Esther Farmer, Rosalind Petchesky, and Sarah Sills (eds.), A Land With A People: Palestinians and Jews Confront Zionism (Monthly Review Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Esther Farmer, Rosalind Petchesky, Sarah Sills (EF, RP & SS): All three of us editors have been very involved in Palestine solidarity work for many years and are on the leadership team of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) in New York City. We began this project six years ago at a chapter meeting of JVP when we began examining our different relationships to Zionism and to Israel/Palestine. This led to a storytelling project and a self-published book called Confronting Zionism with stories that described the mostly Jewish storytellers’ journeys of disillusionment with Zionism and support for Palestinian liberation. These stories were so compelling that they generated a theater project, “Wrestling with Zionism,” performed throughout the NYC metropolitan area between 2018 and 2020 (pre-Covid). Palestinian friends and colleagues soon became collaborators in the theater project, and this changed everything. We know how powerful stories are in countering the completely one-sided and propagandized narrative around Israel and Palestine and the tendency in mainstream US media and culture to invisibilize Palestinian experience, whether in Palestine, apartheid Israel, or the diaspora. Stories are a person’s lived experience, unlike a polemic where people argue about facts. Audiences responded with such enthusiasm that we decided to convert the stories into a full-scale book, hence A Land With A People was born.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
EF, RP & SS: The stories, poetry, historical analysis, and art in the book demonstrate the impact of Zionism, including its propaganda machine, on everyday life for everyone living in Israel/Palestine and in the diaspora. Far from any suggestion of “balance” or equivalence, they expose major differences in power, situation, and outlook not only between Israelis and Palestinians but also within Jewish and Palestinian groups based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, politics, and so much else. The book’s soul is some twenty-two personal narratives that are striking in their diversity. Its Palestinian contributors include a young writer enduring the carceral oppression of living in Gaza; a refugee from Syria, now a poet and student at the University of Michigan; several who tell of their or their parents’ experiences of the Nakba and of the hardships of living in refugee camps and constantly being removed; a queer Palestinian who is proud to be a US southerner and another who is a refugee from patriarchal and political repression in Gaza; and an educator in Brooklyn whose family has never stopped resisting and fighting for Palestinian liberation, even in exile.
The other writers include several Israelis of different generations, now living in the United States, who witnessed Israel’s militarized racism first hand and became ardent anti-Zionists. In addition, they include a mix of Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Ashkenazi Jews (and one Christian), ranging in age from their twenties to seventies, who grew up in the United States or Europe and underwent very diverse forms of political and spiritual transformation toward embracing anti-Zionism (or in one case, still thinking this through). Many grew up in staunchly Zionist households; others in left-secular ones, including our co-editor, Esther, a unique voice as a Palestinian Jew from Brooklyn. Together they reveal their own kinds of resistance–to Israeli military service, Zionist “trips to the holyland,” family pressures, and complicity in Israel’s human rights violations. Threading through the stories and echoing many of their themes are poetic contributions we were fortunate to solicit or gain permission to reprint from Remi Kanazi, Hala Alyan, Susan Eisenberg, Aurora Levins Morales, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Mahmoud Darwish. The stories and poems are grouped into four themes: Displacement and Memory, Wrestling with Identity, Questioning Power, and Repairing and Healing.
After collecting the stories and poetry, it became clear that we needed to situate them in their historical context. Thus we added a detailed and thoroughly researched political history of both Zionism and the resistance to it, led by Palestinians and supported by Jewish anti-Zionists for nearly 150 years. Its themes are the deep roots of Zionism in racism, settler colonialism, and ethno-nationalism from the start; the consequences of that legacy in today’s policies of annexation, apartheid, and ongoing violence in Israel and throughout the Occupied Territory; and the unbroken resistance to those policies by different phases of the local and international Palestine solidarity movements. Accompanying this is a unique timeline of Palestinian and Jewish resistance to Zionism beginning in the late nineteenth century, as well as a glossary of key terms and a list of resources (books, articles, podcasts, films, and so on). A foreword by the renowned Palestinian writer, activist, and legal scholar, Noura Erakat, puts the entire book into a critical and deeply engaging personal and political framework.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
EF, RP & SS: All three of us have been social justice activists for most of our lives. Rosalind Petchesky was a professor and researcher in the CUNY system (now retired) and a political activist and writer in international feminist, antiwar, reproductive, sexual, and economic justice movements for decades. Esther Farmer is a community developer, theater artist, and Palestinian Jew who has written about the power of theater in community development around the world. Sarah Sills is a lifelong artist-activist, graphic designer, and organizer active in labor and social justice movements. Editing this book together challenged us to grow in our understanding of how the power dynamics that Israel and Zionism have created affect all of our relationships and how we wanted this book to be a part of the much bigger movement for the indivisibility of justice—not only in/for Palestine but also to abolish hatreds, racisms, violence, war, and gender oppression.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
EF, RP & SS: We hope everyone who talks about “peace in the Middle East” will read it and learn something new, especially about the ways in which immense power differences and injustices must be addressed before any real peace is possible. We especially want the book to contribute to the decolonization of people’s minds and hearts about Zionism as an ideology and a political practice, as well as its historical roots and its impact on the lives of Palestinians in Israel/Palestine and the diaspora as well as on diasporic and Israeli Jews. The stories, poetry, images, and history in this book aim to elevate voices that have not been heard anywhere else. They should serve to debunk a whole series of old and new myths: that Palestinians left Israel voluntarily and were not forced out; that this is a “conflict” that goes back thousands of years and that Palestinians are part of the centuries of antisemitism actually perpetrated by Europeans; that most Palestinians are “terrorists”; that anti-Zionism equates with antisemitism. We hope our readers will see how Jewish anti-Zionism is far more in keeping with Jewish values and ethics than Zionism is. Above all, we want them to come away with a renewed sense of awe for Palestinians’ refusal to give up their struggle for justice or to be erased and to want to act in solidarity with that struggle.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
EF, RP & SS: New developments in the world relevant to the book’s concerns create an exciting context for spinoff projects that we have developed and continue to work on. These developments include the growing anti-Zionist sentiment among young Jews; the emergence of younger anti-Zionist rabbis and even a few synagogues; Zionism being viewed through an anti-racist lens among many on the left; and reports by international human rights agencies like Amnesty International attesting to the apartheid nature of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians. In this context, we are continuing to perform “Wrestling with Zionism” (the theater project) and have nurtured other storytelling projects in different cities, JVP chapters, and synagogues around the country, including an arts exchange project between artists in Gaza and NYC. In response to the book itself, we have seen several book clubs and study groups emerge (mainly through other JVP chapters) and are mentoring their facilitators. In addition, we are creating a curriculum and study guide to accompany the book and will make that available to high school and college educators as well as the informal study groups with whom we have been in contact. Finally, promotional activities for the book have resulted in a number of webinars, panels, and television and radio programs that we as editors and some of our Palestinian contributors have organized and/or participated in—here in the United States as well as in the United Kingdom and possibly soon in Mexico.
Excerpts from the book
From Noura Erakat, Foreword – “Radical Imagination and Palestine” (pp. 5-7)
The work that remains to be done requires something new from us. It asks that we shift from the strictures of political advocacy to the realm of spiritual transformation, where revolutionary potential lies. This is the realm of radical imagination that frees us from the shackles of what is possible; to emphasize, instead, what is necessary for our freedom. It is this radical imagining that has led me away from models of shared sovereignty, an incommensurate equation, to models of belonging, which are seemingly infinite.
Herein lies a pathway to decolonization, not predicated on the physical removal of the settlers, but on the transformation of the settlers, who must shed their claim to be owners of the land. Who must recognize their arrival as the conquest it was and not the redemption they had hoped; and who must change their relationship to the land and its Indigenous people from one of superior “masters” to that of cohabitants with native Palestinians in the valleys and on the hilltops and flatlands and coastlines, where they belong. Any pathway to Palestinian freedom is a decolonial process. It necessitates the confrontation and ultimate shedding of political Zionism as a legitimate ideology as well as our disavowal of historical colonialism and imperialism as legitimate systems of government.
A Land With A People is an exercise of decolonization in the form of reckoning that provides a path for others to follow…. Palestinian stories are essential to decolonization, yet they have been suppressed and are often only countenanced if supported by Jewish endorsement. For example, Palestinians have been saying that Israel is an apartheid state for decades, but it wasn’t until B’tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, acknowledged this fact in early 2021 that Israeli apartheid suddenly became universally credible. In an environment where they can only be heard if a Jewish ally confirms what they have been saying, Palestinians understandably grow angry.
This is a dynamic that Palestinians constantly deal with in relationships with our Jewish friends and allies in the anti-Zionist world. It is exacerbated by liberal efforts—especially from donors to multilateral processes, academic institutions, and gatekeepers—that insist on forms of “conflict resolution” that assume a false parity, eschewing the vast power differential between Palestinians and the Israeli government, and reducing our freedom struggle to hackneyed tolerance and diversity training.
This book is fundamentally different, tackling power head-on and charting the struggle against Zionism within the Jewish communities that Zionism purportedly serves. Its anti-Zionist Jewish stories are critical to decolonization, as well as for lighting pathways darkened by the punishing hand of imperial expansion.
May this book serve to crack the edifice of Zionist propaganda and institutional machinery that have worked to silence and punish opposition. May it lead to broader pathways toward decolonization. Until freedom for all.
From Rosalind Petchesky, “Zionism’s Twilight: Colonial Dreams, Racist Nightmares, Liberated Futures” (pp. 19-20)
Zionism is the ideology that fuses creation of (ancient) Jewish collectivity with claims to (modern) sovereignty over land allegedly promised by God to Jews and their descendants. Its myth of a common ethnos (culture and blood ties) relies on the process of transforming the Old Testament into a literal historical reference book, certifying the Jewish people as an uprooted “race” and a “chosen people” by virtue of their unique covenant with God. God promised Jews their return to their biblical homeland, turning all others who resided in that land over the centuries into “strangers” or “infiltrators.” This elaborate fiction of racial unity and singularity contradicts the diasporic reality of Jews as persons who, for centuries, have practiced various religious customs and rituals in diverse cultures, languages, racial identities, and geographies across the globe. . . .
Homogenizing Jews as a single national or racial identity inextricably bound to the State of Israel is itself a form of antisemitism with very old roots. From its origins in nineteenth-century Europe, Zionism has been an ideology and set of practices that constituted a racist system of settler colonialism. Like all racisms, it is double-sided, facing both outward toward its “others” and inward toward its own. Its early alignment with European assumptions about Western and white superiority produced, and was based on, the oppression and exclusion of Palestinian Arabs, North Africans, and Muslims, while its equation of Jewishness with allegiance to an exclusively Jewish Israeli state has entailed efforts to racialize, whiten, and nationalize Jews. This last has edged perilously toward antisemitism by internalizing stereotypes of Jews as a “race,” aliens in any location but the Israeli homeland. To be an anti-Zionist Jew thus invites the labels not only of “self-hating” but also of traitor.
From Tzvia Thier, “Seeing Zionism at Last” (pp. 161 & 163)
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 sixty-five, after living in Israel for fifty-nine 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. . . .
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 six 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.
From Mohammed Rafik Mhawesh, “My Only Weapon Is My Pencil” (pp. 178-179)
There are many contradictions; we are not the monolithic “Gaza Palestinian” label the world wants to attach to us. Some people, those who don’t live here, see Gaza City as a hotbed of militancy and terrorism. But those who visit see an ancient culture and an insistence on living and hope.
Amid this chaos of perceptions rises a massive olive tree, so big it obscures a third of the school next to the home of a widow, Um Ahmed, whom I met during my wandering. The tree is seventy years old, she tells me—almost older than the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It has witnessed both the Nakba and our survival first-hand.
I saw children playing football in the street. I joined them and played together with them until their mothers called them in to do their homework. I love football. I celebrated every victory of my favorite foreign teams in a restaurant or café, crowding in with everyone else, eager for any reason to celebrate. Each time our favored team won, my friends and I shared exciting moments and feasted on chocolate mousse, fruit pies, chocolate crepes, banana splits, and milkshakes.
For the time being, my people’s suffering has forced me to switch from football to writing. Now I feel writing stories, poetry, and diaries is my only way out of daily life stress. My pencil is a sincere friend who cares about my deepest thoughts and transfers them into written feelings. I’ve always loved my pencil and still love to vent to it in times of uncertainty. I started reading and writing more to give my voice power; we suffer so much. I write my people’s dreams, hopes, ambitions, and the message of our freedom.