by Sarah Firisen
I am Jewish by birth. My family wasn’t particularly religious; we went to synagogue at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, but not really any other time. My brother and I went through years of Hebrew school, but we came home and ate bacon sandwiches. As a teenager, I became involved in BBYO, a Jewish teen organization and through it became quite heavily exposed to conversations about Israel, the general evilness of the Palestinians and the righteousness of the concept of a Jewish homeland. When I was 17, a school friend and I went away together to Israel for our first trip without our parents. We chose not to do a tour or a work on a kibbutz but instead to make our own way around Israel staying in youth hostels.
I remember the moment we got off the plane onto the tarmac thinking, “this is it, I’m in Israel, the Jewish homeland.” It was a transcendent moment that made me feel connected to my heritage and to a community that I had only ever skirted around of the edge for the most part. I truly believed that this would be a transformative trip for me.
In the second hostel we stayed in, I fell in love with Abbud, a Palestinian man who was working there for the summer. We spent a few days and nights together and then my friend and I moved to another part of the country. But I promised to come back. When I did, Abbud wanted to show me his village in the West Bank. This was in 1986 just before the first Palestinian Intifada and, apart from the general lack of common sense shown by two young girls agreeing to travel across country with a man they hardly knew, there didn’t seem to be any good reason not to go with him.
We arrived in Abbud’s village in time for dinner and he took us to his cousin’s home. My friend and I were both vegetarian and so unable to eat much of what was put before us and I was wearing quite a prominent Star of David around my neck, regardless we were treated as honored guests. We stayed in his parent’s home that night. I woke up early the next morning and padded through the house in bare feet. I came across Abbud’s elderly father who spoke no English. He took off his sandals and gave them to me to wear. The gesture was so gracious and generous that I couldn’t say no and spent the rest of the morning flopping around in sandals that were much too big for me. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of reception my family would give Abbud if he visited me in London.
That day, my Palestinian boyfriend drove us around the West Bank. He took showed us refugee camps, ravaged villages, told us stories of confiscated land and shared his feelings of hopelessness and despair. He wanted to be an engineer but wasn’t sure how much of a future he could ever hope to have in a country where he would always be seen as the enemy and was denied many of the basic rights of citizenship.
The next day, Abbud drove us back into Israel and a few days later my friend and I flew back to London. Abbud and I of course made all sorts of lovers’ promises to each other. I arrived home and to my father’s horror told him that I was in love with a Palestinian. My extended family was even more appalled. The love affair lasted through a couple of phone calls and then, inevitably, fizzled out. But I never lost the family label of a PLO supporter.
Any possibility of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has perhaps never seemed as remote as it does at the moment. There are rights and wrongs on both sides. Hamas often make it very easy to paint them as the villains. During this time, my Facebook newsfeed has been inundated with posts from family members and old BBYO friends about the atrocities committed by the Palestinians, the misinformation in the media when it paints Israel in any kind of negative light and a general narrative that allows for nothing but unconditional support for Israel no matter what they do stoked by a burning white hatred of the Palestinians that has no room for any compassion or empathy.
Of course, this kind of tribalism is hardly limited to the unquestioning support of Israel by so many Jews. Our kneejerk defense of and preference for “people like us” is a very human trait, whether this tribalism is expressed as political nationalism or support of a team in the World Cup, we want our people to win. But what has always particularly upset me about the blind support and defense of Israel that I’ve been lectured about over the years by my family and other Jews around me is that it almost always has as its root defense the Holocaust: “We had this horrific thing happen to us and so we deserve and need a place to call our own so this can never happen to us again because now the Jews will always have a place to escape to.” And for my grandmother’s generation who went through the Second World War, who lost family and friends in the gas chambers, I can empathize with the sentiment, but did that really give us the right to displace and oppress another group of people?
Why can’t my family and old friends try, even for a moment, to see things from the Palestinian perspective, to spend a morning flopping around in someone else’s shoes?