It was a rite of passage. The gap year trip for Israel is for many British Jews a sine qua non, an essential part of becoming a Jewish adult. For me at least it wasn't particularly ideological. I'd grown up with a vague sense that Israel and Zionism was part and parcel of being Jewish, and it was something I wanted to explore for myself. To the small degree that I thought about it, I supported the Israeli Left and disliked settlers—that was par for the course in my liberal synagogue in north London. To me, at that time, being leftwing and being Jewish were pretty much the same thing. As far as I knew, Israel was basically good, and engaged in peace negotiations, and the only problem was a small minority of ultra-orthodox settlers.
So I went, age 18 in 1999, ironically at what we can now see was the height of the peace process, with the Ehud Barak government negotiating at Camp David and at Taba. In terms of peace it was about as good as it got. The Jewish youth movement I'd gone with was a pretty incompetent one and they'd sent me to a kibbutz on my own, where I met a range of international travelers and volunteers rather than mixing with other British Jews. In retrospect, perhaps that was significant. For the early weeks I was there, I associated the elation I felt at being away from home for the first time with Israel; its landscapes, its people, and its language. I also fell in love with the kibbutz‚—the egalitarianism, the communal meals, the general sense of bonhomie.
I was loosely aware of ethnic tensions—I remember being warned by a kibbutznik to take care when hitchhiking to the local synagogue on a Friday, as there were "Arabs on the roads." But on my regular afternoons off (Kibbutz work turned out not to be so arduous after I was sacked from the Banana fields) I visited local towns, and became particularly entranced with the old city of Akko, on the coast. While most of the Jewish areas featured more modern architecture, old Akko, a predominantly Palestinian Arab area, still retained many Ottoman buildings, and featured narrow streets, hidden nooks and crannies, and market stalls galore. I was entranced. Sitting on a rock in Akko's port in the autumn sunshine, looking out onto the small boats, and onto the Mediterranean beyond, I experienced something of a revelation—my favorite place in Israel was an Arab town.
Many Israeli towns to me lacked the depth, history, and serenity I found in the turrets, clock towers, and stone walls of Akko. The warmth and calm I felt in this place made me question the notion of separation that was popular at the time—that "we are here and they are there." In that moment I realized I didn't want to live in a nationalist country in which the culture of one group predominated, but rather one in which different cultures lived, if not exactly side by side, then at least down the road. I realized that I believed in what's known as the one-state solution—that instead of partition, Israel/Palestine should become a state for all its citizens, with equal rights and freedom of movement for all.
In those heady days of peace talks such a position was certainly unusual, but not completely ridiculous. It seemed then that everyone was committed to peace and human rights, and the idea of a single state in which Jews and Arabs lived together had been proposed by various historical figures who identified as Zionist, such as Martin Buber, Judah Hamagnes, and Hannah Arendt. So even while taking a fringe position I felt connected to an Israeli-Jewish consensus.
But my enrollment in university in the autumn of 2000 coincided with the start of the second intifada, the end of the peace process, and the arrival of Ariel Sharon as Israeli Prime Minister. From then on, everyone seemed to move to the right, blaming Palestinian terrorism for the end of the Oslo process, condoning Israel's military actions, and increasingly putting "security" before peace and human rights. My support for a one-state solution went from being a harmless eccentricity to a view utterly at odds with most Jewish opinion. I began to call myself a non-Zionist, feeling that, whatever the precedents in pre-state Zionist thought, the belief that Israel should become a state for all its citizens now put me beyond the Zionist fold.
While at university I formed a Jewish left-wing, pro-peace group, focused on criticizing Israeli human rights abuses during the second intifada. We were critics from within, putting up flyers for Israeli society events, and campaigning within the Jewish society. This was hugely controversial, as the Jewish society tolerated only limited criticisms of Israeli policy, and we certainly crossed the line. We were also committed to a strong Jewish identity and practice that didn't involve solidarity with Israel, a position that many found hard to comprehend.
Later, with a friend I'd met on my gap year, I founded Jewdas. It's a radical diaspora Jewish group that has taken an explicitly non-Zionist stance, alongside satirizing the many absurdities of the British Jewish community, and throwing excellent parties. Jewdas has worked hard to resuscitate strands of Jewish history and culture not based around Israel and statist nationalism, particularly Yiddish, socialism, and the rich history of Jews in London's East End. It began as a joke in 2005, designed mostly to amuse ourselves, but 11 years later it is still standing, providing space for diasporic, radical, and progressive Jews in the UK who do not feel catered for by the Jewish mainstream. Peace and justice in Israel/Palestine seems as far off as ever, but in the mean time, Jewdas aims to create a model for how Jews can live a rich and full life without the need for ethnocracy and without compromising Jewish ethical values. Much has changed in the intervening years but I still remember that autumn day, sitting on the rock in Akko, and feel that the moment changed the way I think and live.
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