What I Didn’t See as a Jewish Israeli
“I was born in Romania during the Second World War,” writes Tzvia Thier. In the wake of the Holocaust, her family immigrated to Israel, where she grew up in Tel Aviv. She spent years on a kibbutz, served in the army, and worked as a teacher and principal. Yet despite her identity as a liberal Zionist who was against racism and discrimination, Thier writes that her own education as a Jewish Israeli meant that “I did not know that I lived behind an invisible wall. I did not know how much I did not know.”
In this excerpt from “Seeing Zionism at Last,” her essay in A Land With a People: Palestinians and Jews Confront Zionism, Thier describes a pivotal moment that opened her eyes to the fundamental injustice of the Nakba, the violent dispossession of Palestinians from their land.
The 1967 war pushed me into thinking more about my political stand. The West Bank occupation, the settlements, and the right-wing settlers were for me the main political wrongdoing. It was not that I ignored the Nakba; I did not know this term at all, and 1948 remained holy in my mind. In this piece of land, Israel–Palestine, the population is divided about half and half between Jews and Palestinians. When Israelis say Palestinians, they can be referring to the Palestinian citizens of Israel—the so-called “1948 Arabs”—or those under military rule in the Occupied Territories who are not citizens.
Through most of my life, I did not have any contact with Palestinians, not one friend, acquaintance, or neighbor. The Palestinians were on the dark side of the moon. I never went to Arab towns, definitely not to the West Bank or Gaza (before the blockade). Sometimes, while driving to the north, I would stop at one of the Arab restaurants located along the roads to eat some good Arabic food. I lived in Jerusalem, the “united Jerusalem,” where 40% are Palestinians (residents, not citizens). I never went to Occupied East Jerusalem. I saw Palestinians cleaning the streets, planting flowers to beautify my city, working on building construction, carrying products in the supermarkets, and washing dishes in restaurants, but I really did not see them.
“Where a man cannot look, he cannot feel,” writes Richard Forer in his book Breakthrough: Transforming Fear Into Compassion – A New Perspective on the Israel–Palestine Conflict, “and where a man cannot feel, he has not really looked. Without both he will never understand.” A deep fear has been instilled in our veins. I did not dare to cross the street to the Palestinian side. There is no need for formal segregation in Israel; it is enforced perfectly through this deep fear: two completely separate entities. This is a perfect way to dehumanize the other. “They” become demons, and you keep out of their space.
A major turning point for me came in November 2009. I heard on the news that the court ruled to evict two Palestinian families from their homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. I knew nothing about this matter. I only vaguely knew where Sheikh Jarrah was, even though it sits in a very busy location alongside the Hebrew University, Hadassah Hospital, and the French Hill, where I lived for a couple of years in the 1990s, unaware that I was a settler living in a settlement. What I learned was that two families were being thrown into the street. It infuriated me. But when I heard that there was a group of people protesting the eviction, I did not join. I was not familiar with Palestinian neighborhoods, and on Jerusalem city maps, these neighborhoods are blank.
And … I was afraid. My daughter, Daphna, insisted on going there. I joined her; I had to protect her. Together, we found Sheikh Jarrah. This was the first time in my life—at the age of 65, after living in Israel for 59 years—that I had conversations with Palestinians! I realized that it was not my daughter who needed to be protected, but the Palestinians. My journey had begun. Sheikh Jarrah was my doorway to end the fear. I joined the weekly protests on Friday afternoons, where I met Palestinians and Jewish–Israeli activists. It was then that I started my inquiry. I wanted to see, I wanted to know.
My first tour was with the left advocacy group Ir Amim, to East Jerusalem. I was shocked. It is a third-world city. In this “united Jerusalem,” the Palestinian neighborhoods don’t look like the Jerusalem in which I lived. We were driving on narrow, bumpy, unpaved roads with no sidewalks. The schools we saw were very poor and inadequately staffed and resourced. There were no playgrounds, and the piled-up garbage was rarely collected. Israeli authorities carry out a tremendous effort to Judaize East Jerusalem, and house demolitions are an important part of that. Demolishing Palestinian houses that had been built without permit is the pretext, yet permits are denied—a Catch-22. We met Palestinians and listened to their frustrating, sad stories. Their status as residents can be revoked easily, which indeed has been done frequently. Since the Oslo Accords, around 15,000 Palestinians have lost their residency; because they dared to go abroad, they lost their right to return home.
Later, I joined Machsom Watch, an Israeli women’s group that monitors soldiers and police at checkpoints, to tour the northern part of the West Bank. There, I observed poverty and restrictions on mobility, such as checkpoints that look like passages for cows and separate Palestinian villages and towns from each other. At these checkpoints, Palestinians are kept waiting for hours, from 2 or 3 in the morning, as they try to get to work on time or go to school or a hospital. They are processed like herds of animals.
Breaking the Silence is an organization of former IDF soldiers that attempts to show the realities of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. In 2018, I went on a Breaking the Silence tour to Hebron. This is one of the biggest cities in the West Bank, with about 200,000 Palestinians and around 1,000 Jewish settlers. It was hard to believe what my eyes witnessed. The once vivid city market had turned into a ghost town.
In Hebron, the stores are closed, with locked and welded doors. The streets are divided: the larger part for Jews only, and a path (cars are not allowed) for Palestinians. Palestinian apartments are fenced on all sides, protected from the stones and garbage that settlers routinely throw at them. The occupants don’t have access to the street; they have to climb over the roof and then down a ladder to go to a store, school, or hospital. Hebron, with its roadblocks, concrete barriers, guard towers, and border police patrol is well controlled.
I felt anger, shame, sadness, and pain. Once, at a Friday demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah, a guy was asking people whether they were willing to volunteer and join Ta’ayush (which means partnership) to go to the South Hebron Hills. I did not know what Ta’ayush was. I signed up anyway and joined. I showed up at the meeting point on Saturday, at 6 in the morning, and off we headed south in a van. From that Saturday on, this was what I did every Saturday for three years: working together with Palestinians doing whatever was needed, including harvesting, cleaning cisterns, rebuilding what had been destroyed, and more. Being part of Ta’ayush has been one of the most meaningful times in my life, one of the most meaningful things I have ever done.
It has been hard work to examine my own mind. Many questions leave me wondering how I could have not thought about them before. My solid identity was shaken and then broken. I have been an eyewitness to the systematic oppression, humiliation, racism, cruelty, and hatred by “my” people toward the “others.” And what you finally see, you can no longer unsee.
This excerpt from “Seeing Zionism at Last” by Tzvia Thier is from A Land With A People: Palestinians and Jews Confront Zionism, edited by Esther Farmer, Rosalind Petchesky, and Sarah Sills. It appears with permission of the editors and the publisher, Monthly Review Press (2021).
Tzvia Thier an Israeli American citizen born in Romania and a Holocaust survivor, lived in Israel most of her life. She was a Zionist educator. At the age of 65, she was exposed to the Palestinian reality and the truth about Zionism. Thier became an anti-Zionist activist and has participated in Jewish Voice for Peace’s work in New York City and New Jersey.