Below is an excerpt from a piece I published earlier today on Mondoweiss.
I am a Jew. I am a religious Jew. I am an anti-Zionist Jew. I realize that to make this last claim is to risk that you will stop reading, as often any claim of anti-Zionism brings with it a label of traitor, anti-Semite, self-hating Jew. I hope, however, that you will give me the benefit of the doubt, at least for the few minutes that it will take you to read what I have to say.
I’ve been a Jew all my life although I was not raised with a Jewish education. In my late 40s, I began to study. I read, I joined a synagogue, I helped start a Talmud study group. I was and am drawn to the essential command, attributed to the great Rabbi Hillel, that our task as Jews is essentially to “not do to others that which is hateful to you.” I love how, in very Jewish fashion, Hillel tells us what not to do. I love and am daily challenged by how extremely difficult such a simple command can be.
I did not know much about Israel until I became more engaged as a religious Jew. The organized Jewish community teaches us that the Israeli narrative is the Jewish narrative. Support for Israel, the story goes, is synonymous with being a good Jew.
Now, some ten years and four trips to Israel/Palestine later, I invite you, if you think you can bear it, to hear why I care more about Hillel’s commandment than I do about a state.
With my partner who is also Jewish, I have just returned from 15 days of staying with friends, a family who lives in Samiramis, technically a Jerusalem neighborhood, but one that sits on the Palestine side of the Wall, less than a mile from the infamous Qalandia checkpoint.
Unlike previous years where we participated in delegations, house rebuilding, or activism related to our work with ICAHD-USA (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA), this time we frequently walked the streets of Ramallah, stopping for homemade ice cream at Baladna’s, shopping for shoes and handmade embroidery. We traveled north to Nablus and Tulkarem to visit family members and share succulent meals that left us bursting. We took one late night trip to Jericho to sit in the local park, drink cola, and talk; another to Jaffa Beach where we shared a picnic, conversation, laughter; we went to multiple weddings where men and women danced late into the night to the beat of loud, pulsing music.
We were privileged to see again what we have seen before — how rich and full and engaging life in Palestine can be, how the people here are like people everywhere, attempting to live with some degree of happiness in a culture that deeply values familial relationships, good food, education, meaningful work, laughter.
We also bore witness, as we do on each trip, to encroaching apartheid. As we drove deep in the West Bank along the road snaking north to Nablus from Ramallah, we could look up and see virtually every hillside topped by a Jewish settlement. In some cases, the settlement is recent, a few caravans dotting the hilltop, their electric lights strung from pole to pole, glowing bright yellow through the night, a display of dominance. More often, the settlements are permanent, neat rows of identical houses with their prototypical orange roofs, poised on the top of the hill, ready to dip down onto the Palestinian farmland below. These are announced by the row of modern streetlights on the two-lane road we are traveling, beacons proclaiming the presence of Israeli Jews on the landscape. The lights illuminate the stretches of Arab road where Jewish settlers have to drive because the infamous “bypass” roads (the Palestinians call them apartheid roads) have yet to be built, the ones that allow only Jews to travel from mainland Israel into the West Bank without encountering Palestinians.
The omnipresence of these smaller settlements on the road to Nablus is new since our last trip in 2005; a look at the latest UN map shows the Palestinian landscape dotted with them like an x-ray showing a virulent, spreading cancer.
When President Obama talks about stopping the spread of settlements most people probably have little idea of what he means. Somehow the word “settlement” invokes an image of tents, a kind of unstable, fragile community. The first settlement I ever saw had to be pointed out to me because it looked like any modern suburb in the U.S., row upon row of contemporary houses set along well paved roads. I certainly did not expect what I saw – a solidly interwoven infrastructure common to any town or city – housing, water, lights, streets, stores planted immutably on the landscape. I soon came to understand their function. The massively large ones, housing hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers, are designed to penetrate deep into the West Bank. Pisgat Ze’ev, Mod’in, Ma’eleh Adumim – each is protected by the Wall whose crooked path illegally pilfers huge swaths of Palestinian land. Each functions to divide Palestine into separate cantons making a contiguous state impossible. The newer smaller ones, the ones I see on the hilltops between Ramallah and Nablus, act like beachheads, strategically positioned to continue the slow but sure process of Israeli land grab.