I am a Zionist. Think about your reaction. Agreement? Disgust? Curiosity? When I call myself a Zionist, I mean that I believe the Jewish people should have a nation in the land of Israel. Some may think that as a Zionist, I must be anti-Palestinian. But that’s not the case. I firmly believe Palestinians should have a nation in the land of Palestine.
On this campus and many others, Jewish students who believe in self-determination for their own people are afraid to say so publicly for fear of backlash. Last year I spent four months doing research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Most students talk about their study abroad with anyone who will listen, but I look over my shoulder anytime I’m about to bring it up. I’m concerned that others will make snap judgements about me just because I visited the Jewish state. Many feel the need to go even further: in a Brandeis Center survey, roughly half of Jewish college students reported at times hiding their Jewish, never mind Zionist, identity.
In order to have a respectful discourse on Israel-Palestine, we have to start by listening to each other’s narratives, something that can be painful and too easily derailed. Both Jews and Palestinians have a historical connection to the land, and their need for self-determination has been demonstrated by the way they have been treated in lands controlled by others.
The Jewish connection to the land dates back thousands of years, and Jews have maintained a presence there ever since we were exiled by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. Those of us in the diaspora pray facing Jerusalem, our holiest religious sites are there, and every year after our Passover Seder, we exclaim, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
I can only give my perspective and don’t presume to speak for Palestinians yearning for a state of their own. That being said, the Palestinian connection to the land dates back over a thousand years. Jerusalem is a place of religious significance for Muslim and Christian Palestinians. Many of the Palestinian refugees still have the keys to their homes in Israel proper, to which they hope to return.
The connections that both peoples have to the land are undeniable, and the distressing situations of each in lands controlled by others is proof of the need for a nation for both peoples.
Since being exiled from the land of Israel, Jews have faced persecution and expulsions in many of the places we’ve lived. This includes the expulsion of Jews in England, France, Spain, and Portugal in the Middle Ages, and the approximately 850,000 Jews expelled from Iraq, Libya, Morocco, and other Middle Eastern and North African countries in the 1940s-70s. From 1946 to 1948, the British interned more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors, fleeing to Mandatory Palestine, in detention camps in Cyprus, where 400 of them died. Ever since Jews rebuilt a state in their ancestral homeland, surrounding nations have invaded it many times, including in 1973 on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews. Even in the U.S., antisemitic incidents made up more than half of religious based incidents of hatred in 2020, despite Jews only making up 2 percent of the population. Given this, having a state that Jews can turn to in times of need is critical.
Palestinians have also faced persecution living in lands controlled by others. From 2011 to 2020, Syrian forces killed over 3,000 Palestinians, nearly 500 due to torture. Palestinians born in Lebanon are denied work in dozens of professions, access to full health care, and education in Lebanese schools. In the West Bank, the Israeli government has restricted Palestinian movement so that they must go through checkpoints — where they face humiliation and abuse — in order to get to their jobs, visit family, and attend friends’ weddings. Shortly after Hamas, a U.S. and E.U. designated terrorist organization, seized power over Gaza in 2007, Israel and Egypt began enforcing a blockade there that monitors everyone and everything going in and out. This has led to high levels of unemployment, increased aid dependency for basic necessities, and limited ability to travel outside of Gaza. Palestinians living in Gaza, under Hamas, and parts of the West Bank, under the Palestinian Authority, have not had parliamentary or presidential elections since 2006, taking away even that measure of self-determination. Given their current situation, Palestinians also need a state that they can turn to.
We must understand that not everyone who declares themselves pro-Palestine hates Zionists and not everyone who declares themselves a Zionist hates Palestinians. Let’s work toward a world where that is true of all people who call themselves pro-Palestine or Zionist. It begins with recognizing that both Jews and Palestinians have claims to the land of Israel and Palestine, and understanding that both need a nation that they can turn to in times of need. Once we agree on that, the hard work begins.