Cover Collage: “locating lineal traces” by Tamar Ashdot
It’s impossible to know where to begin because most of my ancestral understanding lives in the past. In the world before 1948. Before Israel’s statehood.
My father was born in 1935, in Jerusalem, in British Mandate Palestine. Though it is incredibly rare for a father to be 60 when his daughter was born, it is even rarer to be raised by a parent in the 21st century who personally witnessed this period (1935-1948). This is the history I was born into as the following generation, a knowledge of the world before Zionism was recognized by international law, the world before the Holocaust.
Much of the complexity regarding Israel-Palestine is that the nation-state of Israel has only existed for 75 years. The age of a grandparent – those who know the land as Palestine are still alive.
My father’s family emigrated to Palestine in the late 1790s, first settling in Hebron before moving to Jerusalem in the mid-19th century. At that time, and for the centuries that preceded, from the fall of the Second Temple (c.70 AD) to end of the Ottoman Empire (c. 1920), a small population of Jews lived only in the four holy cities of Palestine: Hebron, Tiberius, Jerusalem, and Safed. My family belonged to this community of pious Jews, committed to the world to come, that of the Messiah. They yearned to believe the Messiah was to come in their life, but knew it could be centuries, too. Thus they chose to bury their bodies in a holy city where they could be resurrected one day.
It is also rare that my father and his father chose to diverge from their rabbinic dynastic families to search for a modern, secular life. The British government was not aligned with what they sought, nor was the Zionist movement what they expected. In being raised by my father and this context, I understood the Zionist project to be flawed, complicated, difficult.
Though my great-grandfather had been one of the head rabbis in Jerusalem at the time, this didn’t prevent his daughter’s home (my grandmother) from being bombed by Zionist resistance forces. At the same time, different members of my family, who also departed from religiosity, joined Zionist militias and took part in a bloody and tragic history.
The people of Kfar Azza, Be’eri, Sderot, and the neighboring towns, from which the captives were taken, are largely secular (and often left-wing) Israeli communities.
It dawned on me that those who were seeing the news on October 7th wouldn’t understand or know of the Israeli left-wing, secular niches of the nation’s society or their significance.
I wondered how many of the kidnapped or killed had been in the streets of Tel Aviv weeks earlier, protesting the government, calling for political solutions and coalitions that would also forefront the need for Palestinian liberation.
Because I was raised in America, to an American mother, it has become clear to me that American vocabulary collapses Israelis and Jews into one. This perception complicated a lot of my childhood, as my father was raised by Haredi grandparents, and had a troubled relationship with Judaism. He chose to raise me with fragments of religion, whatever was brought with him post-1948 into the world of Israeli statehood.
Rather than raise me on Jewish law, I was taught from a young age the weight and importance of being “secular,” “lefty.” These were traits that others, Israelis and Americans, hated about my father. As an adult, I now understand that this was his personal response to the rise of Zionism. A need to distinguish himself from Judaism, from the things the Zionist movement had contaminated for him.
October 7th was a Saturday. In Hebrew, there are no names for the weekdays, just day one, day two, and so on – except for Shabbat. October 7th was a Shabbat and the final day of the holiday of Sukkot. It was not lost on me, in seeing the videos of music festival goers running through the desert, that attending concerts on this day meant they were secular and nonreligious.
This fact adds yet another difficult layer to an already convoluted and muddled crisis in Israel-Palestine. Like we’ve seen in a number of interviews and testimonies, the families and loved ones of the captured or killed, as well as the hostages themselves, are against the war on Gaza. There is a strong effort to prevent revenge, bloodlust, and escalation. Especially in the name of the captured and the killed.
One woman in captivity, Vivian Silver*, is a board member for the Israeli human rights organization, Btselem, which documents human rights violations in occupied territories. Another hostage, Yocheved Lifshitz, who has since been freed, is a human rights activist, and frequently worked to transport wounded Gazans to hospitals in Israel across the separation wall and border.
None of this surprises me. Does it surprise others? I’m sure. Most people are filled with questions like: “How could Israelis believe in the rights of Palestinians?” “How could the freed hostages feel their captors were humane?” “Why would Yocheved turn before leaving Gaza to shake her captor’s hand and say “shalom” (peace)?”
Because the majority of the communities beside the Gaza border believe in human rights, believe in the criticism of the Israeli state, in questioning Zionism at large.
I was raised in Brooklyn, New York. I gained my consciousness very early on, before the age of 7. Sometime around the Second Intifada, not flying into Jerusalem for my grandmother’s funeral because of security concerns, and 9/11, walking home from school amidst clouds of ashes. I grew up in a space where criticizing Israel was a common Shabbat dinner discussion for my father’s family, and it was expected that one were to come armed with opinions.
Growing up in American schools, I was often asked to articulate and educate others about Israel-Palestine, to be a primary source document for Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, who couldn’t envision the reality. There were flaws with placing this expectation upon me: I was still young, a product of Western media, uneducated on everything that was required to tell the truth.
Only one of my grandparents is American. Both my paternal grandparents were born in Jerusalem and my maternal grandfather was born in Hamburg, Germany. My grandfather escaped after Kristallnacht to New York City, where he’d meet my one American grandparent, my grandmother Tamar.
As a child, there was very little American experiential knowledge to gain from my family. I was made up of Jewish Palestinian lineage and post-Holocaust Jewish trauma. Inherently, my own ancestry allowed for the negation of the widely held concept that Israel was created because of the Holocaust.
The last 50 years of Israeli government have been characterized by a major shift to emphasis on religiosity, a calculated and strategic intertwining of Judaism, Torah, the Holocaust, and the nation state of Israel. The flag, with its Jewish star in the center, never felt right for my father, and it never felt safe for me.
My Judaism has never been Zionism. I often said throughout my childhood that I had one Jewish parent and one Israeli parent.
Oppression is the root of all violence. Jewish oppression. Palestinian oppression. We live in a world where Holocaust survivors and displaced Palestinian survivors still exist. The truth is incredibly layered.
I have always held my breath, knowing the Zionist movement allows cycles of violence to explode. It’s repetitive. The wars never happen in winter, but during the autumn holidays or the summer. I hear of a missile strike, a stabbing, a police interaction, a Molotov cocktail, and know that the seal has been broken. Those of us inside know the cycle. That violence is unavoidable until the powers and governments capable of ending it choose to do so.
Retaliation and liberation will not look different until then – the absence of violence is not peace, it is justice. The powers that subjugate their civilians to death and violence are responsible. And so are each of us.
I have a moral responsibility, a Jewish responsibility, to speak the truth. I am an educator, a person who loves children, and sees the world in every one of them. I am an artist that seeks to spark each youth’s creativity, to validate their inner worlds. James Baldwin writes, “the role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”
We are being asked by our brothers and sisters in Gaza and Palestine to speak on their behalf. To use our access, our internet to share their words, stories, images. I want to be able to say where I was and what I did when these atrocities unfolded. That I marched, made signs, learned Arabic chants. That I told the truth, the one that centers the need for Palestinian liberation.
In the Talmud it says, “to save a singular life, is to save the entire world.” I believe this to be true, and offer my own interpretation: “to save a story, is to save a people.”
The story of the Palestinian people has been silenced for years, decades. Even though I was raised by a secular, critical, Jewish Palestinian-born father, one who fiercely opposed West Bank settlements, I never experienced Palestinian perspectives firsthand. I didn’t befriend a Palestinian person until I was 18.
The Zionist project works to separate us, Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, in an effort to push a Jewish narrative that intentionally does not encompass all people, nor all Jews or the biblical commandments central to our religion. “Thou shalt not kill.” “Above all, you are to love thy neighbor as thy self.” There is violence in the forsaking of these tenets, especially in the name of Jewish security. We are experiencing the apex of what happens when these limited, myopic perspectives take hold and gain power; the violence of dishonesty and falsities.
The truth is often difficult. Complicated. But just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The truth is a 360 degree perspective, it holds everything within it. Even the things that feel like they cancel one another out. The realities that oppose deeply held understandings. But still, we must mark the difference between beliefs and truths. Venture into ourselves in the hopes of detangling what has been taught to us from what is true and real.
The oversimplification and compression of Jewish identity has caused mass hysteria worldwide. The conflation of Zionism and Judaism allows for toxic and violent notions to take hold. Misdirected antisemitic hate is rampant. There is fear amongst the Jewish communities that is permeating action – “If we’re not safe here, we must protect Israel, the place for Jews!” It is this misconstruing and weaponizing of diasporic Jewish experiences that ultimately aids the Israeli occupation.
What would happen if instead of using fear of discrimination as momentum or justification, the Jewish people chose to push back on violence being committed in their name?
When asked if it would be alright for Israel to cease to exist as it does, I answered it would be okay. Having studied Jewish history for my Bachelor’s degree, I can say with confidence that the Jewish people are a unique, empowered, fascinating religion and culture that can survive anything. This means the Jewish people can also survive a new reality, one which doesn’t include the nation state of Israel, one which allows ancestral lands to be returned to Palestinians.
Like my great great grandfathers and my ancestors in Palestine, I believe in a world where sanctifying Jewish spaces and a free Palestine can both be true, where the Jewish people thrive and unite in the diaspora.
In the US, the phrase is “Never Again.” But abroad, in the places where war ravaged worlds and destroyed lives, there is an understanding of collective protection. Of collective prevention. “Never Again for All.” On the other side of the Atlantic, this sentiment was lost, distorted and perverted to accommodate the needs of a larger settler-colonial project, the nation state of Israel.
The perversion of this sentiment became explicitly clear to me when I traveled to Poland for a week with my Israel gap year program. At every concentration camp we were asked to sing the Israeli national anthem. I chose not to each time, the words of a Zionist song feeling completely antithetical to a barren, snow covered field, which once was an extermination camp and now a mass grave.
This was how they wanted the deaths of the Holocaust to be avenged: Jewish youth singing about a return to a homeland unseen for two millennia. “Never Again” could mean that Jewish people were entitled to their own form of prevention, their own alternate understanding of defense. To promote the misconception that security comes at the cost of others’ freedom.
The grief is heavy.
All systems of oppression are linked, including antisemitism. The weaponizing of trauma and generational hurt is not the way forward. We are required to do the work of untangling Zionism from Judaism, to challenge the Israeli nation state, to Free Palestine, and to ensure it is “Never Again for All.”
Much of the internal labor incumbent upon us happens offline. Not on Instagram stories or Facebook posts. I’ve been writing poems and asking questions for as long as I can remember about Israeli violence. Questions about the army, the guns slung on shopping mall bodyguards. It was only as an adult that I gained the independence to look deeper, to dig past the false realities, to find and hold the truth.
The truth is that Palestinians must be free. In a liberated nation, on their homeland. The truth is that Jewish people have been discriminated against for two millennia, forced from their homes into lands unfamiliar to them. Both are true, and yet past grief and harm cannot and will not preclude Palestinian liberation from fruition. There can and will be a future in which freedom and safety can coexist.
***Vivian Silver has since been confirmed as having passed away in her home on the kibbutz as a result of heavy armed crossfire***
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Tamar Ashdot (she/they) is a Brooklyn-born writer, photographer, and musician. Tamar’s interdisciplinary artistry focuses on the importance of multimedia in challenging traditional understandings of history, society, and culture, and is deeply influenced by her Jewish upbringing in New York City. Tamar, who is currently living in Michigan, is pursuing a post-graduate fellowship in poetry after receiving her MFA from the University of Michigan.