“Where are you and what are you doing?” asked my concerned parents from thousands of miles away.
I took a deep breath.
“I’m back in Jerusalem, after spending the day in southern Hebron with a hundred Israeli and international activists helping rebuild a Palestinian family’s home that was demolished by the Israeli army.”
“Don’t you understand that going to the West Bank is putting your mind and body in danger? Why can’t you travel like a normal person and just drink wine by the sea?”
In the winter of 2006, I arrived in Israel/Occupied Palestine for my sixth visit to the region in 24 years. Past trips had been to visit relatives, to celebrate my bat mitzvah and with classmates to see the religious relics we learned about in Jewish day school. This time, I arrived in the country on an all expenses paid tour with Birthright Israel, a joint project of the Israeli government, North American Jewish federations and dozens of philanthropists who support the Zionist state. I had speculations that the trip wasn't actually "free" in terms of its influential political agenda, but I decided to see for myself. Besides, I had an agenda of my own. I wanted to witness the occupation and learn Palestinian narratives for the first time. Moreover, I was ready to begin the challenging journey of disrupting my deep bond with Zionism, the belief in a Jewish state, a belief that had been tangled up in my Jewish identity for too long.
After a 12 hour flight, I arrived at Ben Gurion airport with 30 young Jewish Canadians. We were greeted by 10 smiling uniformed soldiers and our Israeli tour guide, who shouted proudly “Welcome Home!”
I felt uncomfortable at the idea that I was being granted immediate comforts and privileges. I tried to keep an open mind, however this moment set the tone for the rest of the tour. We were rapidly introduced to a restricted view of the country in which militarized culture and Jewish privilege is normalized and the occupation, Palestinians and their history is made invisible.
The 10-day tour was emotionally and physically exhausting. Each day I had to check in with myself to ensure I was not being influenced by the heavy doses of propaganda, booze, late nights and packed days. We were literally schlepped in a tour bus from one end of the country to the other; from Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum) to Har Hertzel (a military cemetery), from drinking at a Jerusalem pub until late, to climbing Massada at sunrise, from camping out in the Ramon Crater, to listening to a lecturer on the Mideast conflict and the “problem of Islamification.”
We were encouraged to get to know the soldiers on our trip in order to understand their experiences. However, aside from the usual religious/secular debates, their politics were all extremely right wing; there was little room for discussion. In Jerusalem, on a walk back to the hotel from the old city, I learned that one of the Israeli women accompanying us was a dog trainer and guard at checkpoints. She told me how great the job is because she loves working with animals. I found it hard to picture her at a checkpoint in uniform; she seemed like a little girl. I asked her what she thought of the group Machsom Watch (an Israeli women's group whose members witness, intervene and document human rights abuses at checkpoints). I did not tell her I had been with Machsom Watch the week before. She took a long look at me and said firmly, “It’s people like them who make it hard for us to do our job.”
One night, while camping in the Ramon crater, we played war games. We were all told to meet in the darkness of the desert after supper. We arrived to find the Israelis we befriended over the last five days transformed. They were no longer the smiling soldiers who met us at the airport, but stoned faced figures yelling at us to get in lines. Some of us giggled at the serious tone of the military experience, but were soon scared out of it by barking orders to “Shut up”.
We were separated into smaller groups where we were taught how to sneak up on the enemy in the event of a nighttime attack. Later on, we were rounded up for a final exercise where we jogged as a troop, taking turns carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher, with orders to fall to the ground when the commander yelled “The Arabs are attacking!”
At the end of the program I went to sit by the fire, trying to make sense of what just happened, while everyone else boasted about how much fun it was.
“Aren’t guns sexy?” I heard one woman say. The Israeli tour guide came to stand beside me and said, “What’s your problem Aviva? It’s just a game.”
By the end of the trip, three participants from my group fulfilled the ultimate agenda of Birthright Israel and decided to exercise their birthright, move to the country to join the Israeli army.
By the end of the Birthright tour, I was more certain than ever that this was a community of Jews I could no longer identify with.
Growing up, I learned to feel at home with the idea of Israel: the Holy Land. A place my grandparents fled to, away from the pogroms of Russia. A place I celebrated in song, dance and stories throughout 18 years of Zionist/Jewish; school, summer camps and religious ceremonies. A place I learned to be thankful for, and proud of.
I was never taught about the wider context in which the state was created, nor was I ever challenged to think about the dangers of aligning religion with state powers. I was unaware of the history of colonization, displacement, and institutionalized racism that gave birth to my homeland. The history of Palestine and the Palestinian people was conveniently left out of my Jewish education. Generations of youth like me were born into a culture of flag-waving and falafel-eating in celebration of Jewish nationalism, made comfortable by these dangerous gaps in the history we were taught.
It is quite challenge to untangle Judaism and Zionism, discourses I learned were synonymous. Even during my most recent visit to the state, where I felt I was relatively critical and aware, I found myself yearning to be part of Jewish traditions and religious ceremonies that don't entice me as much at home.
It was the first December I was not in Winnipeg, a city where Christmas is inescapable. I enjoyed, momentarily, the surrounding scene of menorahs in store windows and songs playing that I knew the words to. It felt good to have my experience of Channukah reflected in public space.
However, after spending time in the West Bank, I witnessed the difficulties that arise for Palestinian communities during holiday time. Jewish holidays are identified as a high security times which translate into increased number of checkpoints, producing longer wait times and aggravation, temporary or total closures on Palestinian cities and towns (in which all entry permits can be cancelled) or population groups are often targeted, (i.e. men under 35) ceasing their mobility. It enraged me that, as a visitor to the region, what made me feel temporarily comfortable and excited had simultaneously created a context of hostility and violence for the native people under occupation. I reminded myself that it was not the menorah that had created this violence, but the state which uses the context of these peaceful customs to repress Palestinians on the pretext of security.
After the Birthright tour, I signed up for an alternative tour called Birthright Unplugged. The six-day tour of the West Bank is not free as there is significantly less support (politically and financially) for anti-occupation education. There have been ten Birthright Unplugged trips with 80 participants since 2005.
As soon as the tour began, I knew I had found home in a radical Jewish community. We started by learning about each other, unpacking our assumptions and privileges and sharing our expectations for the trip. We agreed to share these with each other rather than with our Palestinian hosts, so as to not burden them with these teachings; such as feelings of guilt and shame while unlearning racism and deconstructing Zionism. We expressed a shared desire to bring these stories back home, as well our intense fear about how our families and communities would react. Many of us already felt severed from our communities due to our sexual politics and radical consciousness. And yet, somehow, that experience made it easier to imagine coming out as anti occupation Jews.
Over six days, we visited Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps in order to develop an understanding of what it means to live under occupation. We visited a family in Mas'ha, a village in the Salfit governorate of the West Bank, whose home is surrounded by the apartheid wall. We entered the gate and collectively became speechless looking around at the cage the family calls home: each side of the property completely surrounded by concrete wall and electric fence.
Hani Amer shared their story via a friend who translated: “No matter what government controls the area, this land is Palestine and I am Palestinian, our relation is with the land, not the name the government chooses and so we remain here because this is our home. But this is no life for my children.”
A wall was constructed in front of the Amer family home to isolate them from the rest of their community so that they will abandon their house to enable the Israeli settlement to expand. Further, a fence was built on the settlement side of their property, at the request of settlers who, ironically, did not wish to live next to a wall. The Amer family has, for many years, had rocks and garbage thrown into their yard, endured verbal harassment of their children, and had their green house and side room demolished. And they had to fight to have a gate built into the wall so they could go in and out of their home and gain access to their agricultural land.
On my return home I felt a responsibility to share what I heard, witnessed and experienced in Israel/Occupied Palestine. So I created a zine with another Birthright Unplugged alumni, Ilana Lerman. OUT was sent to friends and zine distros around North America to continue the dialogue.
Since my return home, I have connected with other radical Jews in Winnipeg as well as like-minded Jews nationally at the Toronto Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadian's conference in March.
Through OUT as well as other means, alumni continue to support one another in our efforts of creative resistance. Despite the geographic distance between us, we are slowly building new radical Jewish communities dedicated to breaking the silence of injustice and working toward a just peace. Although some view any criticism of Israel or Zionism as anti- Semitism, I believe that critical dialogue of the state is the best solidarity with Jews that one could have. Unfortunately, because those who are critical of the state find it difficult to find a safe space in which to host this dialogue, many radical Jews must leave the community in order to do this work and to find places where our politics and passion for change are celebrated rather than tolerated.
It is through my queer consciousness that I developed the tools and strength to think critically about all systems of power and, eventually, to come out as an anti occupation Jew. I see these pieces of my identity as intimately intertwined and necessarily loud—despite the call to remain silent. It is crucial that we recognize all systems of domination as interlocking and incapable of existing in isolation. I want to make these links visible and, in doing so, fight sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, anti-Semitism, colonization and all systems of domination in order to promote radical change.
I have a clear memory of attending a rally for Israel at the Manitoba legislative building in high school. There I was, waving an Israeli flag proudly showing my support for the Jewish state, snarling at the faceless activists holding signs that read ‘End the Occupation’. I can remember my confusion and rage. “What occupation?” I saw Jewish people I knew on the other side of the picket line and felt my anger rising. I identified them as self-hating Jews. I never asked them to explain their position.
Today, I am that face of opposition. It took a long time for me to arrive at a place where I can hear criticisms of the state of Israel without feeling personally attacked. I still don’t feel comfortable speaking about my views to certain members of my family and Jewish community, for fear of being ostracized and silenced. I understand the barriers in place to communicating these politics, and so I have tolerance and understanding for those who are not ready to hear what I have to say.
It takes seconds to bulldoze a home and a lifetime to build a movement. We can keep rebuilding homes, but they will keep being torn down until we see how Jews all over the world are implicated in this mess, and take action to create a culture of resistance that welcomes transformation.
Aviva Cipilinski is a queer anarcha-feminist community activist who believes in the power of personal stories as a tool for social change.
Visit http://www.qzap.org to view Aviva and Ilana's zine: "OUT"