By TAMMY KREMER
Long before becoming an anti-Zionist artist, I remember running around the synagogue in my flower print dress as a young girl waving the Israeli flag; singing the Hatikvah (literally “The Hope”), the Israeli national anthem, at the Jewish parochial schools I attended; missing the smells of my grandparents’ apartment in Petach Tikvah, a suburb of Tel Aviv; and crying when we landed at the Ben Gurion airport for our visits. Growing up in Los Angeles, California, my life was saturated with a love of the State of Israel and Conservative Jewish practice.
In a mandatory workshop at Milken Community High School, I answered a question about Israeli history and the speaker from the Anti-Defamation League gave me money for my “correct” response. Something about this transaction seemed wrong. In addition to inculcating me with Zionism, my Jewish education had taught me to think critically and to act ethically. The monetary “prize” made me extremely uncomfortable, and after the program, I gave the money to my dean. A senior at the time, I was slowly becoming aware that I had only heard a small range of perspectives on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The training we were receiving in defending Israel (our reading was The Case for Israel by Alan Dershowitz) made me curious about the large numbers of people around the world who were contesting the Zionist narrative.
Over the last nine years I’ve moved from proudly identifying as a Zionist to challenging Zionism and the notion of Israel as a “Jewish democracy.” Where once I defended Israel’s violence as self-defense (it’s in the name Israeli Defense Forces, after all…), I now work to end Israel’s ongoing violence towards Palestinians, which began with Zionist forces even before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. I no longer believe that having a Jewish state in Palestine predicated on a need to maintain a Jewish majority is ethical, viable, or even useful for protecting Jews.
As an artist and graduate student at New York University, I chose to research and explore this transition by making creative work. I began to ask questions about how my community came to be hegemonically Zionist. This lead me to uncovering the rich and diverse history of anti-Zionism, especially among Eastern European Jews in America, along with intra-Jewish debates about Zionism in the early 20th century.
My work grew into Love Letters to Zionists, a documentary podcast based on love letters submitted by Jewish anti-Zionists to a beloved Zionist in their life. My collaborator on the project is documentarian Adam Golub. Some of the letters are anonymous and most are rhetorical—in other words, not delivered to the addressee. Instead, the letters are shared with the goal of addressing the isolation of Jewish anti-Zionists. Because the threat of ostracization can dampen willingness to oppose the occupation of Palestine, the piece seeks to provide community and voice to clear energy for more effective activism. We hope to serve Palestinians by using our social position within the American Jewish community to meaningfully sway American public opinion.
I drove through Arab villages and past Bedouin settlements on my family and peer trips to Israel, but we never talked about Palestinians, except to deny their identity and claims to our land. I had heard one Palestinian speaker, presented as a “moderate,” while spending a semester in Jerusalem with a group of Conservative American Jewish high schoolers on Camp Ramah’s study abroad program, Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (which I had begged my parents to send me on). My classmates literally booed the speaker. I don’t remember anything he said, but I was haunted by my classmate’s response.
It was Jewish ethics and the history of Jewish persecution that compelled me to engage with other narratives. One of my most influential teachers was Rabbi Sharon Brous, who taught me Jewish Studies. While I had been exposed to Jewish ethical codes and the concept of tikkun olam (fixing the world), she was the first to teach me about the connections between Jewish texts and social justice, human rights, and environmentalism. Three of my four grandparents lost most of their family in the Holocaust. My paternal grandfather survived the war as a freedom fighter in the Polish forests; my paternal grandmother survived a work camp and hid on farms; my maternal grandfather’s immediate family managed to escape Germany in 1936. The trauma of the Holocaust lives on through me. In second grade I wouldn’t take a shower alone. I was afraid gas would come out instead of water. I had nightmares of my sisters being taken away, of the doors of gas chambers closing me in. As my awareness of contemporary genocide grew, I knew I needed to engage with the contested history of Israel/Palestine.
I was terrified of the implications of my transgression on my identity and on my family relationships. I am immensely grateful for my loving and supportive family. Fear of hurting my family and of them pushing me away made it hard for me to be willing to learn, and then once I learned, be willing to take public action. Out of that need and the recognition that there are many people in this position that Love Letters to Zionists emerged.
For the American community at large, the piece provides an entry point for talking about abuses of Palestinian human rights that divorces Israel as a nation state from Judaism. We have repeatedly encountered surprise and relief that Jewish critics of Israel exist. The piece combats the association of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.
Dear Zionist Family,
I still remember Pesach Seder the year I was 21 and the conversation turned to politics. I know I seemed tough and brave, but I felt small. The onslaught rolled down the table to my end and my seat began to feel like a corner, and I became acutely aware of my back against it.
I know that differences of opinion are normal, but I love you and it feels much more urgent that we understand each other, even if we don’t see eye to eye. I want you to know that I forgive you for that moment, and I hope you forgive me for making the choice to stand out, to be different.
My time spent living in Israel taught me many things, but among them is that good decisions are never made out of fear. Let us make the decision together to not fear each other’s opinions, but rather to celebrate them.
Who am I kidding, I can’t celebrate your opinions… I’m a hypocrite. It’s just that your opinions create lived experiences of injustice, displacement, violence and perpetual war. In my head I’m screaming “if you could only see, the world would be better!”
And then, again, I look at myself and feel the hypocrisy. I’m sure you’re all screaming the same thing at me… it’s maddening.
Perhaps just as an exercise, let me let some things out:
If you love Israel so much why don’t you live there?! You would hate it there! The cost of living is high, the services atrocious, your immense tax shekels would go to funding the army and the occupation of the West Bank, you would HATE driving because people are hateful and aggressive on the road, you would be viewed as an outsider for your entire life and treated differently because you aren’t part of the ever-important in-group!
Phew, that feels good to let out. I know you probably hated that, but trust me it’s cathartic.
I love you and hope we can always grow together in spite of our difference.
I am writing to you to tell you that I love you. I love everything about you, including your heritage, your legacy, your homeland, and your people. Because of course, they are also my people, and your birthplace is a part of my story. The Land of Israel is and will always be a part of me.
I know that you are scared—scared that I have lost sight of that, lost my connection to the place where you and your siblings grew up, the place where my grandparents lived and died, the place where your childhood friends still make their home.
I am writing to tell you that it’s ok to be scared, but not of that. Be scared of the damage that the Israeli government continues to cause in our names. Be scared that every day Israel moves farther away from fulfilling its dream of being a democratic safe haven for Jews and a “light unto the nations”. Be scared that we, a people who believe so deeply in the dignity of human life, have too much blood on our hands to wash away with prayers for peace.
Don’t be scared that I am losing my way. I know what I believe in, what you taught me to believe in, and I have my eyes wide open. I’m asking you to open yours too. If you truly believe in the values of equality and justice for all peoples, I ask you to brave enough ask to yourself hard questions. Ask yourself- does the concept of a Jewish democracy really make sense? Can Palestinians ever truly be equal under such a State?
Or maybe you don’t really care. Maybe at the end of the day, what’s best for the Jews is all that matters to you. But I don’t believe that. I know you to be kinder than that. The Palestinians have suffered enough and we are in a position to do what is truly righteous. I urge you to humble yourself to listen to their stories, and act out of love, not out of fear.
Israel is a very special place. It pains me to see it overrun with such anger, destruction, and close mindedness. This is not the story of our people. We are a people that stands up and asks questions, takes risks, and loves our neighbor.
Israel may not be the place you knew once this fight is over. There will be comforts and privileges to let go of. But I promise you, it will be better. If we can learn to trust and love our Palestinian brothers and sisters, live together as equals, and revel in the beauty of diversity, rather that exclusivity, I will be the first to call myself a proud Israeli daughter.
With love and hope,
I have started writing you a letter about my transition from Zionist to anti-Zionist. I think that I actually started writing this letter to you years ago in my mind, at the beginning of my transition, but I am just sitting down to write the letter now.
It’s funny, kind of, starting this letter to you now, because just the act of sitting down to write you reminds me of all the other letters I wrote you when I was living in Jerusalem as a graduate student at Hebrew University. I remember one in particular. I was working that day at my part-time job at my boss’s apartment. I translated his Hebrew letters into English for a few shekels an hour. He had gone out for the afternoon, and I was alone in his apartment. It smelled like mint tea. There was a cool breeze coming through the kitchen. The house was one of those old Arab homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood Katamon. I could see the Arab style: arches, Jerusalem stone, tile, the architectural boxiness of the building like the Arab homes that dot the hills in the West Bank. But it never came up with my boss that Arabs used to live in the house. You see, mom, this is part of the problem with Zionists. Zionists are ok with the mythology of Israel being different from the reality of Palestine. And I was a Zionist then, so I didn’t ask about the Palestinians who had once lived in the house.
The letter I wrote you while sitting in his home was about the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. I was so happy to be there during such an exciting time. I remember cutting out the photo from Newsweek of King Hussein lighting Rabin’s cigarette–under the caption, “Peace Pipe”–and sending it to you. I felt part of something big. Everyone was full of hope that there would finally be peace. By everyone, I mean the Israelis and other American Jews who I was around most of the time. I know now, as an anti-Zionist, that during that time–the Oslo Accord years–Palestinians were not given any reasons to be hopeful. I know now that systemic efforts to oppress and ethnically cleanse them were long underway. But that afternoon I wrote you the letter, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about how cool it was to live in another country, and how much I had fallen in love with Jerusalem. I sent you the poems I wrote about the rose-colored Jerusalem stone, how it changed with the light, for it was you who encouraged me to write. I still have my first childhood writing notebook, with all the pictures we cut from magazines and glued onto the front of the notebook as a collage. I remember the table we sat in the public library, and you wore your 70’s red and black mini-dress. Decades later, I wrote the letters to you from Jerusalem on the pre-postage paid airmail letters I bought at the post office. Right now I am remembering how light and thin the letters were. I was always worried they would rip when I licked them shut.
Of course it is easier to remember the letters I wrote to you as a Zionist, instead of writing this one.
I don’t think you’ll want to hear how difficult the Passover seder was for me this year. I have come to loathe the self-righteousness of the American Jewish seder, the “I was a slave in Egypt” rhetoric that frames the night. It wouldn’t be so bad if we talked about Palestine, if we weren’t afraid it would take away from our history of oppression to acknowledge others’. It is hard to write this to you, because I know that Passover for you is about getting the family together. It’s the smells of your days of cooking chicken and soup and matzo balls. And even that has been difficult because now I am a vegan and I bring vegan matzo balls. And I see my brother whisper to his wife that I won’t even eat mom’s food anymore. And we partake in ritual like we have done every year. We eat and discuss issues raised in the Haggadah–only up to a point, of course–and sing, and we end the evening by saying, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” And how strange for me, now, that I was the only one in the family to live in Jerusalem, and to attend seders in Israel and actually be in the city that we say “Next Year in” at seders. And how stranger, still, that now I am the only one in the family who has come to hate that line. In fact, when everyone says, “Jerusalem,” I say Palestine, but it is said quietly, in my mind. In family spaces, anti-Zionists can feel like they are in the closet. I know this has been very confusing for you. I can imagine some of your thoughts around this. You’re thinking, she loved Israel and now she hates Israel. And it’s still all she talks about. The confusion increases, I’m sure for you, when you remember how I begged you to send me to Israel, over and over again. It was the only place I felt like I could be myself, I would tell you, when I wanted to go on the high-school program. I haven’t told you that I recently found the books from that program. When I was 16, they were like scripture to me, containing within them the heroic story of how the state of Israel came to be. Now the books are creative, painful projects in propaganda.
I guess I’m trying to say that I understand now how all of this is very confusing to you. I wonder if you know, though, mom, that it is for me too. I didn’t plan, for example, to fall in love with a Palestinian when I was living in Israel. Like you, I also thought that going to graduate school in Jerusalem would help to ensure my finding a nice Jewish boy and returning with him to the U.S. to buy a house in the suburbs and have kids. It has been hard for me too, mom, that my life has become much different than I thought it would be. I didn’t know that I would become an anti-Zionist and would lose most of the friends I had. It’s not as though one plans to become anti-Zionist any more than one plans to fall in love.
I wanted to tell you about falling in love with Azab. I met him playing darts at a local bar in Jerusalem after my evening graduate classes. He was Palestinian-American, staying with his brothers in Palestine. We began as friends, running into each other at the bar. We even drove to Eilat for a weekend, still as friends. Of course, in my mind I was hoping that perhaps something would happen at the hotel. How funny, when in one’s twenties, agreeing to go on a road-trip to stay in a hotel without talking about the implications. It’s so silly for me to think about it now, twenty years later, as I feigned a youthful confidence to Azab, saying “Oh yeah, sure,” when he asked me if I wanted to drive with him to Eilat for the weekend. We didn’t anticipate that we would be pulled over on the road and that he would be searched and frisked by Israeli soldiers. And that I sat in the car while he was being interrogated wondering if we were going to have sex that weekend. Mom, Zionists are so scared to step outside of themselves. Had I done so, I might have noticed that Azab being pulled over actually happened all the time to Palestinians, and that these were actions to demean and dehumanize Palestinians and to ultimately Judaize the land.
Azab downplayed his being pulled over and being treated badly, of course. He got back in the car when the Israeli soldiers were done with him and ran his fingers through his dark, thick hair, turned to me, and said, “That was fun,” and then, smiling, “I was wanting to stop for a rest. Now pass me a cigarette.” But I knew that he was hurt. I knew because I am your daughter and I have that same nurturing part of me that I got from you. Later that night, we were lying on the bed in the hotel, he on his back and me on my stomach, resting my head against my arm. We were both unsure if we would have sex–for it still had not come up at all, why we even decided to go to Eilat in the first place–and I played with his hair, and he closed his eyes, and breathed deeply. Even later, when we were returning to the hotel room from getting a drink, we walked by the pool. The pool was in a kind of courtyard, and the hotel rooms wrapped around in a big square so you had to walk by the pool to get to your room. The water was so blue and so still. We were the only people around. I thought perhaps we might hold hands. You know what happened next, Mom? He actually pushed me into the pool. I had on the new red pleated skirt you had bought me the last time I visited you in Chicago. And then he jumped into the pool, too, and we splashed each other and laughed. We didn’t have sex that weekend, but we would the next in my apartment in Jerusalem, and for many weekends and months after that.
I just re-read a line in this letter to you from above, about how anti-Zionists don’t plan on becoming anti-Zionists just like they don’t plan on falling in love. I am little embarrassed that I wrote that. I don’t want to romanticize being an anti-Zionist. I’m not sure how to explain how lonely it is, even though I have found other anti-Zionists. Because, you see, there are different kinds of anti-Zionists. There are the lefty activists who were never Zionists and there are the ones who were. I don’t like that I see a divide here. I mean, the whole point of anti-Zionism is to get out of the Palestinians’ way so that they can live their lives in their own way in their homeland. But I can’t help feeling lonely when I am around the Jewish left. It’s just a different kind of lonely from when I am around Zionists. Some anti-Zionists cannot relate to the pain I feel because they were never a Zionist to begin with and have not had to grieve. The detachment in their activism makes me feel lonely. I’m no happier with those on the left, reeking of their liberalism, dripping with a self-righteousness that prevents them from seeing Palestinians as true equals, looking at them as objects to be pitied and saved.
I am so lonely, Mom. My mother, you are like the daughter I won’t have because I do not have children. I remember once, when I was very upset about what was happening in Israel. This was in the midst of my transition from Zionist to anti-Zionist. And you said that you thought it was sad that so many Palestinians had been driven from their homes and that so many olive trees had been cut down by the Israelis. It was like you knew it was wrong, but it was more than that. You had really internalized what was happening. It wasn’t just an intellectual attempt to agree with me. I could tell that you really felt it, like something had broken through your Zionism. Maybe you do understand how bad the situation is, but you’d rather me carry that burden of a paradigm shift so that you don’t have to. I can do that for you, my child, my mother. I can carry this burden for you as you have so many times for me. And I can tell you, mom, that even the transition from Zionist to anti-Zionist makes me sick, this privilege to have an epiphany, while people are dying and being driven from their homes, all in the name of Israel.
Tammy Kremer, artist, activist, and facilitator, is also director and co-producer of “Love Letters to Zionists”