We took a bus out of Eizeriyya, went through a checkpoint to pass through the Wall and headed West to Tel Aviv for a family reunion. I didn’t expect Israel to affect me so strongly.
It was our first time in Israel during this trip (East Jerusalem and Ben Gurion Airport don’t count, as East Jerusalem is a predominantly Palestinian space and we spent all of two seconds at the airport), but it wasn’t my first time in Israel. The last time I had been there was two and a half years ago, which was recent enough that everything looked and felt familiar. I went on Birthright when I was 21 and although I had every intention of falling in love with Israel, I felt unsettled the entire time I was there. My conscience felt mysteriously uneasy and I had a strong feeling that there were important, relevant realities that were being hidden from us. I returned to the US, launched into years of in-depth research, and what I learned eventually turned me into the unpopular-amongst-Birthright-alumni, non-Zionist Nice Jewish Girl who is now blowing up your Facebook feed with outrage about what is going on here.
Going back into Israel yesterday made me feel sick to my stomach. Again, I didn’t expect it to affect me so strongly, but it was almost more painful than seeing the walls and wounds and demolished homes up close. What struck me was the eerie invisibility of the Occupation; if I didn’t know or care about the kinds of oppression Palestinians have to face at the hands of Israel, I could easily have remained blissfully unaware of it. All of what I had just seen in the West Bank was swept under the rug. White Jewish Israelis have the privilege of not having to see or face almost any of this oppression, and tiny bits they do see (are rationalized and normalized. Since those few things like the Wall are occasionally visible but not their problem, white Israeli Jews can just get used to them as part of their daily landscape. They are so distanced from reality despite being so geographically close. This invisibility of atrocity destroyed me; I’ll be the first to admit that I pulled my scarf over my face and cried in the back of the bus.
When I guest-lecture at universities about Palestine and Israel, one of the most common questions I get from Zionists is “Have you even been to Israel?”, expecting me to say no. I answer yes and I tell them how much time I spent there. But it doesn’t matter how long you spend with your eyes wide open if you unknowingly have a blindfold covering them.
This is why people can live in and visit Israel and feel good about being Zionists- they don’t have to see almost any results of what they’re supporting and perpetuating. It’s like owning slaves on a plantation you live right next to, but never seeing the plantation or what slavery actually looks like. Yes, I’ve spent plenty of time in Israel. Yes, I saw and experienced everything that Zionists wanted me to see and hear (both in Israel and in the US.) I was handed the hasbara that was guaranteed to turn me into a Zionist and I still actively read propaganda like Stand With Us and Friends of the IDF. But in the face of the Occupation, all of that falls flat.
Yes, acts of terrorism- like the murder of Gilad, Eyal and Naftali- are committed by Palestinians as well. These are egregiously wrong (and for the record, condemned by every Palestinian I have ever met.) And yes, rocket warning sirens are a very scary experience. But not compared to your children actually getting shot, your house actually getting bombed, and knowing that every aspect of your loved ones’ futures being stifled, threatened and destroyed on a systematic level. The context is the Occupation, and that crucially-relevant context is what people like me don’t ever have to be aware of.
The real question is not “Have you spent time in Israel?”, it is “Have you spent time in Palestine?” Have you witnessed Israeli soldiers and/or settlers enacting violence against innocent children? Have you heard the stories of families being torn apart by the Wall, the Naqba, the illegal imprisonments, etc? Have you seen a newly-demolished home and heard the wails of the newly-displaced family that used to live there? Have you seen scars on old women from being violently driven from their homes in 1967? Have you protested peacefully alongside Palestinian families and still been shot at and gassed by Israeli soldiers? And if so, can you maintain your support of Israel and still sleep at night?
All of those images flashed through my head as I walked through Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, Palestinian suffering continued as usual in the name of my own people. I hopped on the first bus back toward the West Bank where at least ignoring that was not an option.