Forgive me that I do not want to speak about the occupation; I want to speak about my grandmother.
My grandmother is a refugee. If you are reading this text in Hebrew or Arabic, then your grandmother is probably a refugee too. If you are reading this text in Hebrew, perhaps something doesn’t feel quite right, or is unfamiliar, in calling your grandmother “a refugee”. Barely fifteen years old, after years between trains and hiding places, years which robbed her of all of her childhood and most of her close family, alone she climbed aboard a boat to the only safe shore that she could think of. An orphan, homeless, and with no possessions. Nevertheless, years down the line we struggle to call her “a refugee”. Why?
A bit less than a decade ago, surrounded by Israeli flags on a strip of grass in the Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv, something wasn’t right.
I was a young and excited vegan and I joined a celebratory initiative for raising awareness - a barbeque on Israeli Independence Day. It was a few years before all of Tel Aviv went vegan, and we didn’t yet know about “Beyond Meat”, or that tofu could actually be tasty. Still, it felt nice and successful and even a tiny bit revolutionary: we were preaching the gospel. But then the occupation arrived. That is to say, Independence Day and all its baggage came into the picture, and I struggled to square the idealistic circle. I tried to understand how it could be that the activists I was with - people who I had understood to be embodying in their most basic decisions a commitment to doing good and to avoid harming living creatures - how could it be that these people were able to justify harm, when it comes to the lives of “the Arabs”?
From this initial, almost innocent confusion - the confusion of someone who is trying to formulate an identity or independent political insights - I set out on two parallel journeys. The first, an attraction to spaces that are willing to deal with the challenges of translating universal values into reality. My choice to be vegan stemmed from an understanding that I didn’t want to support institutional violence and enslavement; how does this understanding translate into other areas of my life? The second journey tried to understand the need for justification: why choose blindness? Why assume that violence against us (who counts as “us”?) is unique and lacks context, and that anything done in the name of self-defence is justifiable? One line, straight and simple - too simple - connects those who murdered my grandmother’s family to those on whose land we established the Jewish State.
Almost four decades after the State of Israel was established under the dark cloud of a war which took thousands of lives and turned hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into refugees in their own land and outside of it, one holocaust survivor proposed that we should in fact learn to forget the war which took tens of millions of lives and turned millions more into refugees - refugees like my grandmother.
“Lately I have become convinced that the main socio-political factor that motivates Israeli society in its relationship to Palestinians is not personal frustration. Rather, it is a deep existential anxiety, which is fed by a certain interpretation of the lessons of the Holocaust, together with the willingness to believe that the whole world is against us and that we are the eternal victim.”
Thus wrote Yehuda Elkana in “Haaretz”, and implored the newspaper’s readers “to forget [...] and not to deal day and night with the symbols, ceremonies, and lessons of the Holocaust.” This same article, “The Virtue of Forgetting”, 21 years after the occupation of 1967, did not propose that we forget this history, but argued that Israel has healthier mythologies to extol. I want to turn to this article now, when it transpires that Israel’s natural democracy - that is, democracy only for a chosen section of its subjects - can with amazing ease cease to be democratic altogether.
“We must not allow the past to determine the future of society and the destiny of a people. The very existence of democracy is threatened when the memory of the victims becomes an active participant in the democratic process”.
The answer that he proposes, simply, is political education. But - how can we forget? How can we heal? The Holocaust is the mother of all justifications for our existence here, the tragic and painful climax of the particularity of the persecution of the Jews. Is it even possible to release it, to let it go and to know that it is behind us? Why are we not supposed to make comparisons? If grandmother was a refugee, what does that say about our responsibility to other refugees?
There is something good about blindness. Elkana proposed forgetting as an opportunity for healing; similarly, blindness has an important element of self-protection. It protects us from some particular kinds of existential anxiety and assures us of a certain proximity to the mainstream.
But whilst Elkana’s “forgetting” of the Holocaust does not ask of us to forget history, but to give history a more suitable context in the present, we are in fact asking the Palestinian people to forget their historical pain - or at least to stop reminding us about it, about our part in it, and especially to stop reminding us of the present-day victims
We have all heard about “the occupation”. We all know that it exists. Nevertheless, when a clear voice is needed to speak out against its injustices, we hear only silence or justifications.
Collective and individual history is a tool in the service of the present and the future, whereas blindness reflects the breaking of the hope which I inherited from my grandmother - the safe shore which was all that she had, and the corrupting force that it turned out to be. The present is frustrating, the future is unclear. Where do we go from here? Nobody knows, so perhaps it is simplest to go for what feels safe.
Opening up wounds (or eyes) will be painful, of course. Why should we even try, if it seems that as time passes, the promise of a healthier and better future on this land just becomes more and more distant? So we are “against the occupation” and that’s just about as far as it goes. We choose not to look, not to deal with it too much. It will hurt if we bring up in ourselves, in our communities, the possibility that we are part of something awful. My grandmother ran away from horrors that I will probably never be able to imagine and built a wonderful life for herself - am I able to appreciate that and also to wonder (and later, to answer) what hides behind the destruction of the mosque in the Kibbutz that she helped establish? And what the hell do I do with the answer?
Ignorance is a blessing, they say. We live in a place that demands more and more obedience, and aggressively vomits out those who want to ask questions (or, God forbid, to make declarations) about the occupation. Nobody challenges the status quo just because they want to, but rather, because they need to. I learned not to expect much from straight people, but Queer existence has no choice but to reimagine reality. In practice, this same reimagining that can create a different world and different norms includes a negotiation with the existing norm. How far is it safe to push the envelope, and when - with limited choices or actually out of choice - is it preferable to submit, or to maintain a different “other” who will face the fire that otherwise would be aimed our way?
Choosing blindness is almost a necessary choice in a reality that is so difficult. Choosing to resist blindness and historical justification (however righteous it may be) - demands at least a fragment of hope for a different present, for a different future. Otherwise the price doesn’t seem worth it.
Blindness is liberating, and the load is heavy. What’s it got to do with us, maybe the train has already left the station. But Queerness proposes - even demands - that we look. For the sake of our free existence, as Queers in Jewish and Palestinian society, and for the sake of the free existence of every other group, we need to imagine something completely different. Something that is the inheritance of those who were forced to create a new imagination after they were expelled outside of the borders of the mainstream.
Queerness, in its essence, is the opportunity to ask new questions of everything. Does Queerness have borders? Can we look at a horizon that looks completely different? To set out - or to lead - towards a completely different future? Perhaps it’s a bit of an exaggeration, and indeed there remains so much for which to struggle for ourselves. But for what other purpose was I created Queer?
ainly a journalist, lives and works in Nicosia and previously was an activist in the organisation “Sadaka-Reut” for binational activist education, and in other initiatives. Amit loves to feed good people and to dance.