Standing up for Palestinian human rights is the Jewish thing to do.
Since October 7th, I wake up every morning feeling disappointed that I’m not still asleep. Instead of black unconsciousness, I have to face the world again. I have to open my phone. Every day new horrors roll in. Endless faces of the dead from Israel and Gaza.
I am an Israeli Jew living in New Zealand. I am also a smolanit, as Israeli society would call me with a sneer. It roughly translates to “left-wing,” but the dark feelings that hang around the word come from the fact that I, god forbid, feel that Palestinians are human beings that deserve equal civil and human rights. For years and years I’ve been accused of “hating Israel” or “supporting Hamas,” of not “understanding” Israeli pain. It’s time to set the record straight.
I am haunted by a photograph of my mother on her fifth birthday. It’s July 1967. She has an Israeli flag birthday cake. She looks miserable. A month earlier, her father was shot and killed in a battle on the Syrian border. He didn’t know that the war he fought in, the Six Day War, resulted in his country brutally occupying the land and lives of Palestinians for generations to come. He’ll never know. Now his daughter has to grow up without a father. He never saw another birthday. He wanted to keep her safe, to secure her a future. But decades later, his granddaughters live in an even worse situation.
That is just one of the reasons I fight for justice in my country. This violence didn’t start on October 7, 2023, it didn’t even start in 1967 when my grandfather was killed. The curse that has befallen our people truly began in May 1948, when during our war of “independence,” we expelled 750,000 Palestinians from their ancestral homes. And for the millions of Palestinians left behind, in between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea, we’ve been torturing them ever since.
There are many Jews like me in Israel and around the world. There are a number of Jews like me in New Zealand. Yet mainstream outlets like Newshub and TVNZ continue to approach the same people for comment. They claim to speak for the Jewish community. Yet they push a deeply problematic line that Israel’s actions in Gaza are merely “self defense,” that criticism of Israel is antisemitic, that Palestinian protest is hateful and calls for the “eradication” of Jews from that land.
They don’t speak for all of us. It’s clear from overseas examples that Jews are deeply divided on the issue of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Thousands of Jews in America occupied congress in Washington, blocked streets in Chicago, held up Grand Central station in New York. Many of us are calling for a ceasefire and calling for an end to the siege on Gaza.
There have always been Jewish voices of resistance to Israeli policy. These powerful whanaunga stretch across all facets of Jewish identity and religiosity, from Judith Butler to Norman Finkelstein, from Shulamit Aloni to Yeshayahu Leibowitz. We exist and we are proud of our identity! I grew up deeply embedded in the community here; I grew up on strict Jewish values. These are the pursuit of tzedek, justice. Of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Of doing mitzvot, good deeds. Our school song was the declaration of Hillel the Elder, a first-century rabbi from what is now Syria: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Standing up for Palestinian human and civil rights is the Jewish thing to do. It never felt unnatural for me, the struggle is an extension of my Jewishness.
Of course I was susceptible to Zionist propaganda alongside these beautiful teachings. I used to think that the popular protest calls, “free Palestine” and “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” meant “Jews pushed into the sea.” I want other young Jews to know that since I joined the pro-Palestine movement, I have never come across such a view. If people do think this, of course we should relegate that as extreme and untenable. But the truth is, the Palestinians, as a nation of people, are not free.
Think of our own country. It is New Zealand and it is Aotearoa. We still have a long journey ahead in healing our own colonial wounds. But we are an example of how two peoples with completely different conceptualisations of the land can live in peace. Many Jews desperately want freedom for Palestinians, many of us desire to live alongside our brothers and sisters in peace. Many of us want to right the wrongs done to them. It’s the right thing to do, it’s the Jewish thing to do and it’s the only thing that will guarantee our people a future in the land between the river and the sea.
There is no symmetry of power in Palestine. Israel has the upper hand. The responsibility lies with them to shape the security situation in the region. And in their response to the Hamas attack, I feel that they have betrayed us. Slaughtering Gazans by the thousands is not a legitimate response; it is not politics, but an absence of politics. It is barbaric, genocidal violence. They have abandoned peace and doomed us all, Palestinians and Israelis, to unending death and despair. If we really love that land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea, we have to see a different way.