1. Talking to Jews about Israel

Jews think they’re pretty smart. A lot of other people think so too. In the West, there seem to be a disproportionate number of Jewish intellectuals, scientists, artists, and writers. And politicians. In 2008, for example, 13 per cent of the U.S. Senate was Jewish, against 2.4 per cent of the population.

Jews also think people hate them. They have reason, of course. The Spanish Inquisition. A 360-year banishment from England. Pogroms in eastern Europe. And, of course, the Holocaust.

Jews suffer from a very severe case of confirmation bias. The whole history of preferential treatment of Jews in the establishment of Israel is disregarded, while every criticism of Israel is regarded as proof of antisemitism. Jews expect to find antisemitism everywhere, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll find it.

The U.K. committed itself to establishing a national home for the Jews in Palestine and then, conveniently, the League of Nations put the U.K. in charge of Palestine. Things got complicated and the U.K. backed off, but then the United Nations stepped in to give the Jews most of Palestine. On March 4, 1949, the Security Council voted 9 in favour of Israel’s membership, 1 against, 1 abstention; and a week later the General Assembly voted to admit Israel, 37 to 12 with 9 abstentions. Most of the “no” votes came from Arab countries, since, as Moshe Dayan said, the Zionists had taken an Arab land and made it a Jewish one.

You’d think Jews would be grateful. After all, how many nations have had a country created for them by a major colonial power? But all that gold is turned to dust in Jewish fatalism. It’s all explained away by “colonial self-interest” or “premillennial dispensationalism.”

In its Balfour declaration, the U.K. insisted it be “clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities of Palestine.” That turned out well. The UN created an Arab state as well as a Jewish state. That, too, 76 years later, turned out well. The Camp David Accords, which returned the Sinai to Egypt and won a Nobel for Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, recognized the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” a process to be implemented guaranteeing the full autonomy of the people within a period of five years.”

And Israel always blames the Palestinians.

It’s a standard argument of the Israel lobby that the Palestinians blew their chance when they and the Arab countries refused to accept partition. This has always struck me as an absurd and heinous argument. A crook takes over everything you own and, with the local cops at his side, offers to let you keep a third of it. Would you agree? And then you’re told you’ve forfeited your rights forever.

It’s a classic case of put yourself in their shoes. But to do that, you have to start from the assumption that your neighbours have an equal right to shoes. And anyone who believes that, after all the Jews have been through, is obviously motivated by antisemitism.

Still, nothing captures the Jewish sense of doom as much as the popular phrase, “It doesn’t matter what we do; they all hate us anyway.” There’s something very sad and fatalistic about that statement, but it’s also very liberating: since if it doesn’t matter what Jews do, they can do anything.

“By bombing Gaza into the stone age, you’re incurring their wrath forever.”

“It doesn’t matter; they hate us anyway.”

“We’re upsetting even our allies.”

“Don’t kid yourself; they hate us anyway.”

“We’re antagonizing even the U.S.”

“They hate us, too.”

If you accuse the Israel lobby of weaponizing “antisemitism” – using accusations of antisemitism to undermine those who criticize Israel – well, anyone who would make such a claim is clearly an antisemite.

In the days following October 7 some guy named Alan Gilman wrote an article titled, “Why you might have lost all your Jewish friends this week and didn’t even know it.” The answer is, they didn’t convey enough sympathy after the attack, proving that the were not the kind of people who would hide us from the Nazis. I also learned, from Gilman, “When you are Jewish, you are always aware that there is a large population in the world that wants to kill you.”1

I am Jewish, 73 years old, and I have, quite simply, never felt like that.

Jonathan Greenberg compared wearing a keffiyeh to wearing a swastika armband.

On Facebook, someone complained about “the ones who espouse hatred towards us with billboards.” And then they posted a billboard of a young, concerned girl against a destroyed building, with the text: “Stop bombing Palestine. Save the kids.” And then a Palestinian flag and more text – “paid for by Bridgeport Islamic Community Center” – and its logo, a mosque. What exactly makes it “espouse hatred”?

My parents were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust, by leaving Poland just before the German invasion. Two young sons in tow, they emigrated to Canada in 1951. As I’ve written before, “My father’s and my mother’s attitudes to the Holocaust had been of the ‘get over it’ rather than the ‘dwell on it’ variety – for which I remain eternally grateful. Still, any criticism of Israel would elicit reference to the Holocaust.”2

My parents instilled in my brother and me a confidence and a lack of fear about being Jews in the world. He and I have both led moderately controversial public lives and we never hid our Jewishness. In one case, I wrote a play about Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories. I got denounced occasionally, by Jews, but that play, Facts, toured the West Bank and Israel in Arabic. Afterwards, I reported (see below),

Most of the performances were followed by “talkbacks” with the cast … The discussions were in Arabic and translation was informal … Several times I was asked why a Canadian would write a play about Palestine. I answered that most of my writing was on political subjects, that my father had been a very active Zionist and passionate about Israel, so it was natural I would write about the subject. There was never a ripple.

I had always believed that most Jews younger than my parents’ generation were like my brother and me. The Holocaust was not a big part of my life. It did not structure my thinking. In thinking about contemporary issues, I never thought, what does it mean for the Jews? Since 1990, I have read and thought and written a lot about Israel, but my task, as I saw it, was to get the world to treat Israel as a normal country, not as the home of victims of the Holocaust. I never felt discriminated against or in danger. I understood the logic of a home for the Jews, and even supported it, but it could never be at the expense of Palestinians.

But I think I was wrong. My brother and I were outliers. Most Jews were like my parents: “Any criticism of Israel would elicit reference to the Holocaust.” The question I am asking myself now is: Is it possible to have a rational discussion with Jews – wherever they live – about Israel? That’s the question Israel’s response to October 7 brings to mind, and it’s a deadly serious one.

2. A Jew in Palestine

I have written perhaps a dozen articles on Israel/Palestine for Inroads. I wrote about Hamas in Resistance Versus Terrorism (no. 49, Summer/Fall 2021) and, to a lesser extent, in Advice to Palestine: Forget the Radicals (no. 51, Summer/Fall 2022). My solution to the “Israel problem” can be found in No More Negotiations (no. 15, Summer/Fall 2004). I believe it remains appropriate.

After my play Facts toured through the West Bank and Israel in an Arabic translation in 2012, I wrote a report, which is reprinted below.  Among other things, it’s a firsthand account of a Jew travelling through Palestine for a month.

Final report on the Facts in Arabic tour

There were ten performances of Facts in Arabic, in ten theatres, in nine cities: Bethlehem (September 26 and October 11, 2012), Jerusalem (September 27), Jaffa (September 28), Majdal Shams (September 30), Hebron (October 1), Nazareth (October 3), Jenin (October 4), Ramallah (October 5), and Nablus (October 8).3

Our touring team, which always included at least eight people and usually two or three others, was based in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Majdal Shams was the farthest we travelled – about a four-hour drive. That meant leaving Jerusalem early in the morning, offloading and assembling the set and equipment, a quick dinner, performing the play, followed by a discussion, tearing down the set and loading the truck, and arriving home at 3 a.m. Touring to other locations was not quite so gruelling.

Travel was made more complicated because we performed in the West Bank, Israel, occupied Jerusalem and occupied Syria, and we regularly crossed Israeli checkpoints. Routes had to be planned carefully because our group included foreigners, citizens of Israel, Jerusalemites (with Jerusalem residency permits) and residents of the West Bank; different rules apply to each category.

Venues included community centres, conference centres, refugee camps and more-or-less conventional theatre spaces, like the Palestinian National Theatre in East Jerusalem, the Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa and the Freedom Theater in a Jenin refugee camp.

The walls of our set looked like concrete, but were actually painted plywood. The set needed to be quickly assembled and disassembled, and light enough to carry up, on occasion, three flights of stairs. Sections of the “wall” could be omitted to make it work on smaller stages. It all seemed so haphazard. But once the theatrical lighting was turned on, every room was transformed. The magic of theatre.

Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh writes (in Occupation Diaries), “I don’t usually enjoy going to concerts in Ramallah because the members of the audience are not attentive. Given how many children were in the audience …” I sympathize. Our audiences ranged in size from 30 to 130 and often included young children, most of whom would leave during the performance, sometimes taking their parents with them. Occasionally we would lose a hijab-clad woman toward the end of the play, immediately after some of the more explicit sex talk. Teenagers would come and go (and come and go), and often it seemed there wasn’t a door in Palestine that didn’t squeak or rumble.

Despite all this, most of the audience watched, rapt, in silence. Sometimes we were left with half the audience we started with, but usually those who remained gave the show a sustained standing ovation. It’s hard for me to describe the show in detail. As one of the characters says, “Facts are facts, but nuance is more important,” and with the show in Arabic, I missed a lot of nuance. The performance was somewhat less naturalistic that it had been in Canada – Palestinian performers are more inclined to acknowledge that people are watching.

Israel and the West Bank are a bit smaller than Canada. It takes seven or eight hours to cross Israel north-south and an hour to cross Israel and the West Bank east-west. Still, it’s remarkably varied, culturally and geographically. We performed in conservative, Muslim cities where you can’t get alcohol and most women wear hijabs (niqabs and burkas are extremely rare); in cosmopolitan cities with healthy nightlives; in the three cities in which Christ is said to have been born, lived and died; and in the incredible Majdal Shams (whose inhabitants are neither Palestinian nor Muslim but rather Syrian and Druze), which sits high in the (Israel-occupied) Golan Heights, amidst lush apple and cherry orchards, surrounded by mountains, snow-covered half the year.

On a single day we drove through the high hills of the Judean Desert down to the Jordan Valley, up to the “Sea” of Galilee, and up (and up and up!) into the temperate Golan. Other days we followed the flat coastal plain and one day, in Jaffa, we swam in the hot Mediterranean.

After the Jaffa performance – the only one I know for certain that Jewish Israelis attended – the actors were asked if they would return for a week of performances and I was asked about a Hebrew translation. In Hebron, regarded as especially conservative, our sponsors were very careful about who they invited to the play; but afterwards, they talked about bringing Facts back for two more performances. The actors are determined to keep the show alive and to perform when opportunities arise.

Politics: Most of the performances were followed by “talkbacks” with the cast, joined by Samer (the director) and me. The discussions were in Arabic and translation was informal. There’s not a lot of theatre in the more remote areas, and my impression is they rarely see naturalistic theatre. Several times we heard, “We’ve never seen a real Israeli character on stage”; and occasionally: “We’ve never seen a real Palestinian character on stage.”

If the audience accepted the characters as “real,” many did not accept the situation, especially a Palestinian cop and an Israeli cop cooperating. Some said an Israeli cop would never side with a Palestinian against a Jewish settler. Some claimed that our portrayal of the Palestinian cop was unrealistic because “they’re all corrupt.” Others, of course, disagreed. One woman said theatre was fiction and could therefore provide models for how the people should behave.

We did get a few explicit political complaints. Many Palestinians – including some members of our team – are extremely suspicious of cooperation between the Palestinian and Israeli governments, especially “security coordination,” which they would describe as “Palestinians doing Israel’s dirty work of suppressing Palestinian dissent.” Our tour anticipated such criticism by, for example, including the subtitle “behind closed doors” in advertising, in the hope that audiences would see the play as exposing security coordination rather than endorsing it. Nonetheless, some in the audience criticized Facts for presenting security coordination in a good light, and in response, some in our group defended Facts as exposing rather than endorsing security coordination.

On the whole, I don’t think the audience bought the criticism or the defence. Facts shows an honest, intelligent Palestinian cop getting along quite well with a liberal Israeli cop, collaborating on a case that has nothing to do with suppressing Palestinian dissent. If there is security coordination here, it is of the most informal and benign sort. As far as I could tell, few in the audience had any problem with that.

In Bethlehem, a university professor complained about the positive portrayal of the liberal Israeli cop. He preferred national-religious settlers because “at least extremists say what they believe” while liberal Israelis “just talk.” (Afterwards, he suggested we meet for coffee, which we did.)

People in the audience disagreed and argued with one another but there was no anger or denunciation, just discussion. Several times I was asked why a Canadian would write a play about Palestine. I answered that most of my writing was on political subjects, that my father had been a very active Zionist and passionate about Israel, so it was natural I would write about the subject. There was never a ripple. After performances, people approached to congratulate me and shake my hand. One young man said, in halting English, “It made me think so much. My head is exploding.” One young woman asked: “How can we learn to write plays like this?”

More politics: Just before returning to Canada, I spent an hour in a car with a Jewish Israeli woman, a young professional. She said that she voted for one of the more left-wing political parties in Israel and that she was strongly opposed to the settlements. “Of course,” she said, “we can’t give up the settlements until there is a strong Palestinian government that can guarantee there will be no violence.”

“Guarantee?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“What about a freeze on settlement construction?”

“I support a freeze, but it’s not so important. The government is just trying to strengthen its bargaining position.”

“Don’t you think a freeze would be an indication that Israel is willing to give up land?”

“Everyone is willing to give up land.”

“Really? The political leadership, too?”

“Of course. Only a few fanatics want to keep the West Bank.”

“Netanyahu is willing to give up the West Bank?”

“Of course. All the political leaders.”

“Really?”

“Of course!”

The above is a vastly abridged version of the conversation. The truth is, I pretty much shouted at her for the whole hour. I had just spent a month among Palestinians, and I think I held her personally responsible for a hundred years of Palestinian oppression. The next day, I wrote to apologize.

But I was stunned by the conversation. Here was a well-educated, very liberal Jewish Israeli, who was willing to abandon the settlements – but only when Israel can be guaranteed there will be no violence afterwards. She favoured freezing settlement construction – but really, it’s not so important. Here we are in the 45th year of the occupation of East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and (in fact) Gaza – but of course Israel’s political leaders are willing to end the occupation. I was reminded of what the professor in Bethlehem had said.

I have now made several trips to the West Bank and have spent more than a month among Palestinians. I walked for hours through Palestinian cities, I took public transportation, I dined and slept in Palestinian homes and I made some good friends. This means I have spent far more time with Palestinians than 99.6 per cent of Jewish Israelis. (I made up that number, but I’m willing to bet on it.)

I would say the following, based on my limited experience: Palestinians are like other people, which means that if you treat them poorly, that is how they will respond. If you continually force them from their homes and land, they will, like any people, become angry. If you treat them with brutal violence, you should not be surprised when, on occasion, with brutal violence they respond. But if you treat Palestinians well, they will respond in kind. Israel should try it.

But that is too much talk of violence. In the five weeks that I was there, I never saw violence, I was never afraid. I say this because there are many excellent guided tours through Palestine. It would be a great vacation, you would learn a great deal, and it might change your life.

I hope that Facts entertained audiences in Palestine. I hope it encourages Palestinians to write naturalistic plays about “the situation.” I hope, wherever it is performed, that it encourages thought and discussion.

Notes

1 https://alangilman.ca/2023/10/15/why-you-might-have-lost-all-your-jewish-friends-this-week-joshgilman/

2 From the introduction to Two Plays about Israel-Palestine: Masada, Facts (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2012).

3 Facts in Arabic was a great adventure and required assistance from many people and organizations. Their contributions have been acknowledged elsewhere, but let me acknowledge my debt to: actor and translator Kamel Elbasha, actors Abdelfattah Abusrour and Amer Khalil; director Samer Al-Saber and designer Martin Conboy; technical director Ramzi Alsheikh-Qasim and technical assistant Abdelsalam Abdo; associate producer Dan Daley; our tour driver Mohammad, Mourad Abusrour, Amira Abusrour, Ribal Alkurdi, Salim Amarna and Mohammad Mhana at Alrowwad Cultural & Theatre Society; and Kristin Flade, who accompanied the tour as she worked on a German translation of Facts.

I want to particularly thank Kamel Elbasha (of Quds Art), Abdelfattah Abusrour (Director of Alrowwad), John Koensgen (Artistic Director of New Theatre of Ottawa), Martin Conboy, Samer Al-Saber and Lise Ann Johnson (former Artistic Director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company, where Facts premiered). Without their contributions, this project would not have happened.

I want to thank the Canada Council for the Arts, which made the first, big, crucial contribution of $22,000.

And finally I want to thank all those who made individual donations to Facts in Arabic, and who organized and participated in fundraising events. They raised or contributed more than $20,000. They responded frequently and generously. The donations were a constant encouragement in what was, at times, a struggle.

All of you made Facts in Arabic possible. I am forever grateful.