From idealism to brutality;
From liberation to oppression:
How did we get from there to here?
by Hanna Braun
This is an account of a personal Journey to try and help to explain how so many of us fell for the Zionist myth and how difficult it was -and still is- to see the truth beyond it.
When I arrived in Palestine with my parents in 1937, the Jewish Community in Palestine was minute. The country was also in the midst of a bitter and violent revolt against the British Authorities and the new settlers. As soon as we arrived, my father’s relations who had come to Haifa’s port to welcome us, warned us of the dangerous, treacherous and backward Arabs, who were highly visible as dockworkers. These aunts and uncles also cautioned us never to employ Arabs nor to buy anything from them. This widespread slogan however, termed “Hebrew work for Hebrew workers”, was frequently observed in the breach of it. My mother’s immediate reaction was “is this how you want to live with them in peace?” This remark earned her the pity, bordering on contempt, of most people for not being a true Zionist at all.
At the time this was certainly true: my family on mother’s side were so deeply integrated into German society that they regarded Zionists as something for poor East European Jews who couldn’t make ends meet. Eventually she was persuaded to Zionism; albeit to a more humane and benign version that was very short lived.
As to me, I started school immediately, learned Hebrew from scratch and was keen to fit in. The nationalistic songs we learned as well as the collection boxes for the Fund for Israel and the Settlement Redemption Fund, didn’t impinge much on my consciousness. My Zionist convictions grew almost imperceptively, mainly after I started secondary school in Haifa at the age of 13. Together with socialism, which many of us embraced to a greater or lesser degree, the vision of an idealised future of shared rather than owned property and of building our new land with our hands, if at all possible as pioneer founders of a new kibbutz (an agricultural commune), was beguiling.
One of the tenets of the left-wing kibbutz movement at the time was that it should only hold as much land as its members could work without hired labour. This ideal is long gone and so are most kibbutzim, in spite – or because? – of the prosperity they gained in the years after WW2, partly by generous reparation money from Germany and partly from the open theft of large chunks of land, not in the least arid, from its original Arab inhabitants. What was never mentioned was that no kibbutz would accept non-Jewish members.
The lack of Arab members was unsurprising: after their revolt had been crushed by the British in 1939, I came to know quite a few Arab families in Haifa, including our next-door neighbours. Their lifestyle, as well as that of villagers and Beduins living near to some of the kibbutzim, whom we occasionally met during the long summer holidays, was in my view too traditional for them to wish to become members. We spent practically every holiday as volunteers on a kibbutz, helping with various tasks in their fields and orchards. Later on we also used to go at weekends for firearms training, caches of which were hidden by practically all kibbutzim. It was on a kibbutz, though that I experienced the first puzzling event: two Czech soldiers from the Czechoslovak Free Army had been sent to recuperate in a kibbutz comprised exclusively of Czechoslovak immigrants, all of them completely secular. The two had been bakers in their respective villages and soon volunteered to work in the kibbutz bakery, with the result that the standard of bread, rolls and pastry rocketed to unknown heights. They took a great liking to kibbutz life and applied to become members. To this day I remember listening to two of the female members discussing the matter while we were working in the orchard; the stumbling block appeared to be that the two were not Jewish. I couldn’t understand this at all, why was this a problem in a place were there was no religion whatsoever? Their application was rejected, a was one I came across years later, when an English colleague told me that he too had applied for membership of a kibbutz he had worked on as a volunteer and had been rejected. By that time it had become clear that the Land of Israel that we had sung about and idealised endlessly was meant exclusively for Jews.
Songs played a major role in my life during my school years and after; some openly defiant: “we shall never be moved from here” “and despite everything, the Land of Israel” etc; others more subtle and beautiful “My homeland is the Land of Canaan”, “My sea of Galilee” and more. Few of us ever questioned the fact that we were Palestinians living in Palestine and that there was some contradiction in asserting that this was, apparently simultaneously, the Land of Israel. I certainly didn’t. Our being sworn into the Hagana (Defence) underground movement, incidentally at night in a secret ceremony (something like a Klu Klux Klan ceremony) in a remote sheltered grove on Mount Carmel, equally did not alert me: we were going to rid ourselves of the British Colonial Powers. Most of us were totally blind to the hidden agenda and danger we presented to the local population, although they were only too aware of it.
During the war years there was growing anxiety amounting to dread among European Jews about the fate of families left behind, and growing bitterness about Britain in particular doing so little to try and rescue them. However, this was also a period of greater mutual tolerance between Arabs and Jews.
At the end of WW2 tensions between Jewish settlers and the British authorities increased; there was growing pressure to let in ships packed with refugees from the death camps in Europe. It was revealed only recently that many of these survivors didn’t want to go to Palestine but were herded, often by force, onto ships by Hagana commanders. David Ben-Gurion, the head of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) asserted and later reiterated that had there been a choice of saving one million Jewish children by sending them to the UK prior to the war or only half that number by sending them to Palestine, he would always have opted for the latter. Equally, there were more and more vociferous demands for our own state in Palestine. When this was finally granted by the UN in 1947, there were wild jubilations among the Jewish population but anger and dismay among the Arab one: the proposed two states gave Jews over half the land although they were only about 1/6th of the population and at the time owned just under 10% of the land of Palestine. Even before the British left in May 1948, expulsions of Arab villagers had started and their villages were often razed to the ground.
By the end of the “Independence” War the terrible Palestinian Nakba had occurred and over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs had become refugees, never to be allowed to return to their homes. A great deal more than the proposed land had been expropriated by the Israeli Defence Army. This process of ethnic cleansing continues till today and the term “Defence Army” is laughable as it is so clearly an Army of Occupation.
Several incidents which had started to worry me had occurred by then: the massacre in April 1948 of the inhabitants of Deir Yassin, an entirely peaceful village near Jerusalem. In the summer of that year on a brief visit to Haifa during the first armistice, I was shocked to learn about the expulsion of most of the City’s Arab population including our neighbours. This had also happened in Safad and in many other places. Even so, for many years I, along with a majority of Israelis, remained far too gullible and believed the relentless propaganda we were fed, which asserted that the bulk of the local population fled in spite of assurances that nothing would happen to them. It was easier to believe that Deir Yassin, Haifa and Safad were exceptions. Lenin had coined a term for blindly loyal followers of soviet ideology: “useful idiots”; a most fitting description of us.
However, during the early 50’s I became aware firstly of the shabby treatment of non European immigrants, many of them Arab Jews, upon arrival in the new state. Even more appalling was the way in which the remaining Arab citizens were treated. They became the target of institutional racism, regarded as non-equal to Jewish Israelis just by not being Jews. This blatant inequality exists until this day; Israeli citizens are classified from birth as Jew, Arab or Druze, with only the first group enjoying the full rights and benefits of Jewish Nationals. More over, Israeli Arabs cannot buy property or land in Israel and much of their land and many villages are still being expropriated. The intention of the state is clear: as few Arabs as possible on as little land as possible.
What is happening now with the continued occupation of and expansion in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is a natural extension of the conviction that all of Israel, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river belongs solely to Jews. Some of the proponents of this belief have a religious perspective, other a chauvinist/colonialist one. Since the year 2000 alone, 30,000 houses and 80,000 olive trees have been demolished and thousands of acres of land have been confiscated by settlement expansion. This expansion and the enforced separation, i.e. apartheid, can only be achieved by brute force, and indeed the Israeli army/police have brutalised Palestinians in a shocking manner which would not be tolerated had any other state acted in this way. However, those who brutalise others, inevitably brutalise themselves, as was the case in Serbia, South Africa, Rwanda and Germany during the third Reich.
It has become acceptable to shoot young children, to humiliate people at the endless checkpoints surrounding all Palestinian towns and villages. The demolition of whole rows of houses as “collective punishment” or as “collateral damage” is widespread. Israeli soldiers wilfully occupy the roofs of houses in Palestinian towns and villages, then proceed to intimidate the owners so as to make them leave by urinating into water tanks, throwing their rubbish onto lower balconies, writing obscene graffiti on walls and smashing computers, furniture and glass. I saw some of such graffiti in the old city of Jerusalem as well as in Hebron and other places. They had a Star of David with inscriptions “Arabs out” and “death to Arabs”, eerily reminiscent of what I saw as a child in Berlin with the Star of David replaced by a swastika and Jews replaced by Arabs.
Israel still cynically claims to be the “victim”; while it is the second largest arms manufacturer in the world and has the fifth biggest stockpile of nuclear weapons worldwide. The vast majority of Israelis live in a state of perpetual fear and hatred of Arabs and have hijacked the holocaust in an almost obscene manner in order to justify their own atrocities. By imprisoning the “other” they imprison themselves, most glaringly with the monstrous “Security Wall” now growing apace. This wall eats deeply into Palestinian land so that many farmers can no longer tend their field and olive groves and children, the sick and elderly face enormous obstacles in their daily lives. This is not about security; it is naked apartheid.
Israel is in a deep moral quagmire and to me only one solution is possible and just: to put Human and Civil Rights above Israeli/Jewish Rights. It is only by ridding ourselves from the narrow and blinkered view which puts us and our needs above all others that we can normality, morality and a sense of justice. To liberate ourselves and live in true freedom and peace we must adopt the idea of one democratic secular state for all its citizens, whoever they are.