Questioning Israel’s Policies Does Not Make Me Anti-Semitic

As an Israeli-Russian Jew, I love Israel but the ongoing conflict with Palestinians is complicated.

by Anonymous

RJA1988 from Pixabay

My dad is Israeli and lived in Israel for more than 25 years.

My mom moved to Israel from the Soviet Union in 1990 when she was only 18. She had also lived in a small town in Serbia, a country where anti-Semitism was rampant. Synagogues were razedto the ground, Jewish families were jailed, and sometimes killed—for no other reason than that they were Jews. She came to Israel by herself and, as the goal of Israel’s founders was to provide safety for Jews, she was welcomed there.

My parents met in Israel and decided to move to New York City in 2001 after falling in love with the city while on a vacation here. Still, we often visit Israel every few years; my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all live there. For my dad, Israel was where he grew up and where his family still lives. He was in the army, and so were both of my grandparents. For my mom, Israel was a safe haven for her to freely be a Jew.

Throughout my childhood, most of my perception of Israel was that Jews there were constantly at war, and because a large chunk of family lives there, I always hoped Israel would win. But over the last few years, I began examining Israeli news more closely. One article condemned Israel for escalating the conflict with Palestine and committing human rights abuses against them. I couldn’t understand. Did the reporters not know that the terrorists fighting Israel killed civilians, directed missile launchers at schools, and were destroying any progress of peace? I did not know anything about Palestine’s side of the conflict.

When I asked my parents about negative sentiment towards Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, they said these were fair, arguable opinions to have.

“With every war comes bad things on both sides. It doesn’t mean that Israel is all the way wrong, but some people think so, and that’s OK.”

“But why, Aba (dad)? Why do they hate Israel and not Palestine?”

“Yotam,” my dad said sternly, “not everyone hates Israel. We think Israel is doing the right thing; they don’t. It’s that simple.”

Conflicted Feelings

In May, I heard something was going on in Israel. I opened up YouTube and typed “Israel top news.” John Oliver popped up. I clicked on the video, expecting to hear horrible news. It was horrible, but not in the way I thought. More than 50 dead Palestinians. Buildings ground to rubble by missiles that seemed to hit everything except for Hamas. “A power imbalance,” John Oliver called it.

This can’t be right, I thought. Israel was the good guy. It has served as a safe haven for Jews for the past 70 years, there was no way that they were the ones at fault here. “This isn’t tit for tat…. Destroying a civilian residence sure seems like a war crime,” John Oliver continued. I tossed my phone down, feeling sick to my stomach. War crime? Israel? No. Those two things couldn’t possibly mix.

But they could mix, as I soon came to learn. In fact, I was educated in the most surprising place: a sports server on Discord, a messaging/social media application. When people spoke about Israel, many said it was committing war crimes and ethnic cleansing by forcing Palestines out of their homes within Israel. I was sent articles by Human Rights Watch and resources that reported on the Israeli government’s oppression of Palestinians.

I learned in a New York Times article that, “Israel continues to fully govern over 60 percent of the West Bank [the land it claimed in the 1967 war, where Palestinans live], and uses checkpoints and a permit system to regulate Palestinian movement…” Thousands of Palestinians have been moved out of their homes; residency rights have been denied to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and their relatives, and millions have faced suspension of basic civil rights.

I finally found nuance to become critical of Israel’s policies but not its right to exist.

My Strong Belief in a Jewish State

I began to realize that I can be critical of Israel’s policies while still believing in the importance of Israel itself.

For example, saying that I disagree with the Separation Barrier (which has cut off 10% of the Palestinian’s land in the West Bank, broken up Palestinian communities, and cut them off from their land) doesn’t mean I think there shouldn’t be a Jewish state. It means that this is a form of wrongful persecution against Palestinians.

This reading led me to be more open to different opinions about Israel. I don’t look at the country in the same perfect light anymore. While I feel more empowered with this new view, at the same time, I feel like I can’t express my opinions around other Israelis or Jews who defend Israel no matter what it does.

Recently, I was talking with a family friend who is a year older than me. We were sitting around a fire pit in his backyard, and the conversation came to Israel.

He said the same thing I heard so many times and even said myself: “Obviously, Israel is doing some wrong things, but the country isn’t racist or anything. Yeah, it has some issues. So does every country! And the world only seems to punish Israel!” His leg tapped at the foot of the chair. He put his hands on his arm seat and clenched it. I didn’t want to respond to that anger by disagreeing. How could I?

In the face of such apparent anger and frustration, I felt like there was no place for nuance allowed in this debate. When I supported Israel, I was once accused of backing an apartheid religious state. I learned more about the mistreatment of Palestineans but I felt ashamed to speak out about it. 

But as I read more, I became more grounded in my thoughts. I discovered that disagreeing with Israel didn’t mean I had to hate it. I finally found nuance to become critical of Israel’s policies but not its right to exist.

And I learned more about the “two-state solution,” where Israel and and an independent Palestinian state could live side by side. Empowered by this new opinion, I felt like a two-state solution (where both Palestine and Israel can operate as independent countries) would be the best problem solver.

My Mother’s Perspective

A month ago, I talked to my mom about these ideas. She was sitting at the dining room table, and I paced in front of her. “Ima (mom), you obviously know what’s been going on with Israel and Palestine, right?”

“Yep,” she replies. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, I did some research and I talked to a few people, and I don’t think Israel is in the right.”

She combed her hand through her hair, digesting what I said.

“It’s easy for you to say those things. You are able to grow up proud to be Jewish here in New York. I couldn’t. As a little girl, I sang songs walking home from school calling Jews the devil before I even knew I was Jewish because anti-Semitism was so prevalent in Russia. I cannot think openly like you because until even now, anti-Semitism is all I’ve ever seen around the world. So yes, you’re right that calling people anti-Semitic for disagreeing with Israel is wrong, but I can’t see past those who have argued the same out of hate for Jewish people.”

Before that conversation, I thought I had observed all the levels of nuance to this debate. Clearly, that wasn’t the case. How could my mom, who only got out of Russia and lived a happy life because of Israel, view negative sentiment towards the country as anything less than anti-Semitic?

I continue to support a two-state solution, and I hope one day Palestine and Israel can prosper together. The idea that the region should belong solely to Palestenians or Israelis simply because their ancestors lived there does not make sense to me. Both groups have lived there for centuries at different points in history, and each side feels like they have a right to the land.

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