This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
Many older Jewish people have traditionally seen Israel as a safe haven – somewhere they can spend their lives without fear of discrimination. Today, many young Jewish people are attempting to reconcile close familial ties to the country with the ongoing conflict in Palestine, navigating complexities that have arisen because of their families’ pro-Israel stance.
We talked to four young Jewish people who oppose Israel’s politics about how they formed their opinions, and how they broach the subject with those closest to them.
Deborah, 40. Actress and member of the NGO Jewish Progressives of Belgium.
Deborah by Sébastien Fernandez
“I’m Jewish-Moroccan,” says Deborah. “My father was born in Morocco and left when he was 18.” Before the creation of Israel in 1948, about 270,000 Jews lived in Morocco. Many of them, including Deborah’s dad, had good memories of life in the country, but left for Israel when the newborn state invited Jewish people from across the world – a policy called Aliyah.
In 1973, after he moved to Israel, her dad worked in the military radio service during the Yom Kippur War. A couple of years later, he met her Belgian mum on a bus and decided to move with her to Europe and start all over again.
Growing up, Deborah’s views were influenced by her father’s secular approach to religion, and by his Jewish-Moroccan traditions. “My father is a Zionist, and he educated me to think that way, too,” Deborah says.
When she was 25, Deborah discovered the book “Bienvenue en Palestine” (“Welcome to Palestine”), by the French-Jewish author Anne Brunswic, which inspired her to think independently about the conflict. “I realised the Zionists’ way of thinking is nothing more than a myth,” she says.
Deborah has always been close with her dad. “But we really can’t talk about Israel, because it never goes well,” she says. She condemns the violations of international law Israel stands accused of – including building illegal settlements on occupied land – and is bothered by the support the country receives from powerful allies like the United States.
“Without even counting bombings, Israel commits acts of violence every day. The system imposed upon the Palestinians is racist, humiliating and dehumanising,” she says. “The Palestinians are deprived of their land, their homes. Every day, the settlers cut down olive trees, dispossessing them from their history and culinary culture. It’s yet another form of colonisation.”
Deborah is also concerned that media reporting of the conflict is often biased, especially when it comes to Hamas. “Of course there are deaths on both sides, and it’s horrible,” she says. “But this [Hamas’ attacks of mid-May, 2021] is a response to the occupation.”
Deborah doesn’t think the conflict boils down religion: “It’s not Jews versus Muslims. Israel’s claim that they’re acting on behalf of Jews is crazy.” Because of her support for Palestinian rights, Deborah has been accused of antisemitism by people in her community, including her family.
“Ultimately, Jews who say anti-Zionism is antisemitism are insulting our history and our collective memory,” Deborah says.
Matéo, 24. Freelance journalist.
Matéo by Hichem Dahes
Matéo is not a practising Jew, but is spiritual in his own way. He was born in France to a father from Martinique – an overseas region of France in the Caribbean – and a mother who is a Jewish pied-noir, a person of European descent born in Algeria when it was a French colony. His mum’s Jewish family wasn’t welcome in Algeria, and yet they were still reluctant to leave the country at the end of its war of independence. After living in Marseille for a few years, many of his family members decided to move to Israel.
“Since I was little, I’ve heard my mother’s family talk about Israel as the place they dreamed of going to, either on vacation or to live there,” Matéo says. “People would say Tel Aviv was like the New York City of the Middle East.”
Even though her relatives saw Israel as a land of opportunity, Matéo’s mum has always been more critical of the country, which is why she decided not to join them. “A lot of Jewish people around me went to Israel as if it was the logical thing to do,” he says. “But in the end, they found they had no direct connection with the land.”
Encouraged by people in his community, Matéo considered going to Israel on a birthright trip – a free ten-day tour of the country for any Jewish person aged between 18 and 32. In the end, he decided not to go because he felt the programme was a tool for propaganda: “As far as I’m concerned, it is obviously designed to have you meet other Jews and stay in the community, or maybe even find a partner and settle down [in Israel].”
Informed by his family’s long history with colonialism, Matéo decided to form his own opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an anti-colonial perspective. “I’m obviously against Israel’s expansion policy, but I also think it’s important to note that before Israel was created, Palestine had never been recognised as a state,” he says. “That land had always been fought over.”
In 2018, Israel passed a controversial nation-state bill stating that only the Jewish citizens of Israel have a right to exercise self-determination. That marked a turning point for Matéo. “It really exposed the logic behind this apartheid state, behind placing everybody in a hierarchy,” he says.
Matéo disagrees with the idea that this is not a religious conflict. “In the 1850s, there were already fights between Jews and Arabs, over which authority would be quicker to take charge of the holy city [Jerusalem],” he says. “It’s always been about conquest, and about territory in particular.”
Ultimately, he thinks it’s important for the world to better understand that not all Jews or all Israelis are in favour of the country’s expansionist policies.
While convinced that Israel’s right-wing politicians are damaging any prospects for peace, Matéo also believes that both Palestinian parties – Hamas and Fatah – share part of the blame. “I think we have to be wary of narratives that tell a story from only one side,” he says.
Sarah*, 23. Political science student.
Sarah is also a descendant of Moroccan Jews; her grandparents on her dad’s side migrated from Morocco to Israel in the 1960s. A few years later, her dad fell in love with her mother, a pro-Palestinian student and researcher working in Palestinian refugee camps.
Sarah’s family is pretty secular, and she grew up often being the only Jewish person in her friendship groups. “Discussions about Israel were very much part of my childhood,” she says. “My father’s family in Israel leaned more to the right, even though they also faced racism in Israel because of their Moroccan roots. Fortunately, my father was lucky enough to go to university and learn to think critically about it all. He never agreed with his family’s opinions – but it’s more complicated for him, since he was born in Israel and has lived through the violence there.”
Sarah feels that the situation has worsened in recent years. “Twenty years ago, there was still hope of finding a solution to live together in peace,” she says. “But since Netanyahu’s return to power, we’ve reached a point of no return. It really breaks my heart.” Sarah says Netanyahu’s government is responsible for acts of ethnic cleansing and constant dispossession. “The Israeli state is not looking for peace,” she adds.
Sarah says she understands why many Jewish people feel attached to Israel. “They indoctrinate us and repeat to us that there’s no other place for us in the world, that we can have a good life in Israel and the country needs us,” she says. However, she thinks this idea is fraught: “Wanting to attach a religion to a country is a white European concept. The fact is, you can be Jewish anywhere you want.”
Meanwhile, living in Israel is presented as a great opportunity for young Jewish people. “I’ve been there and it’s true – it’s a feel-good experience. Everyone constantly stresses how welcome you are, and it feels nice, especially when you know how widespread anti-Semitism is,” she says. “It’s easy to get swallowed in this narrative if you don’t think critically.”
Omri, 33. Managing Director at the NGO Alliance4Europe.
Omri by Barney Roberts
Omri was born in Israel, but his parents moved around Europe while he was growing up. His grandparents were Jewish European and both grandfathers lost their families in concentration camps before relocating to Israel in the 1950s. “When you live in Israel, you’re constantly face-to-face with the conflict – it’s always a topic of discussion,” Omri says. “At school, they feed you the nationalist narrative – basically, the story of why the Jews have the right to be free in their country.”
After growing up around these ideas, Omri says he got to know Palestinian peers and colleagues, and discovered there was another side to the story. “Hearing their point of view was a revelation to me,” he says. Today, he agrees with the premise that Jewish people have a right to self-determination, but doesn’t think it justifies the oppression and violence experienced by Palestinians.
“In the 1990s, most people thought there would be a peace deal. It was a really optimistic time for everyone,” Omri says. The so-called Oslo Accords were a series of treaties negotiated between Israel’s then-prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and the head of the secular Palestinian Fatah party, Yasser Arafat, in order to prepare for a final peace deal. Struck between 1993 and 1995, they were followed by a streak of violence – the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, the second intifada and the rise of Hamas in Gaza. “All of that really shook up public opinion. People lost all hope of peace and began heading toward the right,” Omri says.
Benjamin Netanyahu has been in various positions of power since then, and Omri thinks he’s been exacerbating the hatred towards the Palestinians to consolidate his position. “He’s made democratic debate very difficult,” Omri says. Palestine is also undergoing a power struggle between the fundamentalist party Hamas, which rules Gaza and is responsible for hundreds of attacks on Israel, and Fatah, the secular party controlling the rest of Palestine. The head of Fatah, Mahmood Abbas, recently postponed elections in Palestine for fear of losing power. “People are suffering on both sides because of the politicians’ games – they’re playing with people’s lives,” says Omri.
Omri thinks Israelis and Palestinians are approaching the situation from a place of fear. “On one side, Israel sees Palestine as a menace that wants to exterminate Jews the way the Nazis did,” he says. “Meanwhile, Palestine is reliving its colonialist past.”
But at the end of the day, both peoples have so much in common, Omri says: “Israel will never be safe as long as Palestine isn’t free and democratic. And Palestine will never be free and democratic as long as Israel isn't safe.”