It happened when I was sitting in a class with Israeli-Jews, Israeli-Palestinians, East Jerusalem Palestinians, and American-Jews. We had just watched a filmabout the Carmel forest fire that happened near Haifa in 2010. The film focused on a Palestinian fire-fighting crew from Bethleham that wanted to help fight the fire because of their personal and historical connection to Haifa. In the moments after the film one of the diaspora Jews raised his hand to share that he had felt the assertion of ancestral connection to Haifa as a slap in the face. To this day, I’m not sure if he was instigating or sharing personally, but the atmosphere in the room became palpably tense.
One of the East Jerusalem Palestinians responded to his statement by asserting her own shared sentiment with the firemen, her own enduring sense of connection to Haifa and other towns her family once called home. The American Jews in the room became defensive, asking why she insisted on claiming the land. Some of the Palestinians become increasingly bewildered and defensive as they worked to explain their ancestral roots. The Americans became angry and the Israeli Jews remained largely silent.
Eventually, I stepped in to the fray to dispel the misunderstanding that was growing worse by the minute. I pointed out that the Jews in the room were responding to the Palestinians as if they were saying, “I have a historical claim to the land and therefore you don’t.” While the Palestinians had actually only said that they felt an enduring connection to a place that, one-two generations ago, was home.
This singular experience has become essential in understanding my people’s psychology. This morning, over breakfast with my parents, I returned to this story. What does this story mean to me? It’s time for us to reckon with the story we’re telling ourselves. It’s time for a new story.
I asked my dad what we could do to change the current situation and he said, twice, that the only thing that would change it would be more moderate Palestinians eradicating their fundamentalist leaders. My father’s thinking is not exceptional- it’s a completely normal opinion in the American Jewish mainstream.
but I pressed him again, saying, I’m asking how we can change the situation. I told him that I feel that no conflict is one sided, that if we expect Palestinians to transform their views, we must also be willing to transform our own. and that to the extent that we are in power, we have the greater opportunity (and, I feel, responsibility) to begin to do so. The whole idea of resigning ourselves to being perpetually locked in dispute where we wait for the other party to admit that they are wrong is childish, and unending.
Both of these stories focus on parts of our Jewish narratives that need to change. Meanwhile, some very real and very present actions must change as well.
I cannot, in good faith, add psalm 130 to my daily prayers and hope that it is enough to bring peace to the middle east. As a diaspora Jew, it is my responsibility to say that I feel that placing our hopes for the Jewish future in a particularist zionist vision of democracy is a dead end. As my anecdote about the Carmel fire teaches me each time I revisit it, Jewish anxiety over our claim to the land cannot be a basis for the continued denial of Palestinian history. If we want Palestinian attitudes towards Jews and Israelis to change, we must be willing to change our own opinions.
Our might gives us the opportunity to do so first. Let us not squander it.
No one would be happy if Israel annexed the entire west bank, made all Palestinians full and equal citizens of Israel, and sacrificed the Jewish majority that has been zionism’s aim since before ‘48. But it’s just about the only route forward that I can imagine in which no one could really complain either.
My hope for the future lies in an Israel where equality and justice for Jews and Palestinians is inscribed in a constitution. Where the right of return exists for Palestinians along with Aliyah for Jews. Etc. etc. etc.
Because to the extent that either of these contemporary peoples sees themselves as the sole inheritor of the land, I simply cannot relate to them, and see no hope for our future.