Opinion

I'm Not the 'Right Kind of Jew' for Israel's Current Government – and I'm Proud of It

An American Jew working in Israel, I was detained and questioned at its border this week. During my interrogation, part of a policy aimed at intimidating Netanyahu's critics, I found out what really frightens Israel's right-wing government

Simone Zimmerman and Abby Kirschbaum in Jaffa on August 6, 2018
Meged Gozani

Sunday night, crossing the border from Egypt to Israel, my friend Simone Zimmerman and I were detained and questioned by Israeli security services for four hours.

While my experience barely scratched the surface of the kind of surveillance and interrogation to which Palestinians are subjected, it left me shaken and disturbed about the direction in which Israel, a country I have lived and worked in over the past year, and in whose future I am deeply invested, is going.

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The interrogators repeatedly asked me whether I planned on visiting Gaza. When I repeated over and over again I had no such intention, they accused me of lying, as though I had something to hide.

They went through my phone and were seemingly perturbed by a video sent to my WhatsApp by a Palestinian friend containing footage of soldiers harassing his friends in their West Bank Area C village.

They asked me point blank for my stance on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to which I answered: There have been better prime ministers in the country’s history.

While I was detained, the security officials kept taking stabs at my biography and choices, asking: Why work with Palestinians when there are Jews that need your help? They seemed dumbfounded by the idea that I bother to learn Arabic.

In the eyes of my interrogators, the very fact that I have Palestinian friends and colleagues contradicted how they believe a Jew should behave.

I grew up with the utmost devotion to Israel, I chose to complete my undergraduate degree here, and I have many friends, family and colleagues in this country.

Sadly, despite all that, I am apparently still not the "right kind of Jew" for today’s Israel. My connection to Israel can be discounted because of the relationships I’ve developed and the politics I hold. Israel’s government now pushes a zero tolerance policy for anyone engaging with Palestinians.

A stone barrier painted with an Israeli flag in Hebron, December 15, 2015.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Increasingly, those of us - American Jews and Israelis alike - who aren’t steadfast in our support for right-wing and Zionist principles, makes us de facto enemies of the state. There is less and less room for vocal opposition to state policy.

I am not what could be conveniently dismissed as an "activist transplant" who came to Israel in an attempt to rip apart the fabric of the state, or in an act of latent teenage rebellion.

When my understanding of the complexities of the conflict deepened, I decided to strengthen my Hebrew skills and learn Arabic. I have studied the historical, political, economic and social makeup of this region and the conflict extensively in both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and I deeply value my relationships with Jews, Palestinians and non-Palestinian Arabs alike.

While today we are seeing rising governmental attacks seeking to weed out the "bad Jews" from the "good Jews," Palestinians unfortunately are not afforded that generosity or nuance. For the Israeli government, Palestinians are a monolithic group who pose a ubiquitous threat to Jewish political homogeneity.

That was made clear to me in my interrogation. In the state’s eyes, all Palestinians are reduced to terrorists, and those who fight for human dignity alongside them are by proxy accomplices.

Palestinians are not individuals with personal narratives. The state does not care if they also have higher degrees in Middle Eastern studies. They don’t care if they dare to break anti-normalization trends in Palestinian society, a major personal risk to provide dual-narrative tours with Israelis, like many of the Palestinians I personally worked with do.

They don’t care if these Palestinians are just normal people trying to visit sick relatives, get married, get an education, and feed their families, as are most of the individuals Gisha helps, the organization where Simone works.

They don’t care that their own plan to demolish the village of Khan al-Ahmar, in the contentious E1 Zone of Area C, entails the forcible transfer of its residents. Alongside fellow Israeli and Diaspora Jewish activists, I'm proud to have placed 174 backpacks in front of the Supreme Court to represent each of the 174 students who will lose access to their education if in fact the demolition order passes.

Kids play under a tree at the Bedouin encampment of Khan al-Ahmar near the West Bank city of Jericho May 30, 2018
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Given the recent wave of detentions and interrogations of Jewish and Israeli activists, our interrogations signify another troubling foreshadowing of an authoritarianism that is already in motion.

The Israeli state is playing with a form of McCarthyism. During the "red scares" of 1950’s America, intimidation tactics ran rampant, and the name of the game was surveillance, all to identify those "enemies of the people" who rejected the government’s political stance.

Jewish and Israeli activists are being intimidated for their vocal opposition to state policy; representatives from Breaking The Silence have been physically assaulted by settlers in Hebron right in front of Israeli soldiers.

Interrogations are being used as a manipulative mechanism to gauge one’s loyalty to the state and to scare dissenters into silence. In some sense, it is working, as the cost of speaking out is so high, many are fearful.

But many others’ voices are growing louder and clearer in their criticism of Israeli governmental policy, which is why the state is stepping up its tactics in response.

Our uncomfortable interrogation session became a quest to tear apart our Jewish identities and determine for what reason we would develop relationships with Palestinians and why we questioned current Israeli policies, although the very same policies also troubled many citizens of Israel, Jewish, Arab and Druze alike - and broad sections of the Diaspora Jewish community as well.  

Israel’s government seeks to scare us back into our silos. They are betting that some of us will choose the safety of not being hassled at the border, to speaking out vocally in our opposition to the demolitions of Palestinian homes that the government is carrying out in Area C, to Israel’s strategy of collective punishment routinely used against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, or to Israel removing Arabic as an official state language.

And that is exactly why we have to speak out against these attempts to intimidate and distract us. Tough questions about Israel’s behavior, about the occupation, about Palestinian rights, are not a betrayal of the state. They are the only vehicle for us to protest - as Jews in the diaspora or in Israel -the ever-narrower definition of human dignity for Palestinians pushed by Israel’s government.

People’s lives depend on it - all of us who have cast our lots with the fate of this land. We hope more people will join in asking these questions.

Here are two questions for Israel’s government, arising out of my recent experience with its security services at its border:

Do you really think expulsions, intimidation, interrogations and detentions of activists committed to non-violence advance the democratic ideals the Jewish state is supposed to embrace, as pledged in its own declaration of independence?

Do you think these acts will erase our criticism?

And a question to those in Israel, among Diaspora Jewish communities and elsewhere - who choose to remain silent as Israel keeps tightening the definition of acceptable political discourse and excluding dissenters from its right-wing vision:

When in the future, your own family members, colleagues, friends end up on the "bad Jew" list - or you, yourself - will it be too late?

A native of Southern California, Abby Kirschbaum currently resides in Tel Aviv. She holds a master's degree in Social Science from The University of Chicago and has worked at the office of The Quartet on the Middle East and as the Jerusalem branch manager of Mejdi Tours