After 59 years in Israel, visiting the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah has shaken my identity.
“I was born in Romania during the Second World War,” writes Tzvia Thier. Following the Holocaust, her family immigrated to Israel, where she grew up in Tel Aviv. She spent years on a kibbutz, served in the military, and worked as a teacher and principal. Yet despite her identity as a liberal Zionist against racism and discrimination, Thier writes that her own upbringing as an Israeli Jew meant that “I didn’t know I was living behind an invisible wall. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.
In this excerpt from “Seeing Zionism at Last,” his essay in A land with a people: Palestinians and Jews facing ZionismThier describes a pivotal moment that opened his eyes to the fundamental injustice of Nakbahthe violent dispossession of Palestinians from their land.
The 1967 war made me think more about my political position. The occupation of the West Bank, settlements and right-wing settlers have been for me the main political misdeed. It’s not that I didn’t know Nakbah; I did not know this term at all, and 1948 remained sacred in my mind. In this piece of land, Israel-Palestine, the population is divided roughly half and half between Jews and Palestinians. When Israelis speak of Palestinians, they may be referring to Palestinian citizens of Israel – the so-called “Arabs of 1948” – or those under military rule in the Occupied Territories who are not citizens.
For most of my life, I had no contact with Palestinians, not a friend, acquaintance or neighbour. The Palestinians were on the dark side of the moon. I have never been to Arab towns, certainly not the West Bank or Gaza (before the blockade). Sometimes while driving north, I would stop at one of the Arabic restaurants along the roads to eat some good Arabic food. I lived in Jerusalem, the “United Jerusalem”, where 40% are Palestinians (residents, not citizens). I have never been to occupied East Jerusalem. I have seen Palestinians cleaning the streets, planting flowers to beautify my city, working on building construction, transporting goods to supermarkets and washing dishes in restaurants, but I really did not to see their.
“Where a man cannot look he cannot feel,” writes Richard Forer in his book Breakthrough: Turning Fear into Compassion – A New Perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, “and where a man cannot smell, he has not really looked. Without both, he will never understand. A deep fear surged through our veins. I didn’t dare to cross the street on the Palestinian side. There is no need for formal segregation in Israel; it is perfectly applied through this deep fear: two completely separate entities. It’s a perfect way to dehumanize the other. “They” become demons, and you stay out of their space.
A major turning point for me came in November 2009. I learned on the news that the court had decided to evict two Palestinian families from their homes in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. I didn’t know anything about it. I only vaguely knew where Sheikh Jarrah was, even though he is in a very busy place next to Hebrew University, Hadassah Hospital and French Hill, where I lived for a few years in the 1990s, not knowing that I was a settler living in a settlement. What I learned is that two families were thrown into the street. It made me furious. But when I heard there was a group of people protesting the eviction, I didn’t join. I did not know the Palestinian neighborhoods, and on the maps of the city of Jerusalem, these neighborhoods are empty.
And… I was scared. My daughter, Daphna, insisted on going. I joined her; I had to protect her. Together we found Sheikh Jarrah. It was the first time in my life – at the age of 65, after living in Israel for 59 years – that I had conversations with Palestinians! I realized that it was not my daughter who needed protection, but the Palestinians. My journey had begun. Sheikh Jarrah was my door to end fear. I joined the weekly Friday afternoon protests, where I met Palestinians and Israeli Jewish activists. It was then that I began my investigation. I wanted to see, I wanted to know.
My first tour was with the left-wing advocacy group Ir Amim in East Jerusalem. I was shocked. It’s a third world city. In this “united Jerusalem”, the Palestinian neighborhoods do not resemble the Jerusalem in which I lived. We were driving on narrow, bumpy, unpaved roads with no sidewalks. The schools we saw were very poor and understaffed and under-resourced. There were no playgrounds and the piled up trash was rarely picked up. The Israeli authorities are making a huge effort to Judaize East Jerusalem, and house demolitions are an important part of that. Demolishing Palestinian homes that had been built without permits is the pretext, but permits are denied – a trap. We met Palestinians and listened to their frustrating and sad stories. Their residency status can be easily revoked, which has in fact been done frequently. Since the Oslo accords, approximately 15,000 Palestinians have lost their residence; because they dared to go abroad, they lost their right to return home.
Later, I joined Machsom Watch, a group of Israeli women who monitor soldiers and police at checkpoints, to tour the northern part of the West Bank. There, I observed poverty and restrictions on mobility, such as checkpoints that look like cow crossings and separate Palestinian villages and towns from each other. At these checkpoints, Palestinians are forced to wait for hours, starting at 2 or 3 a.m., as they try to get to work or school on time or to the hospital. They are treated like herds of animals.
Breaking the Silence is an organization of former IDF soldiers that tries to show the realities of daily life in the occupied territories. In 2018, I did a Breaking the Silence tour in Hebron. It is one of the largest cities in the West Bank, with around 200,000 Palestinians and around 1,000 Jewish settlers. It was hard to believe what my eyes saw. The once bustling city market had turned into a ghost town.
In Hebron, shops are closed, with doors locked and welded shut. The streets are divided: the largest part reserved for Jews, and a path (cars are not allowed) for Palestinians. Palestinian apartments are fenced on all sides, protected from the rocks and rubbish that settlers regularly throw at them. The occupants do not have access to the street; they have to climb the roof and then descend a ladder to get to a store, school or hospital. Hebron, with its roadblocks, concrete barriers, guard towers and border police patrol is well controlled.
I felt anger, shame, sadness and pain. Once at a Friday protest in Sheikh Jarrah, a guy was asking people if they were willing to volunteer and join Ta’ayush (meaning partnership) to go to the South Hebron Hills. I didn’t know what Ta’ayush has been. I signed up anyway and joined. I showed up at the meeting point on Saturday at 6 a.m. and we headed south in a van. From that Saturday, that’s what I did every Saturday for three years: working with the Palestinians to do whatever was necessary, including harvesting, cleaning the cisterns, rebuilding what had been destroyed, and Moreover. be part of Ta’ayush was one of the most meaningful moments of my life, one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done.
It has been hard work examining my own mind. Many questions make me wonder how I could not think of it before. My solid identity was shaken and then shattered. I have witnessed the systematic oppression, humiliation, racism, cruelty and hatred of “my” people towards “others”. And what you finally see, you can no longer see.
This excerpt from “Finally Seeing Zionism” by Tzvia Thier is taken from A land with a people: Palestinians and Jews facing Zionism, edited by Esther Farmer, Rosalind Petchesky and Sarah Sills. It appears with permission from the editors and publisher, Monthly Review Press (2021).
a Romanian-born Israeli-American citizen and Holocaust survivor, has lived in Israel most of her life. She was a Zionist educator. At the age of 65, she was exposed to the Palestinian reality and the truth about Zionism. Thier became an anti-Zionist activist and participated in the work of Jewish Voice for Peace in New York and New Jersey.