I have started writing you a letter about my transition from Zionist to anti-Zionist. I think that I actually started writing this letter to you years ago in my mind, at the beginning of my transition, but I am just sitting down to write the letter now.
It’s funny, kind of, starting this letter to you now, because just the act of sitting down to write you reminds me of all the other letters I wrote you when I was living in Jerusalem as a graduate student at Hebrew University. I remember one in particular. I was working that day at my part-time job at my boss’s apartment. I translated his Hebrew letters into English for a few shekels an hour. He had gone out for the afternoon, and I was alone in his apartment. It smelled like mint tea. There was a cool breeze coming through the kitchen. The house was one of those old Arab homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood Katamon. I could see the Arab style: arches, Jerusalem stone, tile, the architectural boxiness of the building like the Arab homes that dot the hills in the West Bank. But it never came up with my boss that Arabs used to live in the house. You see, mom, this is part of the problem with Zionists. Zionists are ok with the mythology of Israel being different from the reality of Palestine. And I was a Zionist then, so I didn’t ask about the Palestinians who had once lived in the house.
The letter I wrote you while sitting in his home was about the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. I was so happy to be there during such an exciting time. I remember cutting out the photo from Newsweek of King Hussein lighting Rabin’s cigarette–under the caption, “Peace Pipe”–and sending it to you. I felt part of something big. Everyone was full of hope that there would finally be peace. By everyone, I mean the Israelis and other American Jews who I was around most of the time. I know now, as an anti-Zionist, that during that time–the Oslo Accord years–Palestinians were not given any reasons to be hopeful. I know now that systemic efforts to oppress and ethnically cleanse them were long underway. But that afternoon I wrote you the letter, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about how cool it was to live in another country, and how much I had fallen in love with Jerusalem. I sent you the poems I wrote about the rose-colored Jerusalem stone, how it changed with the light, for it was you who encouraged me to write. I still have my first childhood writing notebook, with all the pictures we cut from magazines and glued onto the front of the notebook as a collage. I remember the table we sat in the public library, and you wore your 70’s red and black mini-dress. Decades later, I wrote the letters to you from Jerusalem on the pre-postage paid airmail letters I bought at the post office. Right now I am remembering how light and thin the letters were. I was always worried they would rip when I licked them shut.
Of course it is easier to remember the letters I wrote to you as a Zionist, instead of writing this one.
I don’t think you’ll want to hear how difficult the Passover seder was for me this year. I have come to loathe the self-righteousness of the American Jewish seder, the “I was a slave in Egypt” rhetoric that frames the night. It wouldn’t be so bad if we talked about Palestine, if we weren’t afraid it would take away from our history of oppression to acknowledge others’. It is hard to write this to you, because I know that Passover for you is about getting the family together. It’s the smells of your days of cooking chicken and soup and matzo balls. And even that has been difficult because now I am a vegan and I bring vegan matzo balls. And I see my brother whisper to his wife that I won’t even eat mom’s food anymore. And we partake in ritual like we have done every year. We eat and discuss issues raised in the Haggadah–only up to a point, of course–and sing, and we end the evening by saying, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” And how strange for me, now, that I was the only one in the family to live in Jerusalem, and to attend seders in Israel and actually be in the city that we say “Next Year in” at seders. And how stranger, still, that now I am the only one in the family who has come to hate that line. In fact, when everyone says, “Jerusalem,” I say Palestine, but it is said quietly, in my mind. In family spaces, anti-Zionists can feel like they are in the closet. I know this has been very confusing for you. I can imagine some of your thoughts around this. You’re thinking, she loved Israel and now she hates Israel. And it’s still all she talks about. The confusion increases, I’m sure for you, when you remember how I begged you to send me to Israel, over and over again. It was the only place I felt like I could be myself, I would tell you, when I wanted to go on the high-school program. I haven’t told you that I recently found the books from that program. When I was 16, they were like scripture to me, containing within them the heroic story of how the state of Israel came to be. Now the books are creative, painful projects in propaganda.
I guess I’m trying to say that I understand now how all of this is very confusing to you. I wonder if you know, though, mom, that it is for me too. I didn’t plan, for example, to fall in love with a Palestinian when I was living in Israel. Like you, I also thought that going to graduate school in Jerusalem would help to ensure my finding a nice Jewish boy and returning with him to the U.S. to buy a house in the suburbs and have kids. It has been hard for me too, mom, that my life has become much different than I thought it would be. I didn’t know that I would become an anti-Zionist and would lose most of the friends I had. It’s not as though one plans to become anti-Zionist any more than one plans to fall in love.
I wanted to tell you about falling in love with Azab. I met him playing darts at a local bar in Jerusalem after my evening graduate classes. He was Palestinian-American, staying with his brothers in Palestine. We began as friends, running into each other at the bar. We even drove to Eilat for a weekend, still as friends. Of course, in my mind I was hoping that perhaps something would happen at the hotel. How funny, when in one’s twenties, agreeing to go on a road-trip to stay in a hotel without talking about the implications. It’s so silly for me to think about it now, twenty years later, as I feigned a youthful confidence to Azab, saying “Oh yeah, sure,” when he asked me if I wanted to drive with him to Eilat for the weekend. We didn’t anticipate that we would be pulled over on the road and that he would be searched and frisked by Israeli soldiers. And that I sat in the car while he was being interrogated wondering if we were going to have sex that weekend. Mom, Zionists are so scared to step outside of themselves. Had I done so, I might have noticed that Azab being pulled over actually happened all the time to Palestinians, and that these were actions to demean and dehumanize Palestinians and to ultimately Judaize the land.
Azab downplayed his being pulled over and being treated badly, of course. He got back in the car when the Israeli soldiers were done with him and ran his fingers through his dark, thick hair, turned to me, and said, “That was fun,” and then, smiling, “I was wanting to stop for a rest. Now pass me a cigarette.” But I knew that he was hurt. I knew because I am your daughter and I have that same nurturing part of me that I got from you. Later that night, we were lying on the bed in the hotel, he on his back and me on my stomach, resting my head against my arm. We were both unsure if we would have sex–for it still had not come up at all, why we even decided to go to Eilat in the first place–and I played with his hair, and he closed his eyes, and breathed deeply. Even later, when we were returning to the hotel room from getting a drink, we walked by the pool. The pool was in a kind of courtyard, and the hotel rooms wrapped around in a big square so you had to walk by the pool to get to your room. The water was so blue and so still. We were the only people around. I thought perhaps we might hold hands. You know what happened next, Mom? He actually pushed me into the pool. I had on the new red pleated skirt you had bought me the last time I visited you in Chicago. And then he jumped into the pool, too, and we splashed each other and laughed. We didn’t have sex that weekend, but we would the next in my apartment in Jerusalem, and for many weekends and months after that.
I just re-read a line in this letter to you from above, about how anti-Zionists don’t plan on becoming anti-Zionists just like they don’t plan on falling in love. I am little embarrassed that I wrote that. I don’t want to romanticize being an anti-Zionist. I’m not sure how to explain how lonely it is, even though I have found other anti-Zionists. Because, you see, there are different kinds of anti-Zionists. There are the lefty activists who were never Zionists and there are the ones who were. I don’t like that I see a divide here. I mean, the whole point of anti-Zionism is to get out of the Palestinians’ way so that they can live their lives in their own way in their homeland. But I can’t help feeling lonely when I am around the Jewish left. It’s just a different kind of lonely from when I am around Zionists. Some anti-Zionists cannot relate to the pain I feel because they were never a Zionist to begin with and have not had to grieve. The detachment in their activism makes me feel lonely. I’m no happier with those on the left, reeking of their liberalism, dripping with a self-righteousness that prevents them from seeing Palestinians as true equals, looking at them as objects to be pitied and saved.
I am so lonely, Mom. My mother, you are like the daughter I won’t have because I do not have children. I remember once, when I was very upset about what was happening in Israel. This was in the midst of my transition from Zionist to anti-Zionist. And you said that you thought it was sad that so many Palestinians had been driven from their homes and that so many olive trees had been cut down by the Israelis. It was like you knew it was wrong, but it was more than that. You had really internalized what was happening. It wasn’t just an intellectual attempt to agree with me. I could tell that you really felt it, like something had broken through your Zionism. Maybe you do understand how bad the situation is, but you’d rather me carry that burden of a paradigm shift so that you don’t have to. I can do that for you, my child, my mother. I can carry this burden for you as you have so many times for me. And I can tell you, mom, that even the transition from Zionist to anti-Zionist makes me sick, this privilege to have an epiphany, while people are dying and being driven from their homes, all in the name of Israel.