When I attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Conference (AIPAC) in 2012, I went in good faith. At that time, I still thought I might want to join the Israeli army. I stood and clapped for speeches about Israel’s military might, I went to panels lauding the high-tech industry, gay rights, and the commitment of the United States Congress to supporting Israel. And yet, when I joined my small group in preparation to meet with Senators and Representatives, I still had one small question:
“What does AIPAC think we should do about the Palestinians?”
Immediately, I found myself whisked out of the room and sitting face-to-face with an AIPAC higher up, an elderly woman with heavy jewelry and a tailored pink suit.
“Have you ever been to Israel?” She asked me. “I’ve been twice. I’ve actually shaken hands with the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Have you done that?”
This question made something in me click. I had been to Israel. In fact, I had been to Israel twenty times over the course of my nineteen years. It dawned on me: Is it possible that in this situation, out of the two of us, I am the expert? It is possible that despite your age, your prestige, and your money, I have seen more. Israelis talk about Palestinians, why wouldn’t AIPAC?
Looking back on this moment, it seems naïve. And yet, questions of authenticity and authority continue to plague me. I spent two years studying American Zionism and another two working in the Jewish community. I am here living in Israel again this year. I am also, according to Israeli law, myself Israeli, because I have an Israeli parent. The list of “credentials” goes on, as does the frequency with which I am told that I am “too young,” “too critical,” “too unstudied,” “too new to Israel” to have opinions.
When am I allowed to speak my views? When I have a graduate degree in religion and politics? When I spend every weekend for a year supporting resistance and coexistence actions in Palestine? When I become fluent in Hebrew and Arabic?
Or is it when I unequivocally support Netanyahu? When I cease to think critically about Jewish theocracy?
Recently, I travelled to Hebron with All That’s Left, an anti-occupation collective, who had plans to help with an ongoing project of transforming a warehouse into the first cinema in the most populated Palestinian city in the West Bank. Cinema Hebron is a project organized by Youth Against Settlements that began this summer with help from All That’s Left and the Center for Jewish Nonviolence.
Hebron is a city where Palestinians and settlers live side-by-side and where there are an equal number of settlers and Israeli soldiers to protect them. The roads in Hebron are divided into Jewish and non-Jewish. As we hiked up the Jewish road the build-site, we were stopped by a bored-looking 18-year-old in his olive green casually pointing an M16 at us:
“What are you doing here?”
“Hiking the Jewish road,” our group leader responded.
“You’re not Jewish.”
“We sure are.”
“No, no you’re not Jewish. Get out of here, take the non-Jewish road.”
The State of Israel is the result of the project of building Jewish statehood. Israel characterizes itself as a country where any Jew could call home. When there were anti-Semitic terror attacks in France last year, Netanyahu told French Jews simply: abandon your Diaspora community, come to Israel. This Jewish “birthright,” the law that grants anyone with one Jewish grandparent the right to emigrate to Israel, is the mechanism through which nearly the entire Jewish population of Israel has gained Israeli citizenship. Israel-as-Jewish-home is the founding principle of the state.
And yet in that moment, “Israel” meant to the soldier “Kiryat Arba,” an illegal Jewish settlement that buttresses and envelops the Palestinian city of Hebron. Therefore, to be “pro-Israel” in Hebron would mean being pro-Kiryat Arba, pro-settlement, and pro-occupation. If Israel is the Jewish State, then the Jewish Road would be only for people who were “pro-Israel” i.e. Jews. Our Jewishness, in that moment, was legally stripped from us. We could not possibly be who we were and be Jews.
This incident and ones like it with the soldiers of Hebron are the logical extension of the experience I had at AIPAC years before and of the conversations we often have in the American Jewish community between old and young, Left and Right. Do more. Learn more. Then you’ll really be what you say you are. Then you’ll be Jewish enough, Israeli enough.
Who do we become when we limit and question the authenticity of others? When do I get to stop listening and start speaking?
I think, for me, when I’m told as a Jew in a Jewish State that my politics render me un-Jewish, it becomes my obligation to speak. When the core of my identity is rendered inauthentic, we have to question the arbiters of authenticity.