When I was around six or seven years old, my grandmother told me that Arabs were monsters. I remember taking it rather literally: in my mind I imagined monsters, out there mingling among Jews, far away in the land of Israel.
My grandmother was a New Deal Democrat, dyed in the wool, very active in the liberal-leaning Reform movement, no rightwing extremist. It was the mid-’70s and this sort of overt anti-Arab racism, I hate to say, was mainstream. When I grew up, thinking back on what she said to me as a young child, I was appalled. As a parent today I’m even more troubled and angered. But I also remember a conversation we had when I was in my late teens or early 20s.
I don’t recall what prompted her to comment one day, “You’re smarter than me.” “Why do you say that?” I responded. “Well, for example, you don’t hate the Arabs,” she said. She elaborated a bit and frankly acknowledged that her view was irrational, unintelligent. My view was not, she said, and therefore I was smarter. To her it was a straightforward fact.
Maybe this was a glimmer of regret on her part, a hint that she was reconsidering her stances. In the years of the first intifada, my father (her son) began to disagree with her, forcefully at times. “They better start talking,” I remember him upbraiding her during one argument. In other words, Israel needed to reconsider its refusal to negotiate with the PLO. This was the way the wind was blowing, and I think on some level my grandmother knew the Likudniks were on the wrong side of history. (She died of cancer in 1996, three years after the Oslo Accords, roughly six months after the Rabin assassination.)
My dad was a Reagan voter, not a dove (despised Trump, though, and did not live to see Biden’s victory). Despite his politics, he became more and more apt to call out the Israeli government as “stupid,” and he was often quite right. Here were the first glimmers, perhaps, of a generational divide, a tension between older American Jews and their offspring, something that deepened within my generation and has continued to do so. (If only the Biden administration would catch up to where plenty of rank-and-file American Jews have been on the subject of Israel for a long time.)
While I cannot excuse my grandmother for inculcating (or I guess failing to inculcate) anti-Arab bigotry in a very young me, I am also aware that I cannot fully grasp her experience as an American Jew born in 1912. A grown woman at the time of the Holocaust, she watched the genocide unfold across Europe, while she was “safe” in a country that turned away fleeing Jews, where antisemitic prejudice and discrimination was still quite prevalent. Where kids used to chase her home from school yelling, “You killed my God!” In 1972, when I was four, she watched helplessly again as Palestinian extremists slaughtered the Israeli Olympic team in Munich. Too soon, far too soon, to see it as anything but another antisemitic atrocity. There was much unresolved anger and grief and psychic damage in my grandmother, and in many of us still today.
In my 20s I became outspoken against Israel’s occupation and illegal settlement-building in the West Bank and Gaza. I never embraced anti-Zionism, which I felt was rigid and absolutist, on some level intellectually suspect. But neither did I keep my distance from anti-Zionists, who were very present in New York progressive Jewish activist circles. I read The Question of Palestine by Edward Said and learned about the heated historical debates in Israel concerning Palestinian dispossession in 1948 — debates sparked by the unflinching critical work of Israeli scholars themselves. I got an MA from the New School’s Committee on Liberal Studies in 1995, writing my thesis in part as a culture critique of pro-Israel identity among American Jews.
Artist and author Molly Crabapple has remarked on how generations of young Jews, herself included, were raised on fairy tales about Israel, to the extent that reading an actual book of history is nothing less than world-shattering. There are parallels to how kids learn about the United States, of course, and attempts to challenge such miseducation through vehicles like the 1619 Project (which has generated a right-wing backlash as ferocious as it is disingenuous). Jews, like everyone else, need to be more questioning of national myths, more equipped with the tools to distinguish worthwhile and provocative analysis from self-serving bunk, and apply those standards rigorously to both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine sources.
My stance now, I hope, is fundamentally the same as it was in the past: focus on democratic imperatives and empirical, documented human rights abuses and violations of international law, before any talk of religion or historic birthright or “ancient hatreds” or all other such excuse-making. I favor justice in Israel and Palestine as I favor it everywhere else. In that regard the conflict is not special. On the other hand, I could never overlook my Jewishness, my family baggage, the lens of Jewish trauma that shapes how I and many others view the conflict.
Past and current trauma, however, doesn’t exempt Jewish supporters of Israel from facing reality. The Israeli far right is a force of unchecked hate and racist thuggery, and much like America’s Trump cult or India’s Hindutva movement, it has succeeded in gaining an alarming amount of state power and faux legitimacy. The violence meted out to Palestinians on the part of Israeli military and police forces grows ever more appalling. The settler movement continues to enjoy the blank check it has been given for many years. The evictions and property seizures in Sheikh Jarrah are just one of many grave injustices Palestinians have suffered, all but drummed out of the news cycle by the senseless rounds of Gaza-fired rockets and Israeli reprisals.
Palestine supporters have largely succeeded in their endeavor to “rebrand” Israel, if you will, as an “apartheid regime,” a “settler-colonial enterprise,” countered by noble Palestinian “resistance,” the details of which are never specified. The conflict about the conflict has long been a battle of language, as is true of many other deep-seated historical disputes. I’ve become allergic to these trigger words that dominate the discourse and lead people to rehash the same old scripts, the rote bromides, the conversation-enders.
We know the danger of this push to demonize Israel tout court; it’s partly why we’re seeing Jews in Europe and the U.S. attacked on the streets. Palestine supporters need to grapple with how the rot of antisemitism has surfaced in the movement over many years. A good number have denounced the anti-Jewish attacks and harassment, but it shouldn’t require Jews taking physical blows for a broader vigilance against antisemitism to kick in. (My friend David Hirsh has written at length on this subject.)
As some have pointed out, when pro-Palestine “left” utterances slip into plain antisemitism and other pathologies, frequently it comes from non-Palestinian hangers-on — sailing in on Free Gaza flotilla boats, for instance — using the cause to give an emancipatory veneer to their unprincipled antidemocratic politics more generally. Somehow Britain seems to produce the ugliest of these (George Galloway, Ken Livingstone, many more). We have warned the world consistently about “peace” campaigner politicians like Jeremy Corbyn, yet our warnings are often dismissed as special pleading at best, an organized smear campaign at worst.
There are alternatives to the rhetorical clawing-out-of-eyes that many engage in while sitting thousands of miles away from East Jerusalem or Gaza City. (As Gershom Gorenberg put it in the early stages of May 2021: “[I]t is impossible to bear hearing people far away talk with certainty about which missiles are evil and which are necessary.”) I’d suggest the model be found in Israel itself, in groups like Omdim B’Yachad (“Standing Together”), a principled coalition of Israeli Jews and Palestinian-Israelis holding protests in large numbers and urging an end to the violence and injustice. Together may they find a way forward past the implacable ideologues that have trapped us in this quagmire for so long. Inshallah. Ken Y’hi Ratzon.