’s all about the Benjamins baby” while discussing how the American Israel Public Affairs Committee gains its supporters, and several Swarthmore students started a Jewish Voice for Peace chapter on campus.  

I understand why SGO chose not to write a letter in support of divestment. Not every student on Swarthmore’s campus wants to divest, and it’s hard to express an opinion other than the one that so many students vocally hold. As for Ilhan Omar’s tweet, while I do think there is truth in what she said — that AIPAC maintains strong support for Israel through money — I also think she should have known better. Her statement was offensive because American support for Israel does not only exist because politicians are bribed, and because her choice of words, does sound similar to a very antisemitic trope. Omar could have found a more respectful way of making a statement about AIPAC and its use of funds. Yet she will receive criticism regardless of what she says when it comes to Israel and Palestine because she’s a woman, she’s Muslim, and she openly talks about this divisive issue. I accept her apology. Finally, I joined Jewish Voices for Peace not because I agree with every principle the organization stands for, but because I care about preserving the integrity of Jewish religion and culture within the eyes of Swarthmore’s community.  

One state or two, the reality on the ground is a deeply upsetting and emotional crisis. I hope we can all try to find more empathy for one another, even when doing so feels impossible. This is the only way I can imagine seeing a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

1 Comment

  1. It sounds like, according to the fourth paragraph, that you identify as a Zionist. However, JVP states on their website that they “unequivocally oppose Zionism”. Since you’ve now joined JVP, how do you reconcile this major disparity between your beliefs and the organization’s beliefs?

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