I find myself often answering the same question: Why don’t you tell people that you’re Jewish?
Naturally, people assume that I suffer from some combination of guilt and shame, that I wrestle with issues of self-hatred or that I’m simply a lost soul.
What they miss is the most crucial aspect of existing as a (non-settler) Jew in the West Bank—the dynamic of domination. Try as I might, no matter how open-minded or radical my politics or actions, I cannot change this fact.
In ten minutes, I could be at the checkpoint, and I would be immediately allowed into Jerusalem, along with all of my Christian activist friends who hold foreign passports. But, unlike the other activists and certainly unlike the Palestinians who have been living here their entire lives, I could become an Israeli citizen. Right now. It’s called the Law of Return—not to be confused with the Right of Return, which Palestinians have been fighting for unsuccessfully since 1948.
When I drive past the settlement of Har Homa, I know that I could easily be the settler standing on the street on the other side of the car door. The only thing standing between me and that reality is my politics, my choice. When it comes down to it, I could wake up tomorrow morning and change my mind, and by afternoon I could be moving into one of those treeless, new neighborhoods perched on a West Bank hilltop. All I would have to do is open the door and step outside.
I have choice, and choice is power. And as long as I have choice and my Palestinian neighbors do not, as long as I am powerful (even if I choose not to use that power) and they remain powerless, our relationship cannot exist without the ever-present dynamic of domination. Nothing I think or do at this very moment can change that.
But this is not why I came to Palestine, to dominate, and so I keep my cultural identity to myself. I can’t make the power dynamic between us go away, but I don’t see why it needs to be floating in the air of words between us.
One topic that often comes up in conversation among radical left circles in Israel is the psychology of those Jewish activists who cause more harm than good. They are the ones who come here with an enormous load of Jewish guilt on their backs, and their Palestine experience offers an opportunity to purge themselves of this guilt. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make for very effective activism.
The efforts of these activists are based on a belief in collective guilt—that the individual somehow holds personal responsibility for the abuses committed by the collective, to which she belongs merely through association rather than action.
There is a fundamental flaw in the concept of “collective guilt”, especially when it is employed by Jewish anti-occupation activists. The problem is that “collective guilt” is not so different from “collective punishment”, which is the exact fallacy to which Israel falls prey when it justifies widespread repression and denies the basic human rights of the Palestinians in an effort to punish only a few transgressors.
A friend of mine once pointed out another Jewish American woman working in the West Bank, who deals with her Jewish identity by advertising it to all who will listen. She loudly exclaims here Jewishness, following it with a long list of disclaimers intended to prove that she is different from the Zionists.
A sense of collective guilt, I believe, motivates this woman to lay all of her emotional baggage on the table, and, while I am positive that she does not intend to validate the logic of the Israeli Zionists through this act, she does, in fact, do so.
I may be a “lost soul” in many ways, but my head is not in the clouds about the reality of my presence in the West Bank. All I can do is try to be mindful of my position here and sensitive to the positions of others. After all, my existence occupies only a pinprick on the map of time. The effects of my actions will fade quickly, but how I think and talk about my actions, the logic that supports them, holds the potential to seep into the future through the power of discourse and ideas.
Self-flagellation will not effect change, but self-awareness and criticism could hold more power than we think.
Posted By Sarah Sachs (Palestine)
Posted Jul 17th, 2006