In Defense of Jewish and Palestinian Identity

By Alanna Bannourah and Ben Gladstone

Since the advent of their creation, both the Jewish and Palestinian identities have been criticized and undermined.

Both of these identities are valid and genuine, and should not only be respected, but celebrated. The claim to the Holy Land coincides with these identities, and Palestinians and Jews as a group have legitimate reasons to cohabitate in the tiniest slice of land in the region. The accusations against both Jews and Palestinians as respective nations can be harsh, an experience even those in the diaspora are affected by. The writers of this piece, Alana Bannourah and Ben Gladstone, who are Palestinian and Jewish American youth, respectively, know this too well. They both not only recognize each other’s identities, but encourage each other to be proud of who they are. Mutual understanding of that concept is not only important, but essential to achieving tangible peace in Israel and Palestine, as well as amongst those living in the diaspora.

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Political indoctrination was absent from Alana’s childhood. This includes any and all socialization about politics in the Middle East, especially Israel and Palestine. Those conversations just did not occur. Alana was taught to love and respect everyone, so Jews were not seen as the “other” for her nor was she taught to have a negative bias towards them as a group. So, in turn, she did not ever learn to be “anti-Israel”, and she had no perception of Zionism, negative or positive. Regardless of her family’s political views, which varies between immediate family and relatives, especially based off of experiences, age, and place of birth, everyone was always apolitical towards her. She was taught that she was Palestinian and that she should be proud of it, but not in an overt manner. Growing up with only one flag in the house, her attachments to the Holy Land are more familial and less nationalistic.

Even though this is true, she loved looking at maps as a child and could not seem to understand why a nation-state called “Palestine” was not on there. She would always ask, “Where is Palestine on the map?” Her parents would answer with a vague, “Next to Jordan and Israel.” They were obviously referring to the West Bank, the part where they are from. She did not figure that out until later when she visited the Holy Land, since the territories confused her. She would always see Israel, and then the Gaza Strip on the left and the West Bank on the right.

So, Israel it was. She knew it was important, especially when perusing books about different countries in her elementary school’s library as a budding reader. She could not find a book on “Palestine”, but there was a book about Israel. She checked it out and a young Alana can be seen reading it in a home video. She was perched on her living room’s couch, intently flipping through the pages of the book and lingering on every sentence, eager to learn about the foreign yet familiar country on the map that was next to Jordan. It was the closest thing she had to trying to understand where she was “from”. How could she hate a country which she needed so badly at one point in her life? A country that is next to Jordan, a part of the land she is supposed to be connected to…

In any discussion of Israel and Palestine, whether historical, cultural, or political, it should first and foremost be understood that the identities of Jews and Palestinians alike should be respected.

Ben’s understanding of Israel growing up was similarly rooted in culture. He had (and has) family there, and he understood in abstract terms that they occasionally face dangers he could not easily imagine in the United States, but primarily he conceived of the country as a center for Jews to create music and food and as a platform from which they could launch humanitarian operations. The most political issue that was discussed in his childhood was the importance of a two-state solution – the common root of the Hebrew and Arabic words for “peace” (shalom שלום and salaam سلام, respectively) was a common reference at Hebrew school. Of course, inherent in the drive toward a two-state future is recognition of both Palestinian and Jewish national identity at present.

Palestinian identity is often attacked. A common way people delegitimize Palestinian identity is by citing the fact that Palestinians do not have a recognized nation state. This is silly considering that ethnic groups like the Kurds do not have a state, but they still consider themselves a nation of people. Palestinians do not need a recognizable modern state to be considered a valid group. They are a nation of people who either live in the Holy Land, were displaced from it, or immigrated. Those people are all Palestinian, unless they are citizens of Israel and elect to identify as Arab-Israeli. Referring to the Arabs living in the Holy Land as Palestinians is also delegitimized by those using the excuse that most Palestinians did not arrive in the area until after World War I. In those cases, those who make that argument insist that Palestinians are originally from different parts of the Middle East/North Africa region, like Egypt for example.

This is simply not true in some cases. There have been inhabitants of Israel and Palestine, Arab and Jewish, since before WWI. Lastly, another tactic that is used to delegitimize Palestinian identity is the assumption that Palestinian nationalism was created to solely resist Zionists and the state of Israel.  Palestinian identity is historically complex and the birth of it was not primarily because of the opposition to the Zionist movement and the state of Israel being created. The formation of Palestinian identity can be traced back to when what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories were colonized by the Ottoman Empire.  Palestinian nationalism can find its roots in resistance to colonization by the Ottoman Turks, citing Jerusalem and Nablus to be cities of religious, cultural, and economic importance to the Arab inhabitants living there at the time. Later on, some of these Arabs living in Jaffa held a joint Muslim-Christian conference which resulted in a letter being sent to General Allenby. This letter discussed the “Arab-Palestinians”. The fact that Palestinian borders were created by the British similar to what Palestinians leaders imagined helped to solidify that sense of nationality.

In the same way that Palestinian nationhood is often attacked, many anti-Zionists today ground their arguments in a refusal to recognize Judaism as a nation. Because Judaism is strictly a “religion,” they claim, Jews are not entitled to national self-determination, and therefore Israel as a Jewish State has no right to exist.

This claim stems from a deep ignorance of what Judaism is. Judaism began more as a tribe than  a religious movement, and since then has branched in infinite directions so that the contemporary Jew is able to form their own identity based on any combination of religious traditions, ethical values, cultural tendencies, communal sentiments of solidarity, and more. To impose the label of “religion” on all of Judaism, then, is not a statement of fact, but rather a political act: the aggressive erasure of all other facets of Jewish identity so that the Jewish people ceases to exist and nationhood is therefore impossible.

In reality, Jews, and certainly Israelis, have everything that could constitute a “nation” (which is, anyway, a vague concept). Many feel a strong sense of communal solidarity and responsibility. Ethnic ties are strong (light-skinned Jews from Russia tend to be genetically closer, for example, to darker-skinned Jews in Yemen than to white Russian non-Jews who may resemble them more closely), and Hebrew serves as a unifying language. Very often, Jews take pride in one another’s accomplishments and feel shame for one another’s mistakes and misdeeds. Certainly “Jewish history” exists and is studied separately from the countries in which each event of that history has occurred.

Just as Palestinian national identity emerged in opposition to Ottoman oppression, Jewish national identity actualized as a means of countering anti-Semitism. Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, formulated his ideas in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, a scapegoating scandal in France that forcefully reminded the Jews living in Europe that most white, Christian Europeans still thought of Jews as outsiders. Other Zionist revolutionaries were inspired by Eastern European government-sponsored riots called “pogroms.” Jewish nationalism was crystallized still further against the British occupiers and their strict policy of allowing continental Europe to slaughter Jews by the millions instead of allowing any serious immigration to Israel/Palestine, lest Jews challenge British colonial rule, at the same time that Palestinian national identity was crystallizing against the same occupiers (the Great Arab Revolt against the British was a huge turning point in the way that many Palestinians conceived of themselves and their people). In other words, none can claim that either Zionism or Palestinian nationalism is legitimate while the other is not. Their formations were all too similar.

In other words, none can claim that either Zionism or Palestinian nationalism is legitimate while the other is not. Their formations were all too similar.

Another way that people have delegitimized Palestinian claims to the land is by insisting that Palestinians move to other Arab states. They presume that those Arab states should assist in aiding Palestinians in times of war and strife, including taking them in. This is not always true. Also, there are some countries where people of the Levant would just not fit in. You don’t hear of many Palestinians living in places like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Morocco, or Tunisia, for example. Secondly, the claim that those Arab states would be equipped in handling the issue of Palestinians needing somewhere to stay or keeping them safe, for example, is not always accurate. Thousands of Palestinian civilians were killed in the Black September war in September of 1970. One of them was Alana’s father’s cousin. An innocent man who lost his life, vulnerable because of his nationality and location at the time.

Just as Palestinians cannot be expected to integrate into other Arab states with which they do not identify, Jews cannot be expected to return to their most recent countries of exile, whether Germany, Russia, or Iraq, as the case may be. Ben’s family fled from Vilna (now controlled by Lithuania) when it was under the rule of Tsar Nicholas II, and had they stayed in Europe they would almost certainly have been murdered by the Nazis when the German military swept through the area a few decades later, massacring the entire Jewish population there.

Anti-Semitism still exists in Europe, of course, and the rise of the Nazis served as a reality check to Jews across the world who had allowed themselves to believe that assimilation would spare them. Indeed, Germany was the center of Jewish assimilationist theory, and Jews were thoroughly integrated at every level of society there before the Holocaust. Jews also held many positions of power in the United States at that time, but their pleading with the American people and government was not enough to move President Roosevelt to even take in refugee children. All of this is to say that even if there are countries that today do not appear anti-Semitic, Jews can infer from a long history of genocides (not only did Germany produce the Holocaust, but the Golden Age in Spain also ended in Inquisition, and the strong Jewish communities in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere were largely driven out upon the establishment of the State of Israel) that diaspora host countries cannot be counted on to protect them.

Some claim that Palestinians should “go back” to various Arab/Middle Eastern nation-states that they are “from”. For some Palestinians, they may be able to trace their ancestors to other parts of the Middle East. But, for the most part, Palestinians have been there for long enough that it isn’t necessary to do so. They were there at the genesis of the creation of modern Israel and long before. Alana’s family has been there at least since the late 1800’s, most likely earlier. Also, her family is still there. About 70% of her family on both sides still reside in the West Bank.  Most of her family is from the West Bank village of Beit Sahour, with the exception of her paternal grandmother’s family who are originally from the famed city of Bethlehem. As Palestinian Christians, these cities are important to us. Beit Sahour is the town where the famous “Shepherd’s Field” is located. This is the field where it is believed that angels announced the birth of Jesus Christ to a group of shepherds. Even the Canaanite translation of the name, “place” for “beit”, and “night watch” for “sahour” shows that it’s an ideal location for shepherds. The Church of Nativity, the church built over the possible place of Jesus Christ’s birth, is in Bethlehem. Alana has been to this church and a few of her family members have been married there. It’s a beautiful building that holds important religious significance.

Jews also have a serious connection to the land of Israel/Palestine, one that far predates modern Zionism. Aside from the ancient kingdoms of Israel, which are irrelevant to the contemporary political discussion, there has been a continuous Jewish presence in the land for millennia, including sizeable communities in sites like Hebron. Moreover, Jews have long referred to the diaspora as gilut, or golles – “exile.” Jews face Jerusalem in prayer, and yearn for a return to the land at every holiday celebration. That Jewish connection, of course, does not minimize the Palestinian connection at all. Rather, both peoples belong to that land, and that land belongs to both peoples – neither has inherently more right to it than the other. It is from that truth that the two-state solution emerges.

In any discussion of Israel and Palestine, whether historical, cultural, or political, it should first and foremost be understood that the identities of Jews and Palestinians alike should be respected. Jews and Palestinians should operate with the knowledge that they should be proud of who they are. History and politics are nuanced and no one individual should be ashamed of anything they are in fact not guilty of. We should exist in a world that is a safe space for our nations. Nations that are legitimate, important, interesting, and really cool. Jews and Palestinians are the most awesome nations of people around. This is since they are the people who are responsible for, live in, and are destined to be gatekeepers of a tiny piece of real estate called the Holy Land.

The national identities of both Jews and Palestinians are deep and important, and in many ways similar. Arguments to delegitimize either one tend to be rooted in misinformation or mischaracterization of history. Regardless, no detractor can make either nationalism any less real today. It is time to move beyond delegitimizing rhetoric, recognize one another’s nationhood, and appreciate the crucial need of people for a state of its own. Only through mutual recognition and appreciation can we began moving toward a peace that will ensure the prosperity and security of both Israel and Palestine.

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