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Of course Israel is an emotive issue - but we Jewish diaspora should stand up for Palestine

For the descendents of Jewish refugees, criticism of Israel can feel like a personal attack, but we all have a responsibility to take a stand against injustice.

The mudslinging on Facebook that accompanied Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza was inevitable. But as a British Jew, I found it particularly depressing watching diaspora Jews questioning Israeli actions and rhetoric be shouted down by others, who laid into them for being misguided, brainwashed, self-hating or traitors. What bothered me even more though was the number of Jews who sat on the sidelines, and said nothing. 

I remember my first clumsy foray into the debate. When I was 16 or 17, I saw another student at my school was putting up posters for a talk he had organized from a pro-Palestinian group. I took umbrage and confronted him. I talked about the need for a Jewish homeland after the Holocaust. When he responded by saying, “That’s such a typical Zionist argument,” I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t understand how the word “Zionist” could be used as an insult.

As the grandchild of a Jewish refugee who fled to Palestine from the Sudetenland during the Second World War, I had grown up in a family that celebrated the foundation of the state of Israel, seeing it as a source of pride and security. A happy ending after a long history of persecution. Through my grandmother and grandfather, a professor of Semitic languages, several generations of my relatives still live in Israel, and I spent happy holidays there as a child.

Even when explicitly directed at the state of Israel, their criticism felt like a personal attack. Whenever the question of Israel arose, I would clam up.

But as I got older I noticed a growing gap between my experience of Israel and the view of it put forward by my peers. Friends, who otherwise shared vast swathes of political ground with me, were vocal in their condemnation of Israel. And, even when explicitly directed at the state of Israel, rather than its citizens, their criticism felt to me like a personal attack. Whenever the question of Israel arose, I would clam up.

It seems I’m not the only one to have this reaction. In a blog post entitled I LV ISRAEL (FOR BETTER OR WORSE), journalist Eve Barlow writes, “…whenever Israel is reported in the news I feel edgy, vulnerable and hot. I know I should try and rationalise the situation, weigh up the scenario, see all the angles but everything I think or say or feel is usually panicked, wrong and senseless. ” Like Eve I’m not religious. My Jewish heritage is just one aspect of my identity. Yet when she talks about finding herself incapable of having a reasonable debate about Israel, I can identify. 

For years, I made a conscious effort to avoid Israel. I avoided reading about it. I avoided talking about it. Inside I felt  torn between a vague sense I should be sticking up for my people, an awareness of my woeful ignorance about the situation and a creeping unease that if I actually took the time to read up on it, I’d have to face some unpleasant truths. You can’t mix in the lefty circles I do without having an inkling of what’s going on in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

The tipping point came last year. Following the death of my grandmother, I was faced with my first family holiday to Israel in nearly two decades. If I was actually going to visit the country, I had to get informed. So I started reading Peter Mansfield’s History of the Middle East, then the Israeli news daily Haaretz, testimonies from IDF soldiers on Breaking the Silence’s website, analysis by Palestinian and Israeli bloggers on 972 Magazine, lots of random sites I found through Twitter.  And much of what I read made me extremely uncomfortable. The Palestinian children kept in jail for up to three months without recourse to a lawyer. The 350,000 Israelis now living in settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under international law. The fact that nearly half of Israeli respondents to a recent poll believe the state should treat Jews better than Arabs. I could go on.

Yes, it’s complicated. I’ve barely scratched the surface. I don’t claim to fully grasp a subject people spend their whole lives never getting to the bottom of. I know the happy-ever-after story  I grew up with is just one of many conflicting narratives and I am resolved no longer to simply close my eyes to the situation, but to try to understand it. I can’t justify sitting by while the Israeli government violates human rights and flouts their obligations under international law for fear of seeming un-Jewish. If anything, I feel Jews have a greater moral responsibility to make a stand against these injustices - after all, they are being carried out in our name.

We need to have those difficult conversations and we need to have them in public. Because one thing is certain: the racists, religious fundamentalists and hawks aren’t afraid to make some noise. And as long as theirs are the voices with clout, justice for the Palestinians and peace for both sides remains a long way off.