Jewish peace activists challenge Zionism in new book

June 12, 2012

The Coalition against Israeli Apartheid and Jews Against the Occupation hosted the Melbourne launch of Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists on June 9.

Two Jewish activists and a Palestinian spoke out against Zionism at the launch. All speakers stressed that “speaking out against the actions of Israel is not anti-Semitic”, highlighting the often blurred line between Jewish identity and Zionism.

The book’s editor, Avigail Abarbanel, grew up in Israel. She spoke of the journey she took in becoming an activist for the cause of Palestinian self-determination. She said she came from a “profoundly Zionist background” and described how growing up she was ignorant of what was happening in her own country.

“I was living in the shadow of anti-Semitism,” she said. She discussed how her education and the culture in Israel installed a sense of the fear from a young age, warning her not to trust anybody that wasn’t Jewish, particularly “those Arabs”, who she was yet to realise were Palestinians subject to systematic discrimination.

“My first instinct was to try and reject it all,” she said. “I struggled emotionally but I knew it was true.”

She gave up her Israeli citizenship when she learnt the apartheid nature of the Israeli state and her mother stopped speaking to her. The fact that she had previously supported the state that committed injustices against the Palestinian people pushed her into activism.

“I had to choose what comes first,” she said, discussing the tension between family, friends, groups and values.

Nicole Erlich, a psychologist and contributor to Beyond Tribal Loyalties, also spoke of her personal journey in becoming an activist against Israeli apartheid. Erlich grew up in Caulfield, Victoria which has a high concentration of orthodox Jews.

“I disliked the separateness,” she said, adding that she was “uncomfortable with the idea that all non-Jewish people were anti-Semitic”. She said she was never particularly religious, but attended an orthodox school in which she was immersed in a culture of Zionism. Upon leaving school she learnt of the treatment of the Palestinians by the state of Israel.

“I felt betrayed,” said Erlich. “I felt complicit in something I had no idea about.”

She said she hoped Beyond Tribal Loyalties would enable “other Jewish people to feel comfortable with the fact they are anti-Zionist.”

She too discussed the tension that arose between her family and her new-found activism, saying she started many arguments with her family when visiting Israel over “blatantly racist” comments about Palestinians.

Palestinian journalist Maher Mughrabi, foreign news desk editor for the Age, discussed the question of Palestinian statehood in the current climate of the Middle East: “How people will belong to the state and how the state will belong to them.”

This, he said, was one of the most pressing questions in the Middle East, “but for Palestinians, the question of just being is still not answered”.

He said the question of the existence of Israeli apartheid was not debatable because Palestinians were subject to completely different laws than the Jewish Israelis.

“Almost every Middle Eastern country is diverse in population,” Mughrabi said. This includes Israel, despite its self-definition as a state primarily for the Jewish people. “Jewish Zionism must win in order for Israel to be what it is, all other attributes of the state are secondary, such as democracy,” Mughrabi said.

Profits from Beyond Tribal Loyalties will go to support mental health services for Palestinians in Gaza.


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