When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, a Jewish foreign student from South Africa spoke at my synagogue. The year was around 1969. The S. African was in her early twenties. She was in a foreign exchange program at the local college and the rabbi invited her to speak to a group of teens. During her presentation, she applauded apartheid and explained to us that black S. Africans were not capable of running a country. She stated that no black S. African had ever planted a tree or built a house. I was stunned. During questions and answers, someone asked her why she thought this. She said it was printed in her textbooks in school and that it was therefore common knowledge. I then realized that her teachers and her government had brainwashed her with lies. I was so embarrassed for her, that she was repeating such falsehoods, that she believed them to be true. I pitied her for her ignorance and the ways in which this ignorance narrowed her life. I remember vividly how I felt about her words and her false perspective. And yet I myself had at that time already bought a false perspective of my own and had been educated to believe lies, although I did not yet know it.
I was taught in my Hebrew School that the creation of the State of Israel was the joyous homecoming of my people, after thousands of years in diaspora. I was not taught that our return to our ancient homeland created a diaspora for the Palestinian Arabs who had lived for generations within the borders of the new Israel. I was taught that when the British withdrew from the region, Israel was left to fight for its life, that it was surrounded by powerful Arab countries that had sworn they would push the Jews into the sea. I looked at a map and surely I could see for myself that tiny Israel was indeed surrounded by enormous Arab countries, that it truly was (as I was taught) a David struggling against a Goliath. But this David-and-Goliath image that was fed to me was false. The Israeli army was stronger than the armies of its foes. In 1948, Israel had the military advantage. It was no little David. What American Jews and Israelis referred to as the War of Independence was referred to by the Palestinian Arabs living within the borders of the new nation as The Catastrophe. (I refer to them as Palestinian Arabs to distinguish them from Palestinian Jews, who have lived in Palestine for thousands of years. Although few in number for centuries after most of the Jews in the region were exiled, Jews have lived in Palestine since long before the birth of Christianity. In fact, Jesus was a Palestinian Jew.)
I was taught that the Israeli military leaders begged the Palestinian Arabs to stay in Israel in 1948, that they promised them they would be cared for and treated as equals in the new country, but the Palestinian Arabs insisted on leaving. I was not taught that the Israeli military forced the Palestinian Arabs from their homes at gunpoint, killed many of them, and drove them from their land. I did not learn this in Hebrew School. I did not learn that Jewish Holocaust survivors arriving in Israel from Eastern Europe were given the homes of Palestinian Arabs in which to live; homes still filled with the furniture, clothing, and family photographs of those who had been evicted. These Jewish immigrants were told that the former inhabitants of these homes had fled. I was taught that the Arab refugees who poured out of Israel were purposely kept in refugee camps in the countries that took them in because the Arabs wanted to make an example of them, to show the world how badly they had been treated, that they had been uprooted, to make Israel look bad. I was taught that there was plenty of room for these refugees to find homes and work and start anew in the countries that had taken them in, but no, they were detained in refugee camps. I was taught that Israel extended an open welcome to them to return, whenever they wished, to their homes within Israel’s borders. I was taught that Arab soldiers are cowards. It was all lies. And like the S. African woman who believed that no black person had ever planted a tree or built a house, I believed these lies taught to me in school.
The truth about what my people have done in Israel is so painful to me that I can rarely bring myself to talk about it. Let me be clear, I believe in Israel as a country and as a Jewish homeland. I believe that Israel has a right to exist. So I do not feel comfortable criticizing Israel outside the Jewish community because I never know if I am speaking with someone who acknowledges the right of Israel to exist or not. I never know if I am speaking with someone who is consciously or unconsciously anti-Semitic. I fear the damage I might do by criticizing Israel, because I continue to feel that the safety of my people in the world remains in jeopardy. And yet I do not wish for the security of my people to depend on the oppression of other peoples. I have many friends and relatives who live in Israel and I fear for their safety. But I know that the only way that they will ever be safe, that their children will thrive, is if peace comes to the Middle East. That peace would require such a deep level of compromise by all those involved that I despair of ever seeing it arrive.
I wish that I could believe some of the lies from my youth, the things I was taught in Hebrew School. I wish I could believe that the Israelis have been fair and kind to the Palestinian Arabs. It is so difficult for me to accept the truth, to accept that Israelis, my people, are the oppressor in this situation. It was easier to perceive my people as the oppressed. We have been thrown out of every country on the planet, have we not? We are the victims, right? One would think, one would hope, that a people who has suffered as much as the Jews have suffered would be merciful and just, generous and kind, welcoming to “the other,” and dedicated to resolving conflict through nonviolent means. One would wish it. One would be living in ignorance of the truth.
I was prompted to write this blog because I just read Miko Peled’s book The General’s Son. Peled is the son of one of Israel’s great generals, a man who was a key military leader in the 1948 War of Independence and who had a change of heart and later became a friend of Arab leaders and a great ambassador of peace. I identified with Peled’s description of the “facts” he was taught while growing up and the ways in which reality disintegrated beneath his feet as he learned that these “facts” were not true. I have been reflecting on how my own ignorance has narrowed my life and how it will continue to do so in ways that I may or may not recognize in the future. I am that ignorant person, that S. African woman, whom I pitied in my youthful naiveté. I struggle to shake the stories I have been fed, the untruths. I need to hear from Palestinian Arabs about what they have actually experienced. Because that is the heart of it. It comes down to telling our stories to one another and listening to these stories. The key to peace in the Middle East is these stories, this dialogue. Until Palestinian Jews and Palestinian Arabs speak to one another, they will not make peace.