On Yom Ha’atzmaut: A progressive Zionist’s dilemma
Published: Thursday, April 19, 2012
Updated: Thursday, April 19, 2012 10:04
In light of the debacle of Tufts Friends of Israel (FOI) advertising the acclaimed Israeli−Arab writer Sayed Kashua’s lecture on Tuesday as part of FOI’s weeklong celebration of Israeli independence, I have begun reflecting on what it means to observe Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) as a progressive Zionist. This attempt at “brownwashing” the conflict, placing a prominent Palestinian Israeli at the forefront of pro−Israel events without his knowledge or consent, is disgraceful. Deceiving a guest speaker about the circumstances of his lecture would be disturbing in any context, and it is particularly disturbing when the intent is to portray Israel as a tolerant, multicultural nation when in fact the speaker himself writes about an Israel that is anything but.
It is clear to me that I do not want to take part in any celebration of Israel that attempts to manipulate people and facts to portray a false image of the Jewish state. But is it possible to celebrate the successes of Israel without doing a great injustice to the many disenfranchised Palestinian refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel? Celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut is a microcosm for the many conflicting feelings I have about Israel.
Last September, I flew to Jordan to spend a semester studying abroad in Amman. As the plane neared our destination, we flew over Israel. I gazed out the window seeing Israel from above, a narrow strip of land that stood out from its surroundings because of its greenness. I became filled with an irrational pride. I know that Palestinians lived on and worked this land long before Jewish settlers returned to it, but seeing its stark contrast with the surrounding desert, I couldn’t help but think that my people made this strip of land bloom in the desert. We were oppressed for so long; without a nation of our own we were viewed as leeches on other peoples. Yet we had the strength to endure, to dream of a brighter future, to fulfill the two millennia−long dream of self−determination. As the plane flew by and began the descent to Amman, I thought of the Palestinians who were forced from their land in order to make this dream possible.
I am so proud of Israel, the mere fact that it exists. I am proud of the drip irrigation systems. I am proud of the rights of the queer community. I am proud of the idealistic kibbutzniks who gave themselves fully to the dream of a Jewish nation, a cultural and religious home for the Jewish people. I am so proud of all of the Israeli activists and educators who work tirelessly today to create an Israel that can live up to Theodor Herzl’s vision of a just and righteous nation based on Jewish values. We are far, far from that dream.
The occupation persists. Palestinian Israelis are denied equal opportunities in many facets of life. How can I, a Zionist who is committed to human rights, justice and self−determination of Jews and Palestinians, celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut in good faith? Is it possible to celebrate the aspects of Israel that I am proud of without being guilty of pinkwashing or greenwashing the conflict?
It is hard to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut without whitewashing the conflict since the same day is known as al−Nakba, the catastrophe, for Palestinians. Al−Nakba marks the Palestinian loss of land, life and many liberties. The Israeli government denies their pain and suffering, the legitimacy of their narrative. Is it possible for me, a privileged American Jew, to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut when Palestinian Israelis are effectively banned from observing al−Nakba?
The Jewish tradition is full of contradictions and complexities, and I turn to the tradition of the Passover seder to help resolve my inner turmoil. Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from the bondage of slavery. We remember the bitterness of slavery and relish in the comforts of the freedom we enjoy today. We also remember that our own liberation came at a heavy cost for the Egyptians, who suffered through 10 plagues in order to persuade the pharaoh to let our people go. During the seder, we take a drop of wine from our glasses for each plague the Egyptians suffered to remember that our happiness is not full. It would be wrong to celebrate our freedom without acknowledging the suffering of the Egyptians.
This tradition of acknowledging the cost of our freedom is mirrored by the observance of Yom HaZikaron, Remembrance Day. Yom HaZikaron precedes Yom Ha’atzmaut. It is a day to remember the Israeli soldiers and victims of terrorism whose lives have been the costly price of Jewish self−determination. Yom HaZikaron is an important acknowledgement of the loss of Jewish life. We acknowledge the many Jewish Israelis who have sacrificed their lives, willingly or not, for the Zionist dream. It falls short of acknowledging the huge loss of life and dignity of the Palestinian people. I have never seen an acknowledgement of Palestinian suffering in a Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration.
I know that I am not comfortable celebrating Israel’s independence without first spilling some wine from my glass. I cannot celebrate Israel without acknowledging Palestinian suffering. I cannot even think about Israel without thinking about the occupation and the gross inequalities between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Our fates are intertwined. We, the Jewish people, cannot be free while we are oppressing other people. In celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut, I could find a way to spill some wine from my glass, to symbolically recognize the suffering of the Palestinians at the expense of the state of Israel. However, such a small measure could feel demeaning to such expansive suffering, and given the current state of the conflict, I am filled with so much disgust and despair that there is little stopping me from chucking the whole glass out the window.