Palestinian Freedom Isn’t a Threat to Jews

For years, there has been a cynical campaign to cast the struggle against apartheid in Israel as a threat to Jews – but growing numbers of Jewish people refuse to accept that their safety relies on the oppression of others.

Recent weeks have seen increasing expressions of solidarity with Palestine from the Jewish diaspora. (Credit: Amal Hack)

When I spent my gap year in Israel, a common occurrence for Jewish teenagers, we weren’t allowed to go over the Green Line. Our programme ‘didn’t have the right insurance.’

Looking back, I’ve often thought this was deliberate. In a place so deeply segregated as Palestine-Israel (both inside and outside the Green Line), young diaspora Jews being barred en masse from visiting majority Palestinian areas means that you will never have to meet Palestinians; never hear their stories, never build those friendships.

Our only understanding of Israel’s history and its present came from fellow Jews or Israelis. The bureaucracy and infrastructure that underpins diaspora Jews’ relationship with Israel is constructed in such a way that we never need to confront the violence and displacement done so often in the name of Jewishness.

The culture of dehumanisation in which Palestinians live has been clear over the last two weeks. I watched in horror, but not surprise, as mobs of Jewish fascists patrolled the streets of Jaffa, Lod, and Bat Yam, attacking Palestinians. These kinds of attacks are already routine in the Occupied Territories.

Settlers act with impunity, stealing Palestinian land while receiving the utmost protection of the state; even the illegal ‘hilltop outposts’ are all linked to Israel’s electricity and phone grids. If anything, the racist violence taking place within 1948 borders over the last week proves what those on the ground here in Palestine-Israel have known for years: there is almost no difference between what happens in the occupied territories and what happens inside the Green Line.

In response to this escalation of violence, as well as the assault on Gaza—which resulted in over 200 deaths, including 61 children, caused by Israeli airstrikes—the hasbara (Israel advocacy) machine kicked into gear: ‘no partner for peace’ klaxon; ‘Hamas uses human shields’ klaxon. And most gallingly, as Palestinians shared videos and words online of their fear of death, Israel advocates claimed they were victims of a ‘social media siege’. You know, as opposed to the literal military siege happening right now in Gaza.

The message underlying these talking points is simple: Israeli lives matter more than Palestinian lives. The lack of basic compassion speaks to the effect Israel advocacy has had on Jewish diaspora relationship to this land. Lobby groups like Stand With Us and the Zionist Federation obfuscate the reality of Israeli occupation in order to generate public support for Israel’s actions, while masquerading as ‘education organisations’. One of the most effective tools is framing Palestinian freedom as an antisemitic endeavour. 

I grew up in a Zionist youth movement; I used to read the prayer for the Israeli Defence Forces in synagogue during high holidays. I learned that Israel was a haven for Jewish refugees, the pinnacle of Jewish liberation, and, of course, a land for a people without a land. The flipside of this was that when I saw a Palestinian flag, I felt afraid.

It’s taken years to unlearn this, mostly thanks to the time I have spent here in Palestine-Israel, as part of efforts to build solidarity between Palestinians and Jews. I have witnessed the violence committed against Palestinians in the name of Jews by Israeli forces. I have sat with Palestinian friends after their homes and community centres have been demolished.

I have been inspired and humbled by the activism and organising of Palestinians and Israelis to push for a just end to Israeli occupation. When you live in Palestine-Israel, the apartheid and racism is inescapable. This work has made it clear to me that the struggle against Israel’s policies towards Palestinians is a struggle towards shared humanity and justice.

In the diaspora, Palestinians are often erased from communal conversations about Palestine-Israel. Hardly any discussions on ‘the conflict’ held in the community include Palestinian voices; some community spaces have a specific rule banning any speakers who have publicly supported BDS. The Board of Deputies, the representative body of the British Jewish community, recently published a 112-page report on tackling racism in the Jewish community – and didn’t mention anti-Palestinian racism once.

In particular, bigotry against Palestinians is tolerated so long as it is voiced in the name of ‘support for Israel’. In 2018, at a cross-communal panel event about Israel, one of the invited panellists opened his talk by saying that ‘Israel is a beacon of civility surrounded by savages.’ The cumulative effect of these efforts is the framing of Palestine’s freedom as something opposed to Jewish safety.

We saw this in practice last week, when Communities Minister Robert Jenrick stated his support for the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism and declared anti-Zionism to be the same as antisemitism. This in turn has an effect on foreign policy – politicians routinely justify their dithering on the broader injustices of occupation in the name of protecting or supporting Jews.

Freedom and dignity for all in Palestine-Israel should not be seen as controversial, yet that is unfortunately how it is constructed by Israel advocates. There is a concerted effort to imply that Palestinians demanding political and civil rights are doing so because they want to see Jews annihilated.

Take the use of the phrase ‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free’, which some claim as proof of the antisemitic intent behind Palestinian liberation. The Jewish community has an inherited trauma of persecution, and antisemitism is on the rise globally, and both of these truths are played on to construct a discourse that suggests one must choose either Palestinian or Jewish freedom.

This is not a reality. Centring our inherited trauma of persecution when we hear the cry of ‘Free Palestine’ or ‘From the River to the Sea’ restricts our ability to build greater solidarity and joint struggle based in equality and shared humanity. When Palestinians tell us that this is a call for liberation, not genocide, we should believe them. 

And we must also confront the intentional slandering of Palestinian activists as antisemites as yet another way to undermine their credibility in the public sphere. Yes, there will be some who weaponise the Palestinian solidarity movement for antisemitic means, and this must be called out, and rightly has been, particularly by members of the Palestine solidarity movement. But we cannot let concern about hatred among a small minority overshadow this important opportunity for resistance and mobilisation for Palestinian liberation.

A feeling of safety cannot be predicated on the oppression and subjugation of another people, on ethnic cleansing and state sanctioned violence. Instead we must be bold in our vision for a just future on this land. Many already are: in the last two weeks Jewish groups have mobilised throughout the diaspora, as well as in Palestine-Israel, to show solidarity with the Palestinian communities that have suffered for so long.

Things will need to change: an end to the ‘status quo’, after all, is not just an end to settlements and checkpoints; it demands a radical reframing of shared humanity, democracy and equality for everyone here. Yes, this will likely mean that Israel stops being a country in which Jewish residents have more rights than non-Jewish residents. Rightly so.

About the Author

Em Hilton is a Jewish leftist activist and writer living between Tel Aviv and London. She is the co-founder of Na’amod, British Jews Against Occupation, and sits on the steering committee of the Centre for Jewish Non-Violence.