“We are Pro-Palestine, and we are also Zionists:” Perspectives on the Israel-Palestine conflicts

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This article is, in part, a response to the opinion piece about Palestinian rights published in the last issue of The Record, but it is not a con article. We agree with the writers of that piece, as we support Palestinian rights and think they should be integral to any policy implemented in the region. However, we want to recognize that in our experience within leftist American political discourse, even here at Horace Mann, the dominant stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is pro-Palestine.

We are pro-Palestine, and we are also Zionists: we believe in the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in our indigenous land. The same logic and values that make us pro-Palestine also make us believe that the state of Israel should exist: our belief in the human right to self-determination and the knowledge that both groups are ethnically indigenous to the land. This does not mean that we support all of the ways in which Israel exists today. We are against Netanyahu’s administration, the occupation of the West Bank, and any human rights abuses the Palestinian people face.

Our goal in this piece is not to oppose last week’s article, and we do not want readers to “pick a side.” We want every discussion of this conflict to be nuanced and humanizing, and to center on personal testimonies of both Palestinians and Jews. We hope this article will further some of the conversations started last week and illustrate the ways in which Zionism can be a deeply progressive and humanitarian ideology.

We believe each country should be held accountable. We want the UN to recognize Palestine as an independent nation and enforce human rights. At the same time, we do not believe that anyone who supports Israel’s existence, or anyone who calls themself a Zionist, is evil or an imperialist. Israel is a nuanced country in which people live, not a theoretical thought experiment. The first publicized calls for a Jewish state emerged in 1896, warning that a Jewish state was the only means of protecting the Jewish people from antisemitism. Israeli independence was not established until after the Holocaust. Though Israel only has a population of nine million, the nation is home to approximately 43% of the world’s Jews.

Even as politically engaged and fairly religious Jews, we have avoided forming an opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for most of our lives because we found it extremely daunting. We have heard older, politically and socially conservative Jewish family members and family friends, who deemed themselves pro-Israel, vent about Hamas in ways that felt wrong to us, but we didn’t take the time to learn what was and wasn’t true. We didn’t even fully understand what Zionism meant. In this sense, we relate to Jacob Shaw’s description of how some Jews around him treat him as a traitor for vying for Palestinian rights. At the same time, most Jewish students at HM do not share the views of our mostly Republican Gen X and Boomer Jewish family friends. Most of us are liberal and supportive of Palestinian rights.

To that end, the popular assumption that most Jews blindly support Israel without considering the implications of the government’s criminal actions and the suffering of the Palestinian people is a dangerous misrepresentation. Regardless of whether they identify as pro-Israel, Jews around the world have endured antisemitism simply due to their presumed religious connection to the land. On our own social media feeds, we have encountered users commenting “Free Palestine” on Jews’ posts that lacked any connection to their religious identity or Zionist beliefs. We’ve seen users on Twitter celebrating the deaths of Israeli settlers, with one writing, “Dear zionist / Don’t challenge His force / You will fail” in response to the tragedy.

These instances of hate are not limited to social media. Last week alone, four different Jewish centers in Riverdale were vandalized, and several colleges voted to pass a Boycott Divestment Sanctions bill to cut funding to any campus groups who “support the Israeli occupation of Palestine,” including Chabad and Hillel. Many Jewish students rely on these organizations for a sense of community, safety, religious services, and meals; to deprive Jews of these needs in the name of “peace” is hypocritical.

For no other country that has been guilty of human rights abuses is there a question of whether they fundamentally deserve to exist. There is no major human rights movement to abolish Britain or China or Iran. Our ethnicities are based on family that once resided in: Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary, and Ukraine. These are countries our Jewish families have been pushed out of, and these are countries that have committed atrocities throughout their histories. Russia, for instance, has a long history of attempting to annex and wage war on Ukraine and other Eastern European nations. Though we both have personal familial knowledge about the geopolitical conflicts of the former Soviet Union, and neither of us have any immediate family in Israel, we have only ever been asked to answer for one of these nations.

Not every Jew is pro-Israel, and not every Jew feels a personal connection to the country. Jews have traveled all over the world in the diaspora; Sudanese and Eritrean Jews are currently struggling to find asylum in Israel as the right of return unfairly discriminates against African Jews. In the 2021 legislative election of the Israeli government, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s National Conservative party received the second most votes, after Benjamin Gantz’ more liberal Blue and White party, yet Netanyahu remains in power. His actions and ideology do not represent the majority of Jews or Israelis; the majority want peace and safety for everyone in the region.

None of Israel’s problems — not political corruption, not legal discrimination, not military violence — are a result of Israel being the Jewish state. These problems exist and have existed for most of human history in some form in every corner of the world. This claim is not a defense; instead, it is a more accurate diagnosis than the one many of us have accepted. Human rights for Palestinians and human rights for Jews are not and cannot be treated as mutually exclusive.

Jews are a marginalized group who have never experienced real security while being scapegoated and persecuted. We have never had a country where we knew it would be safe to be Jewish. Palestinians have also never had their own UN-recognized nation, and they deserve one by the very same right to self-determination on which Zionism relies. These beliefs are not contradictory; they are mutually sustaining and necessary.

Even in the process of writing this article, we felt the need to over-disclaim and over-explain at every step. We’ve experienced that within progressive spaces, including HM, there are either few Zionist Jews or few Jews willing to support Zionism. We’ve both kept quiet on antisemitism and toned down our Jewishness in political discussions in leftist spaces out of a desire to remain “good Jews” in the minds of the non-Jews in the room.

We want to be involved in policy discussions to make Israel a humane place for everyone, and we’d have more time to do so if we were less busy defending our people’s right to exist and our right to simultaneously be leftists and Jews who demand the maintenance of our own human rights. Those who call themselves pro-one group in this conflict and who wish for the disappearance of the other group from the region altogether are not pro-peace.