Israeli peace activist Miko Peled reflects on what it means to be Israeli and the country’s often tenuous relationship with faith, land and history.
SÃO PAULO — (Opinion) To clarify the conditions of Israeli society and Israeli attitudes towards peace and justice, it is important to identify what it means to be “Israeli.” That was the premise of a recent speech I gave at a conference titled “Oslo at 25 – An Elusive Peace,” recently held at the University of São Paulo in Brazil.
My role was to speak about “initiatives from within Israeli society in favor of peace and justice for the region.” The conference included a wide array of speakers from around the world, all experts on the different aspects of the Middle East. I was asked to speak on one of the panels along with Dr. Azzam Tamimi, Afif Safia, and Professor Alvaro Vasconcelos. The panel was chaired by Professor Arlene Clemesha of the University of São Paulo.
What is Israeli Identity?
In my book, The General’s Son, Journey of an Israeli in Palestine, I try to describe what an Israeli is and Palestine is, and I do this through the journey of an Israeli in Palestine. Palestine being a small country, no journey within it can be very long. However, the journey of an Israeli into Palestine is that of one who ventures out of the safe sphere of the privileged occupier, where the roads are well paved and the water flows freely, to that of the occupied, the oppressed, the “other,” where reality is vastly different.
Zionists will argue that it was in fact anti-Semitism that brought about the need for the creation of a new identity for Jewish people, the Israeli identity, which is aggressive and bold. But was this really an improvement in the conditions of Jewish people? Members of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community feel very differently.
While some argue that the Holocaust and the anti-Semitism prevalent in Europe throughout the centuries are the justification for the existence of the state of Israel, the fact is that most Jewish people who escaped anti-Semitism sought refuge elsewhere. Only a small fraction of Israelis today have family members who survived the Holocaust.
In a conversation I had with Rabbi Dovid Feldman from New York, I mentioned to him that as Israelis we look down at the rather pale, frail appearance of the Ultra-Orthodox community. “You have no idea how hard we work to maintain this look,” he replied. He went on to say that the Zionist version of a “strong” Jew is antithetical to Judaism.
More than one member of this community has told me, “Israel is no place for a Jew.” In a conversation with Rabbi Elhanan Beck, who moved from Jerusalem to London, Beck told me:
I’ve lived in the U.K. for 36 years and, even with my obvious Jewish look (long beard and traditional clothes), I have never experienced anti-Semitism. Furthermore, neither I or my children have ever seen a soldier; I do not know what a British soldier looks like. In Jerusalem, children see soldiers and guns all around them. So how is Israel a safer or better place for Jews?”
No ethnic or religious identity
There is an unproven claim — more of a myth — that all Jewish people today are descendants of the children of Israel or the ancient Hebrews who lived in Palestine several thousand years ago. Even though this story is perpetuated, the fact is that not a single Jewish person alive today can trace their ancestry to the ancient Hebrews, nor can they show where their ancestral home or land was located, nor do they possess as much as a key to that home. So Israelis are not natives of the land.
In addition to that, Jewish people are ethnically different from one another. The ethnic differences between Yemeni Jews and Polish Jews are evident in every aspect of their existence. Those non-Europeans who ended up in Israel faced very different realities owing to the racist tendencies that were prevalent among the ruling Israelis of European descent. Even today, when racism is less obvious, the ethnic and cultural differences are still obvious.
Whether or not Israelis, who are by and large a secular society, are really Jewish is another question. According to the strict interpretation of Jewish law — which completely and without compromise rejects secularism and Zionism — the so-called Jewish identity of the Israeli people is put in question: Jewish law prohibits Jews from sovereignty in the Holy Land, and sovereignty in the Holy Land is what Israelis are all about. Furthermore, if one does not follow Jewish law, the meaning of one’s Jewish identity is in question.
It, therefore, can come as no surprise that growing up as an Israeli one learns to hate Arabs and to hate orthodox non-Zionist Jews. A great number of the larger Orthodox communities, as in the state of New York, for example, are survivors of the Holocaust and are strictly anti-Zionist. Clearly, Israelis cannot identify with them.
So if Israelis are not natives of the land on which they live, and their Jewish identity is in question, who are they?
A New Creation
“Israeli-ness” is a new creation, a new political and social entity that in many ways is similar to the white society in South Africa and the Americas. Israeli society was built on a racist, settler-colonial ideology, and it too is guilty of genocide and the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population.
Zionism, the ideological foundation of Israel and of “Israeli-ness,” is incompatible with justice and equality with the indigenous people of Palestine — and therefore is incompatible with what we might see as Peace. Zionist ideological claims to the “Land of Israel” are absolute and, as has been made clear over seven decades of Zionist control of Palestine, will not compromise.
What few attempts Israel has made to negotiate “peace” with the Palestinians should be viewed as tactics to serve the larger strategy of controlling the land, the people and the resources. The Oslo Agreement is no different from the massacres of Deir Yassin or Kfar Kassem that were intended to create a mass exodus of Palestinians and allow for more land to be taken by the Zionist state. Oslo was no different from the Israeli massacres in the refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon, or the recurring attacks on Gaza, or any other attacks on Palestinians that are in fact too many to count.
In a recent interview, I was asked whether it is fair to say that one should not blame the Israeli people but rather the government. Had the state of Israel not been a democracy for Jews, that claim would have some truth to it. But the Israeli governments represent Israeli society. Israelis live in a democracy, they vote in high numbers and they’ve elected and re-elected leaders who have executed brutal attacks against the Palestinian people over the past seven decades.
Israeli attitudes towards peace and justice can be clearly viewed by observing the policies that consecutive Israeli governments have executed towards Palestinians. Ongoing violence and injustice with no end in sight, until such a day that Zionism and its racist ideology are brought down and replaced by an inclusive democracy that provides complete equal rights to all who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Top Photo | Dr. Ruth Westheimer waves an Israeli flag as she participates in the annual Celebrate Israel parade, June 3, 2018, in New York. Protesters in the background wave Palestinian flags. Andres Kudacki | AP
Miko Peled is an author and human rights activist born in Jerusalem. He is the author of “The General’s Son. Journey of an Israeli in Palestine,” and “Injustice, the Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five.”