A year after last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas, which lasted for 50 days and killed at least 2,251 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 74 Israelis, the Gaza Strip remains in ruins. Most of the 12,000 Palestinian homes destroyed during the conflict have not been rebuilt. Much of the pledged international aid is yet to be disbursed. An estimated 20,000 Palestinians still struggle to access basic amenities at temporary shelters.
Last fall and while the dust was still settling on what was left of Gaza, I walked into a synagogue in Andover, Massachusetts. A mutual friend had introduced me to the rabbi, who extended an invitation to talk at their Shabbat service. I wanted to share my experience living under Israeli occupation in Palestine.
The congregation is reconstructionist and clearly open-minded, but I knew my talk would be nothing but contentious. The gap between the reality of Israel’s occupation and the pro-Israel narrative fed to the American Jewish community is astounding. Israeli media outlets targeted at American Jews portray Israel as a last line of defense against another Holocaust and paint its actions as purely defensive.
They rarely acknowledge the existence of the Palestinians and describe the military occupation of their land with euphemisms, as if it is nothing but a scheme to distribute candy to Palestinian children. They attack anyone who challenges this narrative with accusations of anti-Semitism, including Jews, progressive liberals, or both.
But there is also a rise in Jewish support for the Palestinian cause ironically due to the new media’s ability to provide alternative narratives and expose state-centric propaganda. Today, it is not difficult to find out the truth about life in the occupied territories. To get a glimpse of this reality, one can simply watch a video of Israeli soldiers releasing an attack dog on a Palestinian child or of Israeli soldiers arresting and carelessly throwing an 11-year-old boy in the back of a jeep.
It is often overlooked that the plight of the Palestinian people, as perceived by the Palestinians, looks eerily similar to the plight of the Jewish people, as perceived by the Jewish people. They are both peoples of the Diaspora. They longed, or are still longing for a piece of the same real estate. They were both persecuted by ultra-nationalistic powers that underestimated humanity’s capacity to survive, even if those powers differ substantially in how and why they acted. As a result, both Palestinians and Jews live with collective existential traumas, which are impossible to ignore or resolve. If anyone could empathize with being a Palestinian, it would probably be someone of a Jewish background.
It is thus not surprising that Holocaust survivors and their descendants openly opposed Israel’s onslaught on Gaza last summer. There has also been steady growth of Jewish American solidarity organizations that advocate for Palestinians rights; and a growing peace movement within Israel that provides support for army refuseniks and whistle-blowers.
The Jewish congregation I visited was welcoming and warm. After sharing challah, a Jewish bread eaten on Sabbath, and singing songs about healing, we sat down for the conversation. I began by telling them about my home city of Hebron, located in the southern West Bank. Today, Palestinian life in Hebron’s old city can only be described as dystopic. Settlers often assault Palestinians under the watch of Israeli soldiers, and Palestinians, who are not allowed to own cars, are restricted to narrow footpaths on the side of Jewish-only passages. Yet there has been continued Jewish presence in the city for millennia — except during the Crusades (The Jewish community in Hebron was reestablished following the Muslim liberation). As it turns out, our bleak reality has never been eternal.
Many of the congregants were inquisitive: What is life like for a Palestinian in such a city? What do you think about the last war? What news outlets do you suggest? Others, of course, were combative. An older man went into a tirade about “You Arabs” and repeated the myth that Palestine never existed or that Palestinian refugees voluntary fled their homes with a smile on their faces. It was interesting to see how the congregation reacted to his racist remarks. A few shook their heads disapprovingly; others adjusted their posture as if to distance themselves from him.
At the end of the night, I thanked the congregants for their hospitality and drove back with the rabbi, who happened to live in the same neighborhood.
It is almost impossible to convince anyone — Jews or Palestinians — of an opposing viewpoint. Some political positions will need time to ferment and evolve. One-sided narratives are comforting and self-affirming but they also obstruct change. A deeper understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will emerge when the one-dimensional narrative is disrupted, and with it, hopefully, a path to a just peace.